Theodore Herzl 370.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In 16th-century Cracow, Rabbi Moses Isserles created a text that should
revolutionize our understanding of the relationship between halacha – Jewish law
– and the notion of the Jews as a nation and people. In 1555, Rabbi Joseph Caro
produced the most influential law code in modern Jewish history – the Shulhan
Arukh (“The Prepared Table”). Caro was a Sephardi rabbi living in Safed during
its heyday as a center of Jewish mysticism and interpretation of Jewish
When Caro’s work reached Poland, the Ashkenazi Rabbi Isserles
prepared a summary of the differences between his traditions and
Caro’s. He called his work the Mappah – the “Tablecloth” – that was a
gloss on the earlier “Prepared Table” of Caro.
We often hear of the
radical differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish communities throughout
the last 1,200 years of Jewish history. It is obvious that the Jews of
Spanish-Portuguese origin and those of central European origin spoke different
languages, dressed differently, ate different foods, and chanted the Torah
reading in radically different ways. We often hear about Jewish acculturation –
this is especially so in the Islamic world.
No doubt Jews in the Islamic
realm were heavily “Arabized.” Today, certain historians of Judaism argue that
to understand our faith, you have to subscribe to the reality of many Jewish
cultures and not one central “Jewish culture.” I disagree with this thesis. This
brings me back to Rabbi Isserles.
If Jews of Sephardi lands and those of
the Ashkenazi world were so radically different, why would a rabbi in Cracow
have composed a gloss on a halachic work of Sephardi origin? Isserles could have
simply ignored the work of Caro and, rather than a gloss on the work of the
Safed sage, could have created a wholly new Ashkenazi code of law that would
simply have not taken into account the authority of a Sephardi law code. Perhaps
the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi customs and culture have been
In fact, 500 years ago a Jew from Casablanca had
more in common with a Jew from Cracow than he had with a Muslim in North Africa:
the same Torah, the same holidays, knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic as religious
and literary languages, and a unifying Jewish law despite differences in custom.
Halacah and history provided one Jewish culture for all Jews. Halachah was a
constitution that bound all Jews together as a nation, despite dispersion and
lack of sovereignty in Israel. Jews – from Yemen to Lunel – were a “halachic
With the onset of modernity, the role of Jewish law and the
decline of Jewish self-government and autonomy radically altered the notion of
the Jews as a “halachic nation.” Zionism, although rooted in the Jewish past and
the Bible, discovered that Jewish political organization as a nation-state –
spurred on by European nationalism – was rooted in realpolitik.
law was not to be the organizing principle of the Jewish nation. Sovereignty in
the Land of Israel and modern politics is fulfilling this role today. The force
of halacha in its quasi-political functions is over. This does not mean that
halacha does not have an important role to play in the Jewish state. To be
vibrant and relevant, Jewish law must address issues in a sovereign Jewish
But for all intents and purposes, “Halachic Man” has replaced
“Halachic Nation.” Israel is not a theocracy ruled by Torah law – it
should not be. But Torah law must be recognized for the critical function it
served as a cohesive force that produced, not many Jewish “cultures,” but one
central unifying national culture for almost 2,000 years. Jewish law preserved
the Jewish nation, allowing Zionism to fulfill national destiny for the Jews –
but in a radically different way than tradition.
Jews in Israel and
America cannot simply ignore Jewish law as a relic of the past. To understand
Jewish nationalism, we must confront our “halachic past.” Jewish law was not
just a matter of Jewish religion. I often think that the “revolutionary Zionism”
of Berdichevski – wiping away the Diaspora past as inherently flawed and almost
inhuman – is one of the great mistakes that Zionism has made. “Holy rebels” such
as Berdichevski were necessary to counter the passivity inculcated by the system
of autonomy in the Christian and Muslim realms and to transform Jewish
existence. Now, the revolution is over. Even the Jewish atheist must study
Jewish law if he or she really wants to understand why the Jews are a nation and
a people and not solely a religion.
Jewish life all over the world needs
to be rooted in thousands of years of Jewish history, not just the political
movements of modernity. The medieval Diaspora should not be resurrected.
Its day has passed. But in democratic Israel – and democratic America – halacha
and the Diaspora past must be recognized for their national force and not
relegated solely to the living of religious life or confined to
museums.The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton,