Jewish Identity and the way of the Jews


While the move of accepting the appointment of a Reform woman Rabbi as community Rabbi of Kibbutz Gezer is without a doubt a significance step forward in the recognition of non Orthodox expressions of Judaism, the step is not without qualifications. Rabbi Miri Gold will be paid by the Regional Council same as Orthodox Rabbis are, but her title is “Rabbi of a non-Orthodox Community” and her salary is still paid not through the Ministry of Religious Services but through the Ministry of Culture and Sports.


As a student of Jewish History, I have come across accounts of Jewish philosophies in many documents. I have also read accounts of the multiplicity of Jewish expressions in many ages. Josephus Flavius, the first century historian who became the chronicler of the Flavian emperors, was also a Jewish priest. In his book “The Jewish Wars” he relates the differences between different sects of Judaism in the first century: Saducees, Farisees, Essenes, Sicarians, etc. From that cauldron of diverse expressions, is that Rabbinic Judaism was born, as well as other competing streams of Jewish expression, including the early “Jewish” Jerusalem Church led by James the brother of Jesus which survives today only among the Mandeans of Southern Iraq.


Some Centuries later, the Talmud also tells us of the differing customs and religious practices of Jews in different parts of the Diaspora, and even highlights the differences between Rabbinic Judaism and the Samaritans, a Jewish group which separated from the main trunk of Judaism during the time of the return from the Babylonian exile.


Also during the first century, some documents refer the the differences between “Judeans” and “Partians”, a reference to the distinct form of Judaism practiced by Jews in Northern Iraq and adopted by Queen Adiabene of the Partians, the same Queen who built a Palace in Jerusalem and helped fund the rebellion against Rome.


And the findings of the Cairo Geniza highlight the differences between “Rabbinic” and “Karaite” Judaism, which coexisted in Egypt and according to the records lived very much together in Fustat with frequent “intermarriage”.


Should I mention the differences that developed over time between Ashkenazy, Sephardi and Oriental Jews? Or the particular practices of specific communities like the Jews of Kurdistan, or Ethiopia, or Bukhara?


In more recent times, in Eastern Europe, there were distinct differences between Hassidim, Misnagdim, and Traditional. In Germany, the XIX Century saw the birth of what we call today the Reform, the Conservative, and the Orthodox movements.


It is obvious to me that the old story saying that when you have two Jews you have three opinions (and in the Israeli version they ad “four political parties”) does have some reality to it. Jews are a passionate and opinionated people. When Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the people kept complaining, arguing and questioning every step of the way...well, here we are 4000 years later!


I believe that one of the most important keys to Jewish survival has been precisely that diversity of opinions. At every important juncture in Jewish history, there were at least two competing movements (often more) claiming to have the REAL answer to ensure the continuous existence and development of Judaism...and eventually History made its judgment.


Jewish Identity cannot be defined in carved-in-stone terms because Jewish identity is in fact a sort of “Unity in Diversity”, something the Rabbis acknowledged already in the Talmud by saying that “many rivers feed the sea of Halacha”


The restoration of Jewish political sovereignty in the land of our ancestors opened new problems, and one of them was how to define who was Jewish for the purposes of the State, and also who can perform marriages or conversions recognized by the political authority. We are indeed dealing with a problem Jews did not have to deal with for a couple thousands years, and as usual we are doing it badly because each group is convinced of the validity of their own interpretation of Judaism.


In a Jewish state, however, the game of numbers matter as much as it does in any other Democracy, and the relative strength of Orthodox Rabbis ensured them dominance for several decades. That is beginning to change, but be ready for that change not to come easy. The important issue is to remember that beyond whatever differences we might have among ourselves in the way we worship or the way we understand our sacred texts, or even reject the religious dimension of Jewish Identity – we are still one family, dysfunctional relationships and all...


Add Comment