News of the Schism Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Judaism is a religion and a people liable to split upon serious disagreement. At least, this is the sense of Judaism you may get from Jonathan Weisman’s New York Times report on the upcoming “Great Schism” between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The term is Christian, referring to the permanent rupture between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th century, which is fitting, since in Judaism there has never truly been a Schism, nor is one just around the corner.

Weisman’s primary concern is political. Israeli Jews are moving ever-rightward and toward Trump, while American Jews aren’t. Israeli Jews are ever-less apologetic about the West Bank settlements, while increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young ones, feel alienated by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

None of this indicates an upcoming permanent split in world Jewry, however. A Schism would entail a split in the Jewish identity itself. American Jews would declare Israelis to not truly be Jewish, and vice versa. But will disagreement over Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu be sufficient grounds for this separation?

The question of whether certain rulers are “good for the Jews” has rarely been a matter of consensus in the past. It would shock Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon, for example, to hear that Judaism was about to split in two, though one praised and the other was harshly critical of the Romans. Nor was their disagreement without consequences; Rabbi Yehuda became the head of the sages, while Rabbi Shimon was sought for execution. In modern times, Russian Jewry was divided over whether to support Napoleon or the Czar. Yet, in neither of these cases did Jewish identity itself rupture.

Of course, Jews not only disagree over gentile rulers but also over the actions and allegiances of other Jews. Weisman writes of ongoing Reform and Conservative struggle for legitimacy in Israel, where their movements are in the extreme minority. Although it is difficult to see how the tensions between the Orthodox establishment and these groups may be resolved, Jewish history is full of just this sort of irreconcilable difference.

The biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah uncomfortably dwelled in the land together, yet did not see themselves as two peoples. Why would they, since their forebears united even twelve tribes? In Mishnaic times, so opposed were the houses of Hillel and Shammai that marriage between them verged on impossible. The works of Maimonides, now central to normative Judaism of every persuasion, were denounced by Rabbis to the Catholic authorities in France and burned. Jews died in the early conflicts between Hassidim and the Mitnagdic students of the Vilna Gaon. Nonetheless, these disagreements failed to bifurcate world Jewry. They were usually resolved through a tragedy that reminded the participants of their shared identity.

When groups have split from Judaism—Karaites, Christians, Sabbateans—it has been over things like whether Moses is the greatest prophet, or whether the Oral Law is a legitimate part of the Torah. Today, it is on these central issues that Jews have never been more united.

At this late point in our history, a Jew in Los Angeles and a Jew in Tel Aviv share millennia of history, a rich culture grounded in the Torah, and a language. Neither questions if the Talmud is Jewish or whether Jesus is the Messiah. Whereas a hundred years ago one may have spoken worriedly about the Ottomans while the other paid off a Polish duke, today they mostly speak the same languages about the same liberal democratic problems and usually the same politicians on the same Shabbat. Though one is Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, they each know the same teaching from the Rambam. They may have different opinions about Israeli security, but the walls of their echo chambers are thinner than the seas separating an Egyptian and a Ukrainian Jew in the 19th or the 9th century.

There will only be two Judaisms if we choose to make it so. A Great Schism is impossible unless we set aside as irrelevant all we hold in common. An American/Israeli Jewish split would be a child of our interpretation, rather than of fact. We would have to willfully declare Judaism itself—religion, history, identity, tribe—to be synonymous with politics. We would then need to make our politics synonymous with saving lives. We would finally have to subscribe to a policy of Jewish non-death, rather than one of Jewish life, for any description of Jewish life shows that what we share is more lasting and profound than what divides us.

If we don’t choose schism, we will realize that Chief Rabbi Lau did not refuse to call The Tree of Life congregation a synagogue and that Rabbi Jeffrey Myers welcomed the President to visit. Mr. Weisman has chosen to interpret the Israeli Ambassador’s presence as the sole public official to greet Trump on that visit as a sign of division between American Jews and Israeli Jews (because we disagree about Trump). In other words, Israeli Jews feel attacked by the synagogue shooter and share American Jews’ grief, to the extent that they send the Ambassador to Pittsburgh. This is somehow read as a sign that the global Jewish community is splitting in two.

In truth, American Jews and Israeli Jews argue over our shared situation because we feel we share a destiny. Few Jews feel left out of North Korean politics.

The pain of disagreeing with other Jews is itself one of our hallowed traditions. It means we are not two people but one people. Our common ground does not necessarily lie between Eilat and the Golan. It is the shared history and shared future of every Jewish soul.

I Remember Jerusalem

First sleep attempt: Failure
12:15 AM
A thousand words in,
I have tea and I have time.
Classical guitar.
A light still burns in Jerusalem.
Come muse, show me the way
there is much to write ere break of day.

~~~

Yaakov our Eritrean janitor, mop in hand, dances across the meat kitchen while Louis Armstrong’s trumpet beseeches the pharaoh. Stars twinkling in the inky arches whisper the song of spring. Another Jerusalem night.

~~~

If you have never attended a Yeshiva you cannot know the sublime bliss of a nap between yeshiva lunch and dinner, skipping girsa seder. Then you wake up, eat, pray. The Jerusalem sun is setting but the stones retain their warmth. The street beckons; it leads anywhere.

You walk to the shuq on quiet feet, the sky a brilliant violet. A couple of young men with long sidelocks pass you, lost in thought, noble bearing of adulthood already shining in their posture and peaceful gait. A cat leaps to her family in a dumpster. You pass a falafel place, little more than a hole in the wall. Grease and cigarette smoke roll out and it is not unpleasant; the proprietor sits before pictures of holy rabbis and heckles his annoying customers.

From an overgrown courtyard you often pass, the sound of a skilled violinist practicing fills the cooling air. You cross over Yaffo street, full of men hurrying home from work, a synagogue overflowing onto the sidewalk, two female soldiers gossiping over their uzis.

You enter the shuq, the pandemonium of the day’s end coming to a close. They’ll nearly pay you to take the leftover pastries; their minds are elsewhere; so many mouths to feed on both sides of the counter.

The stalls pull down their shutters; the bars and restaurants begin to stir. There was a ramming attack last week, but that’s stopping no one; the endless summer night, holy and mundane, has just begun. You stay as long as you can, buoyed by your recent rest, tasting the special air, beloved of holy men, crusaders, and everyone in between.
You turn and start your way back; the study hall is its own universe, too, and there is much there to learn.

~~~

The voices of boys and men ring out, trying to move stubborn produce. I fish the tea I like off the top shelf. A Chassid in regalia argues with the pierced cashier over whom the song on the tinny store radio is about. “Gilad Shalit,” says earrings. “It’s about the messiah, that he should come,” insists sidelocks. I step into the sweltering heat. “I don’t think he’s coming,” I hear from behind me, said with bashful strength, with ardent humility.

Tonight it feels like summer, in Jerusalem.

~~~

The sun sinks all around.
I eat bad twenty sheq. pizza in the dusk,
not wanting to pick up and bag my strewn possessions.
The time has run up, the light is gone. One more sleep in this holy land I don’t appreciate. One more night with friends I wish I loved more. One more night alone.
Then, in the morning – to take flight, drift to the next world, the next life, with only this cage of a body and my trapped perspective, where I might finally choose the path of non-existence and be free.
A few more dusky Jerusalem breaths,
A few more beads of Jerusalem summer sweat,
then to the horizon,
always alone and always together,
whatever might come.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

How Jews Wage War

Today, a synagogue lies drenched in Jewish blood, and our nation mourns as one.

The soul cries out: What do we do? What can we do? What is the answer to those who hate us?

This afternoon, as I pull myself away from the news and the poetry and the terrible pictures, I find my mind wandering to the past…

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I’d been in Israel for about half a year when the Jews of Jerusalem marched to war. It was the first day of Adar, 2009. We left Yeshiva under the cover of darkness and walked (the light rail was still an open ditch running down Yaffo street) toward the city entrance. Our small group joined with rivers of people, thousands of men and women. There was an electric excitement in the air, mixed with solemnity – a sorrowful volatility, a joyous melancholy. As we neared the battle, the music grew louder, shaking us awake.

A year earlier to the day, an Arab terrorist slaughtered eight Yeshiva students at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, most of them minors. A year earlier to the day, the Jews of Jerusalem were plunged into a nightmare. And now was the time for vengeance.

Throngs of people converged on the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva. The music had reached pulverizing strength. We pushed forward through the thousands, close to the Yeshiva’s gate, where in the yellow streetlight stood a chuppah, a portable marriage canopy. Under it danced a new Sefer Torah, a scroll resplendent in a brilliant mantle and adorned with a silver crown. It danced with Jews from far and wide, Ultra- and non-Orthodox, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, storekeepers and Talmudic masters. It danced with a fiery fury, a phoenix, born of Jewish ashes.

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Because a year after eight students were murdered at this Yeshiva, the Jews brought to it eight new Torahs, eight new beacons of light. This is Jewish retaliation; this is Jewish war. For thousands of years, no matter what darkness suffuses this fell world, we fight against it with light, with menorahs in winter windows and scrolls of wisdom clutched in wrinkled hands. For millennia, the world has trampled on the Jew. For millennia, the Jew stands up, dusts himself off, and lights a candle.

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Our war band, dancing and singing and embracing each other, marched through the Yeshiva gates. The press of people was unbelievable, the pressure an unbearable cleansing. We pushed our way inside the building itself, into the humid Beit Midrash, its overflowing walls shaking from the sound of delirious joy. There, gripping one of the new scrolls like a lifeline, was a relative of one of the holy dead. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks as he swayed side to side and sang with the Jewish people.

Through that ink and parchment wrapped in velvet and crowned in silver, he hugged his brother, his son, his cousin. For the first time in my life, my brother, my son, my cousin. Through that holy weight, we united, and our songs flew into the night.

With light, joy, and love, we inflicted on this cruel world an everlasting victory.

 

 

Originally posted on Hevria.