Posts Tagged 'Judaism'

A Purim Study: On Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness

When people find out that I am a Rabbi I often find myself in deep religious conversations with people, especially non-Jews. While being religious is part of being, it is far from the totality of my Jewish identity.

There is an important idea attributed to Dr. Michael Rosenak, Israeli philosopher of Jewish education, who makes an important distinction between Judaism, Jews, and Jewishness. Judaism is our religion. This one comes in many flavors and sizes. A Jew a member of the Jewish people. We too come in all flavors and sizes. And finally there is Jewishness. This is the culture of belonging to this global people. Our Jewishness gives voice to our sensibilities, interpretive lenses, and our languages. Clearly we are all of these, but when I get sucked into this vortex of religious discourse I often have to explain to other religious people how my being a Jew and my Jewishness is no less a part of my/ our being.

I was thinking about it today on Purim as we say Al HaNissim which quotes the Megilah:

Accordingly, written instructions were dispatched by couriers to all the king’s provinces לְהַשְׁמִ֡יד לַהֲרֹ֣ג וּלְאַבֵּ֣ד to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is, the month of Adar—and to plunder their possessions.

Esther 3:13

We get it Haman wanted to kill the Jews. Why do we need these three different words?

L’hashmid– to destroy often refers to religious persecutions. On the surface this would seem to be an attack on Judaism. In our history these efforts of forced apostasy were heroically resisted, brought the people to die “al kiddush HaShem,” for the sanctification of the Name. These religious Jews would rather die then give up their religion. This is best known from the time of Chanukah.

L’harog– to massacre. This is classic genicide. There is nothing that Jews can do to stop being Jews. We have seen this far too often in Jewish History. Juxtaposed Chanukah, this is what we see in Purim, Passover, and the Holocaust.

L’abad-to exterminate or to be lost. This seems to be an interesting one. What do we learn from this that we did not already from the previous two acts of violence against our people?

This language seems to be foreshadowing the role of Esther in the saga. When Mordechai hears of this plot to kill the Jews he reaches out to Esther as the queen to help. There we read:

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.”

Esther 4: 14

While Mordechai and the Jews need Esther’s help, Mordechai is confident that they will be saved with or without her help. In many ways he frames the request of her as a favor to her. If she opts out of helping she will be lost to the Jewish people. She will lose her Jewishness. This is accented by use of the same work “lost” in her response:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; וְכַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי and if I am to perish, I shall perish!”

Esther 4: 16

Esther was the Queen and risks her safety be revealing her hidden identity as a Jew. If she is lost, she will be lost. She is not depicted as a religious Jew and she is not just saying that she might be killed as a Jew. In this statement she is saying that she does not want to lose her Jewishness.

In many ways our coming together to fast in support of Esther is our people coming together as Jews despite our differences of Judaism or Jewishness. So too in celebrating this holiday today we are expressing our unity without a mandate for conformity.

Purim Sameakh-


Muscular Judaism

In the Gemara Brachot we learn of a disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) which seems to be based on Eikev, this week’s Torah portion (Berachot 35b). In this we find the second passage of the Sh’ma. There we read:

And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your corn, and your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. ( Deuteronomy 11:13-15)

Rashbi says a person should learn Torah the entire day and somehow that person will find a way to support himself and his family. Rabbi Yishmael disagrees and maintains that a person should combine Torah with derech eretz- the way of the world. In this context that means balancing learning and working to earn a living.

In another place in the Gemara we learn the story of when the Rashbi spoke out against the Roman government and their brazen devotion to their own physical needs (Shabbat 33 ). Out of fear of being killed by the Romans he and his son went to hide in the Bet Midrash, but they feared being caught so they escaped to a cave. There they lived on water and the fruit from a miraculous carob tree. By day they covered themselves in dirt and learned. When it came time to pray they would get out and put on their clothing. If you came in the middle of the day you would see two people learning submerged up to their heads. Or rather you would see the realization of the Rashbi’s ideal. He and his son had escaped to be living their disembodied existence learning Torah. In juxtaposition, Rabbi Yishmael claims that we need to balance our lives between our heads, hearts, and hands.

This disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rashbi seems still to be unresolved today. It is not just manifest in the division between the Haredi Kollel society and the rest of the Jewish community. This disagreement can be seen in the very nature of Rabbinic Judaism itself. How much of what we call authentic Jewish living is itself lived with our bodies? For most Jews today even prayer, which was the one thing that the Rashbi needed to put his clothing on for, has become a disembodied gender-less experience. The Zionist had a clear response to this disembodied rabbinic Jewish life, but moving to Israel is clearly not the answer of Jewish continuity for all Jews or even for all Israelis for that matter. So what would Rabbi Yishmael’s response be in the 21st Century?

This past week I had the pleasure of visiting 6 Points Sports Academy in Greensboro North Carolina. There I had the pleasure of seeing Rabbis and Jewish educators training and playing with the campers. In these moments I saw Judaism take the field and become relevant in their lives. I have no doubt that this will have a long-term impact on the campers, but I am also curious to see if it has long-term impact on Judaism itself. Besides being a great sports camp serving the Reform Jewish community, 6 Points is emerging as a laboratory exploring the deeper meaning of muscular Judaism. In a profound way they are the students of Rabbi Yishmael.

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