Sermon: On the word “authentic” in the Jewish conversation

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 15 July 2017

All was going well for the Rabbi of the New West End Synagogue last Sunday morning.  The sun was shining, and he was being interviewed about a recent Board of Deputies report on synagogue membership.  The interview was going well.  He had responded well, really well, to questions about the continuing decline of ‘central Orthodoxy’ in this country, pointing out, importantly, that membership numbers do not tell us everything about levels of engagement.

All was going pretty well until a relatively innocuous enquiry into the comparative statistics for Reform Judaism, a question that provoked a quite extraordinary – and genuinely unexpected from this source – attack on our Jewish life, one which overturned a longstanding agreement not to denigrate one another in public.

There was much in what he said that demands a response.
But the stand out phrase, for me, was the following: Reform Judaism, he said, is “a form of Judaism in their own minds, but it is not an authentic Judaism”.

Now, instead of expressing upset or anger, what I’d like to do this morning is to take this statement seriously.  To explore what this comment might mean, and on what basis such a claim might be made.  What does it mean to make a claim of authenticity, or to say that something else is inauthentic in our Jewish conversation?

There are a number of possible meanings to such a claim.  One possibility is that when he says authentic, what he means is “the original”, the real version, rather than a copy.  That one version is the authentic one, representing a legitimate, unbroken link to an original, Eternal, Judaism.  The problem with such an argument is that, if this is what is meant, it is, quite simply, nonsensical.  Such a claim is to ignore the hugely complex history of Jewish development: Over 3,500 years we can speak of Israelite ritual practice, the ancient temple cult, a prophetic ethical movement, various 2nd temple sectarian groupings, the poly-vocal, radical transforming rabbinic Judaism.  All of which had different practices, theologies, ideals – different between them and differences within.   So, we might ask, to which of these are we claiming to be authentic?

To play music in worship on Shabbat as they once did in the Temple, or not to, as ordained by the rabbis in their mourning and preservation of Shabbat outside of Jerusalem… which is authentic?
To allow women to read Torah, as is clearly expressed in earlier layers of rabbinic literature, or to exclude women from religious life, as happens later on… which is authentic?

So that can’t be what is meant.

Another option is, perhaps, not ‘original’ but ‘unadulterated’, unsullied by outside influence. This was another of Rabbi Freedman’s lines of attack, and it is a common position in Orthodoxy.  There is a much quoted saying within a section of Orthodoxy, taken from the writings of the Chatam Sofer: “everything new is forbidden by the Torah”

Now, I am going to park the irony of using an Ancient Greek word, authentikos, if what you’re trying to say is that Judaism needs to be pure from external influence.

But, again, the biggest problem with that idea of authenticity is that it is not justifiable.  Judaism has always been a religion of innovation and response to new forces.
The rabbis themselves utterly transformed a biblical ritual cult into the Judaism that we live today in response to the historical context in which they found themselves.  They radically subverted numerous aspects of biblical law: status law, capital punishment, relationship with pagan practice, agricultural festival cycle.  They changed the fundamental exercise of human life from sacrifice to prayer, study and good deeds, in order to make a religious life that they could live in their new context, after the destruction of the Temple.

And Judaism continued to evolve in response to place, to time, to its neighbours, which is why the Judaism of Mizrach looks different to that of Ashkenaz, that of North Africa different to that of North America.   Much of Chasidic Judaism was an innovation of the eighteenth century, making use of Lurianic Kabbalah (sixteenth century).  Authentic, or inauthentic?  When Maimonides attempted to codify Jewish law, and to define Jewish belief, he was heavily influences by the religious context in which he found himself, and especially systematic Islamic law and theology.  Authentic, or inauthentic?

Orthodox Judaism in modernity itself has continued to evolve and develop over time, while simultaneously denying that this is happening.  There is a very wonderful book called ‘Changing the Immutable’ in which scholar Marc Shapiro examines how Orthodox Judaism rewrites its own history to pass on its current religious message.  One could argue that Judaism by definition is a tradition that adapts to its setting.

One final possible understanding of authenticity is that it is a statement about diversity, a statement that difference itself is anomalous.  Authentic means “the only”.
Again, such an idea flounders.  For Judaism without difference, without disagreement, without different forms and integrities is no longer really Judaism.  Rabbinic Judaism has always been poly-vocal by its nature, including multiple different voices in tension with one another. We may be more diverse in modernity, but Judaism has always been diverse.  Judaism is a collective enterprise, open to argument, and, in the past at least, wary of excluding and condemning fellow Jews.  Which is why, for example, the rabbis recorded minority views that they rejected.  How to deal with different views?  The Tosefta, an early collection of rabbinic traditions, tells us: “make for yourself a heart of many rooms, and enter into it the words of [this school and that school], the words of those who declare a matter impure, and those who declare it pure”.

This use of the word authentic implies that Judaism no longer has those broad shoulders, can no longer carry the diversity it once did.  This is not true.

In the U.K., to reject diversity with the weapon of authenticity is a new orthodox phenomenon.  A small example.  There used to be such a thing as the “Union of Anglo-Jewish Preachers”, a meeting place for rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum.  My grandfather whose ministry was in that period wrote “we met as colleagues, we aired our differences, and we shared our common concerns.  There was no acrimony and an atmosphere of tolerance pervaded these gatherings”. Ironically we could probably claim that intolerance of difference is inauthentic to Anglo-Jewry.

The truth is that any use of the term authentic is not descriptive, as it pretends to be, but prescriptive.  It is a subjective claim about legitimacy.  It is to claim, either explicitly or by implication, that there are forms of Judaism that exist beyond the boundaries of acceptable deviance, and to claim the right to define where those boundaries lie.  All while stating, of course, that one’s own version sits, exclusively perhaps, within that boundary.

Rabbi Freedman was not merely saying that he disagrees with us on matters of theology, ideology and practice.  Rather, with that single word, he sought to dismiss the religious life of at least two million people worldwide as illegitimate.
He did not open an argument between estranged siblings about areas of difference, l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.  Rather he made such a discussion ever more difficult, for how can there be anything to learn from those whose religious life you just called a fake?
That word, authentic, is intentional, and polemical.

As a Reform rabbi, I believe that my Judaism has integrity, is robust, is part of the continuum of Jewish development and tradition. And I am willing for that to be tested and probed, with a genuine belief in the maxim in Proverbs, that “iron sharpens iron”.
I welcome, genuinely welcome, the opportunity to debate l’shem shamayim, because I recognise that there are other Judaisms within that continuum, other heirs to our tradition, and that a healthy community – and a healthy Judaism – is one in which we are open about what we share and where we disagree.
I am even ‘up for’ a conversation – a very difficult and complicated one, and one that I’m not sure really matters that much – about what are the boundaries of Judaism at both ends of the religious spectrum – as long as we all recognise the Talmudic ideal “af al pi she’chata, yisrael hu” – “A Jew who strays is still a Jew”.  That is, even where we might feel that someone else’s religious life is not correct, they are still family.

There is no place in this conversation for the word authentic.  Which is why Rabbi Freedman’s words were so unhelpful.
Few words are more detrimental to the robust arguments that we need to have in our small (and shrinking) community if we are to thrive.
Few words are less helpful to our understanding of the complex and diverse story of Jewish development over 3,500 years.
Few words, in truth, are more alien to the respectful, dialectic tradition of which we are all – all of us – heirs, and which Judaism in this country, until recently, used to represent.