vrijdag 19 december 2014

Another Judaïsm?

I’m Jewish, but often I wonder whether I belong to the same tradition as those who emphasize they are the chosen people and therefore claim the West Bank; or who dream of a Greater Israel; or who want to ban Muslims from the Temple Mount and, says former Mossad chief Shavit, in order to achieve that even want to risk a new destruction of Jerusalem and a new exile.

Anyway, I strongly disagree with these positions, and I’m inclined to see emerge in them the worst of what religion can be. In contrast, I would like to emphasize the good of the tradition to which I belong.

For me, the core of its focus is on learning. But saying this is not precise enough because, precisely in view of the excesses that I note, it appears that some forms of learning can be oppressive and meaningless. The good form of learning that I have in mind is contemporary learning that has a life-giving impact.

In the formative years of the rabbinical tradition (say, from the second to the eighth century CE) learning did have that constructive character. Such learning took the form of study of the traditional oral and written texts, with the intention to derive direction for the way the Jewish people could exist in those days. And that worked extremely powerful, thanks to the passion and intellectual ingenuity that were invested by the then rabbis.

Learning had impact. That’s in my view hardly the case with the descendants of those rabbis who ruminate their texts in jesjiwot. For them, it’s less about the struggle to obtain new answers – so about a creative, life-giving process – but rather about honoring the founders of the tradition. Therefore in my eyes they are victims of their own sacred cows, and not much inspiration radiates from that.

If we want Jewish learning in our time to have the same impact as the former rabbinic text analysis and discussion in their time, we will therefore have to find and deploy our contemporary forms. But if learning can no longer rely on text study and interpretation, what does contemporary, creative Jewish learning look like?

I believe that will be about our history. In the way Simon Schama learns and tells of the exile and Zionism. Or Bart Wallet about Dutch Jewry, or Leo Mock about the Jewish Middle Ages. Or, indeed, Josephus about the destruction of the Second Temple.

I search into that direction because of the effect I notice emanating from historians who manage to place all existing stories in a broad, nuanced perspective. That is beneficent and  space-creating, and thus guiding in a way that is similar to the learning of the rabbis.

Besides, I think the a-historical, classic study of fundamental texts not only for the Jewish tradition has had its day. That certainly applies also to Islam and Christianity. A-historical thinking is no option any longer, the turn is to multidimensional historical thinking.

That requires learning a lot indeed. But has Jewish tradition not always been good at that?