Diversity, unity both said to be strengths of Judaism

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — According to Jewish tradition, the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the opportunity for soul searching and a new beginning, i.e., Atonement. The Almighty is said to decide each person’s fate for the coming year on Rosh Hashana, and to sign the final decision on Yom Kippur. The greeting prior to Yom Kippur is גמר חתימה טובה (May you have a good signature). However, by some traditions, the extended period through Succoth is an occasion for the Lord to ponder yet again. It may be possible to change a bad decision before the holiday season is finished.

These traditions are interesting for themselves, and more important for the plurality and flexibility they reveal about Judaism. It is filled with laws, interpretations, traditions or customs whose variety defies codification. There is no supreme authority to decide about contending views of this or that.

The traditions about Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and extending through Succoth also reflect the length of Jewish decision-making. Israeli courts may require years to do what is decided elsewhere in a week. Jews cherish the opportunity to wiggle out of something unpleasant.

The theme of plurality can begin with the variety of Judaisms in our time, ranging from liberal left Reform through conservative right ultra-Orthodox.

There is also variety in each of those clusters, no less among the ultra-Orthodox than among the Reform.

Christians, Muslims, and other communities of faith can also find variety and even violence under their umbrellas.

Among Jews, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi division comes out of communities who settled long ago in Ashkenaz (Central Europe) and Sepherad (Spain). It perpetuates different formulations and melodies for prayers, as well as rules about food. Religious Sephardim, but not religious Ashkenazim, eat peanut butter and humus on Passover, .

The Israeli reality is that many Jews marry across those lines. To accommodate mixed families, there are prayer books with an Ashkenazi formulation on one page facing a Sephardi formulation on the next page.

Jews of Italian or Ethiopian backgrounds are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi. Kurds, Iraqis, Persian, and Yemenites may follow Sephardi traditions, despite their ancestors having no experience in Spain.

Customs vary between and within the ethnic communities. Rabbis have argued if turkeys are kosher, if cooking wine allows it to remain kosher despite being poured by a non-Jew, and if more lenient rules apply to cold food than to hot food. There is competition between organizations that certify foods, factories, and restaurants as kosher, with individuals wondering if there are differences in standards or if the quarrel is economic, i.e., with contending rabbis each wanting the fees that are paid for inspection.

The politics of religious Jews are no less contentious than other aspects of their lives. There are currently three political parties in the Knesset that claim to serve religious communities: Ashkenazi and Sephardi ultra-Orthodox parties, and one for the Orthodox that sets itself off as Religious Zionist, currently calling itself Jewish Home. It is an alliance between what had been the National Religious Party and a party more extreme on issues concerned with the Land of Israel. Another religious party barely missed the cut-off for membership in this Knesset; it came from a split at the pinnacle of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party that was more a rivalry of personalities than doctrine.

Beyond the Knesset there is currently a conflict between religious Jews that go by labels that sound nearly the same in Hebrew, but which represent sharp contrasts in posture.

Extremists use the label Price Tag for actions mostly against Arabs, and to some extent against Christians. They have uprooted olive trees, attacked individuals Arabs, vandalized mosques, churches, and homes. Their spiritual guru is Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg, who like his ideological cousin Meir Kahane, came to Israel from the United States. He preaches about the enmity between Jews and Gentiles, and the priority of Jewish rights, extending to support for violence against non-Jews.

One of Kahane’s grandsons is a prominent figure in Price Tag.

And there is also the American background of Baruch Goldstein, lionized among extremists for his murder of Arabs at prayer in Hebron.

Some wonder about the import of American violence via themes of Judaism.

Extremists view the Arabs as descendants of Amalekites. According to 1 Samuel 15:3, they are the people who should be destroyed along with all their possessions, “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

The recent burning of an Arab home with the deaths of a child and parents, and the still critical condition of another child has been attributed to members of Price Tag. The Defense Minister says that authorities know who did it. Those guilty may be in administrative detention. However, a criminal trial cannot go forward without revealing sources of information that must be kept secret.

Price tag carries the Hebrew label of תג מחיר. Sounding very similar, but with a markedly different meaning is תג מאיר, which can be translated as Enlightened Tag. It developed in response to Price Tag; its leadership and many of its participants are Orthodox. It defines its mission as working against racism. visits sites and individuals after attacks from Price Tag, and protests rabbinical interpretations of Jewish law that it describes as invidious and inflammatory.. It sent a delegation to the family whose home was burned. They expressed support for those attacked and condemnation of those who violated Enlightened Tag’s view of Judaic norms.

The communities who qualify for the label of “Jews” are at least as much–and perhaps more–an ethnic group than a religion.

Like other peoples, one’s membership in an ethnic group does not define beliefs or behaviors. There may be elements of culture that set one ethnic group off from another, but there are wide differences within the group.

Secular Jews are close to or more than a majority of Israeli Jews, and at least as well represented among Diaspora communities. Enumeration is difficult insofar as the definition of a secular Jew is another of the things subject to dispute. It may include those who don’t care about doctrine; those who reject religious doctrine; and those who follow some commandments (e.g., circumcision for their sons) but not others.

Although one often hears that Jews must unify in order to stand against adversaries or enemies, a contrary view is that diversity and dispute are the essence of Jews’ strengths.

Among the advantages is the tendency of Jews to consider a range of views with minimum levels of violence among themselves. This may be related to flexibility in the face of pressures, and a capacity to create alliances or at least to persuade potential opponents to soften their postures. Opponents have condemned Jews for being slippery and unreliable, but the same traits, when viewed positively, show a capacity to maneuver through dangerous conditions.

There is a great deal of noise in Jewish communities. Divisions of American Jews on the President’s policy toward Iran is the latest example.

While some predict disaster, others see an opening in what Barack Obama and Benyamin Netanyahu are saying about Iran’s support of terror. With the flexibility associated both with American pragmatism and Judaic pluralism, those who see merits in flexibility perceive opportunities for cooperation.

Muslims have been close to unified in rejecting Israel. The Arabs of Israel support rejectionist political parties, and those living in Jerusalem refuse to vote in municipal elections. Both condemn their lack of equality in public services, without taking account of the principles that you get what you vote for, or do not vote for.

We often see from our balcony an indication of what Arabs get for their rejection. Tires burned in protest produce ugly and smelly black smoke that prevailing winds carry from one Arab neighborhood to others. It often begins in Shuafat, then blows over Anata and Isaweea. This has occurred several times in recent days, perhaps linked to what has also brought an increase in stone throwing and fire bombs. We see the smoke from our vantage point close to the border of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, but so far the stink has not reached us.

Throughout the region that the Arabs consider their own, there are weightier and uglier results of their politics.

*
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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