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Classic Judaism bred modern Jewry

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Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum

“You shall not see your brother’s ass or ox fallen down by the way... you shall surely help him.” Classic Judaism plays on the Hebrew word in this verse, imo, which literally means “with him.” If your neighbour sits idly by, you are under no obligation to do his work for him. But when he joins in when you offer help, you are obliged to assist.

Classic Jewish thought is rooted in classic Jewish texts and codified in classic Jewish law, or Halachah. These classic halachic approaches are being claimed by some contemporary Jews.

Classic Judaism is not monolithic. In the Middle Ages, Judaism knew homiletic interpretation (Rashi, 1040-1150), rationalist interpretation (Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1089-1164, and Maimonides, 1135-1204), and mystical interpretation (Nachmanides, 1194-1270, and Yosef Caro, 1488-1575). Judaism knew differences among Ashkenazi, Sephardi and other communities. What in each case bound them together was their devotion to Halachah.

Halachic questions cover all aspects of life, not just ritual issues, not just civil issues, not just criminal issues, but moral and ethical issues as well – subjects explicitly not covered by modern secular law. The halachic process “uncovers what the law is found to be.”

Scholars have identified classic Judaism as having the following components:

• God. God is the one and singular who created the world, revealed the law, and will redeem the world.

• Chosen people. A view of history centred upon the chosen people of Israel.

• Rapprochement. Passages recalling the sacrifices with the power to sweep one up to the ancient Temple, through which one brings oneself to God and receives expiation.

• Learning. The belief in divine revelation and its study as a means to the formation of a noble character, a study that would normally include secular learning as well.

• Living in the world. “Holiness” as not denying the world, but as living in the world successfully and meaningfully contributing to society.

• Ethics. Striving, in God’s presence, to conduct one’s business affairs between Jew and Jew, and between Jew and non-Jew, faithfully.

• Rhythms. Time imbued with cosmic meaning and sanctity through the daily cycle, weekly cycle, monthly cycle, yearly cycle and life cycle.

• Klal Yisrael. God forges a covenant with the People of Israel, shaping the people as a group, proclaiming its laws, calling the people to holiness, and transforming difference into common destiny.

• Eretz Yisrael. The sanctity of the land, the yearning for Zion, the hope for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple cult – all of these are the symbols by which the redemption of the past from Egypt is projected onto the future.

• Redemption. The messianic hope, made concrete in the figure of the Messiah, son of David and king of Israel.

• Purpose. Standing between revelation and redemption, the Jew has purpose: fulfilling God’s law, the Halachah, and thus helping to bring about the expected redemption.

Classic Judaism is not a contemporary phenomenon lying somewhere on the scale between Orthodox and Conservative. Classic Judaism is a historical phenomenon that precedes the Orthodox and Conservative denominations. It is the soil out of which the denominations grew. The law is practiced, not just obeyed.

“You shall not see your brother’s ass or ox fallen down by the way… you shall surely help him.”

Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum is president of the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School.

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