Rosh Hashanah 5783 – Museum Judaism

What kind of Jew are you?

For a group of only about 15 million people, we have a bewildering array of ways to categorize Jews. There are denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, Conservadox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanistic, and two flavors of ultra-Orthodox that are effectively denominations, Chasidic and Misnagdim. 

Some Jews don’t want to be labeled or put into a category. They want to be “just Jews.” That’s OK, we do have a category for them too – “post-denominational.”

And then there are all the different ethnic categories – Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and those can get further broken down into subcategories such as Yekkes or Bukharan Jews.

Israeli Jews divide themselves into Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional), and Chiloni (secular).

Clearly if some categories are good, more categories must be better, so I’m going to throw out a couple of other ways of thinking about different types of Jews and Judaism.

Here’s a few more: Cultural Judaism, or what I like to think of as “Museum Judaism,” and “Living Judaism,” Judaism as a way to live your life in the 21st century.

Judaism is not just a religion – it’s also a people, or a tribe. 

That’s why many people who aren’t at all religious – in fact, who would describe themselves as atheists – can still identify with the Jewish people, and still feel Jewish. There’s no inherent contradiction between being Jewish and being a non-believer, which is something that sets Judaism apart from other faiths. I think “Southern Baptist atheist” would be seen as an oxymoron. But for a Jew, it’s not necessarily a contradiction. Woody Allen said, “To you, I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the loyal opposition.”

For many years – a couple of decades, actually – I was a Cultural Jew. I expressed my Judaism through my fondness for bagels and Woody Allen movies, and lighting candles at Chanukah and eating Chinese food on Christmas to emphasize the point especially at that time of year that I was not Christian.

But I have always viewed myself as a member of the Jewish tribe. We even use the expression, “MoT,” member of the tribe, as a way to say someone is Jewish. Being a member of a tribe doesn’t put any demands on a person. You’re born into it, much like you’re born with the color of your skin or eyes.

The tribal identification is what makes us feel proud when we see how disproportionately Jews are represented among Nobel prize winners, and the shame we feel when the exploits of a Jew like Bernie Madoff are reported in the press.

For many cultural Jews, a visit to a synagogue is like a trip to a museum. They don’t necessarily think Judaism has anything to say to them, and prayer is mysterious and inaccessible, but there’s something nostalgic about visiting a synagogue the way your parents or grandparents went to the synagogue. That’s why some people who are fervently egalitarian aren’t bothered by going to an Orthodox synagogue where women are excluded from the most important aspects of ritual life, and they don’t even count for a prayer quorum. That’s the way it was in Zeyde’s day, and if Judaism is primarily about nostalgia, you might not want it to change.

One of the things that kept me away from engaging with Judaism for a few decades is that my Jewish education stopped with my bar mitzvah. I assumed, mistakenly, that all religious Jews take the Torah as the direct word of God, as Maimonides described it 800 years ago:

We do not know exactly how it reached us, but only that it came to us through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation. He wrote down the events of the time and the commandments, for which reason he is called “Lawgiver.” There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like “The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim (Gen. 10:6), and one like “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4). All came from God, and all are the Torah of God, perfect, pure, holy and true. Anyone who says Moses wrote some passages on his own is regarded by our sages as an atheist or the worst kind of heretic, because he tries to distinguish essence from accident in the Torah.

If it comes directly from God, that would imply that all 613 commandments are to be obeyed with fear, trembling, and the utmost precision.

There are some people who feel religion is an either/or proposition. Either it all comes from God and you have to strictly obey everything, or it’s just stuff made up by people.

The early Zionists rejected the idea of a God who commands. Many of them were not only secular, they were profoundly anti-religious. The antisemites of the late 19th and early 20thcenturies thought that Jews were diseased creatures because of an innate genetic flaw. The early Zionists also thought that Jews were diseased, but they believed it was environmental, not genetic. They believed if Jews cast off religion, had a nation of their own, had an army and worked the land, they would be healed. The total rejection of religion by many early Zionists explains why even today many Israelis know less about Judaism than the average Canadian Jew.

But blindly accepting all 613 commandments as the direct word of God on the one hand, and rejecting religion entirely on the other hand, are not the only two options.

Historically, Judaism and halacha, Jewish law, have always evolved and adapted to changing times. The pace of evolution may have been slow, but it was ever present.

A story from the Talmud highlights how Judaism has always been a religion of interpretation:

When Moses went to heaven he found God sitting and affixing crowns to the letters [of the Torah]. Moses said: “Master of the Universe, who detains your hand?” [I.e., why do you take so long to add these crowns to the letters?] God said to him: “A man will come to be at the end of many generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name. He will interpret on each and every tittle, piles and piles of laws.” He said to him: “Master of the Universe: Show him to me.” God said to him: “Turn around.” He went and sat at the end of the eighth row, but he did not know what they were saying (didn’t understand the teaching). He was ill at ease. When he arrived to one point, his students said to him: “Teacher, how do you know it is so?” He replied: “It is halacha given to Moses at Mount Sinai.” And he was comforted.

If Rabbi Akiva was making his interpretations based on squiggles on the letters, and not just the actual words themselves, what was his interpretation really based on? Why did the Torah need interpretation?

Even though Rabbi Akiva lived nearly 2,000 years ago, that was already about 1,400 years after the time of Moses. The world had changed a lot in the intervening 1,000 years. And not only had the world changed, but our understanding of the world changed. There was moral evolution that occurred during those years, and if Judaism was going to remain relevant it also needed to evolve.

As an example, the principle of lex talionis, an eye for an eye, is found in the Torah:

If anyone maims another person, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

Maybe that approach to injuries made sense in the days of Moses, but by the time of the rabbis of the Mishnah over 1,000 years later, it no longer made sense. People had evolved sufficiently to see that injuring someone else wasn’t going to give you your eye back. Instead, the rabbis insisted, the verse is talking about monetary compensation. If you take someone’s eye out, you owe them an eye’s worth of compensation, which includes such things as compensation for pain, medical bills, lost work, embarrassment, and more.

The rabbis also got rid of that pesky commandment to put the rebellious son to death, and they effectively legislated capital punishment out of existence – all despite explicit commands in the Torah. The rabbis of 2,000 years ago were a bunch of radicals!

The evolution of Judaism was not limited to matters of Jewish law. Theology also evolved, occasionally very dramatically.

We now take it for granted that God has no body, that God is incorporeal. But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, people accepted the verses in the Torah that talked about “God’s outstretched arm,” or “God’s mighty hand” as referring to actual physical attributes of God.

One medieval rabbi, Isaiah ben Elijah of Trani, wrote about scholars who believed God was corporeal. He said they did not believe God was flesh and blood, but rather was made of some other ethereal substance in gigantic human form.

Maimonides (Rambam), who lived in the 12th century, is the rabbi who set the stage for the universal acceptance of God as incorporeal. He was heavily influenced by the ideas of Aristotle, which he read in Arabic translation, as he was living in Moorish Spain. Maimonides wrote,

Thus supposing the Creator to be corporeal and material would force a conclusion that He is finite, for, it is impossible to imagine a body which does not end in dissolution; but our God, blessed is His Name! beholding that His power is infinite and uninterrupted, for lo, the universal sphere continues to revolve forever. His power is positively not a physical power.

But not everyone agreed with Rambam. It took several centuries before the idea of an incorporeal God was more or less universally accepted in the Jewish world.

If we are following what’s traditional in Judaism, we evolve.

So how did Judaism for so many people become frozen in time, like an insect from millions of years ago trapped in amber, perfectly preserved, but not evolving?

The answer, ironically, is it was a response to modernity.

And what’s more it’s rabbis, who should have known better, who tried to put Judaism into the deep freeze.

Historically, even though Judaism evolved, it evolved at a stately pace. Changes, both halachically and theologically, took place over centuries. There was change and evolution, but it was gradual.

All that changed starting in the late 18th century with the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, when Jews in Western Europe started to be freed from the ghetto, were able to integrate into secular society and get a university education. Jews started assimilating in droves, leaving Judaism behind, sometimes, as with Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn’s infamous grandchild Felix, composer of the Wedding March, even converting to Christianity for the social benefits that went with it. That’s why you’ll never hear the Wedding March played at a Jewish wedding. You won’t hear “Here Comes the Bride” either, because it was composed by notorious antisemite Richard Wagner.

In response to the terrifying rate of assimilation, some rabbis decided that instead of having people abandon Judaism for modernity, what should be done is to modernize Judaism, so people would not have to choose between being Jewish and being modern. They started copying their Christian neighbors, even moving the main worship service to Sunday, with a debate over whether they should use the weekday or Shabbat liturgy. In essence, they abandoned halacha, which had always been the glue that kept the Jewish people together as a community. This was the start of the Reform movement.

Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism as separate streams both started in the mid 19th century as a response to Reform Judaism, which they felt went too far.

The leading Orthodox rabbis of the day felt the only way to fight these unprecedented changes was to dig in their heels and resist all change. The Chatam Sofer, a leading rabbi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early 19th century famously declared, chadash assur min haTorah, innovation is forbidden by the Torah. The rabbi was intentionally misusing a quote from the Mishnah, where what it is talking about is new fruit from a tree less than three years old.

The Orthodox world adopted a “circle the wagons” mentality and froze Judaism in amber, and not just halacha, but theology and customs as well – that’s why Haredi Jews continue to dress as if they were in 19th century Poland. The Jews in 19th century Poland were NOT dressing the way their ancestors dressed in the 17th century, because change had not yet been banned.

I’ll never forget one time I was walking in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem with one my then young daughters, and she asked why they dressed that way. I explained they felt they were carrying on minhag avoteinu, the customs of their ancestors. Her reply was, “But they are living in Israel now. If they want to follow the custom of their ancestors, shouldn’t they be dressed the way Abraham would have dressed, like Bedouins?” I had to admit, she had a good point.

When the Chatam Sofer said “innovation is banned by the Torah,” that was, in fact, an innovation, because up until that time no one held that innovation is forbidden.

Since ultra-Orthodox Judaism was frozen in time a few centuries ago, it has a veneer of “authenticity,” which makes it attractive to people in the modern world who want to go on a nostalgia trip and see the Judaism that their grandparents followed, or what they envision, often inaccurately, as the Judaism their grandparents followed, even if it does not really have anything to say to them about the world they live in today. This partly explains the popularity of Chabad even among people who do not in any way believe the things that Chabad rabbis believe. Chabad rabbis are usually also very friendly, and like to share a l’chaim.

Chadash assur min haTorah means that Judaism would be stuck with a painful legacy and no way to get past it. According to the Talmud, women were not allowed to serve as witnesses because they were considered mentally deficient and not reliable. Even if you now believe that women are certainly the intellectual equals of men – and statistically there is no significant identifiable difference in the average IQ of men versus women – you can’t change the rules if you believe innovation is forbidden by the Torah. 

But how could Judaism be relevant to life in the 21st century if it cannot evolve as we evolve?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Rav Kook), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, was a radical in the Orthodox world. He even said the concept of evolution of the species accorded perfectly with the teachings of Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism, which teaches that we should grow and evolve.

The focus on halakha as a defense against assimilation did grave damage to the true priorities of Judaism. The Hebrew prophets teach us that moral sensitivity if more important than ritual perfection. The prophet Hosea taught us, כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח “For it is kindness I desire (says God), not sacrifice.” 

On Yom Kippur morning, when we’re sitting there feeling self-righteous for fasting, we read a Haftorah from Isaiah that tells us “Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free.” The prophet is not telling us we shouldn’t fast; but he is telling us our fast doesn’t mean anything if we are not doing the right thing morally.

Banning innovation to prevent assimilation only works if you hermetically seal your community off from the outside world, and even then there will be “leaks” as some people will find their way to the outside world.

But there are alternatives to rejecting religion entirely on the one hand, or living a freeze-dried version: Judaism can, and should, be a vibrant living tradition, that can provide relevant guidance for life in the 21st century.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel phrased it nicely:

Living conditions, changes in values, and technical and scientific discoveries are creating, generation after generation, new questions and problems that demand solutions. We cannot avert our eyes from these questions and say, ‘Anything new is forbidden on the authority of the Torah.’

That sounds like something a Conservative rabbi would say. That’s something I would definitely say. Yet the author was not a Conservative rabbi – he was the Sefardi Chief Rabbi in Palestine from 1939 to 1945! 

Conservative Judaism has no monopoly on authenticity. In the Orthodox world, there are those who reject the teaching that innovation is forbidden. There are growing numbers of Orthodox rabbis finding ways to innovate, including ordaining women as rabbis, as at the Maharat seminary, and allowing women to take on more ritual roles, and finding creative solutions to the agunah problem. Many in the Reform world are reclaiming tradition, and emphasizing the prophetic tradition, and focusing on tikkun olam, making the world a better place, as a religious path.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Levi Lauer, said, “I don’t care what kind of Judaism you practice as long as you take it seriously. If you’re a Reform Jew, go out and engage in social justice if that’s your path.”

I love studying Talmud because it quickly becomes obvious that while the times have changed, human nature has not changed that much. The Jewish tradition has had some of its greatest minds wrestling with the great issues for thousands of years. 

As we are here on the start of a New Year, I encourage you to see Judaism for what it is, a vital, living tradition, with relevant guidance for life today, and not just as a nice museum to visit when feeling nostalgic. Take some classes, read some books, you’ll find that the Jewish tradition can help you be the best possible version of yourself.

L’shanah tovah!

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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