The recent kerfuffle around Whoopi Goldberg has once again ignited the perennial debate about whether the Jewish people constitute a race. The problem is that such distinctions are modern social constructs, and were invented long after the Jewish people came into being. Jews are not so much a race or a religion, but a civilization—a culture. As a culture, Judaism has its own laws, folk tales, myths, songs, and several similar—but not necessarily identical—religions. We’re a people, and any attempt to fit us into the little boxes designed for and by Western societies is destined to fail.
We often internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
Halakhah doesn’t deal so much with rights as with obligations. Men have the “right” to be well and thoroughly taught, and to spend years learning Torah, because they are also obligated to learn; women are not. But a bold halakhic idea may change all that.
The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
The current uproar in Israel over a proposed academic “code of conduct” recalls a Talmudic debate on when freedom of speech endangers the rule of law. And this, in turn raises the question: What do false prophets, rebellious sages, and kidnappers all have in common? The answer has everything to do with freedom of speech in the public sphere.
The Babylonian Talmud was originally meant to be a resource for all Jews. But, although written in the vernacular of the day, the lack of universal literacy confined the Talmud to the realm of scholars. The commandment that the Jewish People become “A kingdom of priests” was left unfulfilled. But that is about to change!
Tragedy—such as the harvest that would be lost if there is no rain—has the effect of splintering society. Suffering sets every man against every other. This is true in particular of famine, because if I eat, someone else does not eat. The message of Massechet Ta’anit is: We will not let this calamity splinter us into a group of disparate individuals, each fighting for his own survival. We will meet our fate as a community. We will pray as a community. We will fast as a community. Our strength is in our unity.
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
In every generation, there is a clash between new ideas and interpretations, which are necessary for the survival of Judaism, and the older, static, “more authentic” ways. And in each instance, the newer ways entail ideas brought in from outside of the “old Judaism”. The Sadducees represented “authentic” Judaism based on written texts; but it was the new ideas picked up during the Babylonian Exile that were needed to ensure Jewish survival in a changing world.