Don’t speak about ‘au­then­tic’ Ju­daism — there’s no such thing

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI JOSH LEVY

It’s a word that’s every­where in our Jewish con­ver­sa­tion, used through­out the Jewish world: “au­then­tic”. Of­ten used to dis­miss the re­li­gious life of oth­ers; some­times as a self-ap­plied hechsher, a cer­tifi­cate of “kashrut”. Oc­ca­sion­ally as brand-iden­tity —“Au­then­tic Ju­daism”. But what does a claim of Jewish au­then­tic­ity ac­tu­ally mean? On what ba­sis might one per­son claim that some­one else’s Ju­daism is in­au­then­tic? “Au­then­tic” is used as a de­scrip­tor, but what does it de­scribe?

One pos­si­bil­ity is that the word “au­then­tic” is sup­posed to mean “con­nected to the orig­i­nal”, rather than a copy. The “au­then­tic’ Ju­daism is meant to rep­re­sent a le­git­i­mate, un­bro­ken link to an orig­i­nal, eter­nal ver­sion. The prob­lem with such a us­age is that it’s not clear what “the orig­i­nal” means.

Ju­daism has al­ways been com­plex. When we speak of au­then­tic­ity, what are we be­ing au­then­tic to: Is­raelite rit­ual prac­tice, the an­cient Tem­ple cult, a prophetic eth­i­cal move­ment, var­i­ous Se­cond Tem­ple sec­tar­ian group­ings, the polyvo­cal, rad­i­cal rab­binic Ju­daism?

The rab­bis ut­terly trans­formed a bib­li­cal rit­ual cult into the Ju­daism that we live to­day in re­sponse to the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which they found them­selves. So, is it more “au­then­tic” to play mu­sic in wor­ship on Shab­bat as they once did in the Tem­ple, or not to, as or­dained as a she­vut, a sec­ondary rab­binic pro­hi­bi­tion, in the Mish­nah?

Sim­i­larly, much of Cha­sidic Ju­daism was an in­no­va­tion of the 18th cen­tury, mak­ing use of Luri­anic Kab­balah, which flour­ished in the 16th. How can we pos­si­bly make claims of unique au­then­tic­ity when Ju­daism has al­ways been so broad, and con­stantly evolv­ing?

Per­haps what is meant by “au­then­tic” is not “orig­i­nal” but “unadul­ter­ated”, un­sul­lied by out­side in­flu­ence. There would, of course, be a cer­tain irony in us­ing an an­cient Greek word, au­then­tikos, if what you’re try­ing to say is that Ju­daism needs to be pure from ex­ter­nal in­flu­ence. Nonethe­less, this might be the mean­ing. Ex­cept that Ju­daism has al­ways been a re­li­gion of in­no­va­tion in re­sponse to new and ex­ter­nal forces.

Ju­daism evolves in re­sponse to place, to time, to its neigh­bours. This is why the Ju­daism of Mizrachim looks dif­fer­ent to that of Ashke­nazim, that of North Africa dif­fer­ent to that of North Amer­ica. When Mai­monides at­tempted to cod­ify Jewish law, and to de­fine Jewish be­lief, he was heav­ily in­flu­enced by the re­li­gious con­text in which he found him­self, and es­pe­cially sys­tem­atic Is­lamic law and the­ol­ogy. Do we view this ex­er­cise as au­then­tic, or in­au­then­tic?

Are the new re­li­gious rit­u­als of the state of Is­rael, for ex­am­ple the mourn­ing of Yom HaZikaron — the Me­mo­rial Day for Fallen Sol­diers — to be con­demned as in­au­then­tic be­cause they are a re­sponse to our mod­ern sit­u­a­tion and we can­not find ver­i­fi­ca­tion for them in the Tal­mud, or an au­then­tic ex­pres­sion of the mod­ern Jewish peo­ple?

Use of the term “au­then­tic” is not re­ally de­scrip­tive at all. It is a sub­jec­tive claim about le­git­i­macy. It is to claim, ei­ther ex­plic­itly or by im­pli­ca­tion, that one’s own form of Ju­daism is more le­git­i­mate than that of an­other; to claim the right to de­fine where the bound­aries of ac­cept­able “Ju­daism” lie, while of­ten claim­ing ex­clu­sive right to dwell within those bound­aries.

And that, iron­i­cally, we could call “in­au­then­tic”. We may be more di­verse in moder­nity, but Ju­daism has al­ways been di­verse. To claim oth­er­wise is “in­au­then­tic” to both rab­binic Ju­daism and to Jewish life in the UK. Rab­binic Ju­daism was al­ways polyvo­cal, in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent voices in ten­sion with one an­other.

The rab­bis recorded mi­nor­ity views that they re­jected and re­tained within the Jewish story even those whom they con­sid­ered hereti­cal. 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”.

Those who con­demn oth­ers as in­au­then­tic im­ply that our Ju­daism no longer has those broad shoul­ders, can no longer carry the di­ver­sity it once did. This is not true.

In the UK to re­ject di­ver­sity with the weapon of “au­then­tic­ity” is a new phe­nom­e­non. 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, the Rev­erend Dr Isaac Levy, 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”. In those days there was a recog­ni­tion that we are all, in dif­fer­ent ways, heirs to a rich tex­tual tra­di­tion, one that we can share and that can sus­tain us all.

A healthy com­mu­nity, and a healthy Ju­daism, is one in which we are open about what we share and where we dis­agree. One in which we recog­nise that, in the words of Rabbi Joseph Hertz in 1934, “Far more calami­tous than re­li­gious dif­fer­ences in Jewry is re­li­gious in­dif­fer­ence in Jewry.” We should hon­our 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”. What­ever it might be sup­posed to mean.

Ju­daism has al­ways been a re­li­gion of in­no­va­tion ’

Rabbi Josh Levy is rab­binic Part­ner at Alyth and Chair of the Assem­bly of Re­form Rab­bis and Can­tors UK


Is­raeli sol­diers carry wreaths dur­ing Yom Hazikaron, Is­rael’s Me­mo­rial Day for its fallen sol­dier and a new day in the Jewish cal­en­dar

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