Diversity is a Jewish Tradition, Too

I came away from the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit with a renewed sense of the diversity of Jewish life all through our history. Even though we talk about Am Echad, One People, we are one people with a multiplicity of opinions and practices.

The Jews at Qumran seem to have been deeply caught up in a fascination with the end of the world. They believed themselves to be living in the end of time. Indeed, that particular sect of Judaism was dead and buried and nearly completely forgotten until the scrolls came to light.

The exhibit also contained a vast number of female figurines and small private altars, both of which represent Jewish practices that did not survive. Today Jews do not make sacrifices at private altars (thank goodness) and we don’t reverence any deity other than the Eternal. But the evidence was there, right before my eyes, of how different Jewish practice had been at one time.

I hear regularly from other Jews who remind me that there are some Jews who disapprove of something I’ve said or something I’ve done. I am well aware of that. But I would ask you who are worried about “some Jews:” do you realize it’s always been like this? Jews disagree about Torah; it’s nothing new.

History sorts us out eventually, I hope for the better. We stopped keeping small idols. We stopped sacrificing animals (although there are those who’d like to go back to that.) Some of us have commenced giving women the privileges once reserved for men. Others of us are experimenting with other aspects of Jewish life.

The way I see it, we are all busily carrying Torah forward through history. I don’t know what Judaism will look like in 500 years, but I suspect some of the same old arguments will continue, and some new arguments will arise.

Beit Shammai didn’t approve of Beit Hillel’s rulings. The Ashkenazi rabbis were apoplectic over Maimonides’ Yad Hazaka. The cultured Sephardic Jews of New York were horrified by the Ashkenazi cousins who came off the ships in 1889. Reform Jews tried to do away with brit milah; we were wrong about that one.  My friend and teacher René Molho z”l was told (in Auschwitz!) that he couldn’t possibly be Jewish because he didn’t know Yiddish. Reform Jews ordained Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972 and “some Jews” predicted doom.

History moves on, and Jews still disagree. Everything changes, and some things remain the same.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

More Diverse Than You Think: Meet Be’chol Lashon

Be’chol Lashon is Hebrew for “In Every Tongue.” It’s also the name of an organization that fosters “an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.” They’re very serious about it, sponsoring research, community projects, grants, and not least a remarkable website full of resources for education about the wild variety of Jews in the world.

Here in the United States, we have a tendency to think that most Jews are of Ashkenazi descent. In fact, even here in the US roughly 20% of the Jewish population is something else: Sephardic, Persian, African-American, Asian, Mizrahi – and there I’m talking solely about born Jews.  There are also a lot of us who don’t look Ashkenazi because we converted to Judaism, and our ancestors are Irish, Dutch, German, or from somewhere else, like the Pacific Islands.

Be’chol Lashon seeks to stand on our common ground of Torah while celebrating the differences among Jews worldwide. It’s an ambitious project but one that I find inspiring.

Some critics may ask if this vision of Judaism is authentic: will such an embrace of diversity loosen our grip on Torah? Is this a fad? It’s a fair question. For an answer, I look to the stated goals of Be’chol Lashon:

  1. Build networks of global Jewish leaders
  2. Strengthen diverse Jewish communities around the world
  3. Educate Jews and the general public about Jewish diversity
  4. Increase the Jewish population by encouraging those who would like to be part of the Jewish people

It seems to me that these goals address a core value of Torah, the love of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People. They strive for an ingathering of the exiles, in this case, not a physical ingathering to the Land, but an ingathering of neshamot, of spirits. Too many Jews have been exiled from the larger Jewish community on account of superficial matters (“You don’t look Jewish!”) and in this generation after the Holocaust, it’s time we got over such trivial things.

If you are interested in expanding your own Jewish horizons, or if this dream of a larger, vibrant Jewish community speaks to you, check out their website, especially the educational resources.

The Jewish world is both larger and smaller than most of us imagine. It’s time we embraced our whole mishpocha [family.]