Orthodoxy Is Not the Sole 'Original' Judaism

If Agudath Israel’s Avi Shafran were to meet Yehuda Hanasi, he would probably conclude the codifier of the Mishna wasn’t Jewish enough.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau. A representative of the only original Judaism?Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

There has been quite a commotion about President-elect Reuven Rivlin’s position on Orthodoxy’s monopoly on Judaism. Reform rabbis Eric Yoffie and Rick Jacobs have called on Rivlin to change his views on the matter. But Avi Shafran, the rabbi who is the face of the right-wing Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, has emphatically stated that Rivlin should not change his position, since “there is today, as always, only one Judaism, the original one.”

Some clarification is in order: Israel’s president has no influence on the legal questions that, for good reasons, bother many non-Orthodox Jews in the United States and Israel. He does not determine which rabbis can conduct weddings or approve divorces or conversions. That’s up to the Knesset, and chances are very slim that the Knesset will change the status quo that gives primacy to the Orthodox establishment. This is why Peres, who respects all denominations of Judaism, couldn’t change anything about the status quo, and why Rivlin’s views won’t really matter either.

I have, time and again, pointed out how destructive the Orthodox monopoly on religious affairs in Israel is. It tears apart the Jewish people, not only because it disregards the views of the 85 percent of Diaspora Jews who are not Orthodox, but because it alienates the large proportion of Israelis who detest the Orthodox establishment’s stranglehold over their private lives and don’t want to be coerced into listening to lectures on laws of purity they do not believe in or forced to go through a ritual they despise if they want to divorce.

But for the time being, Israel’s political system will not tackle the Orthodox monopoly. The best we can hope for is that civil unions spearheaded by Yesh Atid will at least spare secular Israelis the trip abroad to get a civil marriage that doesn’t involve the rituals and rabbis they want nothing to do with.

And what about the claim made by Shafran and most Orthodox rabbis that Orthodoxy is the original Judaism and its only legitimate form? Let me make it very simple: It makes sense to speak of original Apple, Timberland or Johnny Walker products, but it makes no sense whatsoever to speak of a sole “original” Judaism, for a number of historical and cultural reasons.

Let us imagine an encounter between Shafran and a Jew of the eighth century B.C.E., who would have identified as a “son of Israel” or “son of Judea” — and with whom Shafran would have nothing in common. The Jew of the eighth century was most likely a polytheist, and at best monolatrous, meaning he believed there were many gods, but worshiped only one of them. He followed none of the precepts Shafran and the rest of Jewish Orthodoxy consider essential to Judaism; he didn’t pray, and he didn’t know about most of the Jewish holidays or the majority of the 613 commandments to which Shafran adheres so strictly.

Even in the fifth century B.C.E., when the Torah as we know it today was put together from a variety of earlier sources, conceivably by Ezra the Scribe (as put forth in Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”), Shafran would have found very little in common with the Jews of that time, for whom the main question was where and when they were allowed to bring sacrifices.

Only from the second century B.C.E. onward, with the emergence of rabbinic Judaism, did a religious practice remotely connected to Shafran’s begin to evolve, and even then, this was but one variety of Jewish practices and beliefs. If Shafran were to visit Tzippori, the center of Jewish life in the Galilee of the second century C.E. and the hometown of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the codifier of the Mishna, he would be surprised to see that the rabbis of the era lived in houses adorned by mosaics that depicted scenes from Greek mythology. Shafran would probably feel compelled to conclude that the Mishna’s codifier did not adhere to the “original” Judaism.

To make it clear, I have nothing against Jewish Orthodoxy in itself. It is as legitimate a religious strand as any of the other colorful and varied Jewish subcultures and creeds that have existed throughout history. But I do call upon Jewish Orthodoxy to end its stranglehold on Jewish life in Israel. Its claim to be the guarantors of Jewish continuity and unity is preposterous, given that its monopoly on Jewish affairs causes the majority of the Jewish people to feel alienated from Judaism.

I have, of course, no illusion that the Orthodox establishment will heed the many such calls from Reform and Conservative rabbis and secular or non-Orthodox Jews. Too many jobs, too much money and too much power are at stake – in addition to which, most Orthodox rabbis actually do believe that they represent the sole “original” Judaism. And for the time being, I am afraid, Israeli politics will not loosen the Orthodox stranglehold in Israel.

To those of us who cherish our Jewish identity but feel no attachment to Orthodoxy, I suggest simply enjoying the phenomenal richness of Jewish culture. It comes in all colors, styles and cultural manifestations. Just read books like the beautiful collection “Cultures of the Jews: A New History,” edited by David Biale; Simon Schama’s eminently readable “The Story of the Jews”; or Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger’s humorous and playful “Jews and Words.” These, along with many other works, create a rich picture of the colorful history of Jewish cultures that is so much fuller than the entrenched, narrow image of Judaism promoted by the Orthodox establishment.

Jewish religious thought has been very rich, ranging from Maimonides to Emmanuel Levinas. Jewish secular thought is a pride and a joy, from Spinoza to Freud. Jewish art is fascinating, from the mosaics of Tzippori to the paintings of Marc Chagall. Jewish show business has a proud history too, from the 15th century to Woody Allen. Jewish music, from Yossele Rosenblatt, a cantor whose life bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, to Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich and contemporary singer Achinoam Nini, is a treasure trove to be enjoyed – and I won’t even start enumerating the gems of Jewish literature and film.

I am, of course not claiming that any of this is the sole original Judaism; I don’t even know what that means. We should cherish and enjoy Jewish creativity and culture, whatever its provenance, and see Jewish Orthodoxy for what it really is: one of the many colorful and fascinating manifestations of the incredible story of a people that has been reinventing itself endlessly for millennia.

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