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Does Judaism Have Essential Beliefs?

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December 23, 2013
by Rabbi Reba Carmel Discussed in this essay: The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty first Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition, by Lawrence J. Epstein, Jason Aronson, 2013, 226 pages, and Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, edited By Roger Bennett, Workman Publishers, 2013, 384 pages. Smash JewsIn 12th-century Egypt, the Jewish philosopher and court physician Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides or Rambam, distilled and articulated his "Thirteen Articles of Faith," which were incorporated in the daily prayer book. These principles include, among others, belief in God’s existence, unity, incorporeality, and eternity. The recognition of Moses as the greatest prophet, belief the divine authorship of the Torah, and belief in reward and punishment and in the ultimate coming of the Messiah are among the latter articles. Add this to our extant lists of the seven Noahide laws (laws for non-Jews) and the Ten Commandments, and one can perhaps conclude that the Jewish people is solidly grounded regarding beliefs and behavior. Yet there is no one authoritative voice — other than the mythic voice of God at Sinai that uttered, according to tradition, the first word of the Ten Commandments (leaving the remainder to Moses) — that answers the deceptively simple question of what beliefs are definitive to being Jewish. One of the most recent entries that attempt to present Judaism’s core principles and values in 21st century terms is Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein’s book The Basic Beliefs of Judaism: A Twenty first Century Guide to a Timeless Tradition. A former Middle East adviser for two U.S. Congress members, Epstein undertakes this enterprise with admitted modesty and in full recognition of the task he has set for himself. “It is a ritual of politeness,” he admits, “for authors to note that ultimately the responsibility for the contents and shape of the book rests on the writer. Such a statement is particularly important in this book because it is a strain of the imagination to believe that any of those who helped me accept all or many of the interpretations in the book. That they still helped says a lot about their character, including their intellectual tolerance and in many cases, their friendship." 9780765709707_p0_v2_s260x420Epstein sets a daunting goal — to present and explain Judaism as a "belief system" in a way that is accessible without being condescending, pleasing without being superficial, serious without self righteousness. His intended readers, he writes, are “intellectually nimble” seekers of truth and honesty. They may be Jewish or partnered with someone who is, but they are curious irrespective of their faith tradition. His stated goal is “to enable readers to formulate more precise questions about their Jewish beliefs and to expand the range and complexity of their often-tentative answers.” Epstein is well-meaning and sincere. I therefore wish his book were more engaging, and that he was more willing to critically assess the role of mainstream Jewish institutions at the center of American Jewish life for much of the 20th century, whose roles are today being reevaluated by lay and professional communal leaders. Relying upon denominationalism to define the foundational principles of Judaism, Epstein also seems to presume that denominations are one of the core aspects of Judaism. In fact, denominationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon beginning only in the mid to late 19th century in Western Europe with the emancipation of the Jews. Its purpose and relevance are being reevaluated by Jewish social scientists, rabbis, and other Jewish professionals. Yet Epstein seems to presume that the existing structure of Jewish community centers, synagogues and federations will continue to offer American Jews the guidance needed to construct a gratifying and meaningful Jewish life at home and in the public sphere. Moreover, in a book of under 200 pages with the ambitious aim of defining a Jewish belief system, over-generalization inevitably abounds, which robs Judaism of nuance and interpretation. Is it truly the case that all traditionalists believe that God gave Moses the Oral and Written Torah at Sinai? Is it really the case that while those who identify as Orthodox or Conservative accept the strictures of halakha [Jewish law], the former don’t address the evolving nature of halakha? Does Epstein intend to imply that any and all of the implications of technological advances from smartphones to life-extending medical devices are not even addressed within an halakhic framework within the Orthodox community? Tears happyEpstein asserts that someone with a "'modern’ view . . . in general incorporates the ideas and methodologies of the natural and social sciences," in contrast to adhering only to the 613 positive and negative mitzvot [commandments], which, according to Epstein, express the will of God. It seems rashly presumptuous, however, to assert what may or may not be "God’s will." Any expression of it — if, indeed, it can be said that "God" exercises or even possesses a "will" — is a human construct, subject to human interpretation. At best we have the voluminous writings of the Talmud, which took three centuries to redact and compile and consists of six orders, sixty-three parts or tractates, and 517 chapters. The Talmud incorporates the legal, social, and at times political discourse of rabbinic authorities who sought to understand interpersonal as well as the social and political contexts of human relationships, in addition to the enduring, sacred relationship between humanity and God. After the Talmud's codification in 500 CE, and embracing the inevitable changes of political contexts and economic vicissitudes, each subsequent generation and community built upon the Talmud’s foundation to address the needs of Jewish life within the framework of the halakhic guidelines embedded there. It is only our willingness to engage, interpret, and struggle with these issues for millennia that enables us even to consider ascribing our limited, human conclusions to "God’s will." Secondly, it is hardly accurate to declare that only the "modern" view incorporates the natural and social sciences. Far from being timid, for example, the Tractate Avoda Zara (often translated as "idol worship" but more accurately as "strange worship") delves into the complex business relationship between Jews and non-Jews. Building codes and damages form the subjects of the tractates Baba Batra, Baba Metzia and Baba Kamma ("first gate," "middle gate," "last gate"); physical beauty, jealousy, competitiveness, and even gender identity issues are all topics that inspire rabbinic musing. While the physical tools available two millennia ago are undeniably less scientifically and technologically sophisticated than ours, the insights and observations of the human condition are no less powerful. Epstein chooses God as his starting point to explain Judaism. Using Tevye's endless fictional monologues with God as an exemplar of turning God into a “friendly coworker,” and concluding with less than one page each dedicated to God’s eternal nature, God’s omnipresence, the role of free will, and divine omniscience, Epstein does little to unlock what he calls (as the title of the second chapter of his book), "The Mystery of God." To his credit, he distinguishes between God as "being" and God as "entity" — yet each descriptor that Epstein chooses deserves a more comprehensive presentation, even for a self-declared "basic" volume. For example, Epstein states that "the unity of God is so foundational to Judaism that it is part of its definition." Indeed the six-word Shma prayer, which is the declarative article of faith traditionally said aloud in communal prayer at least three times daily, is the most profoundly simple and deeply meaningful statement of God’s unity — but to then assert that “Judaism has therefore been defined as ethical monotheism" is puzzling, as Epstein gives no indication as to why the embrace of God’s unity necessarily leads to "ethical monotheism." He attempts to distill the elements of unity, but raises more questions than he answers. To Epstein, for example, the unity of God implies that God cannot have multiple attributes. Even assuming that God has attributes as we understand that characterization, however, Jews recite the thirteen attributes of God found in the Bible during High Holiday services, and the Talmudic rabbis noted that each of God’s seventy names represents a different attribute of Divinity. Our tradition maintains, therefore, that God does indeed have "attributes," yet this does not seemingly conflict with our core article of faith of God’s unity. In the last half of his book, Epstein deals with issues of election (chosenness), peoplehood, community, the Jewish self, and death. He presumes that at Sinai, a revelation of God’s will to the Jewish people took place, electing them to carry out God’s will and to serve as God’s messengers by fulfilling several missions — not the least of which is supporting Israel. (Epstein cites AIPAC as the only address for fulfillment of this mission.) While his pragmatic discussion is more accessible and perhaps should have preceded a theoretical discussion of God, the presentation here is problematic as well. Because Epstein speaks broadly in denominational terms, each of what he declares to be Jewish "missions" — the religious mission, the educational mission, the Jewish communal mission — is connected to the sustained vibrancy of the institutional models that now seem in decline. Yet his book claims to be a 21st-century guide. Books such as Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century — Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant, edited by Rabbi Edward Feinstein (2008), question every presumption that Epstein leaves untouched, from the purpose of denominationalism to the meaning of covenant to globalism and the construction of a Jewish life. One of the late David Hartman's last books, The God who Hates Lies, also seeks passionately to purge Judaism of its denominationalism and its encrusted, self-serving halakhic system, which, according to Hartman, place humanity rather than God at the center of Jewish life. The individual volumes by Dr. Neil Gillman that are cited in Epstein’s bibliography, Doing Jewish Theology: God Torah & Israel in Modern Judaism and The Way into Encountering God in Judaism, also provide both depth and accessibility to the curious and perhaps the uninitiated — precisely the audience that Epstein intends to reach. He offers a copious, useful bibliography, but his book itself pales in comparison to many of his recommended resources. 91HlyYJ4LoLOn the other hand, for those who are seeking to hear 21st-century voices unpacking each portion of the biblical text, Unscrolled: 54 Writers and Artists Wrestle with the Torah, edited by Roger Bennett, is perfect. No biblical theme or character is too sacrosanct, too messy, or too dull to escape the scrutiny of these edgy, funny insightful young American Jews, who manage to charm, disarm and yet maintain the dignity and reverence of their assigned texts. The Book of Leviticus, or the Priestly code, which lacks the familial intrigue of Genesis, the pageantry of the Exodus, or the pathos of Moses’ Shakesperian monologue in the book of Deuteronomy, is often considered the scorned middle child of the five books that form the Pentateuch. Leviticus spares no detail in its endless descriptions of oozing skin eruptions, its catalogues of animal sacrifices, its lists of forbidden foods and forbidden sexual relations. Jamie Glassman, a writer living in London, bemoans his fate in having the portion Tazria (Leviticus 12:1-13:59), which describes rashes and skin diseases, as his bar mitzve portion. Several years later, while trekking through Eastern Europe, Glassman finds that he has indeed acquired a skin ailment of biblical proportions. After much descriptive detail, self-deprecating humor, photographs, and research references, he finally encounters a kind and patient Hungarian pharmacist who prescribes a curative ointment. “So Tazria is proof,” says Glassman, “of the great wisdom of the bible across continents and millennia, for this sufferer went to the priest/pharmacist and exclaimed, 'I am Unclean! I am Unclean!' and an ointment was procured and the priest/pharmacist did make him clean once more . . .” Instructions for dress and comportment of the High Priest and his family, also found in Leviticus, are given unanticipated vibrancy and even poignancy by the artists in this book. For example, the portion Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) presents the pageantry and pomp of anointing Aaron as High Priest. Rachel Levin, co-founder of Reboot and a consultant to a wealth management firm, notes that Aaron is barely settled in his new robes and job before he is handed a “97-verse ‘to do list’ dictated by God via Moses: Prepare flour on a griddle, divide meals into morning and evening portions, eat the leftovers of a sin offering. The directives are endless, the prescriptions exact. Yet Aaron does not complain once. In fact throughout the entire Torah portion, Aaron does not utter a single word. I am irritated for him.” Levin is reminded of her experience growing up as the dutiful daughter of a congregational rabbi. She, too, had to live in the public domain, following the orders of the community, often to the detriment of her family’s personal life. Yet many years later at a dinner party, one of the guests relates a story about the rabbi who gave her mentally disabled son a spur of the moment bar mitsve by calling him up to the Torah. he entire congregation cheered him on. That rabbi was Levin’s father. “I have seen through the years how rabbis have special access to people because they are present when people are at their most joyous, most vulnerable, most pained, most in need of hope," she writes. "My father knows that in these moments, there is possibility and that has always been more than enough for him.“ In addressing the theme of homosexuality forbidden in Acharei Mot (Leviticus 16:1-18:30), Israeli born Amichai Lau-Lavie, a performance artist and rabbinical student, reimagines using his bar mitsve speech before a full congregation of family and friends at an Orthodox Manhattan synagogue as his moment to come out, and he struggles with the biblical assertion that his sexual identity makes him an "abomination before God." David Sax, a Canadian journalist, takes on traditionally unkosher food, most notably bacon, crab, and shrimp, which clever food producers, through sleight of hand, can manufacture to meet strict rabbinic certification standards. Producers conjuring up mock-treyf (non-kosher) crab salad and shrimp roll “fit for a Kennebunkport summer’s lunch," or bacon gravy, bacon salt, and even bacon-flavored lip balm, are mocked, in turn, by Sax, who seems to be asking why Jews need to sanitize themselves of all things Jewish? Why do we need to pretend? Taking his portion from the Book of Exodus, architect Mark Kushner envisions, constructs and portrays the Mishkan, the movable tent of worship that accompanied the Israelites through their forty-year journey in the desert, in midtown Manhattan. Saki Knafo, a Brooklyn born writer for Huffington Post, serves up a previously unimaginable interpretation of Jacob and his favorite son Joseph, told from Joseph’s point of view. Assessing his father as a huckster, Joseph resents his father’s pushiness and his "lust for power and wealth." Steve Bodow, former head writer for Jon Stewart's Daily Show, scripts a dialogue with his wife regarding the ten plagues and the refrain of God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart. With each act of increased, divinely inspired devastation, Bodow’s agitation grows. Finally, with the tenth plague, the death of the first born, Bodow unleashes a bitterly Jobian attack upon God. “Look YHWH, thanks for getting us out of Egypt. Sincerely, it was awful there. And I know the Bronze Age desert was a brutal place, and Your ghostwriters are writing for that scene. And I suppose if the programmatic killing of children had been the only way to get us slaves freed, You’d at least have an argument. But this was not that. This was premeditated heart-hardening so we could see You in terrible, terrible action. You didn’t care about the murder; You cared that we Jews saw the murder. So this looks less like ‘win back the loyalty of your chosen tribe (than) gratuitous child killing.” There is not, nor can there be, a satisfying response to Bodow’s claim, but his wife’s response in this imagined script offers what may be the only viable answer: “Why not take — not just this story, but this entire conception of God — take it maybe as an allegory. The universe is capricious and sometimes cruel. It just is. And being aware that there are forces at play, or just chaos — the point being that we can’t control or appeal to or makes sense of it, but since that’s reality, then living in regular acknowledgment of that could be a kind of spiritual practice. “ While there are a handful of essays which seem to overreach — such as Rachel Axler’s commentary on the portion Hukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), "Song of the Red Cow," told from the cow’s point of view in a dialect that intrudes upon her message — given that Bennett has compiled the work of fifty-four talented artists, the chance of a reader's randomly choosing a thought-provoking and insightful commentary is high. The book, in short, is stunning, refreshing and energetic. It is not for the faint-hearted, but for those who want to wrestle with our theological heritage, much as Jacob wrestled with God and moved forward to create his destiny with a new name Yisra’el — the one who "has striven with God and triumphed" (Genesis 32:29). Reba Carmel is an attorney and rabbi who holds a Masters degree in Biblical Studies from Jewish Theological Seminary. She serves on the advisory board of the Jewish Dialogue Group, and works as a freelance writer and speaker on multi-faith issues. She holds Israeli and American citizenship and lived in Israel for ten years.