On September 17th, 1999, The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism decided to print a letter from Chaim Shalom concerning an article published in the movement’s scholarly magazine, The United Synagogue Review. By permission of the author, I place for your reference a further publishing of that important letter. It is a direct response to the issue of Jewish religious authority in the modern age of global communications and the successful Zionist reestablishment of the State of Israel.
To Lois Goldrich, Editor
United Synagogue Review
8 Elul 5759
Dear Editor:
In the essay by Dr. Joel Roth, “For the Sake of Heaven Two Views on the Nature of Jewish Belief”, the assumption is made that for the last 1500-2000 years only one form of normative Judaism has existed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, at least two forms of normative Judaism have existed side by side without any knowledge of each other. The Ethiopian Jewish community has exited and flourished with its own unique and normative Jewish belief system. Until a very short time ago, they had been completely unaware of Ashkenazi or Sephardi halakhah. Isn’t this uncontested historic fact the will of G-d?
If the belief that G-d’s will in history is the central tenet of Judaism (the first commandment), then the idea that halakhah must be G-d’s will is fallacious. For unlike Torah, halakhah was never given to the entire nation. In fact, the Ethiopian Jewish community (the tribe of Dan) has its own oral law quite separate and distinct from pharisaic/rabbinic tradition. Certainly the L-rd could not have forgotten to inform His African tribe of something of as much magnitude as His very own will.
On the other hand, Dr. Neil Gillman’s thesis of anthropomorphism is more akin to Ethiopian Jewish interpretation. The idea that G-d dictated Torah as direct verbal revelation and Moses then proceeded to write down each word verbatim is foreign to Ethiopian tradition. According to Ethiopian Jewish scholars, the revelation of Moses was transmitted to the Jewish nation by the word of mouth. For many centuries, Torah was distinctly an oral phenomenon. Generations taught the Law to succeeding generations without recourse to a written intermediary. In conformity with scientific biblical scholarship, the Ethiopian Jewish tradition teaches that Torah wasn’t written on scroll until many centuries after its initial gift.
If G-d wills two normative Judaism’s, then He must in the future will their reconciliation. Hopefully, with the coming of Messiah, the Sanhedrin will be restored and one truly normative Judaism will reign. Until such time of universal Torah interpretation, the modern Jew must confront the historical fact that authority within Judaism does not reside with a specific oral tradition, nor is it owned by any particular group of rabbis. Make no mistake, Torah and Revelation are still our common denominator. But in this new era, with the miraculous reconstruction of the third Jewish commonwealth, national religious authority rests firmly and solely in the very capable hands of the Almighty. In Unity and Peace — Chaim Shalom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
The Chaim Shalom letter is a direct assault on the erroneous claim that any particular group holds a monopoly on what counts as Jewish law. G-d is the final arbiter of right and wrong. This was as true in biblical times as it is today. Even King David had his prophet Nathan to warn him. The same is true for all the kings of ancient Israel, and the same is true now. The Orthodox tradition is just what it says it is — tradition. The oral law, as shown through history, has more than one communal author and therefore is not universal. The Orthodox rabbis of the modern State of Israel, including the rabbinate itself, can offer no counter-argument to unbalance the weight of this history. The Ethiopian Jewish tradition exists, and it can’t be immersed away (like in a mikvah) as inauthentic or unjustified in the light of this Divine historical will. At least the tribe of Dan understands who it is. The same cannot be said for the vast majority of the Jewish people.
The secular Zionist State of Israel is also Divine will. Its laws and its Supreme Court must presently decide the nature and construction of judicial precedent. Whether the Orthodox rabbis like it or not, their authority in matters of marriage, divorce, conversion and Jewish patrimony are indeed secondary to the authority of state institutions. Something as historically important as the third Jewish Commonwealth cannot be seriously considered to be outside the purview of G-d. Zionism’s challenge to rabbinical authority was successful within history. With the ingathering of the Ethiopian exile, another layer of challenge — a serious theological challenge — has now weakened the Orthodox fortress. The claim of exclusive Divine authority within any Jewish institution remains in abeyance until such time as the full scope of G-d’s plan becomes exposed through His will.
As a Liberal religious Zionist, I believe that the redemptive nature of the revival of the Jewish state is real. The process of redemption has indeed begun. How long this process takes, and exactly how it is to be fulfilled, is unknown. But what is known is that both within the process itself, and when it is fully completed, a new era of Jewish religious authority will be ushered in. That process, to undo rabbinical authority and replace it with the Sanhedrin, has already begun. Even though the State of Israel continues to bestow power on traditional rabbinical authority, the mere fact that the Jewish state is doing the conferring is a revolution in and of itself. Religious Zionists are revolutionaries. Liberal religious Zionists are libertarian revolutionaries who claim only to represent their religious communities, and certainly not the entirety of the Jewish people. We would like the State of Israel to recognize our community, but that is a matter of politics, not theology. We too await the Messianic Age for answers, but in the meantime we respect the authority of the laws of the secular state.
So would the state’s recognition of Liberal Judaism hasten the Divine redemptive process by undoing the bonds of the non-universal written/oral tradition? — Yes! By empowering local religious communal authority, allowing many flowers to bloom, the vast divisions within the modern Jewish people will finally be broken. Judaism will become a beautiful garden, and the great visions of Rav Kook and Ahad Ha`am will become fulfilled. We are already separate communities, as many hundreds of thousands of supposed Orthodox citizens of the state don’t even recognize the state. Why should they have monopoly control of Jewish religious life? Every good farmer knows that in the final analysis, monoculture is destructive of soil fertility. And soil fertility (the resting of the land) plays a prominent role in Torah. Maybe it’s time we rest the rabbinate.
Through multiple communal infusion, the individual Jew through his or her own conscience will be empowered to pursue the Divine imperative as he or she sees fit. Whether it be tikkun olam, traditional halakha or Ethiopian practice, whether it be through patriarchy or matriarchy, it will be the job of the individual Jew to find his or her own community. Or not find one at all. In this new era, who is to say what is authentic and what is not? In the final analysis, only the individual can decide his or her relationship to Torah and G-d. And why can’t Liberal Jews (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Ecological and Feminist — all the tribes) become recognized religious Zionists? The redemptive process requires a broad unity within a peaceful co-existence of all the Jewish people.
The present system of state-approved religious domination has run its historical course and simply is not working. Religious authority cannot be a permanent monopoly. Not in the modern age. It must be infused with new blood and new ideas. The same is true for religious Zionism. As a redemptive movement, it must begin to see (even in these dark hours of war and hatred) that there are other visions — messianic visions, visions of peace and justice, visions of a world in balance and without want. A new historical Judaism alive with prospect.
As a partner with Islam, our spiritual strength will become magnified — brother to brother and sister to sister in a world to be redeemed, and in a Holy Land at peace. I’m not talking about something as facile as “land for peace”, but a deeper theological bond. Not a false sense of irresponsible idealism, but a confident inspiration that G-d’s promise is real and that the “secular” State of Israel will survive and flourish against all odds. A belief that even in our mutual material hell (of war and hatred), both peoples surrounded by the perception of enemies and with little realistic hope for change — change will come. It already has. With the birth of Israel and the glorious reunion with the Ethiopian Jews, the promise of a Divinely-infused future has already begun.