Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A New Judaism

Out with the old...
Yesterday I approached a leading Orthodox rabbi about getting his organization to engage on the Hyatt campaign. The conversation took a surprising turn when the Orthodox rabbi mentioned the name of a well-known rabbi activist. This Orthodox rabbi said that his organization would not respond favorably if Rabbi X was involved in this initiative.

The scope of the  Jewish religion has always been characterized by divergent trends. On the one hand, the number of laws has a natural rate of expansion. In the Torah (Exodus 20), God speaks once and  this instantaneously becomes 10 commandments which themselves are immediately followed by a  host of new laws. Famously, Jewish tradition counts 613 Biblical commandments. Rabbinic literature multiplies these into tens of thousands.

Concurrently and consequently, in order to make sense of this mass of information, the authors of Judaism felt the need to define core values. In the 12th century Maimonides compiled the first encyclopedia of Jewish law, totalling 14 volumes and thousands of pages long. Alongside this exhaustive manual he proposed a one page "read-me-first" list of 13 Principles of the Faith.

Maimonides is part of a tradition of expansion alongside defining core values. The Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes concludes a long list of exhortations with one fundamental principle. The enormous Talmud similarly quotes a series Rabbis who reduced all of Judaism to one core principle. The most famous of all is Hillel. He reduced the whole of Judaism to the golden rule: do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.

Orthodoxy sees itself, in practice and dogma, as the true heir to pre-modern Judaism.  Orthodoxy defined itself in the modern era when it rejected the drive to modernize Judaism. These watershed issues included the use of the vernacular in religious service and rejecting other innovations in ritual (early 19th century Hungary and elsewhere), observance of kosher laws (late 19th century, United States),  rejecting interfaith marriages (20th century). Movements, like individuals, define themselves most clearly not by what they declare they are but by what they reject.

Rabbi X, along with many Jewish leaders, does not preach the Orthodox practice with regard kosher food, Sabbath observance and officiating at interfaith marriages.Yet, he is welcome in the Orthodox world and other mainstream Jewish bodies. Where he crosses the line is in his open criticism of the State of Israel.

The largest Jewish organizations, along with Orthodoxy have declared a new core principle. This principle supplants values of social justice or learning, separation of church and state, study, and even (the recent principle of) Jewish continuity. with the new

The Talmudic Rabbi Hillel, were he an Orthodox Jew today, would indeed say:
"Support the State of Israel, this is the whole Torah, all the rest is the commentary"

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