I received this text message last week…
“It’s unreal! There are more Jews at the opening of the new Coles Elsternwick than at Kol Nidre!”
The congregant who sent it reassured me by adding that he could vouch for its accuracy noting, ‘I know, I was at both!’Having been at only one of them, I made a note to self: Go to shul next year for the Kol Nidre service!
I have subsequently visited the new Coles supermarket and it is impressive with its shmik look, wide and airy aisles and stunning displays. Its kosher range is stunning and attractive, but since Coles aren’t paying me or sponsoring the shul for this free advertising I’m going to focus on the interesting binary it introduces. I’m referring to the duality of Jewish identity especially our contemporary perception of what constitutes Jewishness. Are we shaped and defined by our cultural or spiritual connectedness? What takes primacy –chicken soup or soup for the soul?
Of course, if you’re religious it’s all about your spiritual identity, your study of Torah, your adherence to mitzvot (laws and customs), your attendance of shul, the unmissability of a Kol Nidre service. But for many, if not most Jews, it’s the cultural connection that really matters. It’s about the Friday night family dinner, rather than the Friday night service at shul, it’s about the contemporary relevance of the seder rather than the punctilious observance of the Halachik requirements of the evening. It’s about Tikkun Olam –social justice rather than kashrut, being a mensch rather than a devout maven.
The problem with binaries is they oversimplify complex issues, reduce the width of knowledge, the depth of human experience. Being Jewish in the twenty first century is challenging and complicated. We are a culture and a religion, a nation and a land, an ethnicity and an ethos. We are particularists and globalists, clannish and universal. Jewishness is hard to quantify precisely because it’s an amalgam of all of these features and more, rather than either or. Mordechai Kaplan got close to a definition when he coined the phrase that Judaism is a religious civilisation.
Looking at the Book of Genesis and the selection of Abraham as the first Jew, the different strands of Jewish identity become evident. Abraham is selected together with Sarah because they are people of chesed; the calling card of this first covenantal couple is compassion. They are models of hospitality, caring and reaching out; they “fashion souls” (Genesis 12:5). God says of Abraham: “For I have loved him because he instructs his children… to keep the ways of God, doing charity and justice” (Genesis 18:19). In other words, fundamental to Jewish identity are the principles of justice and tzedakah.
Secondly, intrinsic to identity is a sense of history and imparting this to the next generation (“instructs his household and children”). Education is axiomatic.
Thirdly, it’s about being connected to a particular piece of land – Israel. “Leave your country… and go to the land I will show you”.
Fourthly, it’s about reaching out to the world around you – the symbol of Abraham and Sarah is an open tent. Abraham is the father of civilisation and through him all the nations of the world will be blessed. Till today Abraham remains father to billions of Christians and Muslims…
Abraham and Sarah are the founders of Judaism and the Jewish family – they rear it, respect it, cherish and protect it. They teach and educate about Jewish values, about a Jewish homeland, about Jewish continuity. They are also globalists caring about the society around them, reaching out, sharing and living with others. They care about the environment around them.
They are exemplars of Jewish religiosity – we end the first bracha of every basic prayer (the Amidah) with the recognition of the power of Abraham, “Magen Avraham . They are promoters of a global awareness and consciousness. They shop at Coles ; well at least they know that food and Jewishness go together -look at Chapter 18 of Genesis. They pray at the stairway to heaven. They combine culture and religion.
They are at peace with themselves, at one with the universe. They are the quintessential definers of Jewish identity.