Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 28 1999 7:00 AM

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

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Dear David,

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Goodness gracious. Now you're citing Heschel. If we're not careful, you and I are going to end up agreeing on everything. I'll go ahead and offer one of my favorite quotes by Heschel: "God is the meaning beyond absurdity." Since what you and I are engaged in here borders on the absurd (and I write that with appreciation, not scorn), perhaps God is just around the corner (perhaps in "The Breakfast Table"?).

I will not disagree with your claim that Orthodoxy is the most authentic form of Judaism, if we take "authentic" to be that which most closely hews to the original form. Since Judaism offers the rare luxury of an exquisitely well-preserved tradition, it's not difficult to compare modern practice to ancient.

Nor do I disagree that the idea of multiple truths is an often sloppy concept. What I'm saying is that none of us should presume to own the one-and-only Truth, for from that belief springs a fundamentalism that, in practice, often negates the very advantages that the Truth is meant to provide.

There are many passages in your book and mine that are startlingly similar; among them, if I recall correctly, is your challenge to a Christian friend about the "unsaved" masses in China. I once asked my mother, a devout Catholic, a nearly identical question: If the sole route to salvation goes through Jesus, what are we to make of these unsaved masses who have never had the opportunity to learn about Jesus? If God is truly a potentate, and if Jesus is the only route leading to God, wouldn't He have found a way to expose these masses to His son? How are they to be expected to discover this Truth without access to it?

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My mother's answer was this: Well, if they live their lives according to their best lights, perhaps they'll be all right, but they really stand no chance of true salvation unless they discover the Truth of Jesus.

Her answer was profoundly unsatisfying to me. In fact, I am nearly always unsatisfied when I hear a defense of a Truth, for Truth is of course subjective to a degree; more important, it must accommodate the passage of time. (To cite Heschel again: He argued that we should think of our existence not as space hurtling through time but as time hurtling across space.)

Consider, say, democracy. Don't we generally embrace the truth and tradition of democracy while admitting that elements of its sacred text must be constantly challenged and occasionally amended? What do we make, for instance, of a Constitution written while slavery was still a going proposition?

And what about Christians who don't accept the Resurrection as literal truth but go on practicing their religion? (And poll numbers tell us that such believers are a distinctly sizable minority.) Should they be forced to renounce all their other Christian beliefs and practices?

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Let's ask ourselves this question: Why do we bother with religion at all? Is it because we want to lead productive and meaningful lives? Is it because we want to treat others responsibly and respectfully? Is it because we wish to pay reverence toward the God who created us?

I would answer yes, yes, and yes. If we are to accept the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world, as a central tenet of Judaism, we need to constantly consider the means by which we attempt to achieve that. Is an adherence to the authenticity of our tradition an important element in this struggle? Of course. But should every Jew who, for whatever reasons, fails to hew to the historically authentic form of the religion feel that his efforts are otherwise worthless? Of course not.

I've gone on too long already. Let me just point out one note from your last missive that struck me as sadly patronizing: "Also, Reform Jews know how to behave in shul--quietly and respectfully--while many Orthodox Jews behave abominably." It reminds me of the time I heard a teacher talking about "the dumb kids" in his class--because they never raise their hands, the teacher said, at least they don't get in the way of all the smart kids.

Please tell me I misread you.

Be well,
SJD