Commentary Magazine


What Judaism Means

To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s fascinating article, “Judaism Beyond Words” [May], qualifies as neither history nor law (halakhah), but it makes sense of the subjective experience of contemporary Jews. This very subjectivity (e.g., seeing the two arms of the open Torah scroll as reminiscent of crossing the Red Sea between “two walls” of water), unhistorical and halakhically irrelevant though it is, provides an opportunity for reflection on the great themes of Judaism in a way that is compelling for Jews of this new century. Handled without adequate sensitivity, this impressionistic method can lead to inaccurate and even absurd results. Happily, Mr. Gelernter proves himself thoroughly sensitive, and the result is a method that speaks to us in our contemporary situation and yields a new understanding of ideas long embedded in Judaism.

True, one must beware of overstating the case for havdalah, or separation, the theme of Mr. Gelernter’s first article. Despite all the material he marshals, there is a countervailing theme in Judaism, namely, ichud or connectedness. The most obvious example is love—of God (Deuteronomy 12:5), of neighbor (Deuteronomy 19:18), and of spouse (Genesis 2:18, 24). There is clearly a dialectic between the two themes, although the havdalah concept is perhaps more in need of emphasis—especially in our generation, in which “togetherness” is seen as an undisputed virtue and “separation” as a sign of bias and narrow-mindedness. Mr. Gelernter has achieved this masterfully.

We should recall that the very first divine commandment to Abraham is one of separation. “Lekh lekha—get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee” (Genesis 12:1). Judaism begins with his departure from the bustling pagan world into which he was born. The future of the Jewish people depends on how well we can manage separation as well as connection in our own world. For raising that issue alone, David Gelernter deserves our gratitude.

Rabbi Norman Lamm
President
Yeshiva University
New York City

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To the Editor:

David Gelernter beautifully captures the centrality of separation in Judaism. Yet Jewish thought also includes a contradictory strain relating to unity and wholeness. A midrash on the Creation story, for example, pictures the upper and lower waters weeping to be together again, not in order to return to chaos but to be reunited in God’s presence.

The thrust toward unity appears even in regard to the Sabbath, the most separate of days. Building on the words “remember” and “observe” that appear in the two versions of the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:8, Deuteronomy 5:12), the rabbis advise us to “remember” the Sabbath by bearing it in mind for three days after it has ended and to “observe” it by starting to prepare for it three days before it arrives. Instead of regarding the day as a gap in the week, they hoped to imbue the entire week with some of the day’s sanctity.

Perhaps the significance of this impulse toward wholeness in Judaism is an extension of the meaning of holiness. On the biblical verse, “Make yourselves holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44), Mr. Gelernter relays the midrashic comment, “As I am separate, so you be separate.” But another midrash says, “As He is gracious and compassionate, so you be gracious and compassionate.” Holiness involves not only separations, but also reaching across the separations to extend grace and compassion to others. The ideas may be contradictory but they are not mutually exclusive; the Jewish people have been sustained both by their separateness from the world and by their connectedness to it.

Francine Klagsbrun
New York City

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To the Editor:

As usual, David Gelernter is right on the mark. With its integrative approach to kedushah (holiness) and havdalah (separation), “Judaism Beyond Words” might be a modern classic. His development of a literary and theological link between Creation and the Exodus and his explanation of the separateness involved in the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and the laws of family purity make the article profoundly useful for understanding Judaism.

At the risk of quibbling, I might question the appropriateness of Mr. Gelernter’s attempt to connect the crossing of the Red Sea and the ritual of hagbah (raising an open Torah scroll) with the facades of the Central Synagogue in Manhattan and the Dohany Street synagogue in Budapest. The vertical spires of these two buildings are probably an accident of imitative architecture (following the precedent of churches and mosques) rather than intentional statements about separation.

It is obvious that Mr. Gelernter loves the Zohar, the key text of Jewish mysticism, and sees it as part of a basic trilogy of sacred literature that includes the Bible and the Talmud. But some would argue that Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed or his code of law are much more important religious statements than the Zohar, which is something of a closed book to most people. Jewish tradition advises studying the Zohar only after mastering the Bible and Talmud.

Recognizing this might have tempered Mr. Gelernter’s claim that “Judaism is Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.” Some of us might not have chosen ben Yochai as our central figure. Hillel (who said “If I am only for myself, what am I?”) or Rabbi Akiba (who said that the fundamental commandment in the Torah was “Love thy neighbor as thyself”) might be deemed more central to Judaism than a man who secluded himself in a cave for thirteen years.

In the final analysis, Jews must learn to live apart from this world and at the same time strive to be a part of it. This method is one of separation rather than separatism—integration with the world without wholesale assimilation into it.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Congregation Kehilath
Jeshurun
New York City

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To the Editor:

Thank you for David Gelernter’s excellent treatment of holiness and separation. Withdrawal, understood in Jewish terms, significantly enhances both the performance of a mitzvah (commandment) and the person who performs it. One who observes the Sabbath by withdrawing from creativity and labor can better evaluate ordinary productivity. One who observes ritual family purity by withdrawing from the conjugal relationship can better assess the marital union. One who observes kashrut by withdrawing from nonkosher food can better judge his behavior as a consumer.

A society like ours is bent on smashing rules and selling rebellion. Marketers appeal to the public by declaring that their product knows no limits and breaks all boundaries. The absence of distinctions is especially visible on college campuses, where students are taught that no ethic can be considered superior to any other and that no one can draw moral lines. Judaism, by contrast, as Mr. Gelernter reminds us, constantly withdraws and separates and distinguishes. His refreshing voice speaks truth to our decayed popular culture.

Rabbi Allen Schwartz
Congregation Ohab Zedek
New York City

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To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s splendid exposition on the place of separateness in Judaism is the most lucid I have encountered. His discussion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai can be usefully contrasted with the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic.

In Plato’s telling, the philosopher is someone who escapes the cave-like world of shadows and emerges into the blinding sunlight of the “real world.” Having contemplated the true essence of things, he returns to the cave in order to rule wisely.

Ben Yochai, by contrast, escapes the “real world,” which is in truth a world of shadows and persecution, to a cave where—without sight or sound or shadows of things—he is able to refine his visions of the divine.

Marvin Prince
Oradell, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

As a parent of children in a Jewish day school, I found David Gelernter’s article particularly pertinent. Since Jews in my area amount to only 1 percent of the population, sending one’s children to this school (which has only 60 students) is truly a decision to separate them from their peers.

It is our custom to begin each meeting of the school’s board, on which I sit, with some words of Torah. How wonderful that my issue of COMMENTARY arrived shortly before the meeting. This month’s lesson was several paragraphs of Mr. Gelernter’s erudite yet sparkling prose. The Holy One Blessed be He may have separated us from all other nations, but where I live, this alone is not enough to ensure our children a Jewish education. We all agreed that “Judaism Beyond Words” expressed why we send them to the school in the first place.

Susan Zimmerman
Millersville, Maryland

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To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s paean to separation is brilliant, quirky, and at times misleading. Though the act of separating and the state of being separate have much to do with Jewish thought and destiny, separation has never stood as an end in itself. Rather, the Jewish people are to stand apart in order to bring goodness and vision to the nations. “Through you,” God says to Abraham as he prepares for his epic journey, “will all the families of the earth be blessed.”

Separation is not an instruction to flee the world but rather a prelude to new modes of connecting with it. Yet the theme of connection is strangely absent from Mr. Gelernter’s reflections on the reclusive Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai who, according to the Talmud, fails to return to normal social life after spending twelve years in isolation. Ben Yochai is scolded by God: “Have you come out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” After an additional year of seclusion, Rabbi Shimon exits the cave in a gentler state of mind and even expresses a desire to beautify the world.

Mr. Gelernter’s Judaism of separation has its appeal, to be sure. The will to be different has been critical to the Jewish people’s survival. An open and upraised Torah scroll can indeed appear a symbol of division, as he points out. But its teaching is one of miraculous connection and conjunction—flesh with spirit, Adam with Eve, God with humanity. Jews have remained a distinct people not out of defiant rejection of the world but in response to the wisdom, love, and joy they have always found in living as children of an eternal covenant.

Rabbi James E. Ponet
Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

David Gelernter’s “Judaism Beyond Words” is the stuff of which a breathless new-age Reform rabbi might craft her sermon. A basic test for any quality touted as one of the essences of Judaism must be whether it is uniquely Jewish. But in Mr. Gelernter’s hands, the concept of “separation” is so vague and ill-defined that it could apply to nearly anything. Cosmic gases separate into stars, people separate into states, individuals separate into groups, the body’s immune system distinguishes self from nonself, and the electrons of one atom generally orbit separately from the electrons in another. Does this mean that stars, Zambia, Liverpool soccer fans, enzymes, and electrons are all somehow Jewish?

Furthermore, Judaism provides ample instances of disapproval of separation. The second of the four sons in the seder narrative is described as “evil” because he separates himself from his community; a minyan of at least ten people is required to say kaddish and other Jewish prayers; the righteous Gentile is seen as deserving a place in heaven more than the Jew who merely goes through the motions.

This brings us to the central point about Judaism Mr. Gelernter so clumsily misses: it is not separation that defines Jewishness, but the ability to make moral distinctions. Deuteronomy tells us that we are given the ability to tell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death, and that we have the freedom to choose. It is our ability to tell the difference that matters; otherwise, what is the point of separation?

Walter Schimmerling
Arlington, Virginia

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David Gelernter writes:

To begin at the end: Walter Schimmerling is wrong to say that no property can be the “essence” of a thing unless it belongs to that thing exclusively; I can argue that freedom is the essence of America without implying that all manifestations of freedom are manifestations of America. Still, images are a matter of taste. Any time a writer uses one, he runs the risk that a reader might not like or understand it, and (worse) that this reader might be right. But the risk is worth taking. Unless we invent new images, we cannot think new thoughts.

Mr. Schimmerling also believes that I have clumsily missed the “central point”—that “it is not separation that defines Jewishness, but the ability to make moral distinctions.” Actually Judaism believes that all men are able, and are required, to draw moral distinctions. Otherwise, how could it ever hold non-Jews responsible for anything? Nor is every important Jewish distinction a moral distinction. Stealing is immoral; a ham sandwich is treif.

Rabbi James E. Ponet argues convincingly that separation is no end in itself; that it leads ultimately to connection or coming together. Isaiah underlines his point: “It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it” (2:2-3). Malachi writes (2:10): “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” A rabbinic opinion holds that the most important verse in the Bible is “These are the generations of Adam” (Genesis 5:1), because it shows that all men are one family.

Nonetheless, while Jew and Gentile might come together at the end of time, they will not meet each other half-way. Gentiles will come to the Lord’s house, Isaiah says, in order to acknowledge Israel’s Torah. Until then, Jews are required to stand apart, set an example and be separate, no matter what it costs. (And it has cost plenty.)

Now to return to the beginning: I have thought hard about Rabbi Norman Lamm’s letter, in which he points out that my piece is neither halakhah nor history and refers instead to “a method that speaks to us in our contemporary situation and yields a new understanding.” This idea that my piece is something new, not part of an existing genre, is a generous suggestion. But it seems to me that it is in fact not a solo but a voice in a choir—the choir of modern Jewish philosophy, which is so often undervalued and neglected by observant and secular Jews alike. Observant Jews naturally rank halakhic and homiletic literature higher. Secular Jews tend to be interested in philosophy, not Jewish philosophy. But Jews have an urgent obligation, today more than ever, to speak to the world about fundamental questions not merely as generic human beings but as Jews. Jewish philosophy (which is descended from two uniquely Jewish literary forms, prophecy and midrash) is a way to do that.

Francine Klagsbrun is right that any view of Judaism that omits unity and wholeness is no good, and that two ideas can be superficially inconsistent but equally fundamental. I hope that the second installment of my essay, appearing in this month’s COMMENTARY, will clarify my understanding of the dialectic within Judaism to which she and several other correspondents refer.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein notes that the twin spires that sometimes occur in synagogue facades are borrowings, not inventions or deliberate statements. Agreed. The question remains, though: why are some synagogue buildings better than others? A synagogue façade that suggests an upraised Torah feels right even if the architect had other things in mind; even if the suggestion remains subliminal.

I also agree with Rabbi Lookstein that no one is more central to post-talmudic Judaism than Maimonides, that no talmudic sage outranks Akiba, and that Hillel is more important than Shimon ben Yochai. In singling out Shimon ben Yochai, I did not mean to deny any of that, but rather to underline the way in which his experience—of withdrawal (under threat of violence) and of a subsequent explosion of creativity—foreshadows the history of the Jewish people itself.

Rabbi Allen Schwartz makes an important observation: our refusal to draw distinctions has a lot to do with the modern mood. Marvin Prince’s remarks on the distinction between Plato’s cave and Shimon ben Yochai’s are compelling. I am deeply grateful to Susan Zimmerman.

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