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.

Why the Rebbe Stayed in America

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is a prophet.

Time and again we ask him, respectful and pleading, “Why won’t you visit Israel? Why won’t you move to Israel? How can a leader of world Jewry avoid the Holy Land?”

Then the Rebbe’s response. He smiles, reminds us of the laws that would not permit his return if ever he goes, and speaks of his responsibility to the Jewish community here, here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York.

We do not fully understand these answers. We accept them, or we don’t, and we leave blessed. Prophets are too rarely understood in their time, and make no mistake: The Rebbe is a prophet.

G-d does not send such men for the comprehension of the masses. To fully understand a prophet is to be a prophet. The world has yet to plumb the mourning of Yirmiyahu or scale the heights of Yeshaya’s futures. No, G-d Almighty sends prophets with instructions. The Rebbe is a prophet, and by the thousands we do as he says.

Across the land we proliferate, the Rebbe’s words clutched like gems in our chapped palms. “America is no different,” opalescent, pure, hard as sharpened diamond. “Words from the heart enter the heart,” a blood-red ruby. “Share the Mitzvot out of love,” a glittering sapphire of ten facets.

Ever faster, word begins to travel. The message operates outside conventional frameworks. We threw clumsier Judaisms, laden with baggage and ablaze with connotations, into the New York harbor. Yet the family wagons and their small, harmless gems seem to slip through, because they refuse to say Judaism is more than it is. “Light this Shabbos Candle. It is Judaism. You are a Jew.” There is nothing else. They do not explain. They are emissaries of a prophet, and there are no explanations.

Always, the Rebbe is here. Here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York. His very person is an endless source of Judaism, and from across the country and the world, they come to see him, those who light the candles and find it has changed them. Many are members of Reform synagogues, of JCC gyms, or of nothing. They define Judaism ethically, or socially, or they don’t define it at all. It does not matter. There is a prophet in New York, and so they come.

The Jews return to Passaic, Peoria, and Pasadena with gems of their own, souls awake. Many of them devote their lives to the Rebbe’s mission. The ranks begin to swell until people are fighting each other for the right to spread the message. Wherever there are Jews, the Rebbe’s shluchim are there with Judaism, giving it over the only way possible, with love, soul to soul, one on one.

It is not exciting. Soul-to-soul-one-at-a-time is not the stuff history books are made of. Israel, a bona fide biblical miracle, somehow lands in the 20th century and becomes the heart of world Jewry, the theme of our modern story. It represents redemption from the holocaust, salvation from the nations. It is imperiled, courageous, and, some say, the beginning of the Messianic Age. It is, in short, where things are happening. The prophet sends emissaries to her, meets with her politicians and generals, fiercely defends her people. But he does not go to her.

We do not understand the prophet, because we cannot see what he sees. There is a future in which the center cannot hold and world Jewry is in danger of splitting in two. There is a future in which millions of Jews stand in danger of being unable to live with a Judaism millions of others consider essential, of declaring their fate separate from the Jewish people and disappearing into history.

The Jews of the land, focused by unifying threats and the weight of history, will, with the help of G-d, carry Judaism forward. The land of Israel is entwined with Judaism, and that will not be soon forgotten.

But the Jews here in the diaspora, here in America, here in New York, must somehow find hope. Despite America’s Jewish leadership, despite the nature of the land to lend Judaism fragile, compromised definitions, there must never be a split in our people. It must never come to pass that a preponderance of American Jews defines Judaism such that they must choose between their religion and the lives of Jews in Israel.

The predictions of 2018, that the rift between the State of Israel and American Jewry will soon be unbridgeable, must not come true. It must be known from sea to shining sea that the Yiddishkeit of Israel, with its story and manifestations, and the Yiddishkeit of America, are two sides of the same coin, two versions of one thing.

So: Past the border guards, under the radar, sneaks a robust, flexible Judaism. Tied to no politics or country, bound up only with immutable soul, eternal commandment, and Almighty G-d, this iteration of Judaism is the common denominator, the core curriculum of all Jews. It is the thirteenth gate, that which is essential and simple, and no prime minister or army or worldly faction can validate or invalidate it.

The prophet gave it most personally to the Americans. It is the light that will drive away the specter of schism some will foresee in 2018, in the unimaginable case that the Moshiach has not come by then.

 

Image: The Previous Rebbe (seated) takes the oath of US citizenship, 1949. His son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, watches on the right.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

Sephardim & Ashkenazim

With apologies to Lenny Bruce.

Non-Jews might not know this, but there are quite a lot of different types of Jews — of all races, countries, political beliefs. Even religiously, there is a huge divide between two large camps in particular: The “Ashkenazi” Jews of general European descent, and the “Sephardi” Jews, who originated from the golden age of Jewry in pre-inquisition Spain.

What’s the difference between these groups?

Let me explain it in terms a non-Jew might understand.

The first thing to know is that Spain, insanely, is Ashkenazi because it’s part of Europe, even though “Sephardi” literally means Spanish. The middle east, on the other hand, which has had its own continuous Jewish communities for millennia, is very Sephardi. The rest of Europe is Ashkenazi, except for the Netherlands, which by some accident is honorarily Sephardi, and the small parts of Germany owned by Mercedes-Benz. You see, BMW is Ashkenazi. Audi is very Ashkenazi. But Mercedes is Sephardi.

How about socks? Socks are Ashkenazi. Sandals are Sephardi. Sandals with socks are more Ashkenazi than socks alone. Cargo shorts are also Ashkenazi. Basketball shorts are Sephardi. Bike shorts are goyish (non-Jewish). Suspenders are Ashkenazi. Belts are Sephardi.

Is this beginning to make sense?

Contact lenses are non-Jewish; glasses are Ashkenazi; sunglasses are Sephardi.

Eyebrows are unbearably Ashkenazi but foreheads have a Sephardi feeling to them.

Black is Ashkenazi. Blue is Sephardi.

How about the way they think? OK, try this: Mystical questions about the nature of G-d are Ashkenazi. The answers to those questions are Sephardi. But general philosophical inquiries are Sephardi, while the answers are Ashkenazi. The notion of geniuses is very Jewish, generally, but respect for geniuses, less-so. Everyone thinking they’re a genius is very Jewish. If the person who thinks they’re a genius drives a cab, that’s Sephardi. If they drive a wagon, that’s Ashkenazi.

If they write short stories or slam poetry, that’s Ashkenazi. If they pen novels, that’s Sephardi. Flash fiction is suspiciously goyish.

Confused yet? Disagree? Very Jewish.

Arguments are just plain Jewish, see, but physical violence is goyish. If it comes down to it, Ashkenazim will shove, whereas Sephardim go for outright blows. Everyone throws things, but throwing a chair is Sephardi, and someone over the age of sixty throwing a chair is very Sephardi. This is somehow true even though chairs are quite Ashkenazi, whereas benches are neutrally Jewish unless they have pillows on them, in which case they are indelibly Sephardi. Pews are, it goes without saying, goyish.

Sephardi kids are prone to afternoons on the town, whereas Ashkenazim are more prone to nights on the town. Obedience is goyish.

If a Jew wakes up to eggs over-easy for breakfast, he’s doing it the goyish way. Ashkenazim would have eggs boiled in water. Sephardim would have eggs boiled in stew. Salt is Ashkenazi. Tomatoes are Sephardi. Rice is very Sephardi. Peanut butter is very Ashkenazi but Sephardim get it on a technicality. Gelatinous marrow-based “delicacies” are, regrettably, Ashkenazi. Neither group eats off of their fine china if no guests are invited: Ashkenazim will use plastic dinnerware; Sephardim will use paper.

If she wears a wig, that’s very Ashkenazi. If she wears an urban turban she’s doin’ it Sephardi.

If you see a Jew spit, that’s Sephardi. If you see him sweat, that’s Ashkenazi. If they shake hands, that’s Ashkenazi. If they bump fists, it is hilariously Ashkenazi. Avuncular shoulder slaps are Sephardi (Uncles, as a concept, are Sephardi, but Aunts are Ashkenazi). Hugging is Sephardi and encouraged, but watch out: If two men greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, they instantly become Ashkenazim for life.

Fingers are clearly Ashkenazi, though knuckles are Sephardi. Beards have a faintly Sephardi aura about them, but then, hair is generally Sephardi. Fingernails are quite Ashkenazi.

Stores are Ashkenazi things; stalls are Sephardi. Haggling is Sephardi. Sales tactics are Ashkenazi. A meeting starting on time is Sephardi. A meeting ending on time is Ashkenazi.

Piers are Ashkenazi; wharves, Sephardi. Boats are Sephardi. Ships are Ashkenazi.

Cleavers are Ashkenazi; fruit knives are Sephardi; combat knives are goyish, unless they’re from the IDF, and even then…

Home repair is Sephardi, as are plumbers, electricians, roofers, handymen. Appliance repair is ever-so-slightly Ashkenazi. Tech support is Ashkenazi but Sephardim are better at it; computer programming is decisively Sephardi but Ashkenazim have a knack for it.

As far as domesticated animals go, goats are Sephardi. Sheep are Ashkenazi. We all pass on hogs. If we have to go for insects, bees are more Sephardi whereas flies are profoundly Ashkenazi. Cats are Ashkenazi and dogs are Sephardi. Birds are Sephardi, fish are Ashkenazi. Guinea pigs are cute but not Jewish. Bad memories.

All comic books are Jewish, but DC leans Ashkenazi and Marvel leans Sephardi.

Led Zeppelin — classic Ashkenazi mascots. AC/DC represent the Sephardim. Deep Purple is just plain goyish. Frank Zappa is weird Ashkenazi. Bob Dylan is profoundly Ashkenazi. Bob Marley should be Sephardi but the Ashkenazim stole him. Johnny Cash is proper Sephardi. Black Metal is goyish as landed nobility, and opera once attended a pogrom, but show tunes are Ashkenazi and Top 40 music generally is Sephardi.

Google is Sephardi. Apple is Ashkenazi. Microsoft is goyish.

On the Internet: Facebook is Sephardi. Twitter is Ashkenazi. If you meme about Harambe you’re doing the Ashkenazi; if you play Pokemon Go you are doing the Sephardi. This dude was circumcised in an Ashkenazi synagogue: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, whereas this guy has a profound Sephardi heritage: ಠ_ಠ.  This guy attends a restricted country club: :).

An Ashkenazi might argue that there are no differences between Jews at all, whereas a Sephardi might quibble on the details and say my distinctions are not stark enough. Either way, it’s one big family, and we all love to laugh. I hope.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

The Mission Continues

We danced this week in the synagogues and in the streets. In Oregon and in Jerusalem we pulled aside pretty veils and dug into our boxes and took out our scrolls cloaked in majesty. Between the Jordan and the Pacific we danced our dance ’round the bimah, waging peace, raging joy.

We danced in Oregon, with its evergreen trees and ever-kind people. Just a few days ago, someone stepped over a bitter edge. He sought to make himself known to an indifferent universe. He acted. And now we sit, once again in shock, once again searching for reasons. But I think the truth is simpler. He had no reason. He believed in the mounting voices that we all sometimes hear, the ones that say that life is a spray thrown up by the crash of static waves on a chaotic shore, that we are small in a vast universe and that our actions mean nothing and so, if you’re angry, go shooting…

Thus, we dance. We dance, hoping to drum into the floor and shake into the air just a few words of the holy book. Simcha heals Umpqua. In the bullet-sliced atmosphere now rings melody, which is structure, which is purpose. We will suture these wounds. We will sew G-d and Oregon and ourselves back into one, by the power of the souls that burn in our chests and the mantled words of the holy tongue that dance their furious circles.

We also danced in our precious, proud, Israel, where the parents slain before their children were only the beginning. This week, we clutched the royal scrolls we’ve carried through fire and death. They are brothers to the ruined parchments at Yad Vashem, sisters to the letters of G-d’s name lost to the flames or covered in filth in our long exile. We danced with wrath; we exalted in sorrow. We danced on ground soaked in Jewish blood and Jewish tears.

We danced to disturb our cousins’ complacency. They pull triggers and come with knives, and if the world isn’t silent, the world refuses to face the obvious. The attacks are the products of a society oversaturated with meaning, where the human spirit is subjugated to cruel law and cold religion, where blood is cheap but prayer is valuable. They are so entangled in their way of thought they cannot hear the cries of children, neither ours nor theirs. They are so full of purpose that their actions are senseless.

And so, we dance, and we cry, and as we wind around in coils, we unravel the hold of evil ideas over our cousins’ hearts. We drill the Torah into the earth, a declaration and a hope.

We dance the world over. We dance because we are still here, because the mission continues, and just as we preserve it, it preserves us. We dance because a Jewish soul in a Jewish body for one more moment is a victory for G-d. We dance because the world needs us to. We dance because our job is not yet over, and we will dance when it is finished. We press on with full hearts and the truth in our hands, and though this sad, imperfect world may not know it yet, we won before we entered this exile, before a Hebrew sandal imprinted itself on the bed of the Sea of Reeds, before Abraham smashed his father’s idols, before Adam named the lion.

Our dance is with Him and Him alone, and when we meet Him next, we will present a gift, a green and blue marble, balanced and at peace, and we will study the war no more.

 

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.