Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Halacha Gerrymandered

The early 19th century was witness to two competing philosophies to living Jewishly; one was representative of the conservative, reactionary approach, the other a more liberal and embracing approach. One was represented by the Chatam Sofer, the other by Moses Mendelssohn. One advocated a form of isolationism the other embraced Bildung, a German approach to emancipation whereby there was obfuscation between the religion of the minority and the prevailing culture.

The Chatam Sofer, in his “last will and testament” beseeched Jews to maintain the integrity of Judaism through complying with the message to be learnt from the word shalem, understood as an acronym for shemot, (names), lashon (language), and malbush (dress code). For the Chatam Sofer the identity of the Jewish people would be preserved if they maintained meticulously the Hebrew (Yiddish) names, spoke primarily Yiddish and continued dressing in the tradition of their fathers. The common denominator for him was to screen out foreign culture. Assimilation could only be prevented by negating the “other” culture.

His nemesis, Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, believed that for Jews as a people to grow and reach fruition they would have to embrace Bildung, and this would manifest itself initially by assuming names reflective of their countries, learn well the language and culture of the countries where they resided and dress commensurate with the prevalent culture. For Mendelssohn, negating the host culture was a pattern that had to be broken if the Jewish people were to progress.

There were many who argued over the ages that history has proven the wisdom of the Chatam Sofer. After all, as the Chatam Sofer aptly pointed out, Mendelsohhn had no Jewish descendants. The Chatam Sofer and his proponents were wrong, dead wrong. True, Mendelssohn’s offspring ultimately assimilated into the prevailing culture, but resulting from the Mendelssohn approach came the Jewish enlightenment which gave birth to Zionism and ultimately the State of Israel.

Oddly enough Zionism also sought what the Chatam Sofer espoused; to stem the tide of assimilation through Jewish national rebirth. The difference, however between the Chatam Sofer and those of the emancipation was that the emancipationist wished to recast the sacred sources and memories of Judaism into a national literature and historical memory. While cultural and linguistic autonomy would prevail and probably receive the blessings of the Chatam Sofer, it would reinforce the notion of a unique Jewish Identity.

The difference, however between the Zionist and the Chatamm Sofer is a profound one. The Chatam Sofer operated within the confines and ethos of Torah and halacha; the process of fashioning a Jewish culture, came not only at the expense of all other culture but negated all other cultures. It was the inability of Torah and halacha to accept and respect the diversity of the world in which we lived. Examples of this are too numerous to list but a few will serve the purpose. Biblical expressions such as b’chuchotehem lo telechu is a clear denunciation of other cultures. Rather than promulgate in a positive fashion the “new culture” we are left with the negation of the “other”. To cast a pejorative light on the custom of tattooing the body is less effective than presenting the argument for preserving the body pure.

Halacha took the cue from the biblical approach and cast the gentile culture in a negative light rather than positioning ours in a positive one. For example, the argument for “stam yeyenam” or “yayin mevushal” originates from a negative position. It was the desire of the rabbis to prevent us from mingling with gentiles that prompted the prohibition against wine on the basis of “stam yayenam” and yayen mevushal can be understood as prejudicial without any positive outcomes.

The fear of the “other” throughout our history and fostered by halacha gave rise to a resistance to accepting diversity as a meams of maintaining our own cultural uniqueness. At times this gave rise to a splintering of the Jewish community such as at times when the imaginary line was crossed: Karaites, Shabtai Zvi, Frankists and even to some Hassidism. Now, however, we are doing it again to ourselves. However, this time, tragically this paranoia of the “other” and misapplication of halacha has shifted and turned inward. Rather than be accepting of multiple interpretation of text and renderings of halacha, there has arisen with in our midst a cabal of fundamentalists determined to fracture the Jewish people into a balkanized community and give greater application to the teachings of the Chatam Sofer. An issue such as “Who is a Jew” effecting tens of thousands of Jews worldwide ought not be decided by those with tunnel vision and a limited, parochial understanding of history.

Halacha in the hands of these fundamentalists has been too divisive a tool and has proven to be the great divide of the Jewish people. It would appear that there needs to be some kind of mechanism in place that would check the deleterious effects of these fundamentalists when applying halacha to situations that extend way beyond there purview. Cultural Memory, as stated by Jan Assmann is a form of knowledge accumulated over the generations and specific to a particular community is the means by which the group basis its unity and specificity. Cultural memory is embedded in art, buildings, ceremonies, holidays, sacred space and landscape, law, folklore, literature, music, philosophy, ritual, song, symbols and theology.

Cultural memory has two features that are ideal for dealing with the issues stated above. Members are drawn into the community based upon their need to belong and their need for identity. Second and most important, cultural memory is reconstructed and reread in light of present circumstances. It isn’t the regurgitation of information but the re-contextualization of knowledge. By re-contextualizing information a self reflective posture is assumed promoting and encouraging a community which isn’t dogmatic, but diverse and pluralistic.