Is There Anything All Jews Share?
We are in the middle of an age of intense disagreement. Between politics, religion, and other public topics - it seems that forming a consensus on anything is a lofty, if not impossible, goal.
A couple of days ago I was on the phone with a friend and I was describing why my personal Jewish identification is post-denominational. I explained that in each denomination there are elements that I appreciate and others that I do not. Simple enough. However, the follow up question that I received was not a simple one, and I think it is important to discuss within the broader Jewish community.
Is there something that all the various Jewish denominations unanimously agree on?
This is not just a great question, but also a timely one.
When it comes to God, the disparity in conceptions between the various denominations are so great that this cannot be the answer. Similarity, Israel is something that can be crossed off quite quickly as the Jewish community encompasses every political view possible on the Jewish state. Any type of Jewish legal system (Halacha) cannot be the correct answer as certain denominations were founded on principles that demanded the abrogation of certain Halachic ideals.
When it comes to the holidays, we are mostly on the same page. We all celebrate the various Jewish holidays and view them as intrinsically special days on our calendars. However, the one shortcoming of the holidays is that the different denominations practice them so differently that it would be almost impossible for people from the various denominations to fully celebrate together.
As we continue to think about common threads, I think that a certain point we need to take a step back and consider our foundation. We need to recognize that Judaism introduced a couple of fundamental ideas into the world that are of the utmost importance. The Bible begins by making the claim that all of mankind was created in God’s image, and this theme - that all humans are intrinsically equal - is one that is repeated over many of its pages. This idea of equality, wrapped up in the philosophical framework of ethical monotheism, is the linchpin of our modern conception of morality. As the early rabbinic sage Hillel observed, the rest of the Bible is really there just to offer a commentary or give various applications of the above principle.
Now, of course, the way that the various denominations approach and read the Bible cannot be more different. On one side of the spectrum we have communities who view every last letter of the Bible as the literal word of God, to be invariably followed in every scenario. On the other side, we find communities who view the Bible as the product of human hands, compiled over the course of hundreds of years - whose pages reflect many of the archaic sentiments of its time.
But we all read, know, discuss, and cherish these stories. We have all had conversations discussing the many implications, whether philosophical, moral, or historical, of these stories. What’s more is that at some level we all agree that there is some fundamental truth to be gleaned from its pages. While the nature and extent of this truth may differ, truth is truth nonetheless.
The trans-denominational attachment to the Bible represents something greater than just a couple of stories or even a book that can unite us. Rather, it represents the understanding that narratives are a (if not the most) effective way to convey certain ideas or truths about the world. Stories and narratives often allow us to bring certain elusive ideas into the realm of tangibility. It is one thing for one to read or discuss an abstract idea, but it is an entirely different experience to actually discover these ideas within our literature.
In some sense, we can view Judaism as one massive book club, where we have all been reading the same book for thousands of years. The thing that can unite the various denominations is our infatuation and connection with these stories. In this light, it is actually beneficial that there are so many different denominations and communities within the umbrella of Judaism.
Just think, would a book club really be that entertaining if we all showed up with the exact same perspective or views on the book?
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