Halachic nation: The medieval roots of the Jewish nation

"Jewish life all over the world needs to be rooted in thousands of years of Jewish history, not just the political movements of modernity."

Theodore Herzl 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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 law.
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 grossly exaggerated.
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 nation.”
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.
Jewish 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 land.
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, Florida.