I often wonder how all the Jewish customs, and religious rituals, which I completely and wholeheartedly participate in, are perceived from the perspective of an outsider. I frequently ask myself how I would explain these strange customs and rituals to non-Jews. I also wonder how I would explain Judaism’s highly unusual ideology (its theology, as some people would define it). And in particular, I wonder how I would explain its constant emphasis on Halachic minutiae and seeming trivialities; for example, how many grams of matzah one needs to eat on Pesach night, or whether a mezuzah or Sefer Torah are still kosher if one letter is partially missing.
Such concepts are totally foreign to the non-Jewish world. In fact, these customs look completely absurd. Indeed, they are absurd when one views them from an alien non-Jewish perspective. Nevertheless, I am still able to explain them to a non-Jew (which really means to myself) by translating them into a language that the non-Jew could understand. I will write more about this at a later occasion.
I think this may be due to my non-Jewish background, which provides me with a mental language to explain these concepts to outsiders. I can penetrate the non-Jewish mind, fully understand its problems with Judaism and I can then attempt to overcome this gap by recasting Judaism into a language that an outsider can appreciate without losing my Jewish identity in the process. It is the result of two worlds living side by side which create a kind of third personality within my being.
This is also the reason why I can relate very well to non-religious, Reform, and Conservative Jews. I can see their point of view, sometimes I can even read their minds and still disagree with their ideologies. On the other hand, I also appreciate many of the insights advanced by non-Orthodox and secular thinkers, and believe that these ideas—when properly adapted—can enhance Orthodox Judaism. Hence, I will quote these ideas in my lectures, something which is not always appreciated by mainstream orthodox Jews.
Yeshivat Ponevitch, Spinoza and Richard Dawkins
In an opposite vein, I feel entirely at home in the famous ultra-orthodox Yeshivot such as the Ponevitch Yehiva in Bnei Brak, and can fully participate in a Talmudic debate as a member of the “Yeshiva chevre” as if I were born and raised in this Yiddish speaking world. Paradoxically enough, a moment later, I can find myself reading Spinoza’s Ethics and his pantheistic—possibly even atheistic—philosophy, or Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. In all these instances, I can transform their observations and “convert” them to Judaism as Rosenzweig demands.
This actually gives me a thrill, and helps me appreciate Judaism even more. I strongly feel that this is my mission in life and don’t want to miss out on it. Had I not had these qualities and experiences, it is very possible that I would have lost out and my Judaism would have been all the poorer for it. Whether this is due to my non-Jewish background, I cannot say for sure, but it may have something to do with the non-Jewish blood (of my maternal ancestors) coursing through my veins, which I need to “transfuse” back into Judaism.
My Parents Mixed Marriage for Higher Purposes and Rabbi Mordechai Joseph of Izbica
Let me add another dimension that I hope is not too shocking to my readers: despite my very strong opposition to mixed-marriages, I paradoxically feel that the marriage of my parents, while forbidden by Jewish Law, was “min haShamayim” (guided by Heaven), to enable me to fulfill my mission as I described above. This may sound very arrogant but it actually makes me tremble and feel highly uncomfortable. Can I know this for sure? And if this is indeed the case, am I living up to my duty? The question gives me sleepless nights.
It reminds me of a Talmudic observation that the adulterous relationship between Yehudah and Tamar (Bereshit, chapter 38) was preordained by God to set in motion the Davidic line and “shalshelet hamashiach” (the messianic dynasty), which also includes Mashiach’s capacity to redeem the non Jewish world (SeeTalmud Bavli, Sota 10b; Makot 23b; See also Rav Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin in Sefer Poked Akarim, chapter 5).
Let nobody think for a moment that I’m comparing my parents to Yehudah and Tamar or that I harbor any messianic pretensions about myself (far from it!). I do believe, however, that the phenomenon the Talmud describes may be realized in different ways and come to pass in each generation. Again, this is pure speculation, but I cannot help thinking about it when I contemplate my background and mission. In this way, I am perhaps able to fulfill in small measure Rosenzweig’s demand “to bring the maximum of what is alien back to Judaism.”
This reminds me of the very unusual remarks of the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Joseph Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854), author of the work Mei HaShiloach. He discusses the case of Zimri ben Salu, who had forbidden intercourse with a Midianite woman by the name of Kozbi bat Tzur, whereupon they were both summarily killed by Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest (Bamidbar, chapter 25). In his comment, Rabbi Mordechai Joseph argues that sometimes God orchestrates a forbidden relationship for higher purposes and this was also the case with Kozbi and Zimri (See Mei Hashiloach, Vol 1.s.v Vayar Pinchas, Bne Berak, 5767, page 165). At a later stage, I will discuss the Mei HaShiloach’s philosophy of commitment to Halacha and the occasional need to violate it, and I’ll reflect on how this affects me personally.
With thanks to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind and Yael Shahar for their editorial comments.
Advice to the Reader: To get a better understanding of the nature and intention of this autobiography, I suggest that the reader should, at the very least, read through the two-part introduction to this series (Part 1 and Part 2).