Loosen the reins to let Judaism flourish

Israel could be the salvation of non-literalist Judaism.

July 2, 2017 22:01
3 minute read.
Western Wall

Egalitarian prayer rally at the upper plaza of the Western Wall . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Behind the politics there is a real theological struggle in the conversion and Western Wall controversies here in Israel. To what extent can Judaism transform and still survive in the modern world? That it may change – that it does change – is inarguable. The idea that the Judaism of Moses is identical to that of Maimonides which is a copy of that of Rav Kook is so untenable as to be silly. Moses did not know of printing or yeshivot or modern statecraft or shtreimels or physics or women’s rights or advanced medicine. The stalwart will say the principles are eternal while the facts change, and there is merit to that. The Torah’s spiritual lessons endure and so it is nice to think we all skate along the ice of history without getting wet. But in fact it has never been so: sometimes facts are so radically different they drag principles in their wake.

The advent of birth control liberated women to public positions unimaginable in earlier ages. Archeology unearthed documents proving how much the Torah was a product of its time, even as it transcended it. Telescopes, microscopes, mathematics and medicine rendered the scientific claims of the Bible, and even more the medicine and biological and astronomical speculations of the Talmud, hopelessly outdated. The modern world can be accepted, rejected or selectively applied. It cannot be ignored.

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There are perils to opening doors.

The haredim (ultra-Orthodox) fear, not without cause, that the changing of standards means the disappearance of standards. Much of the rest of the Jewish world, while admiring the haredim in some ways, also fears a Judaism whose insularity will turn it into a sect rather than a major world religion. Liberalizing may well threaten some continuity, but circling the ideological wagons leaves most of the tribe wandering off, rejected and rejecting.

Israel could be the salvation of non-literalist Judaism. In the US, as a minority culture, cutting yourself off from mainstream culture is a robust strategy: Borough Park is safer than Beverly Hills. In Israel, the full flowering of a rich tradition could take place without the same fear of being swallowed up by the majority culture. Despite the many problems with religious education in Israel, even secularism speaks with a Hebrew accent.

The many gifted non-literalist educators, if supported and promoted by the state and the culture (as suggested in these pages by Danny Gordis) could create here what has proved so difficult in a Christian majority – a sustaining, self-reproducing, open Judaism.

This is the essential historical symbiosis. Europe and America created both the ideological and textual underpinnings for a Judaism that could accommodate itself to the best in modernity. But it often gets lost in the sea of a larger culture. In Israel, the possibilities of Reform and Conservative – or some new hybrid or creation – are powerful and promising. Jerusalem could reshape and export back to the Diaspora an improved version of a Judaism first shaped in Berlin and New York. In Israel far more than in the US, we need not fear that incorporating new knowledge and letting go of some antiquated ideas entails diminishment.

The story is told that when the Maggid of Mezeritch came to the founder of Hassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, wondering if he should learn from this strange new phenomenon, the Baal Shem Tov looked deep into his eyes and said the following:

“Once there was a wagon master whose horses stopped. He pulled the reins tighter and tighter, and they would not move. He flogged them – nothing. Finally in exhaustion, he loosened the reins – and my how they ran!”

The Maggid became a lifetime disciple.

Sometime if you loosen the reins, the horse will run.

The author is the Max Webb senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and author of 8 books.

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