Jewish Peoplehood

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Jewish Peoplehood

Why Are We Exploring Jewish Peoplehood?

By: David Bashevkin

The first memory I have of being conscious of being Jewish was on vacation with my family when I was about five or six. We were either in Florida or New Hampshire — I forget — but I realized that most people around me were not wearing yarmulkes. Up until that point, I was in school and camp with people who were visibly Jewish. For the first time, I felt different. I remember arguing with my sister over which one of us was more visibly Jewish — I could wear a baseball hat, while she was clearly wearing clothing that a “normal” girl would not wear in the summer. It was my first introduction to a world different from the one into which I was born. 

As a kid, Jews were people who looked like me. My ever sensitive mother began to expand my worldview. She explained that some of my cousins didn’t wear yarmulkes or practice Jewish law like I did, but they were still Jewish. She raised us with a sense of nuance — certainly for children — and an abiding sense of human dignity. We weren’t allowed to call people goyim. She admonished me in fifth grade for saying a joke where the punchline was about Arabs. 

Differences always pique the curiosity of children — people who look different, talk different, walk different — but my mother instilled in me a basic sensitivity and decency, especially for people different from myself. For that, I am still grateful. But nuance and subtlety, regardless of even the best parents’ efforts, can undermine conviction and pride. It often feels easier to assert what makes you special and different, at the expense of others. And certainly, negotiating between my own personal Jewish convictions and commitments and those of other Jews around me has been both a personal mission and a struggle of sorts.

Connecting to the entirety of the Jewish people is different than, for instance, connecting to a company that employs you, or an institution with which you may be affiliated. Before every July Fourth weekend, my wife has a company wide conference call. They talk about dedication and devotion to “the firm” and asking yourself “what’s best for the firm.” It’s a running joke in our house. “Can you take out the garbage?” she’ll ask. “Well,” my reflexive response, “would it help the firm?” Of course, it’s a joke.  Our affiliations with work life, however loyal, are utilitarian. We work in order to be paid. If you had another offer and it was attractive enough, you’d leave. The Jewish community is different. This is how Rabbi Soloveitchik explains it in his essay, “The Community,” (Tradition 17:2, 1978):

The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity endowed with a life of its own.

I’ve always found this conception deeply moving, but also tricky to navigate. It’s certainly heartening to connect to the larger conceptual body of Knesseth Yisroel, but it is also challenging. When you meet a Jew who annoys you, a Jew with whom you vehemently disagree, or a Jew with whom you share no similar interests — what do you see? What connects you then? Linking the Jew in front of you to the larger, almost ethereal, notion of Knesseth Yisroel is far easier to do in theory than in practice.

Social media has not made this any easier, but it certainly has made it harder to avoid. In May 2020, I wrote in Forward about the struggles and opportunities that social media presents in fostering some measure of Jewish unity. I contrasted the necessary boundaries of institutional Jewish life with the muddled and porous world of online engagement:

When institutions are the mediators of Jewish dialogue, the boundaries and rules must be clearer. Institutional Judaism thrives on clear agendas and behavioral consistency. In order to cater to communal constituencies, institutions create norms that rightfully require an element of individual sacrifice.

Of course, we need Jewish institutions. They centralize philanthropic support, build communal bonds, and formalize movements.

And yet, it’s just not all we need. Outside of our organizational walls, social media allows for conversations unfettered by the communal conventions that normally align us.

To paraphrase the classic New Yorker cartoon, “On the internet, nobody knows your denomination.”

That does not mean that we’ve entered an era of post-denominational kumbaya agreement. Far from it. Important and crucial differences still exist, like how halakha is interpreted, what Shabbos looks like, and — don’t think I forgot — gender roles.

But the magic of discourse on #JTwitter, when it is at its best, is that conversations, arguments, and disagreements are for a moment allowed to transcend our familiar institutional camps. Torah ideas, jokes, and debates are judged on the merits. Likes and RT’s may not equal endorsement, but it’s hard to deny that they signal resonance.

And people are liking and RTing people they find interesting, thought-provoking, and funny, not just who they can daven with — which, by the way, is also ok. We need our proverbial mechitzahs because differences still endure, but sometimes you want to peer over the mechitzah, whisper ideas, and pass notes in the back of the classroom.

Neither Facebook nor Twitter are the antidotes or the poison that will address the fractured Jewish world we live in — they’ve just transformed the level of exposure we each have to that world.  

Rav Shlomo Freifeld, the famed educator and founder of Shor Yashuv yeshiva, would frequently discuss what it means to be a “big person.” Big people contain a lot. There is room in their hearts and minds for all of the contradictions and changes needed to connect with and reach diverse and often contradicting groups of people. Much like Walt Whitman’s quip: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I am not a big person, but I strive to become one.

In my book, Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, I discuss what I think is the Talmudic secret to cultivating the capacity to contain the multitudes within Knesset Yisroel:

Tractate Yoma (39b) retells the story of the death of Shimon Ha-Tzadik, one of the most celebrated High Priests in Jewish history. In the last year of his life Shimon Ha-Tzadik gathered all his students and told them he was going to die. How did he know? He explained to them that each year on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, in the holiest place in the world, the Holy of Holies, he had a vision. When Shimon was alone inside the Holy of Holies, he met an old man who was dressed in white and wrapped in all white garments. This man would enter with Shimon and exit with him. This year, however, he saw someone else. Shimon saw a man dressed all in black. The man entered with Shimon but did not exit with him. And as Shimon predicted, he died a few weeks after Yom Kippur. Of course, the glaring question is who was the man he envisioned appearing in the Holy of Holies? I once heard a moving suggestion that encapsulates much of our discussion of leaders—both successful and failed. The man whom Shimon saw was the Saba Kaddisha [סבא קדישא] of the Jewish people—the manifestation of how Shimon Ha-Tzadik viewed the Jewish people. As long as Shimon’s vision was of the congregation dressed in white—optimistic, ambitious, and open to opportunity—he knew he still had a future as a leader of these people. However, once his representation of the Jewish people was dressed in all black—pessimistic, cynical, and negative—he knew his time as a leader was expiring.

It’s easy to throw your hands up and retreat away from the fractured reality that the conceptual ideal of Knesseth Yisroel has become. But that’s seeing the Jewish people in black clothes of mourning. I try to see Knesseth Yisroel dressed in white.

These are the conversations we will be having this month leading into the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah 5781. How to cultivate a deeper connection and appreciation for the Jewish people—even when they disappoint. How to stay grounded in your conviction even when bombarded with the pluralities of opinions and representation of Jewish life. And ultimately, how to develop a capacity to contain multitudes. To see our future and our people as dressed in white.

Overview: What Is Jewish Peoplehood?

In January 1914, a deeply conflicted writer and Jew by the name of Franz Kafka, then 31, wrote in his diary:

What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself…

Kafka was not the first to question the complicated nature of Jewish identity, nor will he be the last, but his question articulates the complexity of dealing with Jewish personhood, let alone Jewish peoplehood. How can we talk about a characteristic of a people, when an individual is so complicated?  

Yet the question must be asked – what is Jewish peoplehood? Leora Batnitzky, in the beginning of her How Judaism Became a Religion, questions: “Is Judaism a religion? Is Jewishness a matter of culture? Are the Jews a nation?” Or perhaps is Judaism a race, an ethnicity? For much of Jewish history, the joint questions of Jewish personhood (identity) and peoplehood went unasked. Being Jewish meant living Jewishly, often without choice: in Jewish communities, with taxes and politicians chosen by Jews, and living with Jewish ritual. With the advent of modernity, Jews began to emerge from the cloistered Jewish conclaves of Europe and were forced to confront their own Jewishness distinct from communal affiliation. Thinking about what it means to be a Jewish person as well as a Jewish People writ large are questions that strike deep in the heart of Jewish thought and life in recent centuries. 

This question is particularly important now. This year, as the Jewish communities of the world were hit with a similarly jarring encounter with this dynamic of modernity, we have witnessed one of the most dramatic shake-ups of Jewish communal structures of recent history. Jewish communal life was once placed in the four stable walls of the institution, with prayers in synagogues and lectures in study halls and conversations in universities. In 2020, everything has shifted to the home, or perhaps to the internet. In the wake of these seismic shifts in the nature of religious practice, and the fragmenting of the institutions that bring people together, thinking about Jewish peoplehood is deeply relevant. 

There are two operative questions; What does it mean to be a Jewish person, and what does it mean for the Jewish people to be a people? Whether these are two distinct questions or two threads woven together runs to the heart of these questions. What is the Jew without the Jewish community? Equally important – what is the Jewish community without the Jew? 

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), whose oeuvre contains some of the most poignant meditations on the matter of Jewish personhood and Jewish peoplehood, thinks through two layers of Jewish peoplehood in his magisterial Kol Dodi Dofek: the people of fate and the nation of destiny. In Egypt, persecuted from without, the people of fate were forged: 

What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies in the life of the nation, as it does in the life of the individual, an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. The individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it is impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality. The environment expels the Jew who flees from the presence of God, so that he is awakened from his slumber, like Jonah the prophet, who awoke to the voice of the ship’s captain demanding to know his personal national-religious identity. 

The historical loneliness of the Jew percolates from a feeling of compulsive fate. He is as alone in his life on earth as in his death. 

In the crucible of compulsion, “Judaism and withdrawal from the world are synonymous,” and there is the “singular, inexplicable phenomenon of the individual clinging to the community and feeling alienated from the outside world.” Encountering the inescapable fate of shared suffering pushed the Jewish people to become a people of loving-kindness, drawn to each other and away from the world at the same moment. This is the people of fate. The great Yiddish poet, Aaron Zeitlin, spoke deeply to the inescapable nature of the people of fate in his poem “Being a Jew:”

Being a Jew means eternally running to God 
even if one is a deserter; 
awaiting to hear any day
(even if one is a heretic) 
the sound of the Messiah’s shofar

Being a Jew means not being able to get away from God
even if one wants to;
being unable to stop praying
even after all the prayers
even after all the even thoughs.

Consider now the second aspect, the nation of destiny, which emerged from the Covenant of Sinai:  

In the life of the people (as in the life of an individual), destiny signifies an existence that it has chosen of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical existence. Instead of a passive, inexorable existence into which a nation is thrust, an Existence of Destiny manifests itself as an active experience full of purposeful movement, ascension, aspirations, and fulfillment…because of its longing for an enhanced state of being, an existence replete with substance and direction…

The life of destiny is a directed life, the result of conscious action and free will. 

Put more simply, there is one aspect of Jewish peoplehood that is created by shared circumstance, the history of persecution and traumatic cultural memory. There is another aspect of Jewish peoplehood that is engendered not by persecution, but purpose; not by fate, but by destiny, by choice. It is this type of peoplehood that creates what the Rav deems the Jewish nation:

[God] transformed the “people” – an amalgam bereft of direction and purpose – to a “nation,” a term that signifies a distinct communal profile, a national physiognomy, as it were. The people of loving-kindness was elevated into a holy nation. The basis of shared destiny is the sanctity that is formed from a distinctive existence.

These two qualities are overlapping and interwoven, and each offer a perspective into this question of Jewish peoplehood. Each layer informs the complex interplay between the individual Jew and the Jewish community, and between the Jewish community and the world. Is Judaism tribal, particularist, ethnocentric? In engaging too deeply with the particular past of the Jewish people, do Jews run the risk of fossilization, missing the universalism that is part of the present and future of peoplehood? 

Jewish identity, on the individual or national level, is not so easily defined. In thinking through this dynamic, we seek to explore the ways Jewish peoplehood finds expression, and the directions in which it is moving. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), in his God in Search of Man, warns us about falling for the easy trap of these definitions:  

Understanding Judaism cannot be attained in the comfort of playing a chess-game of theories. Only ideas that are meaningful to those who are steeped in misery may be accepted as principles by those who dwell in safety. In trying to understand Jewish existence a Jewish philosopher must look for agreement with the men of Sinai as well as with the people of Auschwitz. 

If Heschel articulates well the danger of easy explanations, he also gives us words for the power of thinking about the Jewish past and present, the perfect words with which to end this introduction. These words frame 18Forty’s engagement with the question of Jewish peoplehood, and what we hope we might learn: 

Our faith may be strained but our destiny is anchored in the ultimate. Who can establish the outcome of our history? Out of the wonder we came and into the wonder we shall return. 

Join us in thinking about Jewish peoplehood, as we think about the wonder of our past, the wonder of our future, and the moment we occupy as a people today.

Rav Aaron Lopiansky: What Tribes Do You Contain Inside?

How can one person love a whole nation? And how can the love for a nation be a textured love, an appreciation that runs deeper than ethnocentrism or love of the similar? In order to connect to the nation without, one has to embrace the nation within. 

Rav Aaron Lopiansky joins 18Forty to think about the past, present, and future of the Jewish people.  Much of Rav Lopiansky’s perspective emerges from his communal positioning – as a Rosh Yeshiva, author, and thinker, much of his writing speaks to those struggling at the boundaries of the right-wing and modern world. His Ben Torah for Life is an erudite work aimed at those leaving the Yeshiva for the workforce, a shift in roles that necessitates a shift in meaning structures. This week, we are considering Rav Lopiansky’s understanding of the many roles we all occupy, and how this can inform one’s appreciation for the whole Jewish people. 

We are all built of different qualities and components, pastiches of the characters of the entire Jewish people. The Jewish people embody unity within variety, in the many faces of lived Jewish experience that comprise the Jewish people, just as the Jewish person embodies variety within unity, in the many different aspects to each person’s lived Jewish experience. 

It is in this context that Rav Lopiansky meets Jewish peoplehood. Rav Lopiansky considers the twelve tribes an important symbol for the roles we all have. Each tribe has a particular portion of Biblical Israel, and with it a goal, a shared characteristic, or role. 

In his Ben Torah For Life, he describes the different personalities that comprise the Jewish people: 

Each tribe has a very unique personality with its own set of attributes and talents, yet all of them together – and only together – are Klal Yisrael. Thus, while each tribe is a world unto itself, each is irreplaceable as a member of the whole. For instance, the tribes of Shimon and Levi were most outspoken in their condemnation of evil, whereas the tribe of Dan reached out to the stragglers to bring them back into the fold. These approaches are polar opposites of each other, yet Klal Yisrael is a nation only if it contains both an element of frank and searing condemnation of wrongdoing and also the ability to reach out to the furthest of the stragglers. So too, all the other shevatim have their unique and sometimes diametrically opposing personalities. 

Nevertheless, each and every tribe had a core personality of “Yisrael”, a nation devoted to G-d. in addition, each one had a unique facet that was specific to that tribe…Each and every…tribe oriented its particular attribute towards the center point of dedication to Hashem

As such, the history of the Jewish people has seen a fair share of inter-tribal disputes, sometimes with tragically violent consequences. This conflict continues to occur on all levels of Jewish society, as people and groups of people clash over values. 

In order to embrace the Jewish people, in all their uncomfortable diversity, Rav Aaron Lopiansky urges us to embrace the diversity that lies within each of us: 

These descriptions hold true of each individual’s personal development as well. That a person consists of many different facets of personality, and that they all must work together for the common goal to be realized, is widely understood. However, the fourth dimension of a person, i.e. time, is poorly understood. Each person travels through different periods of life: childhood, teenage years, young adulthood, marriage, parenthood, etc. Each of these stages is another stratum of the total person. Each period has its own focus and challenges, and each becomes a unique contribution to the totality of the person. There are correspondingly different values to be stressed in each of the different periods, such that together they present “adam” in totality. 

Much of what is so challenging about embracing the contradictions of a nation is also true for embracing one’s own contradictions. In order to appreciate the complexities of the nation, one learns to appreciate the complexities of the person. James Joyce, the Irish novelist and poet, put it this way: 

For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.

The presumption behind this idea of the universal heart within the particular is based on the understanding that the deep core of human experience transcends difference. 

Becoming aware of the great many voices of Jewish experience present within each and every one of us is intimately tied to developing a greater historical consciousness. As long as one’s lens of history is narrow, so too will their perspective on Jewishness and Jewish people be narrow. Rav Lopiansky is a believer in the importance of developing such a real historical consciousness. In an article for Mishpacha titled “Sometimes Mashich is Not the Answer,” Rav Lopiansky critiqued the sort of popular messianism that is prone to cropping up in challenging times for lacking a historical perspective: 

We need to teach our children history. And that history needs to include much more than dry names and dates and stories of gedolim. They need to have an accurate understanding of the experiences of the Jewish communities of each generation — the daily life, the hardships, the challenges, the successes, and the wounds. The pasuk implores us to “contemplate the years of each generation.”

This historical awareness forestalls one’s ability to rely on easy conceptions, and puts a premium on recognizing the past, and the present, in a beauty basked in the warm light of complexity. 

This point is particularly important given the current debate around the boundaries and opportunity of identity – in a fragmented world, is it possible to find the universal in the particular? Can deep engagement with one’s own cultural experience engender a deeper appreciation for other cultures, or do the lines of difference between one’s culture and others’ demand demarcation? Terrence, the Roman African slave turned senator, famously said “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” For Terrence, engagement with the realest stuff of the human experience necessarily grants one intimacy with the whole of the human experience. 

Rav Aaron Lopiansky speaks the language of the particular; much of his insight is situated for those in the Yeshiva-oriented Jewish communities, but his thought is important for all. Listen to Rav Lopiansky to think about differentiating education for all ages, the challenges facing the Jewish people in 2020, and his thoughtful commentary on Jewish life today.

Listen to “Rav Aaron Lopiansky: What Tribes do you Contain Inside?” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Laura E. Adkins: Is There Room for All Opinions?

What opinions in the Jewish conversation are valid? Who gets a voice? Laura E. Adkins is the opinions editor for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, an international news agency, and serves as a gatekeeper of sorts of Jewish opinions. In her conversation with 18Forty, she spoke about her willingness to consider opinions different from her own, and the curiosity that drives her openness to differing people. 

To consider the broader context of Laura’s role, and her thoughts on the many voices of the Jewish tradition, this week we are looking at the Jewish history of multivocality. To better understand 2020, we have to turn to 70 C.E., to Yavneh, the ancient Jewish city of learning, where this tradition began. 

70 C.E. In the aftermath of the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, the sages escaped Jerusalem to Yavneh, and built the Oral Torah as we know it. It is in Yavneh that the Mishnah was organized, and it is in Yavneh that the great Jewish project of multivocality emerged. Professor Shaye J.D. Cohen, in an article on the Yavneh tradition, writes that in Yavneh there occurred: 

The creation of a society which tolerates disputes without producing sects. For the first time Jews “agreed to disagree.” The major literary monument created by the Yavneans and their successors testifies to this innovation. No previous Jewish work looks like the Mishnah because no previous Jewish work, neither biblical nor post-biblical, neither Hebrew nor Greek, neither Palestinian nor diasporan, attributes conflicting legal and exegetical opin ions to named individuals who, in spite of their differences, belong to the same fraternity. 

The great Beit Midrash tradition of Torah learning, in which dissent is invited and disagreement cultivated was birthed in the post-destruction haven of Yavneh, as Cohen writes: 

The dominant ethic here is not exclusivity but elasticity. The goal was not the triumph over other sects but the elimination of the need for sectarianism itself. As one tannaitic midrash remarks, “Lo Titgodedu” [Deut. 14:1]. Do not make separate factions (jagudot) but make one faction all together.” The destruction of the temple provided the impetus for this process: it warned the Jews of the dangers of internal divisiveness and it removed one of the major focal points of Jewish sectarianism.

In the kind of beautiful irony that history occasionally grants us, the Yavneh model itself has been the focal point of sustained debate, as scholars and thinkers since have questioned exactly how elastic the ethic of Yavneh was – after all, even the Mishnah developed in Yavneh categorizes some beliefs as minut (heresy)! Surely the Beit Midrash was not that open! Yavneh is often thought about in terms of a different gathering in a parallel context – the synods of Nicaea, in which the early Catholic Church determined the more rigid boundaries to its dogma. The relationship between Yavneh and Nicaea – multivocality and univocality – is a deep and rich area for thinking about the boundaries of discourse. 

This is no abstract historical question, but a deeply contemporary one: what are the boundaries for opinions? Does the Jewish tradition value all opinions, or does the rabbinic appreciation for multiple voices have limits? Should opinions be cancelled? For some, Yavneh is a model for the limits of a multi-voiced discourse, and indicates that the ‘cancelling’ of some opinions is in fact necessary for a community of ideas. For others, Yavneh is a model for the need for having an elastic dialogue with ideas, for allowing all ideas a place, and to ensure that ideas don’t ossify into sectarianism. 

Consider this beautiful word: heteroglossia. From hetero: different, and glossia: Tongue, language, heteroglossia refers to the coexistence of multiple voices or styles in one work. In language, it refers to the coexistence of multiple language varieties within a single language. The poet Gerald Bruns uses this beautiful word in discussing Yavneh: 

From a transcendental standpoint, this [rabbinic] theory of authority is paradoxical because it is seen to hang on the heteroglossia of dialogue, on speaking with many voices, rather than on the logical principle of univocity, or speaking with one mind. Instead, the idea of speaking with one mind … is explicitly rejected; single-mindedness produces factionalism. 

The many voices in the Jewish tradition: Heteroglossia of dialogue. This many-voiced beauty is alive and vibrant today, as the beit midrash of the internet has created opportunities and challenges to society’s ability to tolerate dissenting viewpoints. Laura E. Adkins is at the front lines of this discussion. As a gatekeeper of multivocality, Laura decides who gets an opinion. What opinions, what voices, should be tolerated and magnified, and which don’t deserve a place in the national conversation? Laura discusses her role in this national conversation with purpose and sensitivity, and brings to 18Forty her perspective on how she stays centered when confronted with dissenting viewpoints and opinions. Laura’s curiosity and humility are lessons for all denizens of the 21st century – how do we engage with viewpoints with which we disagree? With humble curiosity, and a desire to learn.

Listen to “Laura E. Adkins: Is There Room for All Opinions?” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from Laura’s interview in our Weekend Reader.

Bethany S. Mandel: Jews without Community

Can you love Judaism, but not Jews? Can one be a member of the Jewish community while living outside the institutions that constitute the community? Does the Jew need the community, or the community need the Jew? Bethany S. Mandel is a thoughtful and passionate commentator on this complicated intersection of questions. 

As a journalist and cultural commentator, Bethany has written and spoken widely about her relationship with the idea of community, particularly after her dealings with the now-deposed Rabbi Freundel. After encountering the negative side of Jewish communal life, Bethany made her home the center of her family’s religious life, starting a YouTube channel for Jewish homeschooling, and embracing the possibilities of a home-based religious center before 2020 made that the norm. In many ways, Bethany’s belief in a Judaism centered in the home presaged the shift to home we have all experienced this past year. 

In March 2020, the organized Jewish communities of the world had to confront these questions. With the shuttering of institutions and abeyance of in-person programming due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Jewish life moved from synagogues and schools to living rooms and crowded kitchens. Given the high financial cost of Jewish institutions, the shift to the home and the internet has pushed questions of sustainability and decentralization to the forefront of national conversation. Looking towards the future of the Jewish people, will Jews continue to engage with the Jewish people through institutions, or through the people themselves?  

So often, we rely on institutions to provide the meaning and magnificence that religious life has to offer, and we lose the perspective that independence grants. Placing faith in buildings and people puts that faith under stress when far from institutions and people. A lesson learned in 2020: God can be found in the home and the synagogue, in the individual and the institution, in the Jew – with or without community. 

There is a parallel set of questions that frame this dilemma on a far broader scale: What about when Jews fail Judaism? Should one place their faith in Jews or Judaism?  Rabbi Louis Jacobs is fabled to have said that “Judaism is perfect – Jews aren’t.” Many have experienced the beauty of Jews only to then experience the beauty of Judaism, but others have experienced a more challenging mismatch: A sensitive religion with occasionally insensitive adherents. Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews, but “eventually, the Jews will have to measure up to Judaism,” Bethany Mandel opines in her conversation with 18Forty. 

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) was sensitive to the fragile, beautiful relationship between individual and institution, between Jew and Jewish community, when he stunningly said: 

If I had the power I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish Home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life. (“Introduction by Translator” to Horeb, “The Classification of the Mitzvoth,” p.1xix)

For Rabbi Hirsch, closing the centers of Jewish study and practice would force a renewed consideration of what matters most: A deeper concentration on Jewish life and the Jewish home. The song of the community is most rich when each individual is comfortable and confident in their own song, in diverse unity. 

An observation on Walt Whitman illuminates this point – Whitman’s great ode to the individual spirit, the Song of Myself, fittingly begins with the word “I”: 

I celebrate myself, and sing myself

The poem, a powerful testimony to the Western love affair with the individual, ends: 

missing me one place search another
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

The astute observation has been made – this great poem about the “I” starts with “I,” but ends with “you.” Reaching this final “you” takes Whitman a long time, much of which is spent marvelling at the beauty of the soul’s “I”, but eventually the Song of Myself beckons to the other, the “you.” Perhaps Whitman’s delicate transition from “I” to “you” is a lesson in the relationship between self and other – by deepening one’s own self, one’s home, this can engender a much deeper encounter with the “you,” the other.  

The shift that occurred in 2020, from religion practiced in community to practiced in the independent individualism of one’s home allows for greater encounters between neighbors, members of a family, and members of a community. Away from the rarefied practices of the institution, individuals can come to each other as individuals, and grow from the encounter. 

Bethany S. Mandel speaks of the encounter between Jew and Jewish community, and between Jews and Judaism. In Bethany’s writing, change happens in and between individuals, far from institutions. In a piece that brought her considerable controversy, “We Need to Befriend Neo-Nazis,” she argues for social change on the radically human level – ideological enemies approaching each other as people. 

Agree or disagree, institutionalist or individualist, Bethany’s insight is valuable. Listen to Bethany for her sensitive thinking on the relationship between Jews and the Jewish community, and why her Jewish community is her home.

Listen to “Bethany S. Mandel: Jews without Community” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Samuel G. Freedman: Can Jew vs. Jew Ever Become Jew with Jew?

How can we appreciate disagreement in a discourse ruled by dispute? How can denizens of the 21st century, with all the intellectual self-isolation that so often occurs in our media, grow to appreciate the din of Jews in debate? 

Enter Samuel G. Freedman. In his Jew vs. Jew, Samuel succeeds at finding the forest in the trees, and showing readers how issues far bigger than shul boards and courtrooms result in smaller schisms across America. In this award-winning book, Samuel looks at major controversies splitting American Jews and focuses on a set of case studies that demonstrate the schisms these issues can cause. From a zoning issue in a shul in Cleveland to a gendered nusach war in a shul in Los Angeles, Jew vs. Jew is ostensibly a book about what divides Jews, but it is also a book about what unites Jews: debate. Just as there is unity in variety, there is variety in unity, and Jew vs. Jew demonstrates the rich, textured unity that is American Jewish life. Controversy in Jewish communities is a feature – not a bug – of Jewish life, albeit a complicated, sometimes divisive feature. 

This week’s podcast is going out for all the Jewish debates out there – loud, ugly, ugly and beautiful. Mouths-foaming, shul-splitting, and book-banning: we are here for it all, as we contextualize Samuel’s thought on peoplehood in the broader Jewish tradition of harmonious dispute. Read on to find out why disagreement is beautiful and how Jews are like jazz. 

Harmony in Dissent: In Appreciation of Disputation 

In his introduction to Choshen Mishpat, Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (1829-1908), the author of the Aruch HaShulchan, wrote the following timeless words about this textured feature of Jewish life – debate: 

Truly, for one who understands things properly, all the controversies among the Tannaim, Amoraim, the Geonim and the decisors, are the words of the living God, and all are grounded in the law. And furthermore, this is the glory of our pure and holy Torah, all of which is called a melody. And the glory of the melody, the essence of its delight, is that the tones differ from each other. And one who sails the sea of the Talmud will experience the diverse delights of all these distinct voices.

This is the glory of our pure and holy Torah, and it is the glory of our pure and holy people – to be part of a people that places ideas above all else. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his God in Search of Man, writes that “to be a Jew is to be committed to the experience of great ideas.” It is not the ideas that we should fear, but rather ignorance of the ideas being fought over. Looking out and back at the issues that have split our people, we can appreciate the values and ideas that put this idea-obsessed people in such schisms. 

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860‐1942) takes a further step with this analogy:

The likeness [between the Torah and singing] will emerge through an analogy to a choir of players and singers, each one different from the other – one raises his voice and the other lowers it, this one’s voice is high and the other’s deep. All seems mixed up at first, as if they had meant to annoy each other. But in truth it is not so, because a pleasing and beautiful melody will ultimately emerge from the contrast between the voices. So it is with the Torah – truth will come forth from the conflicting views, and because the true law surfaces from controversy, all views are as beloved to God as the truth itself...They conveyed this through the phrase “these and these are the words of the living God.”

Multivocality itself is beautiful, and appreciating the presence and persona of each idea-holder is a great boon of the contemporary era. Although not often used this way, the internet age offers the possibility for a far greater understanding of the ideas narrating debates than was ever possible. 

In this, we echo the urging of the recently passed Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (1937-2020) in his declaration: “Let my people know!” There are many voices in the great symphony of Jewish debate, and they can only be appreciated if the ideas that narrate them are considered, studied, and respected. Ideas often clash, but more often, it is the misunderstanding that surrounds those ideas leading people to miscommunicate. 

In Jew vs. Jew, the barriers that ignorance presents to mutual respect and understanding in the Jewish community is demonstrated in the rousing sermon delivered by Joshua Aaronson, a Reform rabbi in Beachwood, Ohio. It is the height of a controversy over the proposed construction of an Orthodox campus in Beachwood, and Aaronson delivered a Yom Kippur sermon, beginning with a recounting of the Orthodox misdeeds against other Jews, until he turned his steely gaze to his own congregants: 

The ignorance of progressive Jews impedes our efforts to work with Orthodox Jews as true partners. Progressive Jews suffer from a self-fulfilling inferiority complex that could be erased through the most fundamental of Jewish enterprises: Talmud Torah. Many progressive Jews lack the basic lexicon that would enable us to engage our Orthodox co-religionists on an equal basis. Too many progressive Jews are unfamiliar with the most basic Jewish concepts and ideas. Sadly, for most progressive Jews, the Torah, the single most important document in our religion, is as unfamiliar as the Rosetta stone…Orthodox Jews do not take us seriously as religious equals because of our ignorance. Our ignorance does not justify the animus of the Orthodox nor our second-class status. However, we must acknowledge the validity of the Orthodox claim that we are the main illiterate Jews.

Aaronson’s scalding comments are stunning in their sincere honesty, particularly when one appreciates the context: Yom Kippur. His words aren’t just important for his progressive congregants, but for all that engage in Jewish life, on any terms. Sometimes it is those with the best education –  in Torah or secular subjects – that can be the most ignorant, as education and learning demand listening as much as learning, engaging with others as much as with texts. To learn more about the ideas that fuel Jewish controversies, let us learn more about Jewish ideas and people, and hope to become more understanding, thoughtful people. 

The Letter and the Coin: Past, Present, and Future of Jewish Peoplehood

Whether or not you can appreciate the many voices and values in debate, we can appreciate that this isn’t just the story of our past, but of our present and future. Engaged in passionate conversation, we become the fabric of the Jewish scroll, each of us written into the text of the Jewish story. In his eloquent ode to Jewish peoplehood, A Letter in the Scroll, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the letter and the coin, two meaningful symbols that offer possibilities for how we think of our place in history: 

[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image, and it invites a question–the question: Will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people?

At some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of a myriad of faiths, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint–namely, that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we ever make.

We can see life as a succession of moments spent, like coins, in return for pleasures of various kinds. Or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.

Are you a letter or a coin? Rabbi Sacks continues: 

That metaphor is for me the key to understanding our ancestors’ decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God and thus undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness or loyalty. And Jews felt a loyalty to generations past and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll that has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter…

I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one.

The story of the Jewish conversation is ever-changing – an ever-expanding scroll. How will you read this scroll? How will you approach the Jewish voices in debate that comprise this scroll? Samuel G. Freedman offers a model for careful and thoughtful appreciation for each side, understanding and engaging with the value at the heart of the battle, and through this, beginning to appreciate the story that emerges. Many voices, one song, arguing together in harmony.

Listen to “Samuel Freedman: Can Jew vs. Jew Ever Become Jew with Jew?” on Spreaker.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google. View transcript.

Read important takeaways from Samuel’s interview in our Weekend Reader.


A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion

The Free Press, 2000
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Originally written as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law, A Letter in the Scroll stands as one of the foremost love letters to Jewish ideas and identity of this millenium. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the rabbi and thinker we all love to love, wrote this book to deal with two mysteries – the mystery of Jewish survival and success, as well as the mystery of Jewish confusion – why are Jews so conflicted about their own achievements? Why the “demoralization at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity”? As we all know, there is no one better poised to answer these questions than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

+ Buy on Amazon

Originally written as a wedding gift for his son and daughter-in-law, A Letter in the Scroll stands as one of the foremost love letters to Jewish ideas and identity of this millenium. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the rabbi and thinker we all love to love, wrote this book to deal with two mysteries – the mystery of Jewish survival and success, as well as the mystery of Jewish confusion – why are Jews so conflicted about their own achievements? Why the “demoralization at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity”? As we all know, there is no one better poised to answer these questions than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

+ Buy on Amazon

How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought

Princeton University Press, 2011
Leora Batnitzky

What is Judaism, and who are the Jewish people? Are the Jews a tribe, ethnicity, race, nationality, or religious group? None, all, depends? Batnitzky places the tension between the public, communal nature of Jewish religion and the private, individual nature of Protestantism at the heart of her book. Along the road to answer these questions, she presents an erudite, if at times dry, perspective on the major thinkers and thought systems of the (Jewish) modern era. How Judaism Became a Religion dives into the core questions of Jewish peoplehood courageously, if at times controversially, and it is sure to get you thinking.

+ Buy on Amazon

What is Judaism, and who are the Jewish people? Are the Jews a tribe, ethnicity, race, nationality, or religious group? None, all, depends? Batnitzky places the tension between the public, communal nature of Jewish religion and the private, individual nature of Protestantism at the heart of her book. Along the road to answer these questions, she presents an erudite, if at times dry, perspective on the major thinkers and thought systems of the (Jewish) modern era. How Judaism Became a Religion dives into the core questions of Jewish peoplehood courageously, if at times controversially, and it is sure to get you thinking.

+ Buy on Amazon

Jew Vs Jew: The Struggle For The Soul Of American Jewry

Touchstone, 2000
Samuel G. Freedman

Jew vs. Jew is a deeply researched testimony to the ways broad issues pull apart Jewish communities in the particular. From a zoning debate in Cleveland to a liturgy war in Los Angeles, Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew is a masterclass in seeing the forest in the trees. Freedman’s insight is honest, judicial, and perhaps even loving. His fidelity is to the ideas that drive change, the values that are revealed by debate, and the community made up of it all. How do the macro debates of American Judaism manifest on a micro level – in shuls, communities, and homes? Read Jew vs. Jew to find out.

+ Buy on Amazon

Jew vs. Jew is a deeply researched testimony to the ways broad issues pull apart Jewish communities in the particular. From a zoning debate in Cleveland to a liturgy war in Los Angeles, Freedman’s Jew vs. Jew is a masterclass in seeing the forest in the trees. Freedman’s insight is honest, judicial, and perhaps even loving. His fidelity is to the ideas that drive change, the values that are revealed by debate, and the community made up of it all. How do the macro debates of American Judaism manifest on a micro level – in shuls, communities, and homes? Read Jew vs. Jew to find out.

+ Buy on Amazon

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