This piece originally appeared here.
The space was austere, the choir heavenly, and the images of Jesus – only slightly discomfiting.
I, a rabbinical student, had been invited to share in the Sunday Worship Service at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a service that was geared towards interfaith engagement. It was an amazing example of living out the interfaith ideal of hosting the religious other, enabling the host to exhibit hospitality and the visitor to feel welcomed, safe enough to share of their own tradition.
For all of the interfaith work I do as Editorial Director of State of Formation, sitting in the chancel of Marsh Chapel brought home to me where interfaith engagement really happens. As many of the Contributing Scholars on State of Formation describe so eloquently, the real engagement occurs when we meet the religious other and get to know them, whether it is in our house of worship, theirs, around the dinner table or on a college campus.
Growing up, churches were simply buildings that I did not enter. Not because I felt unwelcome by Christians, but because I didn’t even know any of them in the first place. I had similarly never heard of a rabbi or other Jewish leader being invited into a church service. The inter-religious landscape is changing, helped in large part by programs like CIRCLE, which have provided fertile ground on which to build relationships that transcend stereotypes. I would never have entered Marsh Chapel if I had not first known Rev. Soren Hessler, who works with me at CIRCLE, and had he not conceived of the idea for an interfaith Sunday liturgy based as well on his relationships with the religious other, in this case myself and Shehla Zakaullah, a Muslim leader also involved in CIRCLE’s work.
Not only was I invited into the church as an honored guest, and allowed to read for the congregation the Hebrew text of the Psalm chosen for that morning’s liturgy, but I was also made to feel at home through the stories told in the sermon around which the morning centered. Soren spoke beautifully about how Reb Zalman zt”l came to the very chapel in which we were sitting as a young student, only to be put off by the dominant carved images of Jesus and the four Evangelists (as told in his memoir My Life in Jewish Renewal). In time, however, and with the help of dean Howard Thurman, Reb Zalman was made comfortable enough to pray in the building (if not in the main chapel), and soon became one of Thurman’s students.
To learn something new about a figure I greatly admire within my own tradition from the pulpit of a church was a deeply moving experience. The church was speaking in my language, for my sake, and I couldn’t have felt more comfortable at that moment, which allowed me to feel no anxiety whatsoever about concluding the sermon with a Hebrew recitation.
One of the most powerful elements on display in the service was the sharing of language. Not only did a Muslim woman and a Jewish man stand at the head of a Christian worship service, but we were able to share of our own sacred languages while doing so. Judaism and Christianity share the Hebrew Bible as scripture, originally written in Hebrew, and therefore there was something inherently familiar in my reading from a Hebrew text that both Judaism and Christianity view as sacred. More stark, on its surface, was Shehla reading a Quranic passage in melodious Arabic in a church. However, on further reflection, the power of the event was in each of us bringing our own language; not in the sense of Hebrew, English or Arabic, but in the sense that each religious tradition, and each individual’s embodiment of that tradition, is a language all its own. In Marsh Chapel, we had many different religious languages represented, each given their turn at the pulpit to share of themselves, hopefully allowing the congregation to connect in their own way to the truth embedded within each one.
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For anyone engaged in interpreting Torah for others, caution should be our watchword. These texts have become sacred because people have endowed them with ultimate meaning. Continuing to do so enriches millions of people’s lives, but also carries with it a risk. Pouring part of myself into a text and the religion that is formed around that text means that I am bound to take it personally when that text is read is a way that offends me or those I love. When it comes to Judaism, the ways in which even the smallest interpretive move can have drastically offensive consequences are myriad.
As a Jewish leader, this cautionary approach to interpreting text is even more important when considering texts that deal with gender norms. All too often in Judaism’s sacred canon, social and religious norms were dictated by the male elite, leaving no room for women or countless other minorities to enter into the conversation. As the text below will highlight, that has led to some troubling conclusions about the gender dynamics normatively etched in Judaism’s sacred texts.
Ensuring the survival of Judaism is one of the most important responsibilities that any Jew has, one that Genesis 1:28 (or 9:7) makes clear is a universal imperative (whether such a responsibility holds today, in light of the current human population, is an important, and separate, topic). However, the Rabbis were uncomfortable with this heady responsibility being the province of all Jews equally. Instead, the majority opinion in the time of the Mishnah (Yevamot 6:6) states that only men are responsible for bringing the next generation into the world. The proof brought for this position in the Talmud (b. Yevamot 65b) is based on reading a key word in the verse without a vav. In other words, by taking one letter out of a word, the Rabbis are able to enact a social reality where (heterosexual) men are the locus of all sexuality and women’s needs come second, if they are addressed at all.
Now, it must be said that this interpretive move is not only acceptable, but lauded, at least in form, given that Rabbinic culture (following Rabbi Akiva) generally assumes that every single letter of the Torah has (many layers of) meaning. However, we also have ample precedent for the Rabbis exhibiting just the kind of caution I think is necessary when interpreting texts in violent ways. The paradigmatic example of this involves a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael about the death penalty that is due to the daughter of a priest for harlotry. Rabbi Akiva, again using an extra vav in the verse under discussion, rules that the woman should be burned to death. Rabbi Ishmael is incredulous, and yells at Rabbi Akiva: “And because you interpret ‘daughter’ [and separately] ‘and a daughter’ [Lev. 21:9], should we send this one to be burned?” (b. Sanhedrin 51b)
I would therefore like to follow in the footsteps of Tosafot, the 12th century school of Talmudic exegetes, and argue that the Talmud in Yevamot was not sufficiently conscious of the caution that must be employed when interpreting text, as Rabbi Ishmael reminds us in Sanhedrin. This is crucially different from the easier move that non-Orthodox Jews have at their disposal when confronted with a morally repugnant text. We could simply dismiss the Yevamot text as antiquated, knowing full well that there are many things that the Rabbis believed about gender that we do not believe today. However, for the text of the Torah, and, by extension, the Talmud, to continue to hold sway over us as sacred texts ought to, I prefer to discount the precedent that the text is setting in classical Rabbinic fashion, through the use of a counter-example.
Just as Rabbi Ishmael negated the minutest interpretive move of Rabbi Akiva when it could lead to a more violent death, so too must we negate the interpretive move that leaves only men responsible for child-bearing (a biological irony that cannot have been lost of at least some of the rabbis who instituted the rule). We must also keep Rabbi Ishmael’s example in our minds as we interpret Torah for our times, keeping our ears open to the priest’s daughter who is being figuratively burnt by the ways we interpret Torah.
As Pesach approaches, along with the stresses of cleaning and cooking come feelings of deep tradition and an excitement about performing millennia-old rituals in ways similar to how Jews have always celebrated this central biblical holiday. While attending or hosting a Pesach seder is one of the few yearly events that most Jews observe, and hence stands out as a ritual we have deep nostalgic ties to, we know (from e.g. Haym Soloveitchik’s Rupture and Reconstruction) that this is how Judaism as a lived, or oral religion, was always passed on. However, the combined forces of modernity and, especially, the Holocaust, led to a major break in this chain of tradition. Unable to recall a peaceful childhood full of the rituals, sights and smells of their Jewish upbringing, many Jews had little choice but to consult the central texts of our tradition to re-create the rich Judaism that their ancestors had lived mimetically. Much was lost, religiously, as a result, and when text replaced lived experience as the ultimate authority in Jewish life, many Jews were left with a more rigid understanding of Jewish law and how it had evolved and operated over history.
Fortunately, Jews wrote many things in the pre-modern world, not just legal codes, and many of these documents — especially the responsa literature — shed a much more nuanced light on how Jews lived out their Judaism. In addition, the field of Holocaust studies as a historical enterprise has unearthed countless records of pre-war Jewish life, and the ways in which it was differently shaped by text than contemporary Jewish life is.
One fascinating example of this dynamic was recently examined by Holly Huffnagle, in an article published in January, entitled “Peaceful Coexistence? Jewish and Muslim Neighbors on the Eve of the Holocaust.” In it, Huffnagle examines the relationship between the Jewish communities and the ethnic Tatar Muslim communities of Poland in the inter-war period. The mere fact that there was (and is) a native population of Muslims in Poland was a surprise to me — as it was to many Poles alive today, as the author found while researching this history.
In the article, Huffnagle examines various spheres of interaction between the two communities, and concludes that there was a (largely) positive relationship ranging from the intimate to the more mundane (e.g. business interactions). Viewing this article through the lens of mimetic transmission of Judaism, the vignettes describing the most intimate interactions stand out. Huffnagle describes Aron Derman, a Jew who lived in Slonim and shared his Pesach experiences with a Tatar Muslim family growing up:
“The only thing that was … different where I lived, we had one family who had lived there for many, many years, from generations before, [who were] Tatars – they were Muslims. For all the years, my [Tatar] friend was real friendly with me, and the whole family was almost like one family. We were very, very close together. And in fact, for years, [they lived] with us and they spoke Yiddish just as well as we did. And the same thing with the Jewish holidays … They used to like, almost like celebrate [our holidays] in their home. For example, on Passover, was the community baking of matzo … The neighbors got together and they baked their own matzo. So … the Tatar family – the Muslim family – her name was Hanifa … she used to come over with a bag of flour and contribute … and help to make the dough and bake the matzo … And then in the time of the holidays … her kids, used to eat matzo like we did …” (p. 11)
This is remarkable for at least a few reasons. First, it describes in detail a lived Judaism in which the boundaries between Jew and Other are malleable. Specifically, this occurred in Slonim, a town that is even today known as a great center of Jewish learning (we still study the teachings of the Slonimer Rebbe, 1911-2000), which lends credence to this type of interaction as regular and accepted. Further, this particular story was about preparing matzah for Pesach, an area of ritual life that is particularly rife with stress, as many Jews are experiencing right now. The idea that non-Jews would be embraced as part of that experience harkens back to a time when Judaism was lived fluidly with the neighbours that Jews found themselves living amongst.
When reflecting on life in 1930s Poland, and the ways in which the picture of Judaism there is different from contemporary Judaism, it is important to note that the world in which we live, one where text reigns supreme, was only brought about due to a genocidal attempt on the life of the Jewish people. Were it not for that unspeakable tragedy, we would still be living mimetically, and maybe in much closer partnership with our non-Jewish neighbours.
I rarely engage in conversations about Israel…that do not either implicitly or explicitly raise the issue of history. One of the ways in which we seem to ground our various ideological commitments is through a commitment to a ‘start date’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For such a young country, there are numerous dates that have attained near-absolute significance to various parties to the conflict.
And yet, whenever I have heard anyone propose a way forward, a way to end the conflict, a prerequisite has always been forgiveness for past wrongs. While this takes great courage, it is also quite clear that it is a necessary first step. However, it is very hard for most of us to truly forgive and let go of all of the pain that the conflict has caused us, internally and in various spheres of moral concern that we inhabit.
With such obstacles, I find it very helpful to start by working through how I would forgive someone that I do not harbour any deep resentment for. That is why a line in the tachanun prayer, a prayer traditionally said twice a day where Jews admit and ask forgiveness for our sins, stood out to me.
When speaking to God, who — on a good day — we do not harbour any resentment towards, or feel any pain from, we come at forgiveness from a healthier place. Further, we know we have done wrong, which is much harder to admit in a conflict that is so raw and has such high stakes. In the context of tachanun, we ask God, near the end of the prayer:
אל תזכר לנו עונות ראשונים, מהר יקדמונו רחמיך, כי דלונו מאד – תהילים עט:ח
“Do not reminds us of our earlier sins — speedily bring forth your compassion — because we are lowly” (Psalm 79:8)
This one verse captures so much about what forgiveness requires. We must admit we are wrong, so wrong that we do not truly merit full restitution. We must simultaneously call on the Other’s deep wells of compassion, pleading that they overrule any inclination to strict justice that our past misdeeds might deserve.
In a conflict that has claimed so many lives, any single one of which is compared to the destruction of the entire world by the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:9), we must take this verse as our motto. We must seek to enter into relationship with the Other(s) in such a way that we can both ask for forgiveness as we do in tachanun — and be ready and willing to grant that forgiveness when it is asked of us.
When it comes to the vast and varied corpus of Jewish law, the minutiae are not often what stand out and stick in your mind (though there are always the wacky laws that make your head turn). More commonly, it is the aphorism, the principle that you think captures something essential about life and the way it ought to be lived that stays with you, that you incorporate into your life in some way and allow to change your thinking on a given issue.
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to just such a story, about principles themselves and their value. The Midrash (Sifre Deuteronomy 306) relates the following about Deut. 32:2, which reads “My doctrine shall drop as rain, My speech shall distill as the dew…”
Rabbi Meir said: One should always gather the words of Torah in principles, because if one gathers them in their particulars, they will tire you out and you will not know what to do with them. It is similar to a person who is traveling to Caesarea and needs one or two hundred Zuz for spending money. If she takes that money in small change, the coins will weigh her down and she will not know what to do; but if she combines the small change and converts them into Selahs she can convert them back to small change whenever she needs. So too if one if going to the marketplace and he needs one or two thousand coins of spending money, if he converts them into Selahs they will weigh him down and he will not know what to do; but if he combines them into gold coins he can convert them back into Selahs whenever he wants.
Thinking of principles that we are exposed to in Judaism (or in life generally) in this way is very revealing. First, the notion that they are more portable, like larger denominations of money, fits perfectly with the truth that principles are more memorable. Second, inextricably linked to their portability is the fact that they cannot be ‘cashed in’ in the same way as particular laws and norms — they do not affect the mundane aspects of our lives unless we convert them back into specific rituals practices or laws. Third, this story makes it clear to me that both are needed, we need to focus both on cultivating a rich set of principles and a web of interlocking practices that can carry us through the mundane (the marketplace) and the profound (traveling from one stage of our lives to the next).
The big picture application of this Midrash that occurred to me when I first heard it was that it serves as an apt description of certain Jewish communities just as it describes individual practice. I believe that all Jewish communities over the course of history have chosen their own idiosyncratic blend of principles and laws to uphold as especially important. Are the ritual details of davenning (prayer) the most important, or is giving tzedakkah (charity)? Do you spend more time studying text or meditating?
There are no ‘right’ answers here, only different ways to live out one’s Judaism. And yet I was struck by how I thought immediately of liberal denominations of Judaism in relation to this story, specifically those populated by Jews who do not view halakha (Jewish law) as binding. For many in those communities, it is the principles that not only stick with us more, but represent the essence of Judaism, as the law is seen as variously antiquated, offensive or impractical. It is like going on a trip — in this case one from pre-modernity to modernity, and now to post-modernity — and, having carefully converted all of our money into big bills, we have yet to stop at the stall in the marketplace and break those big bills down into small change.
While the Midrash is unequivocal about the importance of, even the preference for, the principles over the particulars, it is clear that converting the principles back into particulars is the only way in which to live them out — you cannot settle in to a new city without spending some money. What would it look like for liberal Judaisms to experiment with cashing some of our cherished principles in in exchange for law — ritual and civil law that we could champion?
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
After the summer’s war in Gaza, so much ink has been spilled wringing our hands over the situation in the Middle East, and the state of utter non-dialogue that pervades the global Jewish community on this topic, that I largely remained silent for lack of anything to contribute to the deluge. However, as someone who believes that a fix to the latter problem may well be the only way towards a solution to the former, I want to explore the issue from a different perspective.
I just finished reading Alastair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a dense but really important work of political and moral philosophy. There are many aspects of modern society which MacIntyre sees as leading directly to our present morally-deadlocked state, where we cannot productively talk about almost any issue of importance with any hope of making progress. However, there are three areas that receive special attention, and one of them bears directly on the issue of Jewish dialogue about Israel/Palestine.
That is the matter of “tradition” — the concept, for MacIntyre, of interacting in some way with where we came from, even if that interaction largely consists of rebellion. This ties directly into a second of MacIntyre’s three major characteristics of a virtuous society, that of “practice” — for MacIntyre, a practice (like gardening or chess) can only be properly understood historically. But to understand a specific practice historically necessitates gaining an understanding of the larger tradition(s) of which it is a part.
I therefore think that MacIntyre would agree that to have any meaningful conversation about Israel/Palestine today, we have to begin by charting a narrative history of what all of the given traditions involved in the conflict have inherited as their histories.
However, that is not all. While MacIntyre may be helpful in understanding the larger contexts in which such discussions must happen to be productive, what really stood out for me in After Virtue in this context is what he said traditions need in order to continue to exist:
“So when an institution — a university, say, or a farm, or a hospital — is the bearer of a tradition of practice or practices, its common life will be partly, but in a centrally important way, constituted by a continuous argument as to what a university is and ought to be or what good farming is or what good medicine is. Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict” (pg. 222, emphasis mine)
I hear this as such a deeply Jewish statement, that I almost expected a footnote citing the Talmud as an example of such a vital tradition. Judaism has prized, as part of the legacy of our tradition, the notion of such continuous argument. And yet, it is nowhere to be seen in our generation when speaking about the State of Israel, with the current exception being the Open Hillel movement.
Speaking about his experiences at the recent Open Hillel conference, Peter Beinart echoed MacIntyre when he said:
“The young American Jews at Open Hillel who are flirting with anti-Zionism are not anti-Semites. (Although, of course, some anti-Zionists are). They are merely doing what young people always do: Challenging settled assumptions based on a different life experience. They don’t need the American Jewish establishment’s legitimization; that establishment is illegitimate to them. What they need, in the best Jewish tradition, is to be argued with.”
So it’s not just that, because we pay lip service to the virtue of vital argumentation, we as a Jewish community should figure out how to speak productively about Israel/Palestine. It is simply because if we do not, we will cease to be a vital tradition, at least concerning the modern manifestation of Jewish political power.