Judaism in Transition 1
As we approach Hanukkah, I ask: were the Maccabees Reform, Orthodox, Hasidic or Conservative?
Most people would say that they were the Orthodox Jews. After all they defended historic tradition and observance. However, as you will see soon, unlike the Orthodox, they did deviate from the path of tradition.
Very few would say they were Reform, especially Reform as it was in its very earliest stages, when Shabbat services were moved to Sunday in some synagogues. Yet, in one sense, they did set out to reform, in the sense of returning to original roots and intents, the original Temple worship.
Others would say they were like the Hasidim, full of fervor and emotion. However, while there were Hasidim in those days( called the “ First Hasidim” to differentiate form our modern Hasidim), they rejected Jewish society and fled to the wilderness as their response.
I will be Chutzpadik and say that they were truly Conservative! The definition of conservative, both in religion and politics, is to try to conserve that which has the weight of tradition while engaging in change that makes that conservation possible.
What did the Maccabees do?
They made the first major change in interpretation of Jewish law. The law, as it was understood then, stated that one rested on Shabbat even if attacked. The Hellenizers intentionally attacked observant Jews on Shabbat and slaughtered them.
The [Greeks] arose, suddenly, to fall upon [the Jews] on Shabbat, saying to them: How long will you refuse to obey the king . . . . And the men in their midst did not raise their hands to hurl a stone or to silence them . . . and they fell upon them on Shabbat and killed all those in the cave . . . about 1,000 people.
They said to one another: If we all act as our brothers have, and refuse to defend our lives and beliefs, we will shortly be destroyed. They decided on that day: Whosoever will attack us on Shabbat, we will fight back; we will not die like our brothers in the caves.
( Maccabees 2: 29)
The Maccabees were the first to be recorded to introduce the concept of “pikuach nefesh”, that the saving of human life outweighs the command of rest, thereby reinterpreting an central tent of Biblical law.
The Macabees were the first to initiate a religious commemoration of a victory in battle . Purim itself did not gain universal observance till afterwards.
Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev,n the days of the dedication* of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary.( Macabees 1 Ch 4)
This was Greek custom, never before mentioned or initiated by any Jewish leader in history till then.They went ahead and established another day, Nicanor Day- as a festival commemorating the victory over Greek General Nicanor.
As you see, in order to conserve tradition, they changed tradition.
That is how they enabled us to make it through one of our first crises in post-Biblical history.
According to the Pew Report, we Jews are in a crisis. We have been in a crisis since before the Maccabees, after the Maccabees, and ever since. It is like the old joke of the store that has a sign” We are celebrating our 50th Anniversary of Going Out of Business.”
We will still be celebrating our crisis a thousand years from now.
I think that as we think through what has gone on in past Jewish history we can get an idea of what needs to be going on today and towards the future. As Solomon Schechter, one of the seminal figures of our movement stated, “ Whatis past is prologue.”
So I go for my thoughts to a non-Jew, to George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright and Englishman who once quipped,” The only one man who knows that I have changed is the tailor. He measures me every time he sees me.”
What Shaw quipped about himself is true, not only for himself, and not only for people in general, but for social and religious groups as well, and we Jews are no exception.
What is startling is to realize how continuous and in-depth our change is. What I wish to do is to put away the notion that some Orthodox claim that all was well and good until the Reform and Conservative came along to water things down. I don’t by any means intend to disparage my fellow Jews, especially Jews who do make an effort to live as closely to Jewish observances possible, but we do have to have a serious discussion as to what is or is not original or authentic in Judaism.
So over the course of the next several sermons I am going to examine events that shape Judaism in its great disarray in modern times, and why Judaism has sprung so many variations like the many heads of the hydra monster. We can’t avoid it because all the surveys like the recent Pew Report come to repeat basically what is been happening over the last two centuries.
It is common in Conservative circles to speak of tradition and change. One thing we need to realize though is that since Judaism is a 4000 year old heritage, we have a long chain of tradition and change comes slowly and often delayed after the cause but it comes. If the Jewish quip is that 1000 years in the eyes of God is like but a day, so too in Jewish history a 1000 years is but a day.
For example, there are two major events that have affected Jewish consciousness within the lifetimes of many of us here in this room – the Holocaust and the birth of Israel.
Only in the last decade or so, in other words more than half a century after these events, did we begin to see organize communal celebrations, commemorations and observances relating to both events..
Take a look at the prayer book that we have still in our services today ( Silverman edition). It was published just after the Holocaust and has been reprinted many times since. Yet with the exception of a few additional readings at the end of the book, it is as if nothing ever happened. To a great extent that’s true with the high holiday Silverman Mahzor that we still use. These prayer books, as well written as they were, were still addressing issues that came up 50 and 100 years before their time. The Conservative movement only began to address these newer issues in the last few decades and they influenced the language of the two revised High Holy Day prayer books that have been issued since.
I say this not to pick on my movement but to highlight how long it takes for responses to major events to gel and make their way into the Jewish world today. Perhaps it will be different today with Internet and smart phones but we will not know that for another century.
I can go back even further two centuries or more ago. If we are still absorbing the impact of events that took place 60 and 70 years ago, we need to keep in mind that we are still absorbing the impact of events that took place two centuries ago or more.
Two centuries ago the gates of the ghettos were first thrown open to the Jews of Western Europe, and for the Jews of Eastern Europe, only a little over a century ago. For the great mass of Jews of Europe the gates really were open only when they landed at Ellis Island.
We are still feeling fully the effects of an open society, the breakdown of the traditional Jewish communal structure, its effects on Jewish identity, institutions, family, traditional values and the like.
Now if I go back to that prayer book we have printed and reprinted from the 40’s to the 70’s, it was dealing with issues that took place with the rise of the Enlightenment in Europe of the 1700s. I don’t know how much schools teach the idea of the Enlightenment anymore (the current intellectual climate tells us that we don’t take dead white men seriously any more), but certainly it was the great earthshaking movement of ideas that change both the Christian and Jewish world and perhaps only now is changing the Moslem world as well ( with as bloody consequences as had been in Europe till the middle of the last century.)
So what did that mean, Enlightenment, and the Hebrew version, Haskalah? Intellectually, it was putting every article of faith and belief under the critical blade of reason and science. Every established truth was now open to question. Politically it was even more significant for us. We had a special term, “Emancipation.” It was the same word “Emancipation” that President Lincoln used in his Emancipation Proclamation to free African slaves in America and it was the same word “Emancipation” used to mean the freeing of serfs from their lords in Europe centuries before. We Jews, it should be recalled we at best a tolerated alien nation and at worst, “servae camera”-serfs or slaves of the court. It now meant that France would declare.” We must refuse to the Jews as a nation everything and refuse to the Jews as an individual nothing.” The Jew was no longer to be an alien nation, under separate laws and subject to the ruler, but a Frenchman or German or an Englishman( at least on paper). It would mean Napoleon forcing open the gates of the Frankfurt ghetto, it would mean the Germans granting citizenship to Jews in 1870, it would mean the Austrians actually recognizing Jews as being legitimately married and not bastards in Austrian law, and it would mean the creation of the largest body of Jews in history to live in the wealthiest and most open society in history. None of this happened overnight and many times the freedom was taken back but the shock to the Jewish system stayed.
Now I am going to say that 60 years or 200 years is still too new. That I say because Jews were at that time still shaking from events that took place 400 years ago! So when we speak of modern Judaism we don’t just go to 1948 with the rise of Israel or 1776 with the American Revolution. We must go back to the 1500s and the 1600s. We’ve been in a crisis for 4 or 5 centuries!
We Jews don’t live in a vacuum and events that took place in the world affect us at all times.
So what is happened to change the world?
Printing came into its own and it made it made possible the spread of new thoughts and the challenge to the system. The most radical of all books of its time and the first book to be printed was the Bible. (Unfortunately for the Mediterranean world the Turkish Sultan felt threatened by printing and soon shutdown all printing presses, blocking scientific advancement. The Moslem world has been paying the price for this act ever since.) With the spread of the Bible came the spread of the ideas of the Bible. The institutions of religion were attacked from within- Luther, Kalvin, Zwingli-- succeeded in destroying the binding authority of traditional religion by the Reformation. Europe was torn apart by religious wars, until it was agreed upon that whoever is the Prince- that’s the religion.( Cuius region-eius religio) No more war for religion.
They were great economic changes. There was the creation of a modern middle-class and even the first waves of inflation. Economic prosperity was now built upon religious ideals that emphasized the work ethic and initiative as preached in Switzerland or Scotland.
Science now attacked religion from the outside. Galileo for example upset the foundations of theology. The church was the center of Christendom just as the earth was the center of the solar system. When Galileo suggested the earth moved, it was widely understood that society moved as well.
Well, we might ask, what did it really matter? After all we Jews lived very much to ourselves, we read our own books, and we lived in our own circles. What did it really matter what was going on in the outside? Indeed some Jews still take that attitude, such as in Bnai Brak in Israel or New Square in New York. However the great poet of Germany, the Jew who went to the baptism font in a cynical move to advance his career but never meant it, Heinrich Heine , stated,” as the Christians, go so go the Jews.” (Wie es Christelt sich, so juedelt es sich.) Or as it was stated supposedly by Mark Twain or supposedly by an anonymous Rabbi or supposedly by Heine himself “Jews are like everyone else only more so.”
So while these tumultuous events were taking place in Christian Europe, there were equally tumultuous events taking place in the Jewish world. The most famous, and in some senses the equivalent of the Holocaust in its day, was the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The results took a century to impact on the Jewish world.
At the same time that Jews were developing a more uniform code of observance, something made possible by the rise of the printing press and the publishing of the Shulkhan Aruch, Jewish belief went through a major trauma. There was the rise of the Kabbalah of the Ari in the land of Israel in the town of Tsfat. In this kind of thinking God was no longer completely in charge. God was in trouble. It required the Jew to redeem God and the universe, not to be redeemed by God . This was a highly radical and revolutionary perspective , certainly as great a shift as the development of rabbinic Judaism 1500 years earlier or the solid rationalism espoused by the great Jewish philosophers 500 years before.
Similarly, there was the terrible disaster inflicted upon the Polish Jewish world by the Cossack uprisings under Chmielnitzki, with concomitant massacres of Jewish communities in Poland and Ukraine.
Within a century, the Jewish world would again be shattered as a result of this Kabbalah by the appearance of the new Messiah, Shabtai Zvi. He was a manic-depressive and fraud who led the entire Jewish world into believing that as the Messiah he could save the faith only by becoming a Muslim. Jewish faith was never again the same. The traditionalists closed rank and delve deeper into the world of Talmud and began to with draw from contact with the outside world. The radicals began to draw away from Judaism altogether in this Sabbatean movement and lived outwardly Jewish lives but inwardly were radically heretics. Its most extreme version was the appearance shortly afterwards of Jacob Frank who claimed the new Messiah, convinced the Catholic Church to accept him and his followers while leading a cult of orgy. That was in Poland.
So again we have responses to these developments. And all this is before we actually get to the Enlightenment and Emancipation. We have the development of extreme piety, Hasidism, and with it a rebellion against the rabbis, against the scholars and against the Jewish ideal of study. It is instead an emphasis on emotionalism and semi-magical charismatic figures of a Rebbe or tsaddik. It is the creation a vibrant and emotional cult, which brings new life into Jews of east Europe but also brings a closing of the mind. We have also the formal Orthodox reaction to the new world, with the declaration by one of the great scholars and thinkers of the Talmudic world. Rabbi Mosche Schreiber, Chatam Sofer as he was known, of Pressburg, now Slovakia: Kol HaChadaah- assur mid’oraita—All that which is new is forbidden in principal in the Torah.
It is in response to these shocks, that Jews react. One way was to the baptism font, or to the revolutionary political parties. There is a legend that says that the sea floor near Ellis Island is strewn with the tefillin of Jews who realized that they were free of tradition and threw their religion overboard.
In the midst of this were those Jews who saw what was happening, realized that the horse was out of the barn, but would still find an avenue to remain rooted in Judaism while being part of this Brave New World. This would be seen in the rise of reform, neo-Orthodoxy, Conservative, movements from a religious perspective and the rise of a new nationalism, like Zionism or the Bund, Yiddish nationalists.
Now, I know that I have competely muddied the waters for us. Next time, I will begin to put the muddle back into place.