Thursday, February 09, 2012

There are several myths about Orthodox Judaism in America that I’d like to debunk in this composition. Most are posited and propagated by the Orthodox themselves; alas, however, nobody seems to bother to challenge those presuppositions – perhaps for lack of expertise in the subject—so, here I go:

Myth 1: Orthodox Judaism is the oldest of the major Jewish denominations in America.

Truth: Between organized Jewish socio-philosophical movements others are older. For example, the reform movement in America began in 1824 with the foundation of the Reform Society of Israelites in Charleston, South Carolina. Other reform-minded congregations later united under the guidance and leadership of Isaac Mayer Wise and subsequently established Hebrew Union College (HUC) for the training of a new generation of American rabbis in 1875.

When at a gala event non-kosher food was flagrantly served, some participants grumbled and eventually seceded to found Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) as a more traditional alternative to Reform.

When Solomon Schechter took over the helm of leadership of JTS and officially coined the term Conservative to define the movement as more traditional than Reform but not quite bound by halakha, those who sought to preserve rabbinical Judaism completely unaltered were prompted to once again secede from JTS and establish the “Jewish Jews”, which took the name Orthodoxy after its umbrella organization the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, also known as the “Orthodox Union”.
In short Orthodoxy was the last to organize itself in America and it did so reactively because it was unsatisfied with the state of affairs in the other, more progressive denominations.

Myth 2: Orthodox people observe halakha exactly as specified by the accepted middle-ages authorities such as R. Joseph Cairo, author of the shulhan arukh, without any modifications or negligence.

Fact: None of the factions within contemporary Orthodoxy stick to halakha 100%.

Hasidim, for example, habitually pray minha after sunset and frequently miss the deadline for reciting the morning shema and/or the morning amidah prayer. Other commonly violated laws are the proscriptions on slander (lashon hara) and gossip (rekhiluth).

Modern Orthodox folks – on the other hand—have their own divergences from halakha. For example, they often engage in unacceptable physical contact with women. The Early Orthodox folks of the interwar years – such as Young Israel – even organized co-ed dances in order to encourage social and conjugal interaction within the community. Another questionable practice highly prevalent among the MO is the clean-shaving of the beard, which is prima facie unacceptable.

Myth 3: Orthodox Judaism is the only authentic Judaism available; other denominations being tainted by their eagerness to adapt to their surrounding and thus open to compromise with traditional belief and practice.

Fact: “Traditional” Judaism has not been static over the years. It’s only traditional at a given point in time and space, relative to others who wish to modernize. Ultimately, however, any serious student of Jewish history knows that even the most fundamentalist of contemporary Orthodoxy has learned to adapt in many ways to its particular milieu.

For example:

1) In old Europe there was no such thing as kashrut certification. While this may seem a humra (stringency), it also constitutes permission to eat from commercial establishments who are bound by the laws of the open market to be honest and diligent in its practice of kashrut, as opposed to exhibiting genuine integrity.

2) Eruv in America. The Eruv in America in large cities is clearly not kosher due to the “600,000 people traversing the road” rule; the Talmud and Halakha make it very clear that such does not qualify for Eruv. Accordingly, no eruv would be valid anywhere within a city such as New York.

3) Beth din. The beth din system in America is a travesty. It commands no respect from members of the Orthodox community. The law forbidding adjudication of disputes in secular courts (arkaut) is habitually violated by the most devout Jews.

4) Among many Hasidic sects, adherents’ blind attachment and fanatic dedication to their leaders surpasses halakhic bounds. Adherents often commit acts of aggression and harm in the name of their Rebbe. Even in their personal life, their Rebbe’s advice trumps the strict rule of Halakha and moral responsibility.

Myth 4: Orthodox Judaism will continue indefinitely. All other Jewish movements fizzle out in the end. Strict adherence to tradition is the only permanent safeguard against dissolution of the Jewish faith.

Fact: As explained earlier Orthodoxy itself is a relatively recent, reactionary movement, and so there is no a priori expectation for its continuation any longer into the future than, say, Reform Judaism.
In fact, if history can teach us something in this regard it is precisely the contrary. The Sadducee movement vanished because it was TOO conservative. Because it concentrated all its focus on temple worship, it was unsustainable once the temple was destroyed in 70 c.e. whereas the Pharisee movement with its “reformist” and populist approach to Judaism --enabling commoners to partake of the cult through the studying of Torah and meticulous observance of commandments—thereby laid a solid foundation for the continuity of Judaism through the Middle Ages.

Monday, January 09, 2012

How did Judaism Survive whereas all its Contemporaries Failed?

Why was the Hellenistic threat to the survival of Judaism so great, and why was Judaism's ability to resist Hellenism such a pivotal event in world history?

Most historians don't take the events in Judaea in the years 332-76 BCE seriously. Specifically I am referring --for one-- to the Hellenization trend that lasted from Alexander's conquest until Antiochus Epiphanes' reign and religiously-repressive edicts of 175 BCE; and --secondly-- the triumph of the Hasmoneans over Greek acculturation increasing momentum from 164 BCE until the rule of Alexander Jannaeus in the 1st century BCE.

So Judaism survived. Who cares?

We all care! Our modern culture leans on dual pillars: the "western" rational, scientific, humanistic one based on the Greek worldview and philosophy and the "eastern" religious one based on morality, restraint, and god.

Our deistic pillar is a direct descendant of Jewish traditions. Both Christian and Muslim religions have merely latched on to the Jewish heritage, modified it a bit to suit a particular temporal and geographical need and disseminated it far and wide to their respective people. They did not invent anything from scratch.

But neither did Judea -- you retort. Jews, after all didn't really innovate a all that much. Their Israelite predecessors were merely a small cog in the Egyptian-Mesopotamian civilizations of the Ancient Near East.

And you are indeed very right! For the most part, the Jewish religion, as it started evolving in earnest during and immediately after the exile in the sixth and fifth century BCE wasn't all that unique. It was just the "last man standing" after most of the numerous other petty kingdoms from the Iron Age vanished over time in response to conquest (esp. by Assyria!) and pressure to adapt to prevailing sociopolitical realities which tended to be assimilationist.

And so what it all boils down to is not whether the Jews are important and what the value of their contribution to posterity is. As I said the proof of their enduring contribution and the value it bestows to our society is beyond reproach. The question rather is. Why "them"? Why wasn't is the Aramaeans or the Edomites or the Ammonites -- all of which shared a substantial socio-religious platform with the Israelites of the late second temple period. For that matter: why not the Babylonians or Persians themselves -- the people who were the ultimate lords over the Jews of the exile and beyond. Wouldn't it be more logical that a lord's culture would be superior to that of a vassal state and jostle its way to the forefront in the battle for survival?

And so our investigation will center on why the Jews? Why did their version of Semitic heritage survive and adapt to Hellenistic life while all other cultures have very few discernible traces in our society.

Over the course of much study and examination of this question I have identified several unique characteristics about second temple Judaism, as follows:

1) Emphasis on universalism. "yahweh" was originally a local deity. We now know that a locale in the vicinity of the the Negev and southern Transjordan (what was then inhabited by proto-Edomites) was called "yehu" and the Jewish tradition points to that locale in the story of Moses' revelation at the burning bush on Mt. Sinai (according to the J source -- which is the originator of the tradition via the Levites who emerged out of Egyptian slavery in the LBA).

However, over the years Judaism conceived of a wonderful and novel idea: religious syncretism. A sort of mix 'n match of the best features of both the world civilizations it straddled: Egypt to the West and Mesopotamia in the East. This keen capacity to absorb tidbits from multiple cultures and process them to become relevant in an increasingly cosmopolitan world where global commerce calls for cross-cultural diffusion -- was uniquely Jewish. And this is not surprising since the Jews were the ones inhabiting the buffer zone between the two elemental mega-civilizations and so would have been exposed to both continually.

2) Predisposition to Greek culture. Ironically, while we tend to think of Hellenistic culture as the arch nemesis of Judaism, quite the reverse is likely the case from a broad ideological standpoint. For example, the willingness to endure pain for a noble cause finds its rationale in the Greek school of Stoicism. The Jews didn't necessarily borrow this idea from the Greeks. But they certainly would have found fertile ground with at least some Greeks for a basic understanding of why it is virtuous to die rather than commit a grave sin (such as violation of Sabbath or circumcision) that abrogates Jews' covenant with God and thus renders life worthless. This is a radical notion; generally novel in its time, yet the Greeks were readily receptive to it.

3) Greek receptivity to Jewish religion and culture. The basis for a cosmopolitan, universalistic outlook on life was even stronger among the Greeks. Recall that the Greeks were primarily a seafaring nation. s such they peddled not just merchandise from port to port bu also ideas. The notion that there is no such thing as a local deity --whose power terminated at its nations' borders-- would have sat very well with them. They may have even conceived of it on their own. Regardless, this sort of universal God, is more enduring, more rational, less corporeal and less capricious. All of these were qualities that the Greeks were eminently known for.

4) Religious persecution. At the time the Seleucid religious persecution began in 167 BCE, the Jews had come a very long way in adapting and developing their new religion. They were at this stage ideologically unbeatable. As the saying goes: what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

This is exactly what happened with the Jews for two reasons: 1) Their ability to withstand the mighty Seleucid regime gave them a tremendous psychological and moral boost and triggered an even greater conviction that their god and His covenant with the Jews is alive and kicking. 2) In the process of "defeating" the Greeks, the Hasmoneans learned to adopt various useful elements from Greek culture such as language, military tactics and government structure (note the titles of Hasmonean rulers "ethnarch", "basileios", "strategos" and their names: Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, Alexander,). This capacity to absorb a great deal from your enemy's cultural repertoire while remaining firmly loyal to the covenant actually strengthened the covenant by bringing it up to date with the contemporary political milieu.

5) Trade vs. Agriculture. As hinted to earlier, the Greeks stood for maritime trade -- that was their specialty, their unique contribution to mankind. The long-established Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations in the East, on the other hand, stood for more traditional means of subsistence, in particular agriculture.

It is possible that the Seleucid attempt to abolish the Jewish Sabbath and the three annual agriculture-revolving festivals was seen as a declaration of war not just against a religion but against an economy as well. The Sabbath would have naturally had little relevance to a Greek sailor, who is not tilling land for six days to justify rest on the seventh.

As such, it is possible that the Jews met with sympathy from a much wider Eastern population far beyond their narrow borders. This would also explain the easy with which the Hasmoneans later successfully embarked on various military conquests and territorial annexations and conversions. The Hasmoneans would have been hailed as liberators and promoters of traditional economic practices.