Keep dreaming: The one and only authentic Judaism

We are embroiled in controversy over the Kotel, conversion, conscription and Sabbath desecration.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kotel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kotel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In the space of three weeks, from Rosh Hashana through Simhat Torah, I found myself celebrating Shabbat and the holidays in seven distinct Jewish environments. They ranged from the secular cultural to the ultra-Orthodox, and after sampling each it became clear to me what the one and only authentic Judaism is. But we’re not going to get to that until we’ve backtracked to where I discovered it.
The journey began in Poland. The last time I’d visited was nearly 30 years ago, when I led a group of American Jewish teens on a trip meant to make real for them both the richness of Jewish life there prior to World War II as well as the horrors of the Holocaust. We made no attempt to connect with the present-day Jewish community – essentially because there was none to speak of at the time.
How much has changed in the space of a generation! The first day of Rosh Hashana I spent with Etz Chaim, the Progressive Jewish synagogue, enjoying an uplifting traditional service in an egalitarian setting among a group of people enthusiastically rebuilding the Jewish community from scratch.
On the second day I prayed with the Orthodox community, a moving experience as their services are held in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only one to have survived the war out of the hundreds that served the 394,000 Jews of pre-Holocaust Warsaw, now reduced to no more than 5,000.
On Shabbat, I continued my shul hopping and made my way to the Chabad House, where I was embraced with the warm welcome I have come to expect from the local rabbi, Shabbes meal and all.
But as inspiring as it was to pray in these diverse communities, it was not in the synagogues that I met most of Warsaw’s Jewish population, more of whom seem to have found their entrée into Jewish life through educational, cultural and secular venues – the Lauder Morasha School, the Hillel that opened its doors a year ago, the JCC in operation since 2011, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, and the communal holiday dinners.
The same held true in Krakow, with its parallel institutions – particularly the impressive 10-year-old JCC that, in September, launched the first Jewish kindergarten to open its doors in the city since the Nazi invasion. These are the places in which an entire generation of young people are exploring their Jewish heritage, most only having discovered their Jewish roots as teenagers.
By Yom Kippur I was back in Israel, in the familiar surroundings of my Masorti (Conservative) synagogue, which not only serves its core population of regulars, but also attracts dozens of neighbors for Kol Nidre and Neila who otherwise have little use for a house of prayer.
A few days later I was sitting in a sukka at Or Haganuz, a touchy-feely (metaphorically speaking, of course) haredi village outside of Safed, whose residents are consciously committed to a lifestyle of devotion to the commandment of loving thy neighbor as thyself. Its eccentric nature is typified by one of its main economic enterprises, the Elima College of Alternative Medicine, which offers a program of studies integrating Kabbalistic spirituality, yoga, and its own home-grown philosophy of wholesome eating to promote the health of body and soul.
It is composed almost entirely of ba’alei tshuva, newly observant Jews, two of whom happen to be my daughter and son-in-law. But I don’t want to misrepresent the place as a Jewish nirvana. That would amount to a rather skewed portrayal of this mystical community, whose residents are as exacting in their adherence to the letter of the law (and their rebbe’s own particularly strict interpretation of it) as they are expansive in welcoming others to join them.
So the delight of booth-dwelling with four grandchildren notwithstanding, it was soon time to move on. Which we did, ending up in Tel Aviv for Simhat Torah. There we met up with another daughter, one whom I would characterize as essentially nonobservant but with a positive attitude toward religion, who is determined to introduce her completely a-religious husband and two little girls to the joys of Judaism.
No better place for that than Beit Tefila Yisraeli, the independent spiritual congregation with a social conscience best known for its Shabbat and holiday celebrations on the sprawling deck of Tel Aviv’s re-energized port, with the Mediterranean as its ever-present backdrop. Dancing with the Torah to spirited holiday melodies performed by a live band, here, too, body and soul reverberated with the nourishment of the Jewish tradition.
Over the loud music, my son-in-law – beaming at his three-year-old and five-year-old daughters clutching Torah scrolls – found himself confessing that had he been exposed to this sort of experience as a child, he might have an entirely different view of Judaism than he does.
So which of these seven experiences embodies the authentic Judaism? “Both these and those are the words of the living God,” the sages who compiled the Babylonian Talmud teach us (Eruvin 13b). “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard,” we read in Psalms 62:11.
The one and only authentic Judaism is the one that appreciates the superbly rich and intricate fabric of exegesis that our people has woven over the centuries, and the marvelous diversity of practice that has evolved from that. It is the one that glories in the understanding that indeed “There are 70 faces to the Torah” (Bamidbar Rabba 13:15) and, by extension, 70 ways to rejoice in it.
As we begin this new year in which we will be celebrating 70 years of Israel’s independence, we would be well served by pushing ourselves to embrace rather than rebuff the “other.” That’s not easy, and I fear for our future, knowing that this message will never reach the ears of those who are most in need of hearing it.
We are embroiled in controversy over the Kotel, conversion, conscription and Sabbath desecration. We are subjected to castigation of the judiciary and the media, the Right and the Left. We are witness to vitriolic acrimony between feuding politicians. We hear threats regarding cultural autonomy and freedom of expression.
Never has Israeli society been more fragmented and polarized than it is today. Never has the imperative of holding things together been greater.
Like it or not, Israel, too, has 70 faces, and none of them is about to disappear. It would be more than awful if the Zionist enterprise were to unravel on our watch. We owe it to the Jews of Poland – those who were turned into ash and those who have arisen from those ashes – not to let that happen.
We owe it to our children, and to our children’s children, who deserve the same opportunity their parents had to choose the drummer to whose beat they will march. And we owe it to ourselves, not wanting to have squandered a lifetime spent in pursuit of the Zionist dream.
The writer is the deputy chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel and senior representative to Israel’s national institutions on behalf of the worldwide Masorti/ Conservative movement. The views expressed are his own.