August 20, 2010
I was walking down State Street and saw a group of Orthodox Jews, dressed in black from head to toe, who stopped the passers-by and asked each one, “Are you Jewish?” I walked passed the group like the others and rather hoped to be asked the same question. Alas, no such luck. I was clearly not among the Chosen. Moreover, I never will be.
This makes me wonder about Judaism. So I picked up a highly-praised little book by David Gelernter, called Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2009). The book is not a history, not a theological treatise. Rather it seeks to answer the question, “What is Judaism really about?” The book is exceptionally well-written and, in its own terms, highly persuasive of the grandeur and humanism that is Judaism. Gelernter examines four key beliefs. I’ll have room here to mention only two. The first is “separation.” The image of separation pervades the Torah and the Talmud. It exists at all scales, from God’s creative acts, separating light from darkness, land from water, to the parting of the Red Sea, pushing waters aside into two separate walls so as to allow the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptians, to all the dietary and social rules separating men from women, meat from milk, and such like in bewildering number. The original meaning of holiness itself is separation.” “Be holy” means “Be separate.” Doesn’t this emphasis on keeping apart, on not mixing, imply that some things–indeed, lots of things–are somehow impure, profane, sources of pollution? Did the Orthodox Jews on State Street that day see me as non-kosher, someone who was not among the Chosen and could, if allowed in their midst, contaminate their community? That, to me, is a troubling point, but more troubling still is this. The Red Sea parted to allow the Israelites to walk through; it then closed in to drown the Egyptians. Served them right! you might say, for didn’t they enslave the Israelites? But what had the people of Canaan done to be expelled or killed so that the Israelites, led by Moses, could settle there and obey the command, “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land!”? (Ezra 10:11, and similar verses).
The next key Judaic belief Gelernter calls “Perfect Asymmetry,” the asymmetry being that between maleness and femaleness. Much of this chapter expounds the centrality of marriage and family. Indeed, Gelernter goes so far as to say that whereas Judaism is dedicated to the God of Israel, it is “in fact a cult of family–specifically, of the married couple.” Marriage has “a supreme importance wholly unlike its status in any of the great religions Judaism has fathered...[Judaism] has reshaped and refashioned... the whole spiritual universe around the married couple.” The whole spiritual universe? If so, what is there left for people like me –the unmarried? Apparently, a fate of unending grimness. “Whoever has no wife,” says the Talmud, “lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness.” Even more condemnatory is the midrash that says, “such a man degrades the very archetype of God.” How so? Well, man is made in the image of God, but only on condition that he is fruitful. In other words, man cannot be “God’s image” unless he has a wife and is prepared to procreate. What, then, to do with the singles and the infertile? Fence them in? Exterminate them? Sounds extreme, yet God didn’t hesitate to exterminate the Midianites and other peoples he considered less than fully whole, even though he made them.