This Passover, my family and I enjoyed a new freedom – we liberated ourselves from the dour, restrictive, absurd, Ashkenazi ban on legumes, kitniyot. Inspired by our vegan daughter, for whom legumes on Passover are a nutritional must, we took the plunge into the more fun, expansive, Torah-true Sephardi tradition, munching popcorn during a family movie outing (to “Oz the Great and Powerful”) while eating edamame at home. We changed because the kitniyot-ban was a latecomer to the ancient Passover party, a medieval superstition that became a modern mishugas (absurdity). We changed because in Israel we live in a Sephardi-majority culture and traditionally the majority in a particular jurisdiction sets the religious law. And we changed to affirm our family unity as well as Jewish unity by abandoning the usual Ashkenazi arrogance and embracing a Sephardi tradition.
By contrast, on Tuesday in Jerusalem, even though Israeli Jews only celebrate one formal “yontiff” day at the end of Passover, “Orthodox” American Jews once again streamed in and out of Jerusalem hotels attending synagogue, observing their Galut, exilic, custom. These people not only refuse to change, they demean Israel’s holiness by importing their foreign habits to the Holy Land. Their rigidity – on this ultimately harmless issue and on weightier issues such as failing to protect women from husbands who will not free them with a proper get or divorce writ – is why I identify as a shomer shabbat(Sabbath observant), kosher-keeping, non-Orthodox Jew. Even while sending three children to national-religious schools, I bristle if anyone calls me “Orthodox.”
I love Jewish tradition’s beauty and respect its power. I understand that some rigidity keeps continuity -- but I prefer the Israeli terms “religious” or “traditional.” In his delightfully majestic, compellingly insightful memoir, The Prime Ministers -- which is now being made into a documentary and a feature film -- the former Israeli diplomat and speechwriter Yehuda Avner recalls how his colleague Yaakov Herzog elegantly defused the awkwardness of their eating only salad at a Lyndon Johnson Texas barbecue. Recalling his McGill University debate with the anti-Semitic historian Arnold Toynbee, Herzog said that keeping kosher and other customs proved to Toynbee that Judaism was a “fossil-like anachronism,” while Herzog celebrated each ritual as “a distinction of our eternal identity.”
I luxuriate in our “eternal identity” when we rejoice with Moses at our deliverance from Egypt 3300 years ago; when we mourn with Rabbi Akiva over the deaths of his students 1900 years ago; when we apply Rashi’s medieval insights from 900 years ago to the ancient Torah text we read today; when we dream with Theodor Herzl of creating a Jewish state 120 years ago. And I revere those rituals that bring our history to life: Passover matzah, Shavuot cheesecake, Sukkot huts, the prayers of generation upon generation.
But historians know our “eternal identity” used to have more wiggle room. Until Judaism and modernity clashed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, Etz Haim, the Tree of Life, offered the defining metaphor for the Torah and Halachah, Jewish law, growing, evolving, slowly, imperceptibly, but impressively. The Reform rebellion against a stultifying tradition that had no Sanhedrin, no mechanism for change, triggered a counter-revolution against all change and the rise of quite literally, Orthodoxy. At the risk of oversimplifying decades of rich, stimulating ideological debate, while Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) created a modern Orthodoxy, at least partially acknowledging the blessings of enlightened modernity, the radical reactionary rabbi Hatam Sofer (1762-1839) forbade “every soul in Israel to change even one detail.” Ironically, this obsession with change, this devotion to stopping change, is itself modern and a break from tradition.
This tension between continuity and change is a perennial challenge for all systems humans follow that seek a lasting legitimacy – and I am sidestepping the question of divine will here because many Jewish ritual questions including the Kitniyot query have nothing to do with God’s will. This March, many American Supreme Court justices wondered which American institution should be the engine of change to legitimize legalizing gay marriage, asking whether state legislatures, individually, should decide the question popularly, or if the nine unelected, permanently tenured, but more rights-oriented justices should decide. Even some proponents of gay marriage, sure of the rightness of their cause, wavered, knowing how contentious Roe v. Wade’s legalizing abortion by Constitutional fiat in 1973 proved to be. The Justices will need Solomonic wisdom, weighing both gay marriage’s legality and the role their institution’s interpretation of the Constitution should play in the debate.
That is why I detest the word “Orthodox” in developing a sophisticated discussion of Judaism --just as I hate the misleading word “secular” when non-religious Israelis describe their identities which are nevertheless so richly, deeply, resoundingly Jewish. “As did our ancestors, we must learn to live with paradox,” my friend Rabbi Brad Artson teaches in his wise, reassuring, spiritually-stretching book, Passing Life’s Tests. Artson notes, for example, that God first declares Isaac Abraham’s guarantee of continuity, then abruptly demands Isaac’s sacrifice. It is as arrogant to ignore the extraordinary changes today’s miraculous world spawns as it is to repudiate the profound traditions yesterday’s miracles bequeathed to us. Declaring “I am Orthodox” or “I am secular” are both copouts. I am not Orthodox because I need and respect change; but I am not secular because I crave and revere tradition.
We should delight in continuity and change, balancing the two judiciously, keeping kosher for Passover but stretching to accept Kitnyot, maintaining Jewish marriage but creating a get-giving prenup. We should not be so “Orthodox” we stifle growth or so committed to “Reform” we lose ourselves. We should stay rooted in our Tree of Life, nourishing it to grow slowly, imperceptibly, impressively, eternally.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow. His latest book,
Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just released by Oxford University Press.