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Why practice a religion? Why keep commandments? Why observe the ritual practices of any tradition, let alone Judaism? I imagine that for some people who no longer believe in a personal god, or who have a historical or anthropological view of religion, practice and ritual are the contextual, human-made acts of superstition or cultural identity. And they are correct. But that is only the beginning of the story. To understand that humans evolved brains that can perceive their own insignificance in the face of the universe, that is, who can feel awe; to know that our brains evolved in a way that we perceive things that aren’t there; or to know that culture, including religion, emerges out of social interaction in specific times and places and is modified to meet human needs; etc.; is merely to know where religion comes from.  But knowing all of that does not erase the real effects of religious practice on individuals and communities, nor does it negate the powerful meanings it generates for adherents.

So clearly, for a rationalist who believes in evolution and in the historical, human production of the Bible, the meaning of ritual, practice, and observance cannot rest upon the ancient convictions that they were given or commanded by a supernatural God. Nor can they end with a mere sociological or functionalist explanation. Can religious practice be meaningful for a rationalist, beyond being an expression of ethnic identity or group fealty?

My own reasons for practice are largely personal, experiential, and ethical, and even aesthetic. I find meaning in the ritual that marks the passage of time and marks time as sacred, both in shabbat and in the holidays; it gives structure and flow to the cycles of my life. I find davening to be a kind of meditative focusing of attention in the sacred, to what is important to me, both in my personal shacharit and at shul. I find the reading of Torah on Saturday mornings to connect the communal to the historical through language and ritual, as it takes multiple people to read correctly. In short, I like practicing Judaism.

Recently I have been reading books about the spiritual aspects of Jewish practice, and one notion has really caught my attention: that Jewish attention to ritual detail and to arguing about how to observe is itself the sacred practice that grounds us in the importance of what we are doing here and now. In a Mormon context—with mandatory belief and constant surveillance—arguments about practice were always expressions of power and domination. They can be so in Judaism as well; but because Judaism’s whole worldview sees sin and salvation and time differently, it feels different somehow. This Rabbi argued that the argument itself is a practice that constantly reminds us of our earthy, embodiedness and our embeddedness in a community. Jewish practice is about being present and paying attention to what we are doing right now. The rules of Judaism and the joy in small things like challah or a shabbat double mitzvot (wink) emphasize its nowness, the holiness of the life we live, rather than a life deferred or to come.

The holiness code in Leviticus, which Christians read as antithetical to salvation, turns out to be the core of not just the rules, but the meaning of Jewish practice itself: To be holy, because God is holy. In his book Sinai & Zion, Dr. Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago, has tried to show the Jewishness of the Tanakh, and to reclaim Torah from Christian misreadings. His approach is to explain Jewish theology as expressed in the Torah by seeing it historically and anthropologically, and to carefully peel back the Christian prejudices that often fail to see what is actually in the Torah.  Levenson argues that the mitzvot are terms of the covenant, demonstrations of commitment to the suzerain יהוה.

Levenson’s history of Hebrew monotheism, while threatening to some traditional believers, to me humanizes the ancient Hebrews and shows how one group of people, over thousands of years, created its own unique relationship to the universe and to the sacred. Levenson argues that the Hebrews created, through their conception of a covenant with יהוה, a three level theology, which I then borrowed into my own vision of the panentheistic divine as described by Rabbi Green in Radical Judaism.

The Hebrews focused their belief in one god (historically, by ignoring or discrediting other gods). In modern radical Judaism, I would say that Judaism sees the unity and holiness of all Being, of existence itself, of the universe as a whole, in terms of our relationship to it and our consciousness of it. I also think of the mystical explanations of the breath of ה–שם that connects us all, in each breath, to the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe.

The Hebrews central religious tenet was to love god wholly. I feel this love as a deep sense of connection to all of “creation,” to the earth and all living things, and to the universe as a whole. Many eco-Jews today anchor their environmental ethics in this relationship to creation. But it is the fact of existence and knowledge that I exist within and as a part of all existence that a kind of openness breaks open in a love of the divine.

Levenson explains that in Torah, history led up to the covenant at Sinai, and after Sinai are the mitzvot, the ongoing, day-to-day actions that link the people to יהוה. Levenson’s reading of Torah suggests strongly (although he doesn’t say it) that observance of the mitzvot is the means of constantly enacting the relationship to the divine.

In a literal sense, historical, anthropological, the mitzvot are a cultural creation.

But in choosing Judaism, I think what I’m doing is throwing in my lot with the Jews, saying that I choose to take upon myself that relationship to the divine that they have created over the past couple millennia, to commit myself to a Jewish practice as the way my life will be an expression of the sacredness of existence.

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This past spring, I took a course with a Reconstructionist rabbi (with Renewal leanings) who is part of our synagogue community. The course covered the Shacharit and Shabbat Torah service, and it had the unintended side-effect of convincing me that I needed to look more carefully and seriously at the notion of prayer and its role in my life as a Jew.

My childhood and young adulthood associations with prayer are thoroughly theist, patriarchal, and heterosexist. But I also cannot deny some powerful experiences I had praying in the Mormon mode, especially the day when I was 22 years old that I had decided to kill myself because I was gay, and telling God—whom I believed was a real, anthropomorphic being at the time—what I had planned while sitting at the bottom of Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. I no longer believe that my experience came from an outside divine force, but I definitely believe that having been reduced to nothingness, I was totally open emotionally and spiritually to see clearly (and being in the red rock desert always clarifies life for me). What I felt, like a light going off in my head, was that if I died then at age 22, I would miss a lifetime of love. I think I sat there for about an hour with my mouth hanging open. Then I got up, walked back to my car, and went back to my studies.

Between leaving Mormonism and choosing Judaism, my most serious and regular practice had been basic vipassana meditation in the (lesser wheel) buddhist tradition. I had been a casual buddhist for about 15 years, and meditation had been my practice of choice on many levels.  I discovered buddhism when I was still at BYU during my senior year, through Thich Nhat Hanh, but didn’t start seriously meditating until I read a book by Jack Kornfield around my 28th birthday. My experience with meditation and reading buddhist psychology and philosophy opened me up in a completely different way. The constant practice of accepting what is and of being open to the here and now transformed in ways that I still cannot articulate (and to be clear, I still need this daily practice; I’m a bit of a cling-er, grasper, holder-on; I’m also an idealist who rages against the imperfection and injustice of the world).  Buddhism also showed me a path to ethical living that I had been unable to find in Mormonism, because buddhism insists that you see the world as it is and other people as they are. So I have had important and powerful experiences of holiness before and outside of Judaism (and frankly I don’t see that changing).

As I posted about a couple months ago, I have been working through the rabbinic teaching that prayer has three phases, Praise, Thanks, and Asking, and thinking about what that could mean in a more meditative vein, and especially what it means for someone who isn’t sure he believes in a g-d at all.  So I finally decided about three weeks ago to take a leap of faith, and begin doing a small modified  שחרת  before breakfast in the morning. I’m using a combination of the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (from my somewhat frum Reform shul) and the Koren Siddur (British Orthodox). By modified, I mean that from the Orthodox siddur, I cut out a lot of text and I cut out all the clothing bits (tsitsit, tallit, and teffilin). Here’s the order of my Shacharit:

  • Modeh ani
  • Asher yatzar et ha-adam (I call this the “orifices” prayer…teehee)
  • Elohai n’shamah (my fav)
  • Morning brachot [I use the SZ siddur here for feminist, disabled-friendly, non-ethnocentric language:
    נברך את עין החיים יוצרת השולם, etc.]
  • Ha-Gomeil chasadim tovim [I am currently really taken by this line:
    ותננו היום ובכל יום לחן ולחסד ולרחמים בעיניך]
  •  Sh’ma

I have some struggles with these prayers, mainly because the traditional language makes a couple of assumptions that I don’t believe, e.g., that god is a conscious, agentive being; and that god is a ruler or sovereign of some kind. So why pray this stuff? Why pray at all?

I’m not sure I know yet. But one of the things that drew me to modern, liberal Judaism is its willingness to look at tradition, ask hard questions, and rethink our relationship to tradition and most importantly development meanings for it that make sense in our context today. SZ’s siddur has some beautiful readings especially associated with the Orifices Prayer and the Daily Blessings. But also, being who I am and where I am in life, I also can just sit there and think about what something means. Then there’s the simple experiential aspect where the hebrew functions as a kind of mantra, a sonorous and embodied swaying practice of focus and attention. I’ve been trying to find traditional melodies to sing the prayers, but am not having a lot of luck; I have found a Yemini melody for the Modeh Ani and Elohai N’Shamah, and another for the Sh’ma that I love, but which are difficult to sing early in the morning. In any case, beginning the day with what amounts to a 15 minute long remembrance of the miracle of being alive and gratitude for your body is, for me personally, a very good thing.

Still, I wonder why I’m doing this. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I came to Judaism for the practice, because I know that I need in my life regular focus and attention and structure to keep my mind contained, at least minimally, and to remind myself of my actual core values. What has shocked me in this process is a couple of things that I’ve learned by accident, just by doing the practice.

First, on a personal level (if you’ll permit), I have spent a long time, a very very long time, ignoring and hating my body; I didn’t quite understand the depth of that hatred until the past few weeks. 41 years at war with my own body. The daily ritual of confronting myself with gratitude for that body has been jarring and awakening. Where that will lead, I don’t yet know.

Second, there is an interesting layer of meanings with the “melech” language of traditional prayer. On one hand, it really goes back to pre-Babylonian captivity semitic Battle of the Gods (i.e., where various peoples and tribes were vying for control of the pantheon). This is the Hebrews claiming that their god is King of them all! Then there’s the later monotheistic layer, where the Jewish diaspora, along with Christians and Muslims, conceived of the One God as ruler of the universe, as supreme sovereign; and where theology developed around submission and helplessness. I think I’ve been inspired somewhat by Rabbi Green’s insistence that, despite some of our modern democratic discomfort with the Melech language, we need to keep it. Rabbi Green argues (if you’ll excuse an oversimplification) that it keeps the balance of Justice and Mercy in the works if we maintain and embrace the Melech language.

But I have come to think of the King/Ruler image as something a bit more important, in a buddhist sense. There is in the Orthodox siddur a long prayer leading up to the Sh’ma wherein the davenner works through the power and limitlessness and ultimateness of god in a way that, I have come to realize, works to eliminate or break open the Ego. That has resonated with my buddhist studies and practice, where one of the goals is disidentification, not so that you disappear, but so that you can see. The practice of recognizing our own human powerlessness can force important breaks in the Ego, to see one’s self and one’s place in society, the world, the universe with stark clarity. Of course, I am thinking here of Melech language as practice and meaning rather than as literal representation of an actual being. It’s the effect of the practice that matters. [There is much then to be said about the conncetion of this ego-break that I find to be vital here (and in Buddhism) and the notion of tikkun olam, but I haven’t thought about that much yet.]

Which leads me to third: I hadn’t ever realized it, but all those years I’ve been meditating, there was something missing for me. In vipassana (and much more so in Zen technique), the egolessness and openness saved my life at a crucial juncture in my development, and it has sustained me for over a decade. But there’s a way in which it leaves me feeling empty (which some would say is the point), or more importantly, disconnected. I’ve been reading a book called Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It, by Rabbi Mike Comins. Rabbi Comins interviewed 50 different rabbis and organized his book around their observations about what prayer means and how to do it. The book has been very comforting to me on one level, in that many of the rabbis interviewed are humanists in the same way that I am.

But more importantly, what I have realized from these rabbis teachings is that whereas viapassana is completely monistic in its form and goal, that I still need some dualism. For anyone who has known me at all over the past 20 years, that will be an astounding revelation. But there is something about the act of “calling out” that creates a connection that is, for me, missing in Buddhist practice. I will probably continue vipassana meditation for the rest of my life; so what I’m saying here isn’t a condemnation. Rather, it’s that I had always wondered why I didn’t just dive in and become a full-fledged buddhist; something was always holding me back.

What I am starting to see is that I need both monism, and the practice of dualism for a fully formed spiritual life. “Calling out” in prayer—to praise, thank, and ask—is not about the reality, the thingliness of god; it’s about acknowledge the human need for relationship and connection. The day-to-day, real-life experience of being human is that the Ego is simply not the Other, and can never be. The desire to merge and blend with the Other that often drives sexual intercourse and that brief twinge of disappointment after you orgasm comes from the realization that I am not nor can I ever be the other. I am fundamentally separate, which drives the pleasure and the necessity of connection. For me personally, my buddhist experience was that the practice broke down my ego and helped me to see and accept, thereby freeing me to have compassion. But what it didn’t give me was a meaningful experience of connection to myself, to others, and to the world and cosmos. I think that, for me, prayer has the potential to provide that connection.

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As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.

Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.

Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to “preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.

In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.

As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.

In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.

For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.

In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).

It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.

As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.

This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.

Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.

And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.

teku

edited for clarity

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Blood is in scare quotes above mainly because I’m a sociologist and a historian, and I shudder every time I read something that claims a cultural identity is in the “blood.” Of course this has echoes of Hitler and fascism generally, but our notion of genetic or biologically inherited culture, of “owning” cultures or ethnicities because of our parentage are deeply problematic, not just politically, but empirically. Culture is learned and contextual, and is basically a tool of human interaction.

I have a deep compassion and understanding for the Jewish language of ancestors and heritage. I get it. I understand why that language exists and why it circulates. But I also see so many dangers inherent in a language of inherited culture.

Yesterday I bought a used copy of Martin Buber’s collection of essays on Judaism. I was excited to read it because Buber’s I and Thou was transformative for me when I was an undergraduate. But I didn’t even make it half way through the first essay. Buber argues that there are only two things to be said of turn of the century judaism (presumably in Germany), and that is that it’s a religion and that it’s a nationality. He rejects the possibility that early 20th century German Jews were actually religious, because they don’t have a direct encounter with the divine principles, and turns to a three page long explanation of the connection of Jews to each other through their blood, and that their shared blood makes them a nation (he even goes so far to argue that nationhood requires common blood, a horrifying notion from our perspective 100 years later).

The blood language…was there something in the water in Germany? Seriously. I was pummeled by the deep historical irony of a Jew making that argument. But I was also deeply saddened. I need to read the rest of the essay to see where Buber is going with this. But as someone on the path to conversion, reading this blood language yet again (the first time I read it was the Orthodox scholar I have talked about before (see Gelerntner)) knocked me back.

Again, I get it. Completely intellectually, sociologically, historically, and culturally. But it leaves me completely speechless and baffled as to where to take that. I have a sociological/historical response, but I’m not sure how helpful it is for my personal experience of choosing Judaism as my community and spiritual path.

I have a long post on Jewish Identity that I’ve been working on for about a week, and it will tie in to this, but my idea of Jewish Identity comes from a normative position, what I think Jewish identity should or could be, and I take an adamantly anti-essentialist tack.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

teku

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Of course the Enlightenment would impact the Jewish communities of Europe along with its Christian majorities, but it had never occurred to me to see Jews (and Jewishness) as the original test of Enlightenment universalism and an ongoing case study of the interaction between the ascendant individual of modernity and a minority (often abject) population. The Haskalah movement in Jewish philosophy revealed 300 years ago the problems and ruptures in Enlightenment thinking long before post-modenrist critiques of the 1960s, as a group that had been resident outsiders was suddenly, if only in theory, thrust into the universal mainstream of democratic citizenship. Although the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe progressed in starts and fits starting more or less when the French Revolution voted to make Jews full citizens of the secular French state, the idea that Jews were in some sense Europeans and Jews at the same time seems to have pushed the contradictions of the Enlightenment to its limits, both within Judaism and among non-Jews, who were confronted with the prospect of tolerating a people that had been loathed for nearly two thousand years. The emergence of the “Jewish Question” in the early 19th century—how to be both a citizen of a European (or American) nation and a Jew at the same time—foreshadows the debates about multiple identities and pluralism of cultures of the past 40 years.

My reading in this area is new and admittedly only from a very brief overview of Jewish history of the past 300 years (see Robinson Chs. 8-9), and so this post here clearly is not thorough or even knowledgeable. But I found in the reading about this history an odd sense of understanding. On one level, I had yet again the realization that post-modernism is often little more than modernism dressed up in French clothing. On a deeper level, I appreciated the ways in which this question has been confronted head-on as part of the experience of modernity within Judaism, indeed, as constitutive of a Jewish modernity.

Whereas many Enlightenment thinkers saw a world built on rational universalism, modernity in practice and in history has been a far messier human affair of the non-rational experiences of belonging, identity, affect, local practice, and difference in a delicate dance with the universalizing pressures of nation building and democratizing. (The dance between the poles of particularity and universality has only intensified since WWII as the reach and power of global social and economic power has expanded into every-day life of billions of people.) The Jewish Question—can you be a rational citizen and a Jew at the same time?—and the various and contradictory ways that Jews have attempted to answer that question since the early maskilim attempted to remake Judaism in local vernaculars (e.g., Moses Mendelssohn) and to rationalize Jewish practice offer for us a picture of what is not a tension to be relieved, but a constituent feature of modernity itself.

What the development of rational orthodoxy (a real movement, although it seems contradictory) and the Reform movement, not to mention the secular philosophy and art movements within Jewish communities starting in the mid-18th century (including a revival of Yiddish as a philosophical and literary language in eastern Europe) brought about was the disarticulation of the individual from the group, but seeing Jews as individuals with a religion rather than religious groups outside of society. Jews became individuals who could choose a religion, and ultimately starting in the 19th century, western Jews have been working to understand what it means to choose to be Jewish.

This existential choice—Jew or citizen—is a sign of Weberian demystification of everyday life. It is the new context of modernity pushing in on Judaism, forcing it to adapt to a new “emancipated” context. (Nazism can be seen as the bloody extreme of the dominant culture dealing with tolerance of difference, through a mass-produced death.) And it is both the opening of religious and ethnic groups to scrutiny and their rebirth in new forms. Unfortunately in practice over the past 200 years or so, dominant cultures (majorities) in any given democratic nation-state become an unspoken, assumed, often hidden ethnicity that comes to stand for the Universal. It is this phenomenon that all minority groups within pluralistic democracies have had to fight against, the presumed universality of the majority culture. I think what made Christian and secular Europeans so uncomfortable with Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., The Dreyfus Affair) was precisely that the presence of difference within a culture supposedly built on the universalist-rational claims of the Enlightenment forces the hidden ethnic pseudo-Universal (i.e., the dominant culture) to see itself as one among many rather than as Human.

Judaism as a whole demonstrates both the possibilities and the losses of balancing between citizen and “other”, as Jews have become fully participating, fully enfranchised members of various democratic societies, but have simultaneously fragmented and splintered in their attempts to maintain group cohesion and distinctiveness.

teku

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As I learn and study about Judaism, I have inevitably come up against the complex set of practices and laws that constitute a Jewish life. I will treat my study of mitzvot (the obligatory deeds or acts of Judaism) and my reactions to specific mitzvot in a later post. Here I want to explore the general body of laws, legal interpretations, and the ongoing (more than 2000 years) argument about how and why to obey the mitzvot. This body of law, both oral and written, and expounded through the Talmud and later midrashes, is called halakhah. [I have readers who are unfamiliar with Judaism, and I am also trying to anchor ideas in my head; so apologies to my born-Jewish and expert readers if some of this feels elementary.]

I find that on one hand, halakhah is what I’m looking for in a spiritual home: A set of organizing practices and central values, a frame from which you can have deeper, more meaningful conversations. On the other hand, having been raised in a rather legalistic religion myself (how many times did I have to sit through a discussion about whether or not you could drink Coca-Cola, and if you did, would God’s spirit leave you?), I find myself wary, suspicious, and critical of religious rules generally, and efforts to draw in/out boundaries based on adherence to rules specifically.

History, Part 1: Reform Halakhah

In Jewish tradition, halakhah is the body of laws and interpretation of Torah. It’s traditional, derived from the “Oral Law” (if I understand correctly) and constitutes the rulings on Jewish practice vis-à-vis the Torah and the Mitzvot (obligatory deeds). One of the key innovations of the Reform movement (and by extension the Conservative movement and later the Reconstructionist movement) in the early 19th century was to historicize the Torah**, read it critically, and to rethink Jewish practice in light of the Enlightenment. Everything from Kashrut (dietary) to conversion, from dress to music in services were transformed, a process which continued in the United States. The Conservative movement was a reaction against nearly 100 years of radical changes in the Reform practices, and although they kept the historicized reading of the Torah and a politically liberal ethic, the Conservative movement sought to re-attach itself to traditional living and practice.

From what I’ve been reading about the Reform movement, it too has undergone a swing back to more traditional practices, although it remains open and diverse. One of the authors I’ve been reading suggests that the acceptance of converts and the increasing number of converts has put a kind of awareness into these liberal denominations, as gerim seek to understand Judaism it has pushed Reform synagogues to reexamine their laissez-faire attitude toward Halakhah since the early 1960s. In other words, she argues that the enthusiasm and practice of gerim are what have actually pushed the Reform movement to more traditional practice, which is an interesting sociological hypothesis (see Diamant.) Surely, services at my Reform synagogue, Sha’ar Zahav, don’t look or feel like the Reform services that I’ve been reading about, without kippot, with an organ and choir, etc.

Because halakhah has become more central to the practice of Reform judaism, I feel a need to understand it more deeply and to figure out what my place within it would be.  Because I’m someone much more attracted to meaningfulness and “soul” of a tradition rather than its rules, I wonder what halakhah would look like for me and my Jewish journey.

History, Part 2: Social Strategies of Survival

One of the key ways that cultural groups identify themselves is through their practice (using that word now in a sociological sense, not a religious one). How they act and behave in view of others and how they interact with others is the way that groups build social boundaries. In Jewish history, this sociological phenomenon becomes salient during Babylonian captivity. As is commonly noted by religious historians, one of the great innovations of the Hebrews was that during Babylonian captivity, they decided that they could carry their god with them. The universalization of god alone, however, would not have been enough for the preservation of group integrity.

Living within a majority, oppositional culture, the pressures were probably great (scholars speculate here) for assimilation into Mesopotamian culture. And indeed, we know now that much of what today we call “Jewish” was in fact borrowed from the Babylonian religions around them (e.g., Noah). But the Babylonians served simultaneously as a foil against which to build a separate ethno-religious identity, what today we would probably recognize as Jewish (e.g., rejection of certain practices that were seen as unclean (see Leviticus)). To further complicate matters, when the captive Jews were released (thanks to Cyrus the Great) and returned to Palestine++, they encountered Hebrews who had not been a part of the cultural innovations they had made in Babylon, and a battle for cultural authenticity began, which has never ceased among Jews (see today inter-denominational struggles, Israel vs. diaspora struggles, and inter-racial and inter-cultural struggles among the diaspora, with Jews inhabiting Palestine often having a de facto claim to authenticity).

That gives us two environmental dynamics within which Jews were reacting and living historically: 1) being a minority, more often than not beleaguered and oppressed; and 2) identification with other Jews who are problematically different from each other in tradition, language, dress, food, etc., because their traditions emerged in vastly different contexts, ranging from Kazakhstan to Alexandria, from Rome to Toledo, and from Mecca to Warsaw. These two dynamics gave us an emergent, ever-unfinished Judaism always in dialectic with itself and with often hostile goyim. It is this dialectic that produced, in my newly forming opinion, halakhah as it is understood today, especially in its historic and sociological contexts.

Halakhah as ‘Separation’

From this history and from Jews’ real, experiential effects of a carefully monitored religious practice within a highly surveilled and often ghettoized community—and from my sociological perspective—halakhah has come to mean separation. From what I can see, there is a long philosophical tradition of explaining the meaning of halakhah as separation. In the more liberal books I’ve been reading, this is often expressed as sacrilization, making something or a stretch of time or an act sacred.

In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this is the great division that religions make between the sacred and the profane, where the sacred becomes the locus of the real, the true, the universal. This split is mainly enacted, that is to say, it is not an intrinsic quality of the world (or its objects or people), but rather something that is created by the people who make it sacred through their acts. A child and convert (?) learn of the sacred through experiencing its meaning as the people around them make it.

But there is another piece which seems to come from the history of Jewish people as embattled minorities, which is a separation of Jewish people from everyone else. Now clearly, there are reasons for Jews to embrace separatism historically, so as a sociologist, my response is “of course.” There are clear reasons why an oppressed people would have a deep sense of “chosenness” (another idea shared with Mormonism that I always found ethically disturbing; I will return to the idea of chosenness in Judaism in a later post).

In Orthodox thinking, separation is a key and integral part of Jewish theology and thus of Jewishness. David Gelernter spends an entire chapter extolling the virtues of Jewish separation from the world in ways that I found not only problematic but deeply unethical. There are passages in his book that read like an early 20th century eugenics tract against race mixing. Gelernter works his philosophical acumen for all its worth to make the act and state of separation itself into something sacred, but when you read a passage like this—”as [Jews] marry Gentiles and do as Gentiles do, and sink back (with a well-earned sigh of relief) into the muddy ocean of mankind”—if you have any post-Shoah, post-Jim Crow, post-Stonewall, post-pogrom sensibility at all, you cannot help but gasp at the ethical blindness of this idea (see Ch. 2 and pp. 51).

Gelernter fears the dissolution of Jewish distinctiveness in the face of an accepting and relatively free social and cultural context for Jews in the United States. He makes empassioned arguments against conversion and especially against “mixing of blood” between Jews and Gentiles. To be frank, reading this chapter in his book felt so anachronistic, so unethical that I almost gave up my decision to explore Judaism (his was the first book I read, back in February).

But the context he fears is a real one: In the United States and much of the world, Jews find themselves at a new cross-roads historically. While there still is anti-semitism afoot, it is not the dominant paradigm that governs legally, socially, or culturally. In other words, in the U.S. (where most of the world’s Jews live), when there is no real outside pressure (Jews are, in my opinion, fully integrated into U.S. culture), what does it mean to be a Jew?

For a non-believing Jew, who does not believe in separation as an ethical position, and who finds the panentheism of Kabbalah more resonant than the sacred/profane dyad—that is, for a Jew like me—what should halakhah mean? Can it be anything more than a mere expression of identity?

Toward a Humanistic Critique of Halakhah

Sociologically, I understand both the historical need for “separation” of a minority people in dangerous circumstances, and I also understand the social function of religious practice as a separation of the world into sacred and profane.

But as someone who is seeking a practice, but who is atheist-panentheist, I am caught up short by the more conservative take on halakhah-as-separation. And as a humanist, I wonder if there isn’t a more universalistic or humane reading of halakhah, a halakhah for the present social and scientific realities, rather than one built in a past that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.

Surely, Judaism contains within it the intellectual and humanistic values that I hold dear, otherwise I would not be so seriously pursuing conversion. From gemilut khasidim (acts of kindness), tzedakah (acts of justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) come a central ethical and, for me, resonant way of living. How do these altruistic and forward looking ideals interact with a legal culture of minute and specific laws? How do the Talmudic teachings that extend the acts of kindness and justice and repair outside of the Jewish community combine with the Talmudic (and cultural) impetus to exclusion and separation?

Because I am at heart a humanist who finds beauty, truth, and goodness (as well as ugliness, lies, and evil) in all of humanity’s religious efforts, I want to create a Jewish identity for myself and be part of a Jewish community that looks outward from its spiritual home to the world as a positive and intentional act, rather than out of a need to express a separate identity.

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**derived from German high criticism of the Bible, and which had a massive impact on Christianity as well; in the United States, this led to the liberalization of Congregationalism and the transformation of Unitarianism and the roots of American Transcendentalism (Emerson’s Nature being a prototypical panentheistic text); thus, German high criticism generally marks the beginning of liberalization of Western monotheism; the effect continues to be felt today both in Judaism and Christianity.

++I use the term “Palestine” with full awareness of the complexities of naming the land that has been the locus of so much bloodshed and identity politics for the past 3000 years. I use it as a term of ease rather than a political position.

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