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Parts of the Whole

In the reflective period of the High Holidays, Tablet Magazine—together with rabbis and writers—considers the debate over Jewish identity and makes an argument for inclusiveness

Alana Newhouse
September 07, 2010
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The High Holidays are, almost reflexively, a time of introspection. But the soul-searching need not be limited to our private selves; as the rabbis teach, it’s not just our own ledger that needs to be checked but our communal one as well. This communal accounting assumed special urgency this year, after a proposed bill in Israel’s Knesset—one that would have changed rabbinical authority over conversions—inspired a combative but perhaps ultimately healthy discussion about the essential questions of Jewish identity. As both supporters and detractors of the bill would agree, what was at issue, at least in part, was the question of where the boundaries of our community lie: Who is a Jew? Or, put another way: What is Judaism?

Those questions may appear nebulous, simultaneously too elusive and too deep for anyone to attempt to answer seriously. But look at the landscape of Jewish life and two broad currents suggest themselves, two divergent agendas that address much more than the question of conversion alone. On the one hand, those who imagine Judaism as an exclusive enterprise advocate that the religion and its followers alike should move in ever-diminishing circles, orbiting around a small nucleus of rabbis entrusted with parsing the halachic laws. This approach is not without its merits; trying to make sense of an ancient faith in a modern world is a mighty and baffling task, and the drive inward, toward purity and certainty, is both instinctive and immensely reassuring.

But those of us who believe that Judaism’s survival also depends on its ability to adapt to the spiritual and practical challenges imposed by modernity must reject the urge to narrow our common horizons. Instead, we must examine our boundaries and beliefs and work to welcome new people, new traditions, and new ideas into the fold. To some, such talk may have the airy, hollow ring of universalist New Age spirituality. But that is not the case—as we think will be clear from the collection of essays by rabbis and writers, scholars and cooks, comedians and community leaders in Tablet Magazine’s High Holiday package. Some of these articles and essays are personal, others historical. In them, we hope each reader will find his or her own path toward answering Judaism’s essential questions, impossible and beautiful and all-encompassing—the only questions worth asking.

Judaism’s greatest sages have always plunged into the depths of doubt in an effort to find morsels of wisdom. This holiday season, two of our contributors evoke the memories of such men: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in an essay coming tomorrow, writes about Hillel the Elder, who defined Jewish peoplehood in radically inclusive terms, and Rodger Kamenetz recalls his journey to commune with the spirit of the late Nachman of Bratslav, a 19th-century rabbi who made his home among the non-believers in the hope of showing them the merits of faith.

These rabbis—and other, less illustrious but no less righteous men and women throughout history—embody Judaism’s finest qualities. As their respective communities sought solace and comfort in closed doors and closed minds, they ventured out and struggled to expand the boundaries of peoplehood, occasionally disregarding the letter in service of the spirit. It is doubt, they realized, that makes the believer’s faith more meaningful, and it is compassion for others that makes one’s understanding of oneself more complete. Armed with these convictions, they engaged with the world; more than any enforcer of strict rules or arbiter of stern edicts, they taught us what it means to be Jewish.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we would do well to abandon the pointless fights that have embroiled so many of us for so long, and to insist instead that there are other, better, more urgent questions for us to be asking. We must ask how we can invite as many newcomers to partake in Judaism—as those interviewed by Joan Nathan for her food column have done—without eroding the religion’s core tenets. We must ask what forms of innovative communal structures we might erect to serve the needs of those whom consequences placed just outside the reach of tradition’s grasp, as Rabbi Andy Bachman does in a Vox Tablet podcast about, of all things, burial customs.

Most important, we must ask which of our beliefs guide us forward and which are merely vantage points to the past. And we must do so without turning denominational divides into weapons of divisiveness. In the course of recent American Jewish history, Reform and Conservative rabbis have sometimes preferred strict interpretations of Jewish law, while Orthodox rabbis have allowed room for ambiguity. Indeed, it is the Orthodox rabbi Avi Shafran who here reminds us of the inherent dangers of generalizations and collective judgments, a shortcoming from which Jews of all stripes are not immune.

Unlike Passover or Purim, Rosh Hashanah has no haggadah or megillah, no seminal text that invites us to ponder the meaning of the holiday. It is up to us to stir up debate, to ask what traditions still matter and what should be reconsidered. We hope you’ll find kindling for conversation in the articles and other content we’re publishing this week. And even if not, at the very least try the pomegranate martini.

Shanah tova, from everyone at Tablet Magazine.

Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.

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