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Jewish Without Torah?   I Don't Think So.

04/10/2013 01:33:32 PM


Rabbi George Gittleman

The roster of Jewish holy days this time of year functions like a Rorschach chart for Jewish identity.

Passover, for example, has many themes but it is safe to say that concern for the oppressed or Social Justice is its main focus, which is also the essence of Jewish identity for many Jews. This is certainly true at Shomrei Torah, where our largest committee is the Social Action Committee with 28 members! There is only one problem: concern for Social Justice is not particular to Judaism. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists can all lay claims to a concern for the most vulnerable: the weak, the persecuted.

After Pesach comes Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, one of the darkest days in the Jewish year and yet another defining aspect of Jewish life: persecution. Sadly, our being a persecuted people is the defining feature of Jewish identity for more than a few of us. For these folks, our communal suffering becomes a point of pride, an end in itself. Our survival is proof of our worth and our need for constant vigilance against future attacks is the only justification necessary for Jewish continuity.

This was the Judaism of my youth: the Shoah on the one hand and Israel struggling for survival on the other, and nothing of substance in between. We were to care, to show up, to give, just because of what “they did to us” and what “could happen again at any moment!” No wonder so many folks in my generation fled Jewish life.  Why be Jewish if the essence of Jewish life is suffering and the constant threat of persecution?

david-hartmanThis was an issue of great concern for David Hartman (May his memory be for a blessing), who wrote in his book A Heart of Many Chambers, “I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish identity. It is both politically and morally dangerous … to perceive … (ourselves) essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is pointless and often vulgar to argue that the Jewish peoples’ suffering is unique in history.” (pg. 261)

To be defined by what the Nazi’s did to us is to give them a posthumous victory, and to lose much of what makes Judaism so compelling.  Judaism is not just about suffering! More than anything else, Judaism is about affirming life. “L’chaim,” “To life!” This is almost completely lost when the Shoah becomes the primary event in our long history.

A week after Yom HaShoah comes Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. This too is a cornerstone of Jewish identity in two distinct ways:

For many, if not most Israelis, the modern state is the organizing element of their Judaism; they are “National Jews.”  Living in Israel, being an Israeli citizen, speaking Hebrew, serving in the army – this is their “Judaism”. It includes religious elements like Friday night dinners for example, in the same way that Christianity is passively part of many Americans’ identity, but its primary character is national, not religious.

There are also Diaspora Jews whose primary identity is their attachment or connection to Israel. These folks live vicariously through their connection with Israel. They have no need for Jewish observance, and their connection to the organized Jewish community is based only on its support of Israel. For them, Israel is an idealized, sentimentalized place. When they visit, they see only the good stuff: suntanned, muscle-bound Israelis “draining swamps and making the desert bloom” or more recently, “Startup nation.” For these folks, Israel can do no wrong and it is an unforgivable sin to criticize Israel in any way.

After Yom Ha-Atzmaut, there is one last major Holy Day to mention and that is Shavuot, the third of the three ancient pilgrimage festivals (SukkotPesach and Shavuot), and the commemoration of “Natan Torah,” the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Most liberal Jews don’t even know from Shavuot yet I think: of all the commemorations at this time of year, it’s the most essential to who we are.

Simply stated, there is no Judaism without Torah. “Torah” here does not just mean the first five books of Moses. Torah, in this sense, is the symbol for Jewish life; the books, the holydays, the prayers; everything that makes up the religious life of a Jew.

But, you say, “I am spiritual not religious.” Fine, but are you also Jewish? If so, you have to in some way connect with Torah to sustain your Judaism: “where’s the beef?” Where is the substance without Torah? And who says Torah is not spiritual?

Are you sure what you call “spiritual” cannot be found, enhanced or encompassed by Torah?

“Wait a minute, rabbi, I’m a cultural Jew.” In the global village cultural identities are very hard to preserve, let alone transmit to the next generation – what’s Jewish about bagels anymore? What is Jewish culture without Torah? Can you imagine a Jewish world where there are no synagogues and only JCC’s? I don’t think so.

I admit I’ve been a little hyperbolic and bombastic; it is one of the risks of being a rabbi. In truth, Jewish identity is a lot less black and white than I have suggested and much more in the grey. They say if you cut a hologram into pieces, all the parts contain the whole picture in them. That’s like Jewish identity – dig deep enough in any of us, you can find most if not all the elements of Jewish identity; each one of us has our own way of balancing these various aspects of what it means to be a Jew. The question is, are we happy with the balance?

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780