Thursday, June 14, 2007

Torah True Judaism: Unity or Uniformity

Torah True Judaism, a phrase I’ve never quite understood is bandied about at every which way, and has become part of the Jewish nomenclature. It is a pejorative platitude in that it seeks to be elitist and exclusionary. It is a judgmental cliché in that its subtext insinuates that anyone not subscribing to their particular understanding of Torah isn’t the genuine article and not welcome in the club. There are variations of this puzzling and vexing phrase such as Torah Jews, Mesorah Jews and Torah true Jews. Another apparently popular one is the Torah community. Jonathan Rosenblum concluded his excellent well articulated piece entitled “Right of Reply”, Hamodia, May 9, 2007, with the stunning reference to the Torah community. It was the one exception I took with the entire article.

What is it about the orthodox community that preoccupies itself with not only demonstratively insular behavior but seeks to distinguish itself from the main body of the Jewish community? Actually a Torah True Jew or a member of the Torah community can be anyone who believes or accepts Torah as their guiding force. This would include the entire corpus of the Jewish community that takes itself seriously, such as the reform, reconstructionist conservative, humanist and renewal communities. They all take Torah seriously and is the focus of their lives. It is only a question of interpretation. Unless of course we employ qualifiers such as Torah true Jews according to the Shuklchan Aruch as interpreted according to the Badatz, Moetzet Gedolei Hatorah, Lubavitch or Machazikei Hadas. Take your pick.

Unless one uses the appropriate qualifiers a reform Jew could conceivably count themselves among the chosen because they too live their lives centered by Torah values. If however the intent of those platitudes is to distinguish themselves from the corpus of the Jewish people then we are in trouble. What reason could there ever be to balkanize the Jewish community? J.R. articulated why it wasn’t in our interest to react to mild or genteel anti-Semitism. To do so, he argued would play into the hands of our detractors, that our reaction is stifling criticism, suppressing freedom of speech, both critical to a pluralistic society. The same things that are correct, fundamental and core values of a democratic-pluralistic society is also the same fuel which powers the life force of the Jewish community. J.R. recognizes this and hence his argument is valid.

The Jewish community going back to antiquity prided itself on its unity, not its uniformity. From the Talmudic period and forward Judaism has encouraged the exchange of ideas and the clash of opinion. “Both these and these are the living words of God” convey this understanding. The sages of the Talmud, to their credit encouraged and cultivated the culture of dialogue. “The Torah has seventy faces” was understood to reflect the method and analysis of debate as practiced by our sages. There was no uniformity although there was unity. Even when consensus wasn’t attainable there wasn’t intellectual coercion, rather an appropriate conclusion was noted by a TEKU-stalemate. And when decisions were made, the minority opinion was carefully documented and noted. Rabbi Yehudah cautioned that the minority opinion needed to be noted, since a majority opinion will stand for as long as there is a majority standing behind it. The assumption is that the majority opinion may shift and change. While unity is desired, uniformity isn’t. Pluralism, it would seem was the ultimate expression and desire of our sages.

To be sure, there were times when as a result of our pluralistic society and the Socratic Method so integral to our culture and our intellectual integrity that marginal, but extreme sub cultures were created. One example of this was the Karaites. Although they were extreme in their rejection of Rabbinic Judaism it took hundreds of years before they were finally relegated as out of bounds. Scholars such as Abraham Ibn Ezra while not accepting the Karaites understanding of Judaism quotes and refers to their writings in his own commentaries, recognizing the merit of their scholarship in Hebrew language. There were other groups over the centuries such as those who followed Sabbatai Tzvi or Jacob Frank. Our rich tradition of intellectual freedom and our sense of inclusion allowed that which was legitimate to flourish. What didn’t conform minimally ultimately atrophied.

With this in mind, platitudes like Torah True Jew or Torah Community seem to fly in the face of our heritage and wisdom of the sages. Our sages desired unity, not uniformity, inclusion not exclusion. All of us ought to be embraced and gathered under the canopy while noting the dissenting opinions. Creating language that balkanize the Jewish community is not in the spirit of our tradition