New-ish Jewish

I really enjoy reading Tablet. Among their regular features is a weekly column by literary critic Adam Kirsch, who is doing the daf yomi thing and writes stories with interesting insights, etc., from one or another of the dapim he’s read the prior week.

The article posted today discusses a section of tractate Pesahim where the question of when observance of a holiday begins: does it start the prior afternoon, or earlier? It turns to a discussion of the role of custom in determining the start time, and favors a stricter (read, “earlier”) start time where custom dictates as much, and requires that someone carry over the stricter time when they start the day in a place where the stricter custom prevails, but move on to someplace where a less strict custom prevails. (I’m simplifying here, of course.)

In pondering this, Kirsch expresses concern that maybe modern Jews–that is, non-“orthodox” modern Jews–who don’t live according to halakhah are engaging in “defective” Judaism, and notes that the rabbis might point out that schismatic sects who deviated from rabbinic rulings are mostly gone. That is, Kirsch worries that by deviating from the historical “norm,” we are not really building “an original creation with its own integrity” but are instead fatally wounding how we engage in Judaism.

I don’t share his concern. I’ve written here before that I don’t like the term “Orthodox” because it carries with it not merely the implication, but indeed the concession that Jews who do something outside the rabbinic stream are inauthentically Jewish. That term and indeed any approach to Judaism that views rabbinic Judaism as the only authentic form of Judaism, with all others as compromise positions or worse, strike me as inappropriate because they misapprehend what has been happening the whole time: Jews have always defined Judaism, and there has always been a stream of thought–even among the early rabbinic traditions–that has recognized this.

Want to see?

Mishnah Hagigah 1:8: “The laws of Shabbat, the three Festivals (Sukkot, Pesah, Shavuot), and sacrilege are like mountains that hang from a hair, since they have scant scriptural basis but many laws.”

This is pretty self-aware stuff. It’s a recognition that those additional laws came from somewhere. (While this is an isolated example, it’s not the only one. Come on, man–it’s a blog post! Go read the recent translation of Heschel’s Torah min Hashamayim if you want a full analysis.) And it makes the point (along with the sugya Kirsch discusses) that we’ve been making Judaism the whole time.

So, are we compromising on some “true” form of Judaism, as Kirsch worries? No, I don’t think we are. The more we acknowledge that, and the more we put effort into making Judaism–and the less effort we put into fretting that we’re somehow unmaking Judaism in the process–the richer Judaism will be.

We’ve always made Judaism what it is, and we will continue to do so. It’s probably the central insight of much of modern study of Jewish history: when you read the texts for what they show, rather than what they say, you get a very different picture of Judaism. That’s the central insight of Humanist and, before it, Reconstructionist Judaism.

Kirsch’s concern–that the rabbis might respond with “we’re still here, and the others are all gone”–is a valid one. But I think it’s misplaced if we spend our time as modern Jews worried about and measuring ourselves against Judaism-as-it-has-been. Judaism survived in its present forms because it continued to develop. Let’s focus on making Judaism what it will be, and not cede ground to the idea that we aren’t measuring up to what came before. Judaism–in all its forms–will flourish that way.