I spent Thanksgiving in my home state of Minnesota, and the meal we prepared would pass muster as an almost quintessentially authentic Midwestern American Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, dressing (not stuffing), green beans, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and my Norwegian grandmother’s (z”l) lefse, for whose annual preparation I’ve taken responsibility in my generation. That being said, a careful observer would notice slight deviations from our neighbors’ traditions: the giblet-free dressing my mother has been preparing for me since I became a vegetarian at age 13, and the noodle kugel my father’s Brooklyn-born Jewish mother introduced into the meal during his childhood. (I heard echoes of this mix of hewing to and diverging from tradition as I was listening to a series of Minnesota Public Radio interviews compiled by Riham Feshir. Her vignettes are lovely and well worth the short listen.)
All of this creativity around the edges of tradition and change got me thinking about authenticity, and especially about how we wrestle with boundary-defining questions in the Jewish community. What makes something Jewish? And when and how do practices once not Jewish make their way into the core of Judaism?
On the one hand, Jewish tradition seems to offer a rather stark admonition against the incorporation of external influences into Jewish practice. In Leviticus 18:3-4, God commands that “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I the LORD am your God.” In Deuteronomy 13:1, a similar note is struck. God enjoins the Israelites to “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it,” itself a reiteration of God’s injunction in Deuteronomy 4:2 that “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you.”
On the other hand, this resistance to incorporating foreign elements belies the inarguable reality that authentic Judaism, from the beginning, has been an exercise in pastiche. What could be more authentically or recognizably Jewish than breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding? Yet the practice derives from ancient pagan rituals designed to protect the bride and groom from demons who are “jealous of human happiness and therefore seek to spoil it.” Despite vigorous efforts by the rabbis to uproot the practice from Jewish weddings, their failure led to an alternative strategy of incorporation, re-interpretation (as a commemoration of the destruction of the Temple) and embrace as authentically Jewish. How about chassidut? It turns out that many of the central elements of Chassidic tradition—ecstatic dance, niggunim, parable-based homilies, the centrality of the rebbe—are borrowed and adapted from Sufism.
As Beth Berkowitz writes in her excellent book Defining Jewish Difference, “The very concept of culture as a coherent entity … has come under increasingly intense scrutiny, with ever-growing emphasis on the ways that cultures … are products of and subject to hybridity and fluidity, even when they often claim for themselves solidity and stability.” In the context of contemporary Judaism, as Jon Levisohn writes, “What we see around us, among contemporary Jews, is just what the historians of Judaism see, only more so: evolution, diversity, adaptation, innovation, and assimilation of external influences in the service of cultural vitality. We cannot distinguish essence from ephemera, or tenacious adherence from assimilation…”
In the same vein, Andy Ricker, the esteemed chef and restauranteur behind the mini-empire of Pok Pok Thai restaurants, writes:
People often praise the food we serve at Pok Pok and my other restaurants as “authentic.” I’m flattered, but that word and its cousin in compliment, “traditional,” are banished from my restaurants. The words imply an absolute cuisine, that there is a one true Thai food out there, somewhere….
Both terms are nonsensical designations—as if traditions are the same everywhere, as if they don’t change, as if culinary ones don’t evolve with particular speed. After all, some of the ingredients, techniques and dishes we most closely associate with the food of Thailand are in fact relatively new to the cuisine….
Perhaps nothing defines Thai food for us Americans like the heat the chile provides. But the chile came to Thailand with Portuguese traders by way of the New World somewhere around the 16th century. That means the Thai people had been cooking for millennia before its arrival, employing the heat of peppercorns, galangal and other sharply flavored herbs and spices.
If traditions are always changing, holding onto some elements while adapting and incorporating others, I believe that means that many different versions of Judaism can be authentic. In fact, wrestling with what is authentically Jewish might be the most Jewish task of all. When we take our responsibility seriously, we step into the arena in which our responsibilities to the past and our responsibilities to the future are negotiated.
The texts in Leviticus and Deuteronomy suggest a deep concern with the survival of Jewish tradition, a fear of change and dissolution, a desire to preserve and maintain our culture intact despite the pressures and pulls of history. This perspective—I’ll call it the preservationist impulse—represents one pole in the dynamic tension of Judaism.
There’s an entire infrastructure within Jewish tradition that supports this preservationist impulse. The halakhic process itself is intensely conservative. Halakhic change happens over generations and is almost always couched in terms of interpretation rather than innovation. The holidays constantly reinforce a notion of time that is cyclical instead of linear—there is nothing new under the sun.
Pulling us in the opposite direction from the conservative, preservationist impulse is a tradition that is deeply rooted in progress—I’ll call it the adaptive impulse—that seeks to make Judaism ever more relevant to the circumstances of the Jewish people and the world we inhabit. This is the impulse that compels some of us to yearn for the rebuilding of the Temple and others of us to declare resoundingly our commitment to inclusivity of women and Jews too often on the margins of the Jewish community. It’s the teleological impetus that inspired the founding of the State of Israel and infuses our prayers for the coming of the Messiah.
It is in the dynamic tension between these two impulses that the Jewish people survive and thrive. If we were focused only on preserving our tradition, we would soon become a people trapped in time. (Think of what happens to country music when it rejects Lil Nas X’s ”Old Town Road” for not being “country” enough.) And if we looked only forward, we would rapidly become untethered from the traditions that give us unity and meaning.
None of us believes that the written Torah was the be-all-and-end-all of Jewish life. None of us would abdicate the right and responsibility to evolve. We are all responsible for the re-imagining, re-creation, and re-interpretation of Torah. And I would suggest that none of us should be willing to walk away from the accumulated text, tradition, and history that together make up today’s Judaism(s).
Some of us find ourselves drawn more to the preservationist impulse and seek to be of good use by maintaining our traditions and infusing them with power and resilience. And some of us hear the adaptive call more clearly and seek ways to reimagine our role in history and the world.
We all stood together at Sinai. It is only through the weaving together of our different perspectives and understandings that the fabric of Jewish civilization remains vibrant and relevant. We must work to move past the differences among us and instead find strength in them.