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Judaism’s balance between tradition and modernity

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — In Parashat Miketz we learn that when Joseph’s brothers first appeared before him in Egypt: “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize Joseph.”  {Gen. 42: 8}

How was this possible? The Talmud explains that Joseph was sold into slavery he was young and did not have a beard. Now that he was older and had grown a full beard they did not know who he was. Joseph’s brothers, on the other hand, had beards when they sold Joseph into slavery so they looked the same.

In the European town of Radzin a young man once set out to make his mark on the world. He traveled to Berlin and other cities but did not meet with success. He did, however, adopt the customs, manners, and dress of the places he visited. He eventually returned to Radzin but wore modern clothing and had shaved his beard and peyot (forelocks).

Having failed at everything else, he applied for a teaching job with Rabbi Gershon Henich of Radzin. Rabbi Henich declined to hire him because he would be an “upside down” teacher. The young man did not understand what he meant and asked Rabbi Henich to explain.

Rabbi Henich told him: “The Talmud says that when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers he did not have a beard and so they did not recognize him when he had grown one. With you, it is the reverse! You left your brothers with a beard, and returned without one…and that’s why we do not “recognize” you, and that’s why you would be an “upside down” teacher.

Rabbi Henich was not subtle! He believed that to be a good Jew one must reject modernity and refuse to change with the times. One must remain frozen in time. The holiday of Chanukah, which concludes at the end of Shabbat, teaches a much different story about Jewish history.

The war of the Maccabees was as much a civil war between Jews as it was between Jews and Greeks. The Jewish community was far from unanimous in its rejection of Hellenism, the adoption of Greek culture, customs, and religion. Many Jews supported Antiochus and were glad to see the ancient rituals and outmoded ideas replaced by the new, modern, and more up to date Greek philosophy, arts, and science. They were glad to give up the worship of the God of Israel in order to embrace the “modern world.”

The Maccabees and their followers rejected the path of assimilation. They clung to the Torah, observed Jewish holidays, and performed mitzvot. They defied Antiochus’ attempt to extinguish Jewish life and battled their countrymen who had betrayed the faith, as well as the Greeks.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that even those Jews who rejected Hellenism were not influenced by it. When we read the Talmud and other ancient sources, we see many Greek ideas, laws, and even language reflected in our sacred texts. The Maccabees and their followers clearly learned much from the Greeks. But the Maccabees were not assimilationists. They knew where to draw the line. They adopted and adapted those parts of Greek culture which would improve their lives and expand their world view, but stopped short of giving up the essential Jewish principles they held dear.

Some Jews today, like the Rabbi of Radzin may condemn the modern world, but even the most extreme Orthodox Jews still take advantage of its benefits. Even in Meah Shearim you find automobiles, computers, and modern appliances.

But because of their isolation and the point at which they draw the line, there is no question that they will remain Jews. The choices and opportunities they allow themselves and their families are extremely circumscribed and limited.

For most of us the problem is the opposite: after opening our lives to all that the modern world offers, the concern is that we will soon forget how to “draw the line.” For most of us the question is not how much modernity we embrace, but how do we remain Jews?

If Judaism is to survive, those of us who are committed must continue to make those choices that enhance Jewish observance, learning, and life. We need not reject modernity, but must not allow modernity to overwhelm a faith which gives meaning and purpose to our lives. We need to strike a balance between tradition and change.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego

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