Sermon: The choice of the Modern Jew

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 8 December 2018

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Jewish communities of Europe experienced a shock more powerful and disruptive than any experienced in Judaism since the destruction of the Temple, 1700 years previously.
As emancipation and enlightenment spread through Europe, they brought new forces – forces that would irrevocably change the way Judaism would be lived and thought about.  For the first time since the decline of the Roman Empire, the majority of Jews in Europe were now invited to enter into a wider cultural life.  Before them was a choice – about the extent and nature of their integration into this wider society.  A choice which is still ours today.

Now, it is important to make two observations before continuing.

The first is that this telling of the story is very Eurocentric.  The Jews of other places had a different journey to today, a different encounter with modernity.

The second is that while the challenge of emancipation was new in its reach and scale, its questions – and the nature of the answers – are far older. Judaism has always existed in conversation and tension with other cultures.  And this has been one of the main themes of our service this morning.

So, in our Torah portion, we saw the exploration of what Israelite life and identity could be within a non-Jewish court.  Joseph, and the stories of Esther and Daniel, are diaspora stories.  They ask questions about identity and integration which are not so dissimilar to our own.  To what extent should the Israelite exist within the non-Israelite sphere?  Is this ultimately for the good, giving the Israelite the opportunity to shape society (and thus the Israelite future) or for the bad, creating irreconcilable tensions of personal practice?

In our marking of Chanukah – that we often present as a story of liberation from external religious oppression – we also speak of the tension of existing as a Jew within a non-Jewish culture.  The Maccabean revolt was as much, historically, a suppression of those Jews who chose to embrace Hellenistic culture as a resistance movement to oppression from without.  One imagines that there was a full spectrum of practice between zealot and Helleniser.

The rabbis, too, faced these questions.  In our haftarah for this morning, taken from the Talmud, we see the interplay between rabbinic culture and those around.   The rabbis tell the story of Adam and the first winter equinox in part to explain the existence of the pagan festivals of Kalends and Saturnalia.  Why?  Because they lived within a wider sphere in which pagan practice was real, and in which Jewish life was intertwined with what existed around.
Similarly, the Talmud contains lengthy discussions about practical questions of integration.  Can a Jewish builder take a job building a pagan temple, for example? What can a non-Jewish slave do in a Jewish household?  And so on. And where the Talmud explicitly addresses issues of cultural and intellectual integration head on, it – inevitably – contains multiple voices.  One strong rabbinic voice, for example, argues that studying Greek wisdom is forbidden as it brings a dilution of Torah study.  And yet, the Talmud contains not just a blessing to say when we see someone of great Jewish learning, but also one for those of great secular learning – a blessing that refers to that learning as of sacred origin – Blessed are you, our living God, Sovereign of the Universe, You have given of your wisdom to flesh and blood.  Interestingly, a later Orthodox halachic innovation states that the blessing should not be said over someone who is not also a believer in God.  This is not found within the Talmud, and does not appear to reflect the Talmud’s intent.

All this said, for most of the Middle Ages – in Europe at least – such questions were of limited importance for the average Jew.  Dilemmas of integration applied only to a select few – court Jews for example – those able to live across communities.  For many more, the life of their community did not experience a choice between Torah and secular study, between integration in wider culture and staying within the Jewish sphere.  Rather, it was more like that described by Rabbi Natan Hanover, writing in the 17th Century about Jewish life in Poland:
“Each community maintained yeshivot,” he wrote “And the head of each yeshiva was given a salary so that he could maintain his school without worry, and that the study of the Torah might be his sole occupation…. He was engaged in the study of the Torah day and night.  Each community maintained young men… that they might study with the head of the yeshiva.  And for each young man, they also maintained two boys to study under his guidance”
For these Jews, their whole communities were set up to enable young men to dedicate their lives solely to the study of Torah.  Yet even for them, the dawn of modernity meant that the tension between Jewishness and secular identity, between Torah and other culture, came to a head as a practical issue.

So how did the Jewish world respond to these extraordinary forces, to this new cultural opportunity?  Before them were three options:

The first was isolation.  The decision to continue to continue to exist separately from wider society.  To understand secularity as a distraction from the primacy of Torah.  This choice – what would come to be called Orthodox Judaism – is a direct heir to the Maccabean revolt with its zealous rejection of Hellenism.  It is that Talmudic voice that gives exclusive supremacy to Torah study in practice.

At the other extreme was the option of assimilation – an option which was taken by a huge number of Jews, for whom the pull of Jewish tradition and identity was not sufficiently strong.

And between these extremes was some form of what we might call confrontation, or perhaps accommodation, sometimes even celebration. The decision to sit within both Jewish and non-Jewish sphere.  This choice was to take various forms, depending on how the challenge of the confrontation was resolved.  Those for whom Torah was ultimately always supreme, would – to massively over simplify – come to be called Modern Orthodox or Masorti.  Those for whom the subservience of secular learning and culture to Torah was not assumed would bequeath to us Progressive Judaism.  Ultimately, though, the key was that all of these had a shared desire and willingness to live with the confrontation.

We, of course, still face this same choice.  It’s less of a shock to us, but the challenge is the same.  We have the same three options to pick between – Isolation, Assimilation or some form of Confrontation.

The first choice is still the choice made by Jews around us.  It is currently, very publicly identifiable in the challenges faced by OFSTED in their interaction with Charedi schooling.  The issue that OFSTED faces is not that they wish to enforce rules around potentially sensitive issues – of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Rather, the greatest challenge is to ensure the simple requirement to teach English and secular subjects such as science when the choice has been made that these – as the voice suggests in the Talmud – would compromise the study of Torah.
The second choice too is one with which we are all familiar – the challenge for synagogues and Jewish institutions remains to find a way to share the beauty of what we can offer with those for whom it does not have sufficient appeal.

And we live within the third choice.  Be we Reform or Masorti, Modern Orthodox, or mostly secular-ish, we have made the decision to live within the tension.  It is far from straightforward.  It involves compromise and tensions.  When secular learning and ethics are in tension with Torah, we are sometimes forced to choose, and that choice can be hugely painful.  And living in this place is also incredibly hard work – the hardest of the three choices.  For to do it well requires that we learn and know our Judaism and all the other stuff as well.  As the father of modern Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch said in 1835, “One can only analyse, test and meditate upon things with which one is acquainted.  Among Jews, however, nothing is less well known than Judaism itself.”  To truly exist in this place of confrontation we must know our Judaism too.

But it is also the most rewarding.  It is the choice that allows us to have intellectual integrity, the one that allows us to enjoy the richness of Judaism and of non-Jewish culture; the choice that allows us to learn and study, to think.


Which brings me, Lissy, to you.  In your dvar torah you firmly placed yourself in this complicated middle.  We’ve spent the last 250 years trying to work out how to do it – and now this challenge is yours.  The challenge of Joseph – and Esther and Daniel.  The challenge of the rabbis.  The task of living within two cultural spheres.
But if you get it right, it has great riches.  For it gives us the incredible possibility that one day we might be able to say of you both the blessing for seeing someone of great Jewish learning and the one for someone of great secular learning, and to believe that both are a portion of God’s wisdom.