A week and a half ago I was in the Newark airport, dropping off my son for his El Al flight back to Israel, and there was a local Chabad rabbi set up with a kiosk just before security, asking Jewish travelers (men only, of course) to put on tefillin. I observed him put tefillin on one guy, and I noticed that, in contrast to the standard Ashkenazi practice of saying two berakhot, one for the arm and then an additional one for the head, he asked the guy to say only the berakhah for the arm.
Now, I know that Sefaradim only say one berakhah, but that Chabadniks are clearly from the Ashkenazi world. So I asked him why he only said one berakhah. And he said, “Because that’s the way it’s done!” I reminded him that widespread Ashkenazi practice was to say two berakhot, for the two separate mitzvot / commandments identified in the Shema,* and I quoted it for him. But he would not accept that. “It’s one berakhah,” he said. “Now you’ve learned something today.”
What I learned, of course, is that the Jewish world is filled with different opinions, and that some of us are more open to them than others. (I don’t think that’s what he thought I learned.)
The book of Devarim ostensibly takes place nearly 40 years after the rest of the Torah. It’s the end of Moshe’s life. And what does he do? He gives a speech. And not a short one, either; it’s long. A whole book. (Sooo Jewish, right!)
It’s an authentic, personal lecture, summarizing not only some of the major laws of the Torah, but also including historical tales as well, retelling the episode at Sinai, for example, and even documenting his own exclusion from entering the land of Israel. It is almost as if he is speaking thus:
“I have been denied entering Israel, because of my anger. I am being punished. But I remain true to the task I have been given, and that task was to lead you out of Egypt and to Sinai to receive the Torah. My work is done; now it will be up to you to carry our tradition forward.”
So here we are now, thousands of years after this story was written down. We have not had a Moshe Rabbeinu for 3 millennia. And yet we’re still here. And much of that has to do with the fact that we continue to interpret and reinterpret the Torah.
There is a well-known and beloved story from the Talmud about Rabbi Akiva, who lived around the turn of the second century CE, a good 1300 years after Moshe. The story is as follows (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 29b):
Moshe is up on Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah from God, and he sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe asks, “Why the fancy illustrations?”
God says, “More than a millennium from now, there will be a great sage named Rabbi Akiva, who will interpret every jot and tittle in the Torah.”
Moshe says, “Can I see this person?”
God says, “Turn around.” And Moshe is instantly transported to the 2nd century, CE, to the back of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. And there’s Rabbi Akiva, expounding on the Torah, explaining every jot and tittle in the text. Moshe is very confused, because none of this information is in the Torah that God gave him. A student raises his hand. “But where did you learn this?”
Rabbi Akiva replies, “It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai.” And Moshe felt much better.
Rabbi Akiva somehow understood more Torah than Moshe knew; he had gleaned it from the written Torah and its subsequent interpretation. And we today, living 1900 years or so after Rabbi Akiva, know and understand even more, because that interpretation has continued.
With time and commentary and disagreement has come a wealth of diversity of opinion on Jewish law and custom. And with that diversity comes a similar range of customs and interpretation. And you know what? While each of us claim that our way is the “right” way, in many cases, there is no right way. There are different customs, performing one custom instead of another is not wrong; it’s just different.
And, more importantly, no tradition is more “authentic” than any other.
We love the idea of authenticity. And really, how could you not? We live in an age in which we know our politicians lie, the corporations who supply us with food and medicine and transportation and information can be deceptive to benefit their bottom lines, settled scientific fact is openly disputed by authority figures on television, and so forth. Perhaps some of these examples are merely the bad apples that are spoiling the bunch, but the negative continually gets the spotlight, and it is easy to become cynical and distrustful.
We crave authenticity. We yearn for something that we can hold onto that is not layered with marketing or spin. We need to know that in this world where identity is fungible and the truth cannot be found in a Google search, that there are some things which remain untouched by the taint of modernity.
A fascinating article crossed my desk this week, from the Atlantic magazine. It was about how some people are now willing to pay to watch Jews performing “authentic” religious rituals:
Two perceived qualities of Orthodox Judaism—authenticity and ancientness—are enticing people outside this religious tradition to pay for the chance to sample it. In Israel, secular citizens and foreign visitors willing to fork over $20 to the tour company Israel-2Go can embark on a trip to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, where they’ll watch men in black hats and women in long skirts buying challah bread from a kosher bakery while a guide narrates the scene. They can also pay to take a tour of the menorahs in Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways during Hanukkah; eat a five-course Friday night Shabbat meal in the home of an observant family; or hear a lecture about the different nuances of the black-and-white garb worn by men from various ultra-Orthodox sects.
The article goes on to discuss ways in which contemporary Jews and non-Jews are making traditional rituals their own, and how that indicates our current search for authenticity.
What irked me about the article, though, is the assumption, made by many, that if it’s not performed by people in black hats, then it’s not authentic. The very title, “The Commodification of Orthodox Judaism,” suggests that it’s only Orthodox Jews whose authenticity is being sought.
But we know better. We in the Conservative movement, and, well, all of the non-Orthodox world, know that our customs are just as authentic. OK, so the addition of the Imahot, the names of the Jewish matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, were not recited in any Amidah (the standing, silent prayer that is central to every Jewish service) prior to, I think, the 1970s. Does that mean that including them is not “authentic”? Hasidism adopted the black garb because that was how Polish nobles dressed in the 18th century. Is that “authentic”? The Reform movement jettisoned the laws of kashrut / Jewish dietary laws, a move perhaps made most famous at the “Trefa Banquet” of 1883 in Cincinnati. Does that make them “inauthentic”?
“Authenticity” is just more spin. Customs come and go. Rituals change. Even halakhah / Jewish law changes. What we do here is just as authentic as what happens at Poale Zedeck, or Shaare Torah, or Rodef Shalom. Moshe did not wear a black hat, and neither did Rabbi Akiva. We are firmly based in Jewish tradition, and the process of interpretation that Rabbi Akiva taught.
And that brings me back to Israel, and recent political events there. To summarize briefly:
- PM Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to suspend the completion of a respectful, fully-accessible egalitarian area at the Kotel, where non-Orthodox Jews can worship unmolested by those who just can’t stand seeing men and women davening together.
- The cabinet also advanced a bill in the Knesset that would ensure that the Israeli Rabbinate (the “Rabbanut”) would have sole control over conversions in Israel. This bill would mean that any conversions to Judaism conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox or even individual Orthodox rabbis not under the Rabbanut’s auspices would not be recognized by the State of Israel.
- The Rabbanut published a list of 160 rabbis from around the world whose letters affirming the Jewishness of candidates for marriage in Israel were rejected in 2016. Rabbi Steindel and I were on that list, even though I have never written such a letter. (The Post-Gazette actually ran a story on this last week.)
I spoke about this a few weeks back when I addressed the Kotel issue, but the problem comes back to the lack of separation of synagogue and state in Israel. The government of Israel turned over the keys to religious decisions to a certain group of Orthodox rabbis 69 years ago, and Judaism has suffered for it. I am not insulted by being “blacklisted.” I suppose it’s a badge of honor. But I am certainly no less a spiritual leader, and no less inclined to continue to teach the diversity of opinion and custom and tradition that we have.
On the contrary, I am more inclined to speak up:
To speak up for the range of what it means to be Jewish.
To speak up for the 85% of the Jewish world that does not identify as Orthodox.
To speak up for those who think that development in Jewish life did not end in the 19th century.
To speak up for those who understand that all Jewish people, women and men, and even those who identify as neither, be recognized as equal recipients of the Jewish heritage and equal participants in Jewish life and learning.
To speak up for my fellow rabbis who are being disenfranchised by the Jewish state.
To speak up for the ongoing engagement with modernity as we continue to unravel the project of what it means to be Jewish today.
Authenticity infuses all of these people and principles. And I’ll speak up for that. Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/29/17.)
* וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. You shall bind [these words] as a sign on your arm, and wear them as frontlets between your eyes (Deut. 6:8). This has been understood as two separate commandments, and hence two berakhot.