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Lauren F. Winner

Living by Law, Looking for Intimacy

What Christians can learn from the debates that divide American Jews. This is the first installment in a five-part series.

This is the first installment in a five-part series.

Next, part 2 [January/February 2001], "God of Abraham—and Saint Paul," will focus on the pathbreaking "Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" published last fall in the New York Times and the book of essays it occasioned, Christianity in Jewish Terms, edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer.

Part 3 will consider medieval anti-Semitism and the Eucharist (via Miri Rubin's Gentile Tales).

Part 4 will discuss German Jews, Edith Stein in particular.

Part 5 will conclude the series with Messianic Judiaism.

Jew vs. Jew

Jew vs. Jew

Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, by Samuel G. Freedman, Simon & Schuster, 397 pp.; $26

American Jews appear to have it pretty good. An observant Jew nominated for vice-president! But according to Samuel Freedman in his new book Jew vs. Jew, with the persecution Jews suffered in the past—the anti-Semitic slurs, the pogroms, the exclusion—came a sort of unity. Jews stuck together because they had to. Nowadays, they don't have to—and dissension is threatening the newly factious and fissiparous Jews at every turn. They are divided over Israel, over pluralism, over conversion. The Orthodox sneer at the Reform, and the Reform sneer back. Conservative congregations crack apart over what to call God: He or She. Parents are affronted when their rabbi won't perform their son's wedding because he's marrying someone whose mother isn't Jewish. It's a bad time for American Jewry.

Freedman's thickly researched, elegantly written book surveys these fissures among American Jews. The book is bracketed by two especially dramatic episodes. It opens with a snapshot of Janet and David Marcus, who recently moved from their long-time home in Great Neck, Long Island, "largely to escape their neighbors." The Marcuses belonged to a Reform temple, their sons celebrated their bar mitzvahs, and they were friendly with their neighbors, the Guilors. Until, that is, the Guilors became baalei teshuva—literally, masters of the return, non-observant Jews who become Orthodox. The Guilors put up a sukkah (hut) in their yard to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, they invited other families over for Shabbat lunch, they proudly walked to shul (synagogue) on the Sabbath. The Marcuses were mystified, and repulsed. They moved—to escape.

Jew vs. Jew closes with a different group of Jews fighting about the ethos of their neighborhood. Beachwood, Ohio, had been largely Jewish since the 1960s, populated by bake-sale-baking, city-council-serving, PTA-fund-raising Reform and Conservative Jews. In the 1980s, more and more Orthodox Jews moved in, and, in 1997, the Orthodox petitioned the Beachwood Planning and Zoning Commission to alter some zoning rules so that they could build an Orthodox synagogue and day-school. Beachwood's non-Orthodox Jews fought them at every step, scared that they were losing control of their community, that the Beachwood they had built was being transformed into an unrecognizable ghetto where they would be made to feel guilty for eating at McDonald's and driving on Shabbat.

These struggles over the shape of a community serve as bookends to Jew vs. Jew, but do not, Freedman says, represent the only issues antagonizing American Jews. Jews are fiercely divided on the question of Israel. In a chapter set in Jacksonville, Florida, Freedman tells the horrifying story of Harry Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew who, in 1997, placed a bomb in a local Conservative synagogue because Shimon Perez, whose views on the peace process Shapiro found repugnant, came to speak. This, for Freedman, captures the whole problem. Klal Yisrael—the community of Israel—is no longer a value in a community where Jews can bomb one another's houses of worship over land and politics.

Feminism has also "provoked strife" among American Jews, who can't seem to agree about women leading worship, women studying Talmud, women giving traditional liturgy a feminist twist. For a taste of that strife, Freedman takes us to the Library Minyan, in Los Angeles, a Conservative congregation whose members are traditional in their public prayer and observance of the Sabbath (many, for example, refrain from driving on Shabbat) but where, in contrast to an Orthodox minyan, men and women sit together, and women lead prayers, chant from the Torah, and wear the prayer shawls and skullcaps that have traditionally been the garb of men. In 1987, Rachel Adler, while leading the congregation in the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish public worship, added a mention of the Imahot—the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—to the passage of the prayer that refers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Adler hadn't dreamed up this innovation on her own—it had been popular among Jewish feminists for a decade. But it was the first time anyone had added the Imahot at the Library Minyan.

The reaction was swift. Who told Adler she could add the Imahot? Had she discussed it with the Ritual Committee? Could anyone add whatever she felt like to the traditional Jewish liturgy? For weeks, the minyan debated the issue: someone would preach a d'var Torah (homily) arguing for the inclusion of the Imahot, and the next week another congregant would follow with an argument against. Those opposed to mentioning the Imahot weren't hostile to women or egalitarianism, but they didn't want the Library Minyan's liturgy to differ from that of Jews all around the world. Amy Rabin, then a Library Minyaner, believed that "once her minyan spoke words no other congregation did, she was cut adrift from Klal Yisrael."

Two years after Adler first added the Imahot to the Amidah, the Library Minyan took a vote: should prayer leaders be allowed to add the Imahot, and if so, should it be mandatory, or optional? When the votes were tallied, the Rabins knew they would have to leave the minyan. The congregation had decided, by a large margin, to allow the leader of prayer to add the Imahot if he or she saw fit. Within a year, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly followed suit; now, Conservative Jews across the country are officially allowed to pray to the God of the matriarchs if they wish. Amy Rabin and her family joined a nearby Orthodox shul.

A decade later, Freedman's portrait of feminist fissions among Conservative Jews seems dated. You won't find many congregations ripped apart by the Imahot in 2001. Freedman fails to discuss, in Jew vs. Jew, what he acknowledged in an interview is the feminist issue that will bring about fissure in this century: ordination of female Orthodox rabbis. "It will come up," he told me. "I don't know if it will be in 20 years or 40 years, but it will happen." Freedman is right. Already many Orthodox women are dissatisfied with the rules that forbid them to lead worship, be ordained, or render halachic decisions.

But these women are not leaving Orthodoxy to become Conservative rabbis: they are studying and teaching at the Drisha Institute, a top-notch all-women's beit midrash (institute of Talmud study) in New York. They are, like Haviva Ner-David—who applied to the ordination program at Yeshiva University, America's modern Orthodox university and seminary, and was rejected on the basis of sex—getting Ph.D.'s in rabbinics at Bar-Ilan University. They are, like Julie Stern Joseph and Sharona Margolin Halickman, serving as "congregational interns" at Orthodox shuls. Halickman and Joseph, who, in 1998, pioneered the role, weren't on par with rabbis, but they taught classes, visited the sick, gave homilies, and counseled women about the laws of family purity. And they got a lot of attention in the press.

Freedman may be faulted for ignoring this part of the story he has set out to tell, but he is to be commended for recognizing that Orthodox Jews are not a monolithic bunch. Indeed, there's a sizable gulf between the "ultra-Orthodox" and the "modern Orthodox." The former are the bearded black-hatters who try to avoid "the world" as much as possible; the latter are clean-cut guys in colorful crocheted yarmulkes and gals in ankle-length denim skirts who attend Columbia or Harvard or Yeshiva University and embrace the concept of Torah u'Maddah, Scripture and secular learning, eagerly studying, say, Jane Austen and biology alongside the Talmud. (To say the ultra-Orthodox are like fundamentalists and the moderns like evangelicals would be an over-simplified generalization, but not a totally useless one.)

And Freedman recognizes that there are significant divisions within the modern Orthodox community itself. To illustrate, he introduces readers to the Yale Five, the group of Orthodox Jewish students who sued Yale when the university required them to live on campus in a coed dorm. Living in dorms with coed bathrooms and baskets of free condoms sprinkled throughout common rooms, the students claimed, would make it impossible to observe the Jewish requirement of tzniut (modesty). The suit, understandably, infuriated the dozens of Orthodox Yalies who felt their religious standards were being impugned. Jewish student Evan Farber, Freedman tells us,

felt judged. And the guilty verdict was not only personal but communal. As his Jewish legitimacy was being questioned, so was that of the Modern Orthodox community from which he had come. He remembered a speech that [his Jewish high school's] principal, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, had given after the death of [modern Orthodoxy's most revered leader] Joseph Solevetchik, in which he recalled [Solevetchik] warning, "Don't let them move you to the right."

Rabbi Solevetchik's remark raises a pressing question that Freedman fails to address. The Yale Five would have been unheard of even two decades ago. Within the last generation, orthodox Jews have become increasingly strict. Take hair covering: 30 years ago very few married women in the modern Orthodox world covered their hair; today, a soon-to-be-married 22-year-old pre-med student at Columbia is likely to have "visit the wig maker" or "acquire ten new hats" on her list of things to do before the wedding. Freed man's discussion of the Yale Five offers testimony to this new strictness, but Freedman fails to account for it—he suggests neither why married modern Orthodox women now happily don sheitels, nor what it means for American Judaism that they do. When I asked him about this, Freedman said, "I think the best answer is offered in Haym Solevetchik's article. I'm not sure I could do justice to the article summarizing it, but it's listed in my bibliography."

In 1994, a long, stylish essay in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought was all the buzz among the modern Orthodox. "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Modern Orthodoxy," by Haym Solevetchik, professor at Yeshiva University and son of the late Joseph Solevetchik, tried to explain "the developments that have occurred within my lifetime in the community in which I live. The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore." Whither the new strictness?

Solevetchik notes that the trend of women covering their hair and students refusing to live in coed dorms is usually explained away as "the swing to the Right," the Right meaning the black-hatters, the ultra-Orthodox, the haredim. But, says Solevetchik, this explanation is inadequate, because the two key issues that have historically separated the modern Orthodox from their rightward co-religionists still separate them: the modern Orthodox still embrace secular education where the haredim, at best, look askance at it; and the moderns are still strongly Zionist, where the haredim aren't.

What's afoot in contemporary Orthodoxy, says Solevetchik, is more complicated than a simple "swing to the Right." The "very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere," he writes, " … the nature of contemporary spirituality has undergone a transformation." The key to this transformation is the new place of text in the modern Orthodoxy community. Sure, Torah and Talmud have always played an important role in observant Jewish life. But until recently, Solevetchik argues, Judaism was mimetic. Because Jewish law (halacha) covers every aspect of daily life, from which shoe you put on first in the morning to how and when you cook, "it constitutes a way of life. And a way of life is not learned but rather observed." You absorb it by watching your friends and family, and then copying them. You figure out how to live Jewishly, in other words, through mimesis, not through sitting down with a guide to kosher cooking and then implementing everything you read.

Sometimes these "mimetic norms," Solevetchik writes, conformed with written, legal norms, and sometimes they didn't. Daughters learning how to keep a kosher kitchen from watching their mom learned to do quite a lot of things that go above and beyond what the law proscribes—like having one dishwasher for meat dishes, and another for dairy dishes. And sometimes tradition did less than the law strictly dictated. Solevetchik points to the injunction against borer, separating things, like wheat from chaff, on the Sabbath. For centuries, he says, Jews have been eating fish on Shabbat, and eating fish requires one to separate the meat from the bones, which, strictly speaking, is a violation of the written codes of borer. But, says Solevetchik, Jews "saw the law as manifesting itself in two forms: in the canonized written corpus (the Talmud and codes), and in the regnant practices of the people. … [O]n frequent occasions, the written word was reread in light of traditional behavior." What has changed over the last 50 years is that Orthodox Jews have ceased to be a mimetic people. They no longer learn how to pray, eat, sleep, talk, and wash as a Jew from their parents and peers, but from books.

Solevetchik points to a watershed article in 1940, in which the Hazon Ish, a prolific Polish rabbi, took Jews to task for eating too little matzah on Passover. The Talmud says you must eat a piece of matzah the size of an olive. So, for centuries, Jews had been breaking off a piece of matzah approximately the size of an olive, and chomping down. The Hazon Ish argued that Jews had underestimated how big olives were in the Talmudic times and urged Jews to eat twice as much matzah at the Passover seder as they usually ate.

It was not the first time anyone had made the point. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, respected rabbinic authorities had lamented that people weren't eating enough matzah on Passover, but no one paid any attention to them, because centuries' old tradition trumped a newly exacting rabbinical rigor. By 1960, Solevetchik observes, that had changed: "traditional conduct, no matter how venerable … yield[ed] to the demands of theoretical knowledge."

Solevetchik suggests that texts are increasingly important because adherence to religious standards had become essentially voluntary, in a country filled with other possibilities in a way that the shtetls of pre-Holocaust eastern Europe were not:

A traditional society has been transformed into an orthodox one, and religious conduct is less the product of social custom than of conscious, reflective behavior. … A ritual can no more be approximated than an incantation can be summarized. Its essence lies in accuracy. It is accuracy that religious Jews are now seeking.

And accuracy "can be found only in texts."

Finally, says Solevetchik, Judaism's mimetic culture flourished in Eastern Europe when just about everyone, Jewish and Gentile, was governed by custom. Today, no one, secular or religious, submits to custom for custom's sake. A "text-based religiosity" is well-suited to "a modern, bureaucratic society."

But Solevetchik's real concern is not why Orthodox Jews have become obsessed with a textual accuracy, but what that obsession means for American Jewry. What is at stake, he argues, is more than how much matzah you eat at your seder; it is an entire religious cosmology. In the Eastern European shtetl, "God's palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life … was a fact of life." Consider the dairyman Tevye of Sholem Aleichem's tales (and later Norman Jewison's Fiddler on the Roof). Tevye's "colloquial intimacy" with God is taken for granted. God actually cares about whether or not we can pay our rent. Things happen because of God's will. Prayer has "a physical efficacy." Sin has consequences, and each of us will one day have a real reckoning with Him against whom we have sinned.

That world, Solevetchik says, is gone. Sure, maybe on Yom Kippur, people feel a little fear of the divine. Yes, when Mom is in the hospital, Joanie and Bobbie might beseech God to spare her life. But those moments

are not the stuff of daily life. … [T]he perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious. … [I]ndividual Divine Providence … is no longer experienced as a simple reality. … Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they now seek solace in the pressure of His yoke.

There is, in short, a crisis for contemporary Judaism—a theological crisis that is far more worrying than the debates over feminism or Israel that Freedman limns in Jew vs. Jew.

Many Jewish scholars would argue that my priorities are upside down. Stanford sociologist Arnold Eisen, for example, has recently painted a portrait of an American Jewry with no theological pulse whatsoever, but Eisen isn't worried. Theology's not that important, after all. Still, liberal Jews have to struggle to come up with some compelling reason to do halacha, given that the obvious reason—you believe it's what God told you to do—is out. Tradition? Family? Maybe, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested, daily observance of halacha is the exercise that keeps you in shape for the big marathon, which is leading an ethical life. Or maybe you should observe halacha because it will keep your kids from intermarrying, which will ensure that another generation of Jews might observe halacha. But at the end of the day, no one has come up with a reason that is not anemic. No one has come up with a reason that is binding.

No wonder many young Jewish families are gravitating toward Orthodoxy. But in doing so, are they romanticizing the God of the shtetl? Jews must ask hard questions about the rabbinic god: who is he, and can he afford intimacy? One might argue that Solovetchik exaggerates the extent to which the Eastern European Jews were walking around with an intimate sense of God's being at work in people's everyday affairs. Indeed, at least one European Jew—the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism—believed European Jewry was missing precisely the type of intimacy that Solevetchik longs for. And after the Baal Shem Tov led the renewal movement that would become Hasidic Judaism, European Jews split into two camps: the Hasids, who craved (and achieved) that intimacy, and the Mitnagdim, who excommunicated the Hasids, decrying their ecstatic praise as too emotional, and even heretical. (Solovetchik is of the Mitnagdim.)

So too one might ask just which mitzvot (commandments) Orthodox Jews are suddenly so stringent about. Is it all mitzvot, or is it only the private ones? Women may be more exacting in their hair-covering and their sleeve lengths, and singles may be ever more vigilant in their observance of the laws of neggiah (which prohibit any physical contact, even holding hands, between unmarried men and women), but are Orthodox Jews as exacting when it comes to observing the laws of tzedakah, which require every Jew, no matter how poor, to give away ten percent of his income?

Solevetchik himself cautions that his assessment of the current Jewish cosmology is "no more than an impression," but for what it's worth, his impression resonates with my experience of trying to make my life as an Orthodox Jew work. When people ask for my conversion story, from Jew to Anglican, I always emphasize the pro-Christian parts. I brush away my qualms about Judaism with a quick "and then, because I had grown increasingly disaffected from the Orthodox community. … " To say more, it seems, is to commit an even greater act of treachery against the Jewish community that nurtured me for so long than, say, getting baptized. It is to say, I left not only because there was this great new thing out there, this Christian thing, but also because there were all these unsatisfactory, unsatisfying features of Orthodox life.

I hesitate to say those things because the Jews with whom I have had the privilege to pray, study, sing, and eat are among the most loving and insightful people I know, and they have taught me almost everything important that I know about God. Not the Jesus part, no, but there is a lot about God you can learn before you learn about his son. I learned about God as creator, forgiver, lover, father, mother, quiet in-dwelling presence, and judge.

There was one thing I did not learn: how to have an intimate relationship with Him. And as such, everything I learned about God was incomplete. Take my Jewish understanding of prayer. One of the things that drew me to the Anglican church, one of the guarantors that I was baptized in the Church of England and not a Baptist or Methodist church, was liturgy. As a baby Christian, I took liturgy for granted; after all, I was used to saying set prayers, some times at shul and sometimes by myself at home, three times a day. That was the bedrock of my religious life, and, as such, of my life, period, on days when I could not force myself out of bed in time for synagogue, on days when I was supremely annoyed with God, on days when I really craved a piece of pepperoni pizza, on days when the last thing I felt like doing was being religious, I said set prayers. However, there were days when I wanted to do something more. When I wanted to talk to God about my boyfriend or my mother or the weather.

I once asked a learned friend about this. He grabbed a prayerbook, flipped it open to the Amidah, and pointed to the paragraph where, traditionally, people have inserted a few unliturgical words of thanks or petition. But what, I asked, if I want more than 30 seconds in the middle of the Amidah?

"Look," my friend said, "why don't you work on making sure you're saying the liturgy without fail. Then make sure you're saying all the additional prescribed blessings without fail, like before you eat, and after you pee, and when you see a rainbow. Then make sure you are saying these prayers with kavannah [intention]. There's really nothing you could need to pray about that's not covered somewhere in this prayerbook. So when you've mastered all these prayers with true kavannah, then if you still want to add something additional, come back and talk to me about it."

Which is why I was so thrilled to learn that at church I could have both: liturgy and Quiet Time. Liturgy and lectio divina. Liturgy and Tevye-like chats with God.

Here's where we Christians smugly breathe a sigh of relief. Solevetchik's assessment of contemporary Orthodox cosmology may be a problem for Jews—maybe they have lost that sense of daily intimacy with God—but that's their problem. We Christians are always on guard against legalism, and we've got intimacy aplenty. If you're looking for that daily intimacy with God that Solevetchik says is missing from Orthodox Jewish life, try a church. Try the Gospels. Try Jesus.

Indeed, there is something about a God-made-flesh that facilitates relationship. That was the first thing that attracted me to Jesus. Long before I ever contemplated becoming a Christian, I thought it was really neat that someone had thought to invent a theology in which God was not only anthropomorphized, as in the Old Testament, but actually became a person, so he would be ever more relatable to us. Don't just describe him as though he has eyes and hands, give them to him. Christianity is made for intimacy.

But if Jews have something to learn from us about relationship, we have something to learn from the very phenomenon that Solevetchik thinks is a problem. We have something to learn about commandedness, about every moment's being an effort to sanctify one's world. Karl Barth reminds us that we should make this world the kingdom of God—and that is what law does. Halacha is the compulsion to make this world a sign of God's kingdom. Halacha is the imperative to make your world God's world. At the same time, halacha is the recognition that there is never a moment when your world is not God's world.

Christians, without the omnipresent halacha, have to work harder to remember God's omnipresence in the world—and we have to work harder to remember that we have responsibilities to God all the time. What Christianity can learn from the choreography, structure, and rigor of Jewish life is something about halachic commitment, about the kind of groundedness one finds when one is caught up in the yoke of the law. The dichotomy between law and God's will on the one hand, and intimacy and relationship on the other, is ultimately a false one: one achieves intimacy with God by doing His will.

As Barth understood, better perhaps than any modern Christian theologian, the Gospel is not just gospel. It is grace and law. When you lead a life of grace, you are fulfilling God's commandment. When you lead a commanded life, you are called to live a certain way, but you need grace to do it. Christ doesn't bring you to a place where you have fuzzy, touchy-feely grace; he brings you to a place where you can do God's will. (One might say that Barth's insight is merely a riff on Paul's message to the Corinthians: don't think that faith means you can just go and party.)

There is a seemingly ironic tension between Christianity and Judaism. One tradition claims to have an immanent God, and the other claims to have daily reminders of him. But there's really no contradiction—both traditions are compensatory. Jews don't have an immanent God, but they have all the reminders; Christians don't need the reminders because God walked among us. For both Jews and Christians, intimacy is constructed through the dialectic of absence and presence.

Jews began to understand that dialectic in the desert, when they had to learn how to live with a God whom they were not going to be able to hold, a God who was only going to give signs. The Book of Exodus tells of the ongoing struggle of the Jews to learn to know God at those moments when he isn't immediately present. (They fail, as the Golden Calf makes clear.)

Christians began to understand that dialectic after the Crucifixion, and again after the Ascension. In theory, we don't need all those halachic reminders of God, because we have a God who is incarnate. But, of course, we have a God who is incarnate up in Heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. When we equate Christianity with presence and Judaism with absence, we forget that Christianity is about absence and presence. We forget that we live in a world that is not, in practice, redeemed.

That the dichotomy between a Judaism about absence and a Christianity about presence crumbles so quickly indicates that not only can Judaism and Christianity learn from each other, but also that each tradition already has the resources for the other thing that it is ostensibly missing. Michael Wyschogrod has argued in The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel (1989), that Judaism has a deep tradition of intimacy with God—a tradition he locates not, like Solevetchik, in the shtetl, but in the Old Testament. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a God who knows how radically other he is. He is a God who knows that if, out of love, he wants a relationship with us, he has to delimit himself to have that relationship. That God does not become incarnate in the Old Testament, says Wyschogrod, but he comes awfully close. God humanizes himself, and loves the Jewish people fervently and familiarly, becoming caught up in their ups and downs, drawing close to them through their peoplehood. Such intimacy, Wyschogrod argues, is authentically Jewish, even if rabbinic Judaism doesn't make much room for it.

That American Christians have much to learn from what Freedman rightly calls "the struggle for the soul of American Jewry" would no doubt come as a surprise—perhaps even an unwelcome surprise—not only to the folks at the Library Minyan and to the Yale Five but also to many Christians. But as the Apostle Paul understood, Judaism and Christianity are inextricably bound together, branches of one tree.

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Jew vs. Jew, Samuel G. Freedman

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