The Art of Judaism

Prologue – learning from everyone

Ben Zoma asked, ‘Who is wise?’ He answered, ‘Someone who learns from everyone’. (Avot 4:1)

The problem to be faced is: how to combine loyalty to one's own tradition with reverence for different traditions? (Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘No religion is an island’)

I’ve often thought that Anglo-Jewry, and especially the United Synagogue, is vague about what it actually stands for.  We’re good at defining what we’re not – not too frum, not too Zionist, and generally not too excited about overt expressions of religiosity – but rather poor at settling on who and what we are.  In a world where attractive alternatives to Orthodox Judaism abound, it is unlikely that we will successfully capture the hearts and minds of educated people (who, like all of us today are ‘Jews by choice’), without a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We have a wide range of self-descriptions for our spectrum of the Orthodox world.  These include ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’, ‘Torah u-Madda’, and ‘modern’, ‘open’, ‘centrist’ or even ‘contemporary’.  Whatever the description, they all believe in two key principles: the historical truth of the Divine revelation at Sinai and the binding imperative of halachah, as understood by the Talmud and other traditional sources, as discussed in more detail here.  While scholars continue to discuss the  ramifications of these ideas, they remain the indispensable tenets of normative Judaism.  As such, they are the principles on which the United Synagogue stands, together with the rest of the Orthodox world.

However, I don’t plan to add yet another designation to the burgeoning lexicon of ‘Orthodoxies’.  Instead, I have in mind a broader project, which leads me back to the theme of this series – ‘The Art of Judaism’.  If the centrist Orthodox community is to have a distinguishing motif, I suggest that it should be ‘to learn from everyone’, in the words of Ben Zoma.  While this can include those within and even outside the Jewish world with whom one may fundamentally disagree, in this series I will focus on the plethora of ideas, outlooks and approaches within the Orthodox world.  The epigraph from Professor Heschel refers to tolerance of traditions outside of Judaism, but I have taken the liberty of applying it within the Orthodox world.

If Judaism is an art-form, then producing an appealing and sophisticated picture requires us to paint with every shade in the ‘paint-box’ of the Jewish world; this means recognising that each part of the traditional world has something to contribute to a modern ‘post-denominational’ Orthodoxy, even if we do not accept any one in its entirety.  While not an exhaustive list, our outlook will certainly draw on the warmth and traditionalism of the Sephardim, the Litvaks' utter commitment to Torah study, the infatuation with God and love of every Jew of the Chassidim, the great Jewish philosophers' intellectual rigour, the passion for the Land of Israel of the Religious Zionists, Chabad's sense of mission, the synthesis of Torah and modernity of the Modern Orthodox, and Rav Kook's mystical zeal and  revolutionary belief in the Jewish people.

I will draw my inspiration from these and other traditions and others in the forthcoming articles, the first of which will discuss Shabbat and self-awareness.

The Rock-steady Suspension Bridge

On principles and acknowledging difference

The recent Supreme Court ruling in the JFS case has inevitably re-awakened the topic of the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox denominations.  Many column inches have been dedicated to schools’ admissions policies and other ramifications of the judgement.  Little space, however, has been devoted to explaining the deeply-held principles that underpin Orthodox Judaism; these are obviously inextricably linked to the JFS case and why it came to court.

While Orthodox thinkers may disagree about all manner of issues, they are united in their commitment to certain key defining principles.  Beyond the obvious beliefs in the existence of God and human accountability, these principles may be encapsulated in the following sentence.  Orthodox Judaism believes in the historical veracity of the revelation at Mount Sinai at which God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, and accordingly in the eternal binding imperative of all of halachah (Jewish law), as understood by the Talmud and traditional sources. These ideas are the essence of Orthodox Judaism; all other matters, including the contentious ones, such as the standards of observance required for conversion, flow from them.

The truth of these assertions has been vigorously protected from their detractors for centuries, yet corroborating and defending them (and I believe that they can, and must, be defended very robustly) is not my purpose here.  What is vital is the fact that for me, as well as for every other believing Orthodox Jew, these principles are central to our religious life, and consequently not negotiable.

I am realistic, however, and recognise that sadly, some do not accept these ideas.  The United Synagogue, while proudly Orthodox in its beliefs and objectives for its members, has always welcomed people who represent the entire continuum: those of every shade of observance and conviction, and those of none: that is its raison d’être.  Yet I feel passionately that the greatest achievement of the United Synagogue is its establishment of a non-judgemental environment in which Jews, whatever their beliefs, can share the privilege of being part of the Jewish people and where they can progress towards greater commitment and observance as equal partners on their Jewish journey.

Yet the simple fact is that the Reform and Masorti movements base their religious lives on different principles to those held immutable by the United Synagogue and the rest of the Orthodox community.  As evident from any number of publications and movement websites, Reform does not claim to believe in the historical veracity of the revelation, while Masorti’s redefinition of ‘Torah from heaven’ completely repudiates traditional interpretation.  These alternatives not only reject the very basis of Orthodox Judaism, but attack the foundations upon which every one of its laws and ideas rest.  Consequently, the other movements have beliefs, aspirations and halachic requirements that differ vastly from those of Orthodox Judaism.  It is, of course, the prerogative of each movement to define its own beliefs and practices, but there are clearly intractable disagreements between them that penetrate to the very heart of Jewish belief and identity.

But even when we disagree profoundly, this need not stop us from engaging in courteous, mutually-beneficial conversation.  We live in a small community where despite our intractable differences over almost every aspect of Judaism, we must try to co-exist harmoniously.  While, paraphrasing the words of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, we are committed to different dimensions of experience, we all profit from civilised conversation, joint representation, and pooling of resources where possible.  Yet it is obvious, at least to me, that any discourse must be based on the principle that each party acknowledges the beliefs of the other without attempting to undermine them.  In short, each must deal with the other on the understanding that it is unthinkable to expect them to forgo beliefs fundamental to their religious identity.  Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of inspiring others to change their views, but ‘outreach’ and meaningful communication between groups with firmly-held and diverse beliefs are entirely different.  Paraphrasing the words of a well-known Muslim story-teller, dialogue must not seek to debate, deny or convince, rather engender understanding and co-operation when it is possible.

Professor David Gelernter, in the final footnote of his recent book ‘Judaism: a way of being’ (Yale University Press, 2009) suggests that ‘if mutual respect is a suspension bridge, it requires two rock-steady foundations of self-respect to support the towers’.  I think that this is a good working model for respectful interaction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements.

It is clear that the movements have different beliefs, practices, objectives and membership criteria, something that we are often reluctant to face.  Yet I am certain that rather than producing friction between us, recognising this reality is the key to meaningful and tension-free discourse.  Only where principles are stated and differences acknowledged and respected, can a space be created which allows mutually-beneficial conversation to flourish.  It would be wrong of me to speak on behalf of the other movements, but from the Orthodox perspective, this means that purposeful discourse with the Reform and Masorti movements must be based on their accepting that we are committed to the Orthodox version of belief and halachah with all their ramifications.   Of course this includes the unpalatable fact that we cannot, nor will ever be able to accept non-Orthodox conversions, nor will lobbying us to do so in schools, Shuls or elsewhere do anything other than create tension and make communication more difficult.

I accept that confusing messages about conversion have emerged in recent years from the Orthodox authorities in Israel and elsewhere.  This is unacceptable and something that needs to change so that the public have a greater degree of clarity about what is involved.  I hope very much that this will happen over time.  Yet some have mistakenly conflated this lack of transparency with the matter of the validity of non-Orthodox conversions, with which it is not connected.  And it is clear to me that the Orthodox world must accept, at least for the purposes of meaningful communication, that the standards, beliefs and focus of religious life of the other movements are different from our own.

For all concerned, this may be a hard pill to swallow, but it is unavoidable if we are to be partners in those areas where we can cooperate.  We cannot continue craving the religious legitimisation from each other that will never be forthcoming, nor trying to score points in public battles in which both sides will inevitably be seen as losers.  The sooner we acknowledge our differences and their principled nature, the closer we will come to building those ‘rock-steady foundations’ to ‘support the towers’ of a disciplined and loving Anglo-Jewry.

A One Night Sit

The Anglo-Jewish Shiva

It can't have escaped anyone's attention, but the Anglo-Jewish Shiva is dying. The full-week observance has become less common, replaced with a briefer period of one or two days. While not long ago, a shorter 'Shiva' (this is odd – the word means ‘seven’) was frowned upon - perhaps considered disrespectful, those observing a full week are now in the minority and sometimes seen as unduly religious or old-fashioned. A 'one night sit' is common, giving all of those who want to offer their condolences just one evening to do so.

Many of my colleagues are highly critical of this phenomenon. They feel that standards are slipping and that steps should be taken to force people into a full-scale Shiva. Allow me to state that while I consider it a tragedy that many families do not avail themselves of the healing powers of Jewish mourning, I fully understand why few families wish to do so. In reality, the typical Anglo-Jewish Shiva is not beneficial to the mourners, rather an ordeal that any normal person would wish to avoid.

At the typical evening Shiva, the house becomes densely packed with visitors, who have come ‘for prayers’. On arrival, they offer a cursory nod to the mourners and then engage in noisy conversation about any issue that takes their fancy – holidays and television programmes are firm favourites. They will often meet people they haven’t seen since the last Shiva, whom they greet with a kiss, exclaiming loudly, ‘lovely to see you,’ or some similar inanity. When the officiant arrives, all goes quiet until he has conducted the brief evening service. This over, the visitors shuffle past the mourners, nod at them and wish them ‘long life.’ Immediately returning to their noisy conversation, their prodigious efforts are rewarded by the provision of tea and refreshments. Meanwhile, the mourners sit on their low chairs in the corner, bewildered by the noise and party atmosphere that engulfs them; often no-one is talking to them, if indeed, it is possible to speak above the cacophony.

This is no less than an ordeal for the mourners. At a time when people are emotionally confused, shocked and paralysed by their loss, and the slightest noise or sight could cause additional stress or pain, this experience can be unbearable. And I quite understand why many people choose not to put their families through it.
It is sad to see just how often we miss the mark. A guest at a real Jewish wedding knows that it is his privilege and honour to make the groom and bride rejoice, for no matter the quality of the food or the venue, he has come for them. Likewise, as visitors at a Shiva, we have come to share the grief of those who have lost a loved one. We are there for them. Yet for so many in Anglo-Jewry, these concepts have been lost - whether at a wedding, when we think that we are there to be entertained by the hosts, or at a Shiva, when we expect tea and cake, we have become the focus of the occasion. We have gone terribly wrong.

Real Shiva serves a dual purpose. Honour is accorded to the deceased by dedicating an entire week to thinking and talking about him or her; the mourners neglect their regular personal, family and business activities, instead remaining at home to concentrate entirely on the qualities and character of their loved one. By the end of the Shiva, they have crystallised a mature image of the deceased in their minds, which will accompany them for the rest of their lives. As well as this, the Shiva has a positive effect on the bereaved, cocooning them from regular activity when grief is at its strongest, allowing them to gradually emerge into normal life only when the immediate harshness of their loss has passed.

This requires great understanding on the part of the visitors to the Shiva-house. Let us note that Jewish law, the great master of human emotional need, regulates this to perfection. How many of us aware that one may not even speak to the mourner until he indicates that this is his wish? Maybe he does not want to speak. How can we, mere onlookers to a family tragedy, impose on the bereaved in any way at all? We must be exquisitely sensitive to the mourner’s emotional trauma. If he speaks, we will respond; if he cries, we will empathise; if he laughs, we will share the humorous recollection of his loved one. And if he remains silent, unable or unwilling to speak, we too will remain quiet. This is the real Jewish concept of comforting the mourner.

This is far cry from a momentary nod in the direction of the mourner, raucous conversation and gobbling of refreshments that so characterise the modern Shiva. Let us face the truth – these practices must stop, for they are counterproductive and selfish; indeed, far from alleviating the mourner’s distress, they actually add to it. For many, Shiva has become a nightmare after a tragedy – the precise opposite of its true intention and capacity. And unless we are prepared to change the way we do things, Jewish mourning will be completely lost, together with the immense benefit that it brings in the face of tragedy.

As a mourner, recognize that the visitors are present for your benefit. Have no qualms about resting when you feel tired, asking people to be considerate and, as Jewish law allows, asking them to leave when you no longer want to speak to them. Resist the party atmosphere by not offering food or drink. As a visitor, remember that you are present for the benefit of the mourners. Visit during the day, if possible. If food is offered, refuse it. Do nothing whatsoever which imposes on the mourners. When appropriate, enable the mourner to express himself in his own way. Leave when the time is right.

May we be blessed with long and happy lives, filled with sensitivity to each other.


This article originally appeared in the London Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. It was then adapted into a shorter piece for the Holocaust educational book '60 days for 60 years'.