I recently went looking for this piece I wrote back in 2006 because of the mention of Leon Wieseltier, and his quote is still the best part of the essay, I think. You can find the archived article here, but since I’m not sure how much longer it will be there, and I might want to find it again one day, I’m posting it here. Since I wrote this, I think I’ve become a bit of a relativist, embracing multiple expressions of Judaism, from knishes to Maimonides to many less stereotypical expressions, but that message to “Get into the fight” still seems to be a compelling and succinct rationale for Jewish education. Enjoy as we prepare for Passover, when we read this verse in the Haggadah.
Ki Tavo concludes the litany of laws reiterated to the people as they await entrance into the land. Details of a ceremony that must take place upon their entry into the Promised Land are given. In elaborate, even excruciating detail we learn about the reward for adhering to the covenant and the extensive, harsh rebuke for abjuring it.
Our parashah begins with a description of the offering the first fruits to be performed once the people enter and settle in the Promised Land. Approaching the priest in front of the altar, each individual recites a formulation with which we are familiar because of its appearance in the magid (telling) section of the Passover haggadah:
You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean.’ (Deuteronomy 26:5)
Is this statement a claim to a biological lineage or an exercise in religious imagination? This question is addressed in the Mishnah, which asks if a convert should recite the statement. While the prevailing conclusion is that they should not, Rabbi Judah argues that Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), was also a convert and “father of all non-Jews who chose to become Jews” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:4 in Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 3, 160). Maimonides agrees with Rabbi Judah in a response to an inquiry from the famous convert Obadiah. Maimonides tells him, “You should recite all the prayers just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! …[E]veryone who accepts Judaism until the end of all generations…is a descendant of Abraham…There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between us and between you” (Cited in Fields, 161).
The open and unequivocal embrace of converts has implications for our understanding of what makes someone Jewish. Clearly, if one can become Jewish, Jewishness is not a factor of blood, race, ethnicity or lineage. This means that we cannot rely on our last name, physical characteristics or hereditary diseases to define us as Jewish. Nor can we rely on those who hate us and discriminate against us based on these things. Who would want to, you may ask. There are many Jews who are Jewish simply as a condition of their birth, like being short or left handed, it is a situation they must deal with, sometimes bringing pleasure and sometimes pain. Even if they are proud of their Judaism and association with the Jewish people, it is still a passive association, something they are rather than something they each day become.
What is Judaism, then? Is it a nationality, with a language, history and cuisine? The modern state of Israel has given new life to this line of questioning, including the claim that a full Jewish life can only be lived in Israel. But history does not support this assertion. Judaism is multi-dimensional and transcends any single category or definition. Having such things as a language and a country mean that Judaism is more than a religion.
On the flip side of our openness to conversion, it is hard to leave the Jewish people. “The Talmud, the fundamental source of rabbinic Jewish law and lore, does not recognize the possibility that a Jew might ‘convert’ to another religion and thereby cease to be a counted among the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is seen as a contract binding for all time upon the descendants of those who stood at Sinai….” (Washofsky, Jewish Living, 47-48). But as we learn in Ki Tavo and others, there are conditions to this covenant.
If we follow God’s injunctions, we are rewarded and our lives are enriched. If not, the gruesome consequences are described in this week’s parashah. Perhaps there are more subtle consequences of leaving our rich tradition behind, of being ignorant to the requirements and rituals of Judaism. In an interview with Abigail Pogrebin, Leon Wieseltier rails against this ignorance. “Owing to the ethnic definition of Jewish life, there has occurred a kind of internal relativism among all things Jewish,” he says. “If we’re just a tribe, if we’re just an ethnic group, then all of our expressions are equally valuable, they all delightfully express what we are. ‘I like Maimonides, you like knishes, but we’re Jews together!’ Right? The philosophy, the food, it’s all a different way of being Jewish. … So in America now it is possible to be a Jew with a Jewish identity that one can defend and that gives one pleasure—and for that identity to have painfully little Jewish substance” (Stars of David, 156, 157). Wieseltier defines Judaism within the context of covenant, and that covenant comes with obligations. He challenges us:
“…[T]he Jews are a people, the Jews are a nation, the Jews are a civilization—but they’re all that because they are first and foremost a religion. That’s the source of the whole blessed thing. Except for our religion, we would not be a people. When Jews come to me with perplexities about the meaning of Jewishness, I say to them: Judaism. Just go to it; check it out, study this, study that, try this, try that, humble yourself for a while before it, insist upon the importance of having a worldview, develop reasons for what you like and what you don’t like, get into the fight. Get into the fight.” (Stars of David, 167)
Let us resolve to take up the fight, to engage with Judaism and play an active part in defining it.