Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Being Jew-ishy

Dr. Devorah Baum of Southampton University may be more connected to some form of traditional Judaism than she lets on in her New York Times op-ed published on the evening of Yom Kippur. So perhaps she herself isn't the problem in her piece at all, but rather the Times editors who welcomed her article and its timing, and the many readers who heartily agree with her theses. The thesis, in a nutshell: Jews are the uprooted, the outsiders, a minority whose identity is unclear but it's not that of the majority. Above all, they're a sensibility (her word).

Well, no. Baum's prime examples are Franz Kafka (died 1924), and Lenny Bruce (died 1966). In the meantime it's 2017, and the State of Israel is gearing up to celebrate it's 70th anniversary. A country invented to end Jews' condition of minorities looking in, is now home to half the world's Jews, and the younger and growing half. So there's that.

I read Baum's op-ed yesterday, then went to shul for Yom Kippur. I love Yom Kippur, but this time I read the machzor with her strange words in the background. I inherited the book itself from my father, but the words themselves we both inherited from centuries of our forefathers. In it are sections of the Pentateuch, which even skeptical modern academia admits has been with us for 2,500 years (the text itself claims it's almost a thousand years older). The commandments founding Yom Kippur come with the whiff of the desert. Isaiah makes an important appearance. He lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE, so there's an echo of the original city on the hill. There are long and detailed Talmudic descriptions of the Temple, harking back from the late Second Temple era, when Jerusalem was larger than it ever was again until the 19th century.

There are blood-curdling descriptions of the Roman persecution in the 2nd century CE, calling to mind the Mishnaic Galilee. There are medieval supplications for mercy, calling to mind the great rabbis of Spain and France and their end; then of course there's Amnon of Magenza, though no more than one German in 10,000 knows that Magenza is Mainz, refusing to budge from his religion even while his limbs are being chopped off. (The poem may actually have been written many centuries earlier, in Israel, but a popular belief of 800 years has power of its own).

Recent centuries - prior to the 20th - didn't add much to the texts, except to parts of the Yizkor, but they added melodies, so that the Ashkenazi ones and the Sphardi ones are quite distinct. Then, once Israel was created it added new layers, and 30 years later, after the Yom Kippur War, yet additional ones. In recent years some Israeli rabbis are trying their hand at creating a combined Ashkenazi-Sphardi version, on the one hand, and secular teachers and thinkers are trying their own versions to fuze the ancient and priceless with the modern.

One can brush all this aside and insist that Judaism is feeling good about welcoming refugees into our midst, or fixing the world to fit a Progressive agenda. By the end of the 21 century, or perhaps long before, there won't be many Jews of that sort left as Jews. Or one can return to what was obvious and banal for a few thousand years: the recognition that Jews have been creating their culture all along, layer on layer, ever richer and deeper.

Jews aren't a sentiment. Jews are the ones who participate in the vibrant ongoing ancient Jewish conversation.