by Robert Kauffman
What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.
It's early Friday evening near sundown in south-central Jerusalem. A group of us are gaily walking the 3-4 blocks to the synagogue in anticipation of the Sabbath. As we enter the synagogue grounds, many families, and some clusters of young people chatter excitedly, but quietly. All heads are covered by hat, yarmulke or scarf, all male shoulders wrapped in a tallit. As we pour into the main hall, we systematically sort ourselves by sex, the men remaining on the main floor, the women filing upstairs to the screened balconies. A cantor begins to intone in melodious Hebrew. At conspicuous intervals, the lower hall explodes into davening (an offering of prayer); men rock back and forth creating a wondrous commotion. It's sometimes quiet and gentle, it sometimes expresses great passion, but always there is a precise individual expression. All together an Orthodox Jewish community welcomes the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week.
Almost half a world away, in Dayton, Ohio, a Reform community prepares to usher one of its boys into manhood. This Saturday morning is the day of his Bar Mitzvah (literally, “a responsible man”), the Sabbath closest to his 13th birthday. He has spent months under the tutelage of his rabbi so that he might lead the synagogue in prayer, chanting in Hebrew. Now the tension builds, a hush falls, as hundreds of well-dressed relatives, friends and well-wishers anticipate his performance. At the critical moments, cameras flash and videos hum as people move about for better vantage. As difficult pronunciations flow smoothly from the boy's lips, short gasps of relief escape from many in the hall, feeling his ordeal. Yet no matter how well he may have represented the Hebrew text, this event will have been a great success. The service has been sandwiched between lavish feasts, carefree dancing, and the giving of generous gifts. This has been a cardinal community event, placing the boy squarely in the spotlight for all to see -- and acknowledge. As much for the family as the boy, this will have been a most significant transition.
As one would expect in a religion more than 4000 years old , these two examples represent just the smallest part of what it means to be an “observing” Jew in the modern world. How great the differences in style and the interpretation of traditional forms, and yet how much there is in common as well. Officially, Judaism has four major divisions. The Orthodox are those who look to the Torah and Bible for fundamental guidance, observing over 600 rules covering the entire breadth of Jewish life. Strict adherence to the Law has often led to a considerable degree of separation from the non-Jewish society which surrounds Orthodox communities. (The Orthodoxy has consequently been established as the state religion of Israel.) The Reform movement began in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe, and soon spread to the United States. Inspired by the Enlightenment, it sought to make the religious life more relevant to the modern world. Particularly in the United States, Reform Jews have become well assimilated into the American society but still carry Israel, and all it stands for, deeply in their hearts. In between these two extremes, lie the Conservative movement and an early 20th century spin-off, Reconstructionism. In the United States, over 80 % of observant Jews are either Conservative or Reform (see What is a Jew?, Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer, 1996, Simon and Shuster).
But what are the elements that are common to Judaism as a whole? A friend of mine councils that it is not a religion bound to essential theological concepts. Judaism describes a way of life and not inherent solutions; it is “a very busy religion”. Another friend adds that Jewish discussion usually reverts to ethics rather than theology. A most basic concept is that of Tikkun Olam (“to repair the health of the world”) which is well understood and observed by secular as well as observing Jews. They both point to the shared experiences of so many American Jews: the summer camps and the songs they had learned there; Challah on the Sabbath- the Passover Seder; Hebrew and/or Yiddish spoken in the home when they were children; the uniqueness of the Jewish calendar. In fact these are referred to as “the hook” used by Rebbe Zalman, the inspiration for the Jewish Renewal Movement. They form the foundation of the first and second editions of The Jewish Catalog (edited by Michael Strassfeld and Richard Siegal), a compendium of Jewish life intended to reach out to secular Jews who have strayed from the fold. What is unique is how much of a pull such cultural traditions continue to have in a secularizing world. The overall Jewish experience is ubiquitous and defining in so many ways.
But it would be wrong to minimize Jewish spirituality in the midst of its cultural and ritual accouterments. Asked to name the primary historic gift brought to the world by the Jewish people, many friends hastily answer: “the worship of one God” -- indeed, an attentive and caring God. It is a blend that serves as a powerful model for ethical human behavior. The Jewish religion is distinguished by “the support we receive from God as we pursue our human potential and our basic moral responsibilities toward all of humanity.” (What is a Jew, p. 107) The emphasis is on human responsibility rather than that which descends from God. The Jewish sacred texts have long offered abundant guidance for living a life of meaning.
To be a religious Jew is to devote oneself to the study of Torah. In the broadest sense, “Torah is the essence of Jewish spirituality. It is synonymous with learning, wisdom and love of God” (What is a Jew, p. 39). More specifically, the Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible (the books of Moses) -- in particular, the Torah scroll. Considered the most sacred part of the Bible, one or more scrolls are the prized possessions of every modern synagogue. This hand-lettered scroll, copied onto parchment in the ancient Hebrew and usually sheathed in an ornate fabric cover, is at once the story of the creation of the world, a lineage of the ancient patriarchs of the Jewish people, the deliverance into freedom from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, and the handing down to Moses of the Law. It is a gripping story, full of intrigue, miracles, heroes larger than life, and extensive directives for the living of a pure life. It is also believed to portray the direct Word of God, as passed through Moses, leading to the birth of Israel.
The Torah has always stood at the center of Jewish ritual and study. The weekly Torah Portion is a division of the five books for use as a focus of study on each Sabbath. The beginning point is the festival of Simchat Torah, approximately two weeks after the Jewish New Year (early Fall). This is the day when the Torah scroll is rewound. In one sense, it is celebrated by reading a passage from the end, by carefully rewinding the scroll, and by beginning again with a passage from Genesis. But it is also occasioned by much merriment. The scrolls are lovingly removed from the ark and carried, even danced, throughout the hall, eagerly touched by all whom they pass. From that day forth throughout the year, the Torah portion serves as a weekly study guide for almost all observing Jews.
In order to understand the remaining books of the Jewish Bible, as well as other sacred Jewish texts, it is necessary to acknowledge the centrality of time. The Jewish tradition embodies a rich and eventful history. Typically, within each Jewish festival day lies a call to remembrance of past events and giving thanks for one's predecessors. Also, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his classic presentation on the Sabbath (The Sabbath, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), argues that after the fall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE) Judaism finds meaning in time rather than reverential space and material things. He exclaims, “the Sabbaths are our great cathedrals”.
The remaining books of the Bible convey a rich blend of history, prophecy, and legal, ethical, and theological concerns. But what should also be stated is that these “books” are the collected observations, commentaries, and visions of individuals (or many individuals, whose writings have been collected under one name). Additionally, this record does not end with the last book of the Bible (ca. 100 years before the current era). After the fall of the Second Temple and the dispersal of the Jews throughout the Mediterranean basin, a rabbinic succession emerged which would carry on the tradition. Their ongoing commentary on the Torah, on contemporary Jewish life, on the wisdom of their time comes down to us in the Mishnah (circa 200 CE) and the Talmud (some three hundred years later). Together with the Bible these texts represent a living tradition, one that continues today through the diligent exploration of contemporary students. Their study is not a halfhearted pursuit: the Talmud alone contains some 63 volumes that are often complex and incredibly obscure.
How does the average person use these books? On the one hand, one could go directly to the source. A vast number of books have been written to guide, explain and decipher. One could go on to consult the original texts. A visit to any of the diminutive synagogues in Sefat, Israel, reveals stacks of thick books, hoary with age and yet obviously well-used, crammed into every comer. These are a wonder to look at but remain securely held in the watchful gaze of the Rabbi standing in the doorway. On the other hand, our modern technology offers a convenient alternative to travel and years of study. A visit to one of the many Jewish websites, such as aish.com, offers learned commentaries from all sources to suitably impact one's meditations on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is said to be the prized possession of the Jewish people. A friend jokingly remarks on what a great religion Judaism is; the Holiest day of the year comes each week. The Sabbath is concerned with nourishing the body as well as the soul. It is the day of rest and cessation of one's normal routine --extending from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. “People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, while the Sabbath sends out its presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls” (The-Sabbah, p.66). There are many carnal aspects: the best food, free and easy gathering with family and friends, and suggested sexual relations between husband and wife. There is the setting aside of time to study, usually in coordination with the Torah Portion of the week. But in the largest context, the Sabbath sets a weekly rhythm of some proportion, beginning on Thursday with cleaning, buying provisions and planning the family evening. Within it, the religious find a place to pause and renew themselves for the coming days.
Two other Jewish holidays are of note, not only because they are well-loved by Jews but because they are also well-known by non-Jews. The first, the High Holy days, denotes the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement; Yom Kippur, the Jewish new year; and the week in between. Celebrated in the early Fall, this is a time for repentance and remembrance of God. It is the beginning of a new cycle of cultural and religious practice. It is in every way comparable to the culmination of the Christian year in Christmas and New Years Eve and its services tend to draw far greater numbers than the weekly norm. The second is Passover, particularly the sharing of the Passover meal, known as the Seder. Where the Sabbath meal is often a family affair, the Seder is to be shared among numbers of friends. It is clothed in ritual and story, all to emphasize a remembrance of Israel's passage into freedom from Egypt, as well as the urgency of finding freedom for all peoples. These both contain important facets of the “busy-ness” of Jewishness, but are also important spiritual turning points in the Jewish year.
Beyond the comfort of the cultural and religious experience, lies a wealth of “hidden things”, the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbala. Writes Herbert Weiner, author of 9 1/2 Mystics, the Kabbala Today (Macmillen Publishing),”The Kabballists like to use images like the layers of an onion, or the shell and kernel of a nut... to illustrate this contrast between inner and outer” (p.6) -- and -- 'Most Kabbalistic writings are taught through hints which can set off an inner train of associations that might be blocked by too explicit an explanation” (p.32). Its modern revival can be traced to an 18th Cent. Polish rebbe/mystic, the Bal Shem Tov, and the writings of 20th century thinkers, such as Martin Buber. In Jewish Mysticism , Buber states, “The Hasidic teaching is the most powerful and unique phenomenon which the diaspora has produced. It foreshadows a renaissance. No revival of udaism will be possible that does not contain some of its elements”. Indeed the Kabbalistic tradition has grown in importance and popularity far beyond the movements that are known for it, such as the Hasidim, and more specifically, the Lubavitchers. Many popular books on Kabbala seek to council and guide a vast audience of college students, and many of their elders, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
Many Jews have great affection for the Hasidic tradition. Up until the point of its emergence, Judaism had been very hierarchical and the priesthood remained somewhat aloof from the masses. Under the Bal Shem Tov's founding guidance, this became a popular movement where people could embrace the divine through personal prayer, often the ecstatic movement of dance and song. The Bal Shem Tov not only exemplified the Rabbi, or “Rebbe” as a central teacher in the community but also as a direct channel to God. In fact, much of his renown, and that of many succeeding Rebbes, could be traced to the miracles they were said to have performed. “The Bal Shem Tov was not just an affirmer of life, a champion of the poor and unlettered, ... He was a mystic, even an ecstatic, whose religious seizures might be diagnosed in our day as psychotic”( 9 1/2 Mystics, p. 132). These were men who proved continuously that” God demands no temples ... but the temple of a sincere heart, “What is a Jew, p.21). One of the enduring legacies of the Hasidim of Central Europe has been the wealth of stories about the wisdom and powers of the Rebbes, the central figure in the Hasidic village. The philosopher, Martin Buber, has produced one classic collection called “Tales of the Hasidim (Schocken Books). Yet there are literally thousands of shorter stories that are true to the traditional character. It is significant that many of these are included with the weekly Torah Portion posted by on-line programs such as aish.com. These are stories that convey the extraordinary life experience of the crafty Rebbe, the constant interplay of extreme ethical living with the exigencies of life. An example appeared with the Torah Portion, Lech Lecha on October 26, 2001, called “Go to yourself':
A fisherman was sitting by the river fishing. Along came a wealthy man and watched with amazement as every few minutes he would reel in another fairly large fish. After only an hour, the fisherman began to pack up and leave. The wealthy man ran over to him and asked, “Why are you leaving so soon?” “Well,” said the fisherman, I've caught enough fish to last me for the week and I don't need any more. Now I'm going home to study Torah and spend time with my family.” “But think of what you could do with more fish.” the wealthy man implored. “You could sell the extra fish, use the money to invest in more fishing rods, then you could buy a boat and hire other people to do the fishing.” “And what is the goal of all this?” asked the fisherman. “Well,” replied the wealthy man, “you could then hire someone to manage your business and retire to do what you really want in life.”
With that the fisherman bid the man goodbye and said, “Thank you very much, but I'm doing that already!”
The intermixing of the commonplace with deep wisdom is an alluring quality of these Jewish stories. It implies a type of perception, combined with a biting sense of humor, that has become familiar to all Americans through Hollywood and the entertainment industry over the past 100 years. Yet culturally and spiritually, there can be no understanding of modern Judaism, either the religion or the culture, without a consideration of two recent and very specific events. Here is a contemporary context for a tradition awash in the grinding march of history.
The first event, chronologically, presented an appalling challenge to the humanity of mankind. It was the ultimate persecution: the Holocaust, the attempt by Hitler's tyranny to eliminate an entire people solely for their common religious, cultural and genetic heritage. As a friend states, “The holocaust is the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the midst of any Jewish dialogue. There is no Jewish theology without Holocaust theology”. The Holocaust (or Sho'ah) is specifically commemorated in the holiday called Yom Hashoah in the Spring. It is memorialized at Yad Vashem (among other places) where names of the millions of victims are listed and many personal effects preserved. But in fact, the Holocaust lives on in the hearts and minds of not only Holocaust survivors and their children but all Jews. It is a part of Jewish history that cannot be forgotten.
This event led rapidly to the second: the rebirth of Israel, in 1948,after almost 2000 years of Diaspora to all comers of the Western and Near-Eastern world. Beginning in the late 1800s with the work of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist movement sought for the Jews both a return to an ancestral home and a refuge from the continuous persecutions experienced by Jews virtually wherever they lived. This was the land of the great temples, the “land of milk and honey” to which the Israelites had been led by Moses some 3200 years ago. And it was and is looked to with hope and yearning by virtually a Jews. Where else on Earth does an entire country observe the Sabbath as traditionally defined? Where else is the postman, the policeman, the delivery truck driver and the elementary school teacher all Jewish? Thus, the common farewell, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
It may not even be possible to describe the Jewish religion without exhaustively portraying the fullness of the Jewish people and their culture. Here is a continuity from very ancient times that is decidedly unusual from today's perspective. It is a tradition that cares for “the health of the world”. It is a tradition that has much to teach the other peoples of the world.
Robert Kauffman is a builder and carpenter. His Interfaith interest started early in his life at the urging of his grandfather. He was a founding member of both The Values Caucus and The Spiritual Caucus at the United Nations, and has served as an officer of the executive Council of DPI NGOS at the United Nations. Robert lives in Sheffield, Massachusetts with his wife, Beth, and step-son, Zach.