Diversity Without Devastation

One of the wonderful aspects of being Jewish is that the Jewish world is so diverse. Cultural and regional influences from around the world and from different eras of time continue to impact the way Jewish communities live and develop today.

The sociological experience of visiting Israel brings to light an ingathering of exiles. Jews of multiple ethnic backgrounds have a home in their modern state. I recall sitting on an army base in Israel on a public fast day, in searing heat. There were a group of sixty people listening to the Rabbi of the base. He went around the room asking in which country people were born. In that setting more than 40 countries were listed. It was an amazing experience, to see before our own eyes a group of people with a common heritage, yet were it not for our Jewish ancestry we would have had nothing in common whatsoever.

Judaism and Jewish law is constructed on the precept that the Torah was gifted to people by G-d. The interpretation and implementation of Torah law is entrusted to the generations descended from Moses. It belongs to us to apply the tools and to debate and understand Torah. We do this on a number of levels, with the knowledge that humankind is also fallible and can make mistakes. Dispute amongst Jewish scholars can be very dramatic. This is because Judaism is all about what the word of G-d means to us, not about what our words mean to G-d. Our task is to bring the divine teaching of the Torah into our physical, relative, limited and finite world and apply its precepts to the moral dilemmas of day to day living.

The Rabbi’s built a “fence around the Torah” to protect the very diversity that holds Jewish tradition together from being exploited from misuse. The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 13.15) writes that there are 70 faces of Torah. There is room for difference of opinion and great diversity within these 70 chalakim, or parts. However there are also limits and boundaries, and to preserve our tradition it is these limitations on deed and conduct, somewhat less relative than we sometimes extend or admit amongst ourselves, that must be protected.

There are also multiple levels of interpreting Torah (the acronym Pardes stands for Pshat, Remez, Drash and Sod, or the literal, suggestive or implied, contextual and secretive meanings of a text).

More and more we live in a Jewish world that is tempered by a myriad of religious and ideological messages that are at odds with the fundamental tenets of Judaism, yet are still spoken in the name of Judaism. There are many examples, such as believers of Jesus who claim identity to Jewish faith, or promulgators of a peace process that relinquishes the land of Israel in contravention to biblical command, proponents of compatibility between homosexuality and Jewish spirituality, or reformist Jews that provide a platform for intermarriage and Jewish identity based on paternal descent. These ideas are all commonly accepted expressions that exist in the world, and are defended by their proponents. They are lifestyle choices for many, but the point here is that it is overtly false to claim these ideas in the name of representative Judaism when they clearly conflict with Jewish convention.

I was reading this week’s Australian Jewish News, and was gobsmacked by an article called “How Judaism can engage postmodernity” authored by the Director of the Jewish Museum of Australia. In the article the author is quoted as saying “Throughout Jewish history, Jews and Judaism have flourished when they have engaged with other cultures and ideas.” I cannot think of a conclusion that is more diametrically opposed to Jewish experience based on the lessons that Jewish history actually demonstrates. Each time Jewish communities have engaged other cultures and ideas the story has ended in tragedy. An assimilationist policy has never delivered ultimate positive benefits to a Jewish communal structure anytime in history.

I am not against secular and non-religious Jewish institutions and organisations that support Jewish community life and deliver pathways to Jewish community affiliation. However I do stand against organisations that transform Judaism and its values into non-Jewish ideas. Some Jewish organisations do this by juxtaposing de-contextualised Jewish soundbytes with contemporary agendas and causes that bear no relationship to the united values of a Jewish community.

The consequence of this applied moral relativism is clear. It leads to societal breakdown, irrational conclusions, and political correctness. It leaves the Jewish community in a vulnerable position, unable to defend its convictions due to dissent within.

I would like to reemphasise that there are many welcome expressions and ideas that are not Jewish, and that the marketplace of ideas is an open one. However to take an idea that is alien to Judaism and proclaim it in the name of Judaism is something that you can expect the defenders of Judaism to resist. I realise that not every discussion is so simplistic and that complex and subjective analytical regard must be directed to each and every conclusion. However the reason that a halachic framework and boundaries were created was for this very reason – to protect from the dissolution of Judaism to the point where it is beyond recognition and subject to demise.

From within the 70 faces of Jewish expression there is a tremendous amount of diversity and intellectual challenge to ensure that our people remain pluralistic, but at the same time, we still remain a people.