From XII Century Cairo to XXI Century America

Imagine yourself in XII Century Cairo, known then as Fustat. The Jewish community is very diversified, with some Jews following the traditions of the "Iraqi" (Babylonian) Rabbis and their Talmud; others following the traditions of the Palestinian Rabbis and THEIR Talmud; and others yet following the traditions of the Karaites, who rejected both Talmudic traditions. It could be said that in many ways XII Century Fustat resembled, at least when it comes to internal Jewish communal life, the affiliated American Jewish community of the XXI Century. This parallel was indeed highlighted by several of the scholars in the XX Century who studied the documents that Solomon Schechter brought to England from the famous "Cairo Geniza" which has given us most of the knowledge we have of the daily life of Jews under Muslim rule in the Middle Ages. But here I will tell you that while there are many similarities, there are also some differences...

One of the documents found in the Cairo Geniza is a Ketubah (Marriage contract) drawn up in a Karaite Court in the year 1,117. The Ketubah commemorates the union between Dr. Yahya ben Avraham, a "Rabbanite" Jew who followed the Iraqi tradition and Rayyisa bat Saadia, an extremely well-off Karaite woman. It was for Yahya his second marriage, and for Rayyisa her third. Interesting to notice is that both of Yahya's marriages were to Rayyisa. But besides this piece of trivia, there are more important issues reflected in the Ketubah. For example:

"And our elder, dear Yahya agreed, of his own free will and resolve...that he shall not desecrate the festivals of the Lord as observed by his aforementioned wife according to the sighting of the moon, and that he shall not light the Shabbath candles against her (will and custom), and not coerce her in matters of food and drink...And if he violates any one of these conditions he will pay one hundred dinars to the poor of the Karaites and the poor of the Rabbanites in equal shares. And this Rayyisa agreed, that while she is with her aforementioned husband she shall not desecrate the festivals and customs of our brethren the Rabbinates"

This paragraph is telling us many things about how the different groups related to each other. Since Karaites and Rabbinates calculated the calendar according to different methods, their Festivals did indeed fall on different days. Karaites also believed that not only lighting fire on Shabbath was a desecration but allowing the fire lit before Shabbath to burn was seen as desecration as well. The laws of Kashrut were also interpreted differently, with Karaites allowing in some cases for the mixing of dairy and meat. So the Ketubah includes provisions to ensure mutual respect of their differences as part of the marriage contract...How remarkable!

If this were not enough, the Geniza also contained a letter from the Gaon of Jerusalem to a Rabbi of the "Palestinian" Synagogue in Fustat warning him that there have been complains about his behavior from his congregants, and that a number of them were abandoning his synagogue "for the Iraqi Synagogue and even the Karaite Synagogue". This letter is indeed telling us that the regular Jews saw the different traditions to some extent as interchangeable, and that many times which tradition they followed was motivated more by social factors than theological ones. Yet the letter, taken in conjunction with the Ketubah and thousands of other letters, led the scholars to believe that in XII Century Fustat Jews from different traditions saw each other as belonging to the same people, and their mutual differences as minor. They saw themselves as one diverse community rather than different communities of faith.

In XXI Century America, the Jewish community is divided among multiple fracture lines. Orthodox and Liberal Jews are seeing each other increasingly with suspicion, and some Orthodox groups even deny the validity of the liberal traditions, while many liberal Jews are just "writing off" the Orthodox as belonging in a different century or a different world.

Among Orthodox, followers of Hassidism are seen by non Hassidic Orthodox with suspicion, and within the Hassidic movement followers of different "Rebbes" eye each other with weariness. Nowhere is that so evident as in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, where the "Shadchan" needs to make sure that the prospective couple belongs to the same Hassidic sect, that requirement often include in the "contract" made with the parents seeking a mate for their daughter or son.

Among non-Hassidic Orthodox there are many differences between Modern Orthodox with mutual distrust growing especially in matters of Kashrut.

Among liberal Jews there are also fracture points. Many Conservative and Reform Rabbis see with great suspicion the activities of the miryad of new splinter small groups springing around the country, like Humanistic Judaism, Trascendental Judaism, etc. And Reconstructionism is seen also as a movement without its own Theological identity. Some Conservative Jews believe that Reform Judaism has gone "too far" by adopting Patrilineal descent as a criterion for Jewish Identity and some Reform Jews resent Conservative Jews, who are seen as "having too much Hebrew in their service". Within each movement there are also divisions connected with Rabbis leaning toward approaching the traditions of the other Movement and those leaning toward emphasizing the differences. Moving from one Jewish denomination to another in XXI Century America is becoming more and more difficult socially. Often people who attend the Conservative Synaogue do not know those "in the Reform Temple" and viceversa. In the case of secular or liberal Jews trying to enter Orthodoxy it means sometimes a demand for "conversion", and Orthodox Jews moving over to any of the liberal branches as "abandoning tradition"

These differences play out themselves also in Israel, where the Orthodox Jews taken as a whole have a lot more political power than Liberal Jews, a fact that comes from their having had a strong presence in Eretz Israel from before the establishment of the the State, and from their sheer numbers - which become important in a Democratic Political system. One of the consequences of this unequal representation in the halls of power was the controversy started several years ago and dubbed "The Who is a Jew controversy" which tied directly into thr Right of Return and into the self-esteem of the liberal movements. This controversy triggered actions by liberal Jews which also run counter to the prevalent forms of behavior in XII Century Fustat: trying to bring down the Mechitzah at the Western wall for example. The question of whether Jews should or should not build communities in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) are also becoming a point of inter-movement contention.

In what can only be described as further fractures, in XXI Century many American Jews come to their Jewish Identity from their American participation. In consequence, differences in political preferences in American politics often translate into different expectations from congregants regarding their Rabbi and each other. Rabbis find themselves being accused of "doing too much politics from the Bimah" or "not making Judaism more relevant by caring about what happens in our (American) country". This political attitude toward Judaism also promotes the development of political judgements on Israel which are often supported by quotes from the traditional sources; from "God gave us the land, the Arabs have no rights" to "Not respecting the rights of the Palestinians means that Israel has lost its moral right to exist and is no longer a Jewish State". In between those two extremes, there is a wide variety of opinions which generally listen very little or not at all to each other. The middle ground and the Jewish consensus are rapidly dissapearing from our contemporary communal landscape. Competition and mutual rejection are increasingly taking the center stage.

Maybe we, as XXI Century American Jews need to read that XII Century Ketubah and make it our communal contract...a new "Jewish Constitution" not to replace the Torah, but to remind us of it; to remind us that as the Rabbis of old and the common Jews of the street understood so well, "Many are the rivers that feed the sea of Jewish Identity"


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