The First Word: Searching for 'genuine' Jewishness

A truly authentic Judaism is neither that of the traditionalists nor that of the non-traditionalists.

immigrans to judaism 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
immigrans to judaism 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
The recent Gay Pride "parade" in Israel was transformed into a gathering in an enclosed stadium to prevent violence from Orthodox Jewish protesters. And yet, as the film Trembling Before God and a November 2 report in The Jerusalem Post ("Religious gays keep faith despite hatred") makes clear, even within Orthodoxy, there isn't complete theological uniformity. This simple fact has a long history in Judaism, traceable back to the well-known differences between the rabbinic teachers Shammai and Hillel in the first century. A famous story (Shabbat 31a) tells how a potential proselyte came to each leader asking to be taught the entire tradition quickly (literally - "while I stand on one foot"). Shammai chases the man away "with the measuring rod in his hand," while Hillel produces a general principle to be applied through study: "Do not do onto others what you would not have them do unto you. The rest is commentary. Now go and study." This combination of concerns for the physical needs of each person with a transcendent spiritual vision for the future stands at the very foundation of Jewish religiousness. Shammai's approach demands unswerving allegiance to an external standard. Hillel's suggests a more open acceptance of those who strive to put principles into practice in diverse ways. Jewish history has many examples of Shammai's perspective: Rabban Gamliel insisted on the priority of his decisions over those of his colleagues. The conflict between Moses Maimonides and the rabbis of France created a rift in which each saw itself as defending the true and authentic Judaism. The competition between the hassidim and the mitnagdim engendered a self-destructive internal battle within modern Jewish life. Zionism was divided between cultural Zionists, Labor Zionists, practical Zionists and others - even before the fairly recent protest of post-Zionist thinkers. Some post-Zionists have lately changed their tune given the dangers now threatening Israel. In the face of the possible destruction of the Jewish state, ideological differences become less important. WHAT DOES joining together in a time of trouble mean? One answer might be that the good of the nation - of the people as a whole - should take precedence over everything else. With that in mind, however, we cannot understand a curious talmudic saying attributed to Rabbi Ishmael b. Eleazer (Shabbat 32a) that the amei ha'aretz (literally the people of the land, but perhaps meaning the ignorant? unobservant? ordinary?) die because they call the synagogue not a "house of ingathering," but rather a "house of the people." How does calling a synagogue a house of the people differ from calling it a house of ingathering? A house of ingathering provides a refuge and a common home for a diverse population. In contrast, a house of the people often restricts itself to "authentic" citizens, those who meet the criteria for being part of the "people." JEWS OF Muslim Spain experienced both approaches to Judaism. Under Islam a large and acculturated Jewish elite developed. This aristocratic class wrote both Hebrew and Arabic poetry, celebrated secular life and a great variety of erotic and pious interests. While men carved out a public space for themselves in poetry and philosophy, women became prominent in court life and in other spheres of influence. Ordinary Jews, in contrast, pursued at best a middle-class living and looked askance at the actions of the elite. The mystical text, the Zohar, reflects the tensions between these classes and adds another element - that of a rabbinic elite, probably influenced by Ashkenazic tradition. Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) represents that tradition. Nahmanides sought to synthesize both the culture of the elite and the rabbinic concerns of other Jews. The Zohar shows almost as little respect for that new rabbinic class as for the aristocracy. The Zohar reflects a society in which one "people" competes with another. After the Christian reconquest was completed and forced conversions in Spain and Portugal became the norm, the Jewish community recognized its unity and integrated its diverse elements. Spreading across the continents the Jewish exiles from Spain discovered and cultivated a unified identity and a sense of communal solidarity. Within that newly forged unity the different aspects of Sephardic culture, whether literary, philosophical or rabbinic, became part of a composite whole. From being a house of different peoples, Sephardic Jewry became a house of ingathering, understood spiritually if not physically, as a distinctive group. Jewish men and women previously at odds with others found a common bond. Sephardic women, in particular, rose to prominence and power. Benvenida Abrabanel negotiated an extension for the Jews of Italy when they faced expulsion in 1541. Dona Beatrice Gracia Mendes Nasi pursued a flourishing business throughout Europe and the Ottoman empire. SEPHARDIC JEWRY transcended differences of class and gender in a common focus on creating a new future that united the individual goals of each member of the community into a single goal of spiritual survival. This combination of concerns for the physical needs of each person with a transcendent spiritual vision for the future stands at the very foundation of Jewish religiousness. The tradition itself emphasizes such a combination. Exodus 24:9-11 describes how not only Moses but all the leaders of the people had a vision of the divinity on the sapphire throne, ate, drank and suffered no harm. Rabbinic commentators suggest that the combination of the visionary experience with mundane activities such as eating and drinking point to the importance both spiritual and physical needs play in human existence. The Zohar, reflecting on Exodus 24, suggests that the sapphire stone beneath God's feet was the stone from which God will build the future Temple at the time of the Messiah. The stone is a symbol of the future, and yet it also stands as a symbol of that for which all people yearn. THE SEARCH for that throne characterizes the quest even of those whom the Orthodox protesting gay pride would reject. The poet Ilan Sheinfeld relies on that image in his collection of poems Tashlich. He notes that every person pursues a precious jewel, a goal, the sapphire throne that promises fulfillment. He reflects on the meaning of life, on the Nazi Holocaust, on Zionist poets and writers and eventually rejects as absurd the litany of absolutes such as "love yourself" or "honor your parents" that those following the way of Shammai demand as a replacement for the sapphire throne that always lies just outside our grasp. The stone of the Temple that the Messiah will build comes from God's sapphire stone because that stone represents the diverse variety of Jewish hopes, expectations, and expressions. A truly authentic Judaism is neither that of the traditionalists nor that of the non-traditionalists. Instead, it is a pluralistic Judaism that affirms and embraces the variety of quests and approaches of diverse Jews. The writer is professor emeritus of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas and a specialist in post-biblical Jewish thought. His most recent books include Understanding Judaism through History.