Monday, November 24, 2008

Inside and out

I love my course on זרמים ביהדות בעת החדשה/Streams in Modern Judaism. I love it in four aspects: content, vocabulary, Israeli context, and the reactions of my Israeli classmates. The content itself (starting with the Treaty of Westphalia) is partly review and partly new. Much of it is material that I feel like I should know already but don't. But what is completely new is the Hebrew vocabulary. Learning this topic in Hebrew means that potentially boring heard-it-all-before subjects (Emancipation, citizenship, religion versus nationality, blah, blah, blah) are reinvigorated for me as challenging vocabulary lessons. Learning about all of this in the context of Israeli society is also a draw. Our assignment for next week, for example, is to read three platforms from the Reform movement: The Pittsburgh Platform (1885), The Columbus Platform (1937), and the platform of the Reform movement in Israel. Finally, perhaps my favorite aspect is the reactions of my (largely "secular") Israeli classmates.

Today we were talking about early Reform changes to the liturgy and to the entire realm of everyday Jewish practice (e.g., kashrut). One woman began passionately voicing her disapproval that the Reformers wanted to do away with many aspects of Shabbat observance. How could they do this, she argued, when so many of the prohibitions are laid out so clearly in the very text of the Torah itself? She quoted texts verbatim and emphasized that these practices were part of the Ten Commandments themselves. Of course, she noted parenthetically, she did not keep shabbat, but still! Many people have told me that it makes more sense to think of most "secular" Israelis as something closer to "non-practicing Orthodox" and my classmate was clearly fulfilling this stereotype: "There is only one way to live a Jewish life!!! So what if I happen not to live that way, at least I'm not making any changes."

And then a young man in the class said that he understood that the teacher was saying that the early proponents of Reform understood themselves as taking the best that Judaism had to offer and working as part of continuous Jewish history. But, he wanted to know, what exactly were these rabbis retaining given all the things they were ready to get rid of? "Sure," he said, "there's the One God, but outside of that?" "חוץ מהאל האחד...מה?" I nearly burst out laughing (but lately when I laugh I also start coughing and I knew I didn't want to do that) partly because of his minimization of God and God's Oneness and partly because, especially to my ears, saying it in Hebrew sort of makes it sound like a truly deep question: What is there aside from the One God? Two responses rose in me simultaneously:
1. A joyous remembering of the Torah's audacious claim: אין עוד מלבדו/There is nothing outside of the One.
2. A good wordplay chuckle compliments of Groucho Marx: "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

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