My journey as a Jew. A comment, a mish mash, a start.

One of our readers, Julian, has asked ( comment, 19 July, 2012; about the different attitudes of secular and orthodox Jews.

He specifically wonders, “Are these tensions similar (not identical) with the feelings of the Maccabees and the Hellenised Jews back in antiquity? “

This is a good and insightful question which I would like to address.

The parallels between the ancient Jewish society of those Jews influenced by Greek or Hellenic culture and those who wished to pursue a more traditional Jewish culture and life with what is going on today are often similar.

Jewish writings like the Babylonian Talmud, a massive compendium of discussions which took place between the years 200 – 500 CE, often mention the Hellenists and their contributions. However, what I find interesting is that those who were greatly influenced by Greek culture in this way never quite established an ongoing Jewish life, one which continued to develop over the following centuries.

There is something very unique and touching about the traditional Jewish ways. Much of it, from my personal experience, is not too helpful and I don’t find it very nourishing but that is just a portion of it.

For the most part, I believe that we have a lot to learn from this tradition.

Part of the problem, for me, is that the messengers as they are today often are part of communities that appear opposed to secular education and have an almost antagonistic relationship to what is viewed as secular life and study. Orthodox Jews and especially the so-called ultra-orthodox ( Haredim, Hasidim, +) exemplify this.

In their worlds you cannot just pick and choose. You must accept the entire package, along with their politics and authority figures, or risk not being accepted in the community.

In Israel there is quite a bit of resentment between the secular and orthodox communities. There is also a lot of ignorance found on both sides as to who the others are.

Much of this ignorance is based on beliefs regarding the lack of sincerity and learning of the other. The orthodox believe that anyone who doesn’t learn Torah ( ie: to sit and study the Talmud, which is really what is meant by learning Torah for them) is not a true Jew. They believe that God commanded them to sit and learn Torah. If you don’t do this then you are not a real Jew in their eyes.

The secular population often views this preoccupation with Torah study as a total waste of time. For them, the studies of these ancient texts are irrelevant to a modern life. They also look at the ultra-orthodox and see people dressed like Polish noblemen from the 18th century, speaking Yiddish, a language of Eastern Europe, obsessed with rituals and religious duties, who usually refuse to serve in the IDF ( Israel Defense Force) and otherwise don’t help to foster the country, and conclude that they are a blight on the nation and the Jewish people. Those who speak Yiddish are Ashkenazi Jews, descendants of European Jews. The other orthodox community is made up of Sefardi Jews, descendants of Mediterranean Jews ( Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Italy, North Africa and the Middle East). They, too, have their ultra-orthodox segment.

The orthodox often look at the secular world and see them as frivolous, without any sustaining vision, grossly ignorant of Jewish traditional culture and hostile to the religion. The secular community is often seen as failures who do not represent the true face of the Jewish people.

I grew up in a home where Jewish culture was honored alongside secular, Western studies. In America there are several denominations of Judaism. From  left to right we might list them as: Humanistic Judaism ( these people are atheists and agnostics who want a Jewish life), Jewish Renewal ( those who are inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter, a former teacher and friend of mine), Reconstructionist Judaism ( those who are inspired by the ideas of Mordecai Kaplan [1881–1983] . This movement views Judaism as a progressively evolving civilization.), Reform Judaism, the largest American group, Conservative ( another very large group which developed like Reform in the 19th century and split from the orthodox), as well as a vast spectrum comprising orthodox or traditional Judaism which ranges from Modern Orthodox all the way to the haredim and hasidim, the most ultra or the ultra orthodox, the ones with the long beards, black coats and hats, and the most rigid observance.

My family was Conservative. I was sent by my parents to a Conservative Jewish school which met twice a week outside of my public school studies. Honestly, I didn’t find it terribly inspiring in part because I just wasn’t interested in such things and also it seemed irrelevant to my personal needs. For me, God was a concept, not a reality. Religion was something others were devoted to but it wasn’t real for me. I went because my parents insisted that I do so and that it would make my grandparents happy. They had come to America because it was hard for them to live in Europe as Jews,  I loved my grandparents and if my doing all this stuff would make them happy then I would do it, no questions asked.

Around the time of my bar mitzvah, when I turned 13, I told me father that I didn’t believe in any of this, that I was an internationalist, a citizen of the world. He repeated that it would make my grandparents happy so I just did it.

I read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew. When I did so I didn’t understand what I was reading. After I  finished I was happy to return to my other life;  riding my bicycle, reading books and studying stuff of personal interest like history, political and economic philosophy, biographies, and so on.

However, when I graduated high school and  moved to Wisconsin to attend the university in Madison, I quickly realized that I was different than the non-Jewish students. On Friday evenings many of them would party, get drunk and get laid. Many of them loved rock music, smoking cigarettes and taking drugs. All of this was foreign to me. For me, Friday was the beginning of the weekend, a time to be with family, relax, and wind down from the workday time. At the time I never understood that this was the Sabbath, one of the major Jewish contributions to the world.

No one in my family drank alcohol except for religious purposes when we would say a prayer and make a blessing over wine usually on the Sabbath or holidays. I had never tasted beer  I had no desire to drink. My father smoked a pipe and no one smoked cigarettes. We never ate any products from a pig or shell fish. Once my brother brought home some bacon and fried it in one of my mother’s pans. My father took the pan, the bacon and my brother, opened the door of our home and threw all of them out onto the lawn. He told my brother to never, ever bring such things into our home again.

The conversations of my fellow university students often revolved around women, popular culture, sports, and other things which held little interest for me. They rarely spoke about intellectual matters or their studies with any passion.

Many of them were very nice but I just didn’t feel any connection that made me want to hang out with them.

For me, life was big, with unending possibilities. To spend it chasing women, on drinking binges, watching football matches and getting stoned, seemed a colossal waste of time.

At that point I began to wander through the stacks of books at the university library. I noticed that most of the  students who seemed to have similar inclinations and  interests to mine were all Jews. Many, like me, hailed from the New York City area. I recall a grad student, Roy, whom I idolized because he was majoring in Russian culture and history. I had never met such a person. He seemed so fascinating, so cultured, so smart. I wanted to be like Roy. I would stand in front of the university library, along with other students and listen to him speak. Roy had done something big with his life and I wanted to, as well. I had no idea what I would do but I knew it wouldn’t be what most of my fellow students were doing.

Life was so big, so filled with all sorts of interesting ideas, wonderful explorations, exciting people. There was so much to learn and I wanted to absorb it all, now.

As a freshman I was just starting this journey. It excited me that I could make my own life in a way that might actually be fun or at least more fun than high school and other required, boring classes and studies.

One day in the library stacks I discovered the section on Jewish life, religion and culture.

In the Library of Congress classification system, according to which the books were arranged, the identification code was BM. I thought that this was hilarious since in my home this was how we had always referred to shit ( bowel movement).  Somebody seemed to have a great sense of humor at the Library of Congress.

At first I just browsed aimlessly through some of these books.

Then I got to a special sub-section.

What I discovered changed the entire course of my life.

( to be continued)

Author: Harold

6 thoughts on “My journey as a Jew. A comment, a mish mash, a start.

  1. Dr Harold,

    Thank you deeply for your kindness to write an article answering my question. You have shared many personal experiences from your life and I really appreciate your kindness, frankness and sense of humor.

    So overall you tend to believe that Hellenism and strict (Ultra-orthodox) Judaism cannot reach an osmosis; a kind of win-win synthesis. "what I find interesting is that those who were greatly influenced by Greek culture in this way never quite established an ongoing Jewish life". I tend to follow that. In my view (I may be wrong since I am not able to read the Jewish Scriptures in their original versions and thus I have to accept the translation) Jewishness is strongly related with an indisputable acceptance of strict monotheism and the notion that the people of Israel are the chosen people and thus superior to any other. Historically this logic has helped enormously the Jewish communities of the middle east to stay close together and deal with many foreign invasions and attacks. It has helped them in an existential way. Along with the Chinese the Jewish are the only people who have kept their tradition almost intact. Whereas the Greeks – Romans have become Christians and the Persians Muslims. Following Edward Gibbon somebody could even go as far as to say that for a great period of time the strict Jewish idea about the world and the universe prevailed fully over Hellenism. (Up until the renaissance).

    So today that the Western world has become distinctively American, blended with Protestantism (which of course includes many Jewish principles but less than in Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity) and Greek Roman Ideals maybe those "messengers" as you have very well put it, find it hard to accept secular education and principles because they fear the "Americanisation". Again I tend to understand them though. Having kept a tradition alive for more than 4000 years is an exceptional accomplishment and in their mind God is true and truly is the one who is responsible for this Great accomplishment covering with his aegis the chosen people.

    I have to note that it strikes me greatly your open-mindedness. It takes a lot to be 13yo and reject years of religious indoctrination and state that you are a citizen of the world like a young Diogenes. So I do not know if this has to do with genes or not but I think that people who "break it" with the status quo are a blessed by nature – name it god minority.

    I also agree with your points about the deficiencies of the modern world, specifically on the lifestyle and culture for the masses. JS Mill had said that it is better to be a Socrates dissatisfied or a pig satisfied 🙂 He had gone even further arguing that if common people get access to great forms of art and entertainment they will always chose them over any inferior other form. Unfortunately this is not the case… I have attempted many time to watch a tragedy with many of my friends and most of them fail completely and at all to show respect let alone understand the drama and the catharsis. Same thing going on with great concerts and great books….

    When you were referring to your experience with your enlightened friend doing Russian and the way you idolised him as well as your strong disaffection on the vulgarity of your fellow students the following verses came immediately on my mind:

  2. "Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is life-long, for it becomes one with the everlasting".

    "…..and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form. So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts which may improve the young, until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself a slave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the science of beauty everywhere"

    You obviously recognize them form Plato's Symposium.

    Finally I have to admit that your BM comment was absolutely hilarious!!!!

    I am looking forward to reading your next post on the topic!!! What did you discover and how did it alter the course of your life? And in what way since I do not see a great change 🙂 . ( You were a lover of books and knowledge that is why you were meticulously interested in history, politics and economics and that also brought you to the library). Do you mean it made you decide to become a Dr?

    For once more thank you for this wonderful conversation I have learned a lot! I knew listening to you in the the Chinese course that you weren't just a teacher of Mandarin but you also had a deep understanding of the world and maybe of human nature. I don't know how I understood this but I just had that feeling. I also thought you were very different to Michel. Michel was as cosmopolitan as it gets! Fighting wars, teaching stars and getting huge recognition. You seemed to be more low profile, more "lone wolf" but still as good a teacher as Michel!

    xie xie!



  3. Hi, Julian

    Thanks again for taking time to write and post some very interesting thoughts.

    This is what I hoped this blog might inspire when I began it many years ago.

    You have written a lot but I want to concentrate on one matter which you wrote:

    "…Jewishness is strongly related with an indisputable acceptance of strict monotheism and the notion that the people of Israel are the chosen people and thus superior to any other."

    The Jewish attitude is that All is One. We experience the entirety of experience as One Experience. The typical reductionistic tendency of Western thought is not Jewish. Judaism, actually, has more in common with Eastern thought ( Buddhism and Taoism) in this sense than it does with popular Western attitudes which, in practice, experience us and our world as separated, apart from the Divine, alone. Hence, the need for so many in the West and, unfortunately, in the East now that Western thought has become a template for most modern thought, to see man as alone in the Universe, cut off from Nature and Life, isolated and hence, in some basic way, on his own.

    This is a decidedly pessimistic approach to life.

    The other matter which you mentioned is that, "…the people of Israel are the chosen people and thus superior to any other."

    I don't agree with this.

    The term chosen people does not mean that Jews are superior to other people, though some people may believe this. Rather, it implies a special relationship with the Divine that plays out in Jewish observance of the commandments.

    No other group claims to have received the 613 commandments from God. This event which took place on Mt. Sinai to an entire group of more than 600,000 people over 2,000 years ago, marks the beginning of Judaism and the Jewish people.

    The centerpiece of the experience at Sinai was that the mission and identity of the people, formerly Hebrews and, following this revelation, now Jews, changed to one of relating to God via His positive and negative commandments.

    This is absolutely central to Judaism and defines the chosen or special relationship that you refer to.

    I will write more on this if you are interested.

  4. Dr Harold,

    Please do go on! I am very much interested! And I appreciate your time!

    Your points about:
    1. All is one,
    2. the alienation of man from Nature and the Universe in the modern world ( I would add: due to technological improvements which make humans to believe that they can defeat nature and in some years even death! – Well the nuclear accident in Japan was a shock for many) and
    3. the 613 commandments as a covenant defining a mission

    make me even more confused!

    the first 2 principles do not contradict at all with Hellenism! (Please if you think they do contradict elaborate)
    while on the other hand it seems to be a problem with some aspects of the Modern Western Society as you have very eloquently defined it.

    concerning the 3rd principle, I am not quite sure what to think…. for instance the Hellenes also cited some kind of divine intervention through the 144 Delphic Maxims. The two most eminent maxims (In terms that everything could derive by them) was Know thyself and Nothing in Excess. A Great American-Jewish modern historian; Donald Kagan argues that these two maxims meant: Know thyself as a fallible mortal and then exercise moderation because you are not divine! I tend to view his opinion quite positively.

    So if Hellenism and Judaism clashed (at the highest point of osmosis Abraham had become the Jewish equivalent of Hercules) then it seems quite probable that Westernism and Judaism will clash someday ( it is already happening with what you have called Heredim – Hasidim. Of course as you have very well put it, other versions of Judaism are very open and accept secular Jewish but who can predict the outcome of the internal debate of what it is to be Jewish? Again my knowledge of Jewish philosophy is very limited and please excuse me if some of my thoughts sound totally preposterous.

    One final point: So it is crucial for a Jew (Orthodox, or no Orthodox) to believe that God really showed up in the Mountain and presented the covenant? If this is the case then where do many Westernized Jews who tend to be agnostic or deist belong?

    Please elaborate also on what book or books or ideas in the BM section of the Library of congress made you reevaluate your goals about life and the world.

    It has been quite a pleasure Dr!


  5. Hi, Julian

    It has been almost two years since you wrote your last comment. I hope that you will get this response.

    I claim nothing but ignorance regarding Hellenism. So I cannot say if what I write agrees or not with it. I do claim to know a little about Judaism and Jewish thought, so that is what I will write about.

    There are many varieties of people calling themselves Jews. I cannot speak for anyone except myself. God, in Judaism, is beyond the human ken. We simply cannot experience It (Him) conceptually or even with our senses. However, we can experience His effects; Creation, Torah, etc. You don't need to accept any of this. Judaism is not a missionary religion unlike some others. We do not believe that we have "the Truth". We just have our own personal experience which we trace back to what happened at Mt. Sinai.

    If you accept that experience as valid then you may understand why we believe what we do. If not, then it will not be palatable for you.

    Understand God in anyway you do. Our conceptual understanding can in no way approximate the reality of the Divine. This is true of everything in life. The map is not the territory, to quote Alfred Korzybski, one of my heroes.

    Jews are devoted to the territory. The maps lead back to more maps.

    Many Jews lack much of a Jewish education. However, they still describe themselves as Jews albeit as ones who reject the tradition. That is their right.

    The books I found on the hasidim and kabbala got me to thinking a bit differently than I had previously thought.

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