Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and Jews—even those of us who are a few cheeseburgers removed from the faith of our fathers—are commanded to take this time and reflect on the foundational teachings of our religion.
Which leaves just one minor problem: What, precisely, are the foundational teachings of our religion?
The question is far from rhetorical. It informs so many interactions so many of us have every day. Go on Facebook, for example, and you’re likely to have one of your friends or relatives insist that true Judaism means embracing liberal positions, while another argues just as forcefully that being true to our religion means voting conservative.
Even those of us skilled at tuning out the sound and the fury of politics aren’t spared the confusion that comes with trying to sort out just what it is that our religion wants us to believe. Judaism, after all, is an ancient religion whose seminal text, the Talmud, is an ode to disputation, containing mainly the records of fierce disagreements, rarely resolved, between generations of wise and contrarian rabbis. That leaves anyone looking for a clear-cut guide to life, the sort that leads to simple, powerful, and life-changing resolutions, in a bit of a bind.
Thankfully, we’ve got a solution, one that works not only for Jews but for anyone, of any faith tradition, who is struggling with doubt, which is to say pretty much all of us. Here goes: To figure out what your religion is really about—or, at least, what it means to you—sit down in a comfortable chair, take three deep breaths, and write an encyclopedia.
We’re not joking, or, at least, not entirely. Last year, we were approached by a publisher and asked whether, as the cohosts of the world’s most popular Jewish podcast, we’d like to write a book that explained key concepts in Judaism in a brief and humorous way. We said yes; after all, we thought, writing a Jewish encyclopedia was probably a lot like yakking it up for 45 minutes every week on a podcast. Right?
Trouble started almost immediately. Were contemporary movie stars—say, charmingly accented Israelis playing super heroes—worthy of inclusion in our book, or should an encyclopedia honor only those who had withstood the test of time? How to approach the more controversial topics testing the strength of our communal bonds, like the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, in a fair and factual way that would provide basic facts without alienating partisans on either side? And what could we do to make rites of passage, like circumcision, coherent to modern readers for whom Judaism was mostly a cultural affiliation, not a religious one?
Like the rabbis of old, we argued. We argued as we researched the book, we argued as we wrote it, we argued even after submitting it to the publisher. We argue still, and soon, we hope, our readers will argue, too. And that, we realized, is the whole point.
These days, many of us who take the notion of identity seriously tend to see it as an invitation to think in ever narrowing circles. We map out the intersections of gender, race, sexual orientation, and a host of other factors to draw out a narrow corner for ourselves from which we could speak with confidence and authenticity. But writing an encyclopedia is, by definition, an all-encompassing thing, and it forced each one of us to abandon all prejudices and imagine a reader positioned as far away as possible inside Judaism’s big tent.
All three of us, for example, are Zionists, but when writing the entry about Zionism we had to stop and consider what the term might mean for someone who saw it in a starkly different light, not as a movement to secure a homeland for Jews in their ancestral homeland but as an ideology designed to deny the land’s Arab inhabitants of their sovereignty. Similarly, because none of us is an Orthodox Jew, we placed a call to a leader of the local Orthodox community, to hear how he might describe his own beliefs before writing an entry about them. By the time we were done, it seemed as if each one of the book’s thousand entries was an exercise in radical empathy, the insistence on seeing our traditions and our beliefs through the eyes of our fellow Jews who disagreed with us fiercely. And we walked away not only with a deeper understanding of our faith, but also with hearts that were that much more open to embrace difference in all its forms and minds that were that much more attuned to see others who disagreed with us not as foes but as partners in a conversation that was meaningful and enriching even if never resolved. If there’s a better definition of teshuvah, or returning with repentance and humility, we don’t know it.
And so, as you sit in shul or at home this Yom Kippur and ponder the sins of yesteryear and the promises of the year to come, here’s a bit of homework guaranteed to put you in the right mood for the holiday: Imagine you are writing your own Jewish encyclopedia. Wrestle with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Ask yourself at every turn how someone with very divergent views would feel about the way you chose to describe key terms and concepts. Do this, in your mind or on paper, until you feel the frustration bubbling over. Then, rejoice: You have probably reached the understanding that the questions are far greater than their answers, the fundamental wisdom that not only Judaism but also all of the world’s great religions have in common.
If you’d like to see how we tackled this challenge, check out The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between.