It is often said that Judaism is an unbreakable chain that must be preserved and guarded through the ages. If we look at the story of the Jewish people more carefully, surviving and thriving are also about change, reform, and even revolution.
Guardians of Jewish identity tend to talk about the immutable chain of tradition, about a Jewish experience that has been constant, unswerving, and monolithic from ancient times up until today. These guardians of heritage and tradition include the bevy of ministers and junior ministers in the current Israeli government whose titles proclaim their positions as Jewish identity czars. The proliferation of titles and offices suggests confusion and bureaucratic duplication and recalls George Orwell’s doublethink and newspeak. It seems that many of these ministers, junior ministers, and parliament members have little confidence in the resilience of thousands of years of the Jewish experience. Around every corner, they see dissolution and disaster, disintegration, and disloyalty. They alone can save the Jewish people. Their inflated self-confidence is rooted in maintaining the fear that the weakness of the Jews will bring about our own demise. Such a catastrophic reading of the Jewish experience may serve those who believe that they are the ‘surviving remnant.’
However, it erects fences of exclusion and boundaries of disapproval. This kind of identity discourse can never be about peoplehood because to become inclusive would threaten the hegemony and the publicly funded budgets that the Guardians of Jewish identity have established for themselves. Particularly considering current Israeli realities, a more inclusive and historically accurate notion of Jewish peoplehood would threaten the political positions, economic resources, and substantial state support that the Guardians of Jewish identity have amassed for themselves. Their privilege – including their non-participation in both equitable military and civilian national service as compared to other Jewish Israelis – depends on them maintaining the argument that their way of life is the authentic Judaism, and that other Israelis are lost souls.
Our link to the past is a kind of cultural scavenger hunt. There are broad strokes that we hold as common to all, in all places and times. However, when examined more carefully, even assumed ties that bind are seldom iron bound, but rather living, breathing creatures that change and evolve.
A prosaic example can be related to the clothing worn by the ultra-orthodox sects known as Hassidim (The Righteous). A popular Jewish revival movement born in 18th century Eastern Europe, the Hassidim promoted a mystical enthusiasm, and championed that the path to God is open to all, not only the scholarly elite. Their clothing – many times marked by outsiders to their community as ‘authentic’ Jewish dress is based on the historic dress of the Polish and Ukrainian nobility during the early modern period. No one can make a serious claim that Moses or Akiva dressed in this fashion. A movement that began as a reform of Judaism is today a bastion of conservatism, steadfast in its attempt to present itself as authentic, genuine, and timeless.
If one idea can be assumed to define Judaism – it is the unflinching commitment to monotheism. The best-known Jewish prayer – The Shma – is Judaism’s proclamation of faith reflecting the absolute singularity of the divine. The vital importance of the monotheistic idea in Judaism was bolstered by stories of Jewish martyrs dying with the Shma on their lips from the ten sages executed by the Roman occupation during the Bar Kochba Revolt to examples from the Shoah.
However, other Jewish prayers seem to suggest otherwise. ‘Who is like you Lord among the Gods?’ The Maccabees of the Hanukah story – guerillas for Jewish freedom – are said to have charged into battle with ‘Mi K’mocha’ as their war cry. And their very name may be an acronym of Who (Mi) is like you Lord (K’Mocha) among the Gods (B’Elim).
It is possible to read this prayer and early Judaism as affirming the worship of a single, supreme god, but not necessarily denying the existence of other deities. Scholars from Julius Wellhausen to Mark S. Smith have argued the First Temple Judaism can most accurately be described as monolatry; the belief in the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity. Examples from the archeological record seem to support this line of argument. Inscriptions from Kuntillat Arjud mention the female deity ‘Asherah’ linked to a common name for the God of Israel – ‘Yahweh’. It maybe that the Asherah was Yahweh’s partner – a female and a male deity ruling alongside each other. The Bible itself recounts a variety of occasions where the worship of deities other than Yahweh took place among the people of Israel, and even among Kings of Judah and Israel. The Biblical text, codified during the Second Temple period, condemns idolatry. However, the Biblical account does not deny that Israel practiced idolatry from the Golden Calf to the child sacrifices of Manasseh. The idea of monotheism as understood today has changed radically from ancient times.
And finally, and most importantly for contemporary Jewy, Zionism – the most far-reaching revolution in modern Jewish life – also includes a measure of continuity. The return to the Land of Israel, to Hebrew, and to an ethnic-national definition of Jewishness are all significant measures of continuity from Jewish historical memory. However, the rejection of Jewish political passivity and the emphasis on human collective agency was fundamental to the Zionism movement’s self-understanding of the place of the Jew in the world and to the Zionist movement’s success leading to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Zionism’s success demanded that the Jewish people violate the rabbinic ‘three oaths’ and radically reinterpret a messianic expectation that reduced the Jewish people to being a punching bag among the nations.
All throughout the ages, Jews struggled between continuity and change, between strengthening the links to the past and adapting to meet the needs of their time and place. At that level, there is nothing unusual. Historically, the Jews, the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Irish all wrestle with versions of the past considering their presents and weave their narratives accordingly. I revel in tracing those connections and adaptations, in continuing to learn. To my mind, to be an active participant in the Jewish experience means also being an active learner. Ignorance surrenders Jewishness and Judaism to the guardians of identity, who are always ready to declare who among us is within the fold and who among us is beyond the fence. As Leon Wieseltier celebrates in his ‘Against Identity,’ “For it is an axiom of that identity that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew; but the study of history showed that this axiom was a necessary fiction. We were not only one thing, we were also many things.”
In a recent visit at ANU – the Museum of the Jewish People – I met a series of larger-than-life panels displaying the personal stories and experiences of a variety of contemporary Jews – secular and observant, men and women, straight and gay, from Israel and from around the world. Each one shares their Jewish story and journey. Although I may not agree with each one of the conclusions and positions presented by the respective speakers, I am willing to listen, and learn, and to celebrate what we share and where we differ. Like all great civilizations that span centuries and sites; the beauty of Jewishness and Judaism is the mosaic that comes together with each new block added to the whole. ANU’s message, at least in my eyes, is both a necessary subversion of fundamentalist Jewish claims and a crucial invitation that each member of the Jewish people need choose how to meet, understand, and contribute to the present and future of that people.
Rather than celebrating the cold iron bands of tradition, I prefer the Torah metaphor of ‘a tree of life.’ The tree grows from shared roots. New roots will encourage new branches. Fruit will fall and seeds will sprout saplings. A tree will become a flourishing grove. Survival and thriving are about the organic equilibrium between each living part of the tree, about deep roots, and new growth. Do not trust guardians. Become gardeners. “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root below and bear fruit above.” (Isaiah 37:31)