On being Jewish 2
by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2006-05-12
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
I was a little cavalier or perhaps premature, in suggesting at the end of my previous post that I would try to deal with how to convey my Jewishness at this stage. I think I need first to explain where I stand within the specifically religious aspect of Jewish identity.
There are all sorts of denominations and sects and cliques in the Jewish world who all claim they are being true to Torah in their way. The trouble is that they all seem to spend too much time rubbishing each other. Anyone who does more than me is a fanatic but anyone who does less is an assimilationist. It is one of the most unedifying aspects of religion, all religions of course not just ours. Why do people need to bolster themselves by being mean to others? And why do religious people who ought according to their own terms of reference, know better, too often become the worst offendors?
Some Jews are like Christians, adhering to the general moral exhortations of the prophets while rejecting most of the ritual laws of Judaism, yet also claiming they are the true inheritors of Torah, the true Israel. There are Reform Jews who define Judaism paternally and Jewish identity differently than I do ( I should point out that Reform in America and Reform in Britain are two different species). There are Reconstructionists, Humanists, Messianists, Kaarites and Samaritans. None of these satisfy me religiously, 'though I cannot see how what they choose to do or believe can be offensive in any way.
And in the other direction there are all sorts of Hassidic sects with their own particular dress codes and customs and holy texts and ideologies which have added layer upon layer onto Torah. And of course they declare that they, and they alone, are the true inheritors of the Torah.
So where does that leave me? Me, who is far too Orthodox for the Reform and far too heterodox for the Ultra Orthodox?One response is to be satisfied with my individuality and thumb my nose at my critics, which of course I do. But still, as a thinking person, I do have a rationale for my position.
I do not like the term Orthodox in a Jewish context. It is borrowed from the Christians and implies correct belief, whereas Torah is more concerned with correct action. Neither is Orthoprax good enough because that implies that only correct action works, but Judaism does include a range of very significant and fundamental ideas about God and life and death. Traditional is no good because that is used by people who select a rather random and inconsistent set of rituals to adhere to. Anyone can claim to be traditional; it is meaningless. And the currently fashionable term Charedi (literally trembling before God) is no good, because it either describes a state of mind or, alternatively, membership in a loose confederation of anti-rationalists who look to the medieval as an ideal. I love praying on Chassidic Shtiebelach, as they are called, but they all seem to share ( regardless of when they were built) a desire to replicate the very worst characteristics of dirt, disorder and smell of the Eastern European Ghetto as if that were the mark of authenticity).
As for Modern Orthodox, that too suffers from all the baggage I dislike about the word Orthodox, with the addition of the word Modern redolent of triviality, materialism, egoism, abuses and misuses.
So what can I say about myself? I believe that Judaism is defined by its constitution that has evolved in various ways, from Sinai on through the process we call the Oral Law, and is subject to the same sorts of conditions, limitations and disciplines, in its own way, that any constitution is. In our case the only serious drawback is the absence of a Supreme Court, but who says The Court of Usage is any less effective?
In my adherence to Jewish law I am unusual, in this day and age, in that I prefer the lenient to the strict. This alone sets me apart from whole swathes of so called Orthodoxy, despite the famous Talmudic dictum that lenience is preferable to strictness. I believe there is a great deal of value in modern technology, and that secular study has a lot to commend it. We have always had our doctors and our scientists; they have always been ready to train and study at the highest levels possible.
The old Talmudic debate as to whether Greek Wisdom had any value remains an issue today. No committed Jew could ever sympathize with Socrates and his suicidal cup of hemlock. Ethically and spiritually Torah is the priority. But we accept there is wisdom amongst the nations of the world. And I have met some very good and spiritual people of different faiths. Very often Jewish, Torah, solutions incorporated interchanges with other societies and civilizations, such as the idea of schools from the Greeks.
There is a current notion in certain quarters that it is conceptually possible to live a life that is totally isolated and insulated from all external ideas. This comes with the illusion that the ghettoes of Eastern Europe were some sort of Jewish Paradise, or that one can totally ignore science when its theories troubles us but use it when it benefits us.
Our religious extremism is not usually physically violent (although punch-ups in Satmar might indicate otherwise). Most extremely orthodox rabbis are in favour of trading Land for Peace in Israel though there are dissenters. Our Fundamentalism is essentially anti-intellectualism, the result of European Orthodoxys response to the Enlightenment and to the Holocaust. Non-Jewish values, culture and religions led directly to the Holocaust, and therefore must be discounted. Nowadays only in The Halls of Academe can one find thinking Judaism today that is totally committed to Torah principles. Synagogues, in the main, have become vehicles for social cohesion, not creative thinking.
There is one other aspect of all extremism that is dangerous and worrying. That is its absence of humour and self-criticism. Yet it must be said that only within these groups does one find the religious scholarship and religious passion that I find essential to the Judaism I espouse.
So if I do not nail my flag to these masts am I a schizophrenic outcast? In one way I am, anyway, a rootless cosmopolitan. I do not feel completely English or Israeli or American or European, but a bit of all. I am a Jew and a citizen of the world. I belong everywhere and yet, in my entirety, nowhere.
My Judaism is a way of being engaged with the world around me while at the same time enjoying a way of living according to a Jewish calendar and routine that I find both enjoyable and spiritually uplifting. It gives me a framework for trying to live a moral life, a religious life, a 'considered' life in whch the ritual constantly reminds me of my goals. It doesn't answer many , most of my questions. I am as enquiring and searching as I have ever been, but I do have what is called 'Peace of Mind' and a happy adjustment to life.
Once upon a time Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch of Frankfurt gave this condition a name, 'Torah Im Derech Eretz,' Torah with culture ( or 'humanity'). Over time, sadly, this often turned into A lot of culture with a little bit of Judaism. But, since I dislike the term Modern Orthodox so much, perhaps Tolerant Torah or the new American Open Judaism is the only alternative left. It doesnt sound very inspiring so I throw out to my readers the challenge. Suggest a better term! And hopefully the final part of this Apologia Pro Vita Sua will follow soon.
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