Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today.  One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.

In the beginning…

The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God.  Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work.  Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology.  The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years.  One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).

The good…

Positive

Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha).  Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole.  One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
  • I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to  make a point.
  • The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it.  Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2).  successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute.  They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
  • The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
  • To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work.  For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).

A modern creed…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.  Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law.   Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)

The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message.  Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details.  Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides.  Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).

Notes:

(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism.  I will post on this. later.

(2) Just an example:  “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.”    Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.

(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement .  Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision.  The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.

(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

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Morenica

Morenica  (Morenika or La Morena) is a favorite Sephardic wedding song that was likely composed before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  The song was documented in 1625 in Gonzalo Correa’s book “Arte de la lengua castellana española” .  The song is a testament to the rich Jewish culture that existed in Spain before the Inquisition and the tradition that brought words and music to the modern era.

The sailors call me “dark one”; if they call me once more, I will go with them

The song, composed in so-called Judeo-spanish, is about a “dark girl”, a brunette whose skin has been darkened by the sun – in fact a poetic figure that is common to old Spanish poetry.  The song ends with “Morena a mi me llaman los marineros; Si otra vez me llaman, me voy yo con ellos. [The sailors call me “dark one”; if they call me once more, I will go with them”]. Some historians (Margit Frenk among others) believe that the song may be inspired by a similar dark girl mentioned in the Biblical “Song of Songs” (1:5).

The first video features 3s Amis, a world music group (Bruna Sardo – voice, Samuele Lorenzini – guitar, and Alberto de Grandis – drums). The second video features well-known Israeli bassist and composer Avishai Cohen.

References:

Frenk, Margit. (1987). Corpus de la lírica popular hispánica (Siglos XV a XVII). (Nos. 138-142). Madrid.
Weich-Shahak, S. (2006). En Buen Siman! Panorama del Repertorio Musical Sefaradi. Jerusalem: Pardes.
Ascher, Gloria J. (2001). Sephardic Songs, Proverbs, and Expressions: A Continuing Tradition”. Shofar: An Interdiscipliary Journal of Jewish Studies, 19,4: 25-39.

http://www.jewishfolksongs.com/en/jewish-folklore#morenica

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Morenika, they call me
my skin was pure white
from the fire of the summer sun
I am dark
Chorus:
Morenika
so very beautiful
in your eyes – a burning fire
my heart is all yours
Morenika , they call me
all those who go down to the sea
if again they call me
I will go with them again
Morenika, they call me
son to the ruling king
if he calls me again
I will follow him

 

Trouble in Israel

West bank settlementA few days ago, the right-wing Israeli political organization “Im Tirtzu” published a slick video clip in which it accused by name four Israeli members of human rights organizations of being “moles” operated by foreign countries to sabotage Israel’s counter-terror efforts (The Times of Israel).  The NGO human rights organizations may receive grants from countries and individuals outside of Israel to promote peace and understanding, but that hardly makes them foreign moles.  In fact, Im Tirtzu, which supports settlements in the occupied West Bank and other Israeli right-wing organizations are themselves funded largely by right-wing U.S. (a foreign country) contributions (Haaretz).

The four individuals portrayed in the Im Tirtzu video work for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, Breaking the Silence featuring Israeli soldiers testifying about malpractices and alleged crimes committed by IDF troops against Palestinians; the Center for Defense of the Individual, which represents Palestinians under Israeli occupation; and B’Tselem, which documents human rights abuses in the territories. (Haaretz)

By naming and showing their faces in the video clip, Im Tirtzu is endangering the lives of these four individuals, using hate speech and inciting their members and the public at large.  But that’s not it.  This is part of an overall campaign by the Israeli extreme right which includes proposed new laws, such as the “transparency law” directed against NGOs.  “These NGOs challenge the authority of the government that has been elected by the people,” said the author of the proposed “transparency law”.  This sounds like Russia, Uganda, China, Egypt, Kyrgyzstan or Burundi (The Washington Post), hardly a group of democratic and desirable countries…

There is trouble in Israel…  Tensions between secular, religious, Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews are not new, but they are escalating to a point never seen before.  Racism, which led so many Jews to death chambers, is now a real problem in Israel as well. About 60,000 Africans have immigrated there since 2006, fleeing unrest in their home countries. In Israel, these migrants have faced intense racism and persecution by right-wing politicians and activists, and have been branded as “infiltrators”.

Israel is split between a secular, liberal, modern, and economically thriving half, living alongside an ultra-Orthodox, observant, nationalist, and poorer half.  Nearly 70 years after Israel’s independence, the country is debating the meaning of its very existence: is Israel a (religious) Jewish State or a modern country where Jews and Arabs live together?  Is Israel a refuge for the Jews or a country from which they radiate?   Is Israel Auschwitz or Sinai?