Category: Judaism


The Jewish community is obsessed with the “next big idea.” But the crisis is not one of theory — the power of Judaism is clear to those truly engaged in its complex struggles and searchings for truth and divinity. Instead of focusing on new ideas, the Jewish community would be better served by connecting to the original “big ideas” of our heritage: Torah, avodah (rituals) and gemilut hasadim (acts of loving kindess), for instance. To put it another way: there is no “new big idea.” There is just investment in the old, but in a serious, meaningful, and thoughtful way.

Elie Kaunfer, “The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, The Jewish Week (7 April 2010), 14.

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Judaism, to be a thick identity, in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, is not part-time commitment with full-time benefits. It is the framework and the lens, the core and the vision. Why would you “affiliate” with anything that demands less of you? It’s not about affiliation. It never has been. It’s about meaning and wisdom. And our language must change to reflect this.

Erica Brown, “Part-Time Judaism”, 2013-2014: The Year Gone By…The Year Ahead, A Special Supplement to the Florida Jewish Journal and the New York Jewish Week (27 December 2013), 7.

Jews haven’t ceased searching for values and meaning. But the ideological movements of the past 200 years — Reform, Conservative, Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy — are all modern phenomena created as different responses to the encounter between Judaism and the realities of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are historical, and we’d be ill advised to see them as timeless. They may not be fully adequate to respond to the different set of challenges facing Jews in the 21st century.

So maybe instead of lamenting the lack of connection to “modern” Jewish ideologies, we should be working on creating postmodern ideologies. This is not a purely philosophical issue. It’s about the critical question of what Judaism as a culture, religion and civilization has to offer to those of us who yearn for meaning in an uncertain world.

Answering the question of why be Jewish is just as important as how to be Jewish.

Andres Spokoiny, “Study Points The Way Toward More Avenues to Jewish Life”, The Jewish Week (8 November 2013), 43.

Judaism, in its very essence, is a relational religion, born of a covenant between God and the people Israel, sustained for millennia by a system of behaving, belonging, and believing that grows and evolves through time and space. But Judaism is even more than a religion. It is a people, a community of communities, a culture, a language, a history, a land, a civilization, a technology, a path to shape a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.

Dr. Ron Wolfson, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013), 3.

Today’s liberal Jewish communities, in which rigorous observance of the ritual commandments is no longer part of the fabric of daily Jewish life, insist that a genuine desire to join the Jewish people and share in its fate ought to be a sufficient standard for conversion. Many Orthodox communities, alarmed by what they see as the dilution of Jewish content in liberal Judaism, in general, and liberal conversations, in particular, have responded by adhering ever more rigidly to classic conversion standards. Valid conversions must be accompanied by a genuine commitment to observe the commandments — “for the sake of heaven” (Geirim 1:3) — they insist, and conversions that lack that are simply null and void.

Daniel Gordis, “What, Not Who, Is a Jew?”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 12.

…the talmudic sources are divided. A well known baraita (Yevamot 47a) says that converts should at first be turned away: “Our rabbis taught: If at the present time a man desires to become a proselyte, he is to be addressed as follows: ‘What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’ If he replies, ‘I know and yet I am unworthy,’ he is accepted immediately ….” After he is accepted, he is instructed in some of the commandments, but his acceptance comes first.

But another source (Bekhorot 30b) insists that a convert who rejects a single iota of Jewish law may not be accepted. These sources can be made to agree, but doing so clouds the question that their apparent contradiction raises. Is being a Jew fundamentally about the observance of every detail of Jewish law (as Bekhorot implies), or does converting mean joining a covenantal community that sees itself as marginal, a community in which commandments are central, but perhaps not the defining characteristic (as in Yevamot)?

Daniel Gordis, “What, Not Who, Is a Jew?”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 12.

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.

Dennis Prager, “No Faith, No Jewish Future”, The Jewish Journal (8-14 November 2013), 7.

Judaism is constituted of the acceptance and practice of the mitzvot. Thus, it is inconceivable that a non-Jew could enter the nation of Israel and acquire kedushat Yisrael without acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot. There is no Judaism without mitzvot. However, there have been different halakhic positions over the centuries as to whether or not the acceptance of mitzvot requires the complete and perfect knowledge and practice of the mitzvot at the time of conversion, like circumcision and immersion in the mikvah.

Yehiel E. Poupko, “Making Jews: Conversion and Mitzvot”, Sh’ma (March 2011), 13.

The lighting of Hanukkah candles is undoubtedly one of the most widespread and certainly the most recognized custom among the Jewish people.

Nevertheless most Jews are unaware that the ritual of the lighting and, more precisely, the order in which Hanukkah candles are lit, underwent an evolution over many centuries and that the order which has been adopted by the overwhelming majority of Jewish people was initially a marginal rite originating in France.

The emergence of the French rite was the result of an extraordinary combination of circumstances, including: the importance and prominence of R. Joseph Colon; the adoption of his ruling by R. Joseph Caro in Beit Yoseph and then in Shulhan Arukh; and the adoption of this rite by the Ari and his followers. The successful spread of Hassidism also contributed to the general acceptance of this rite in Eastern Europe, where other traditional rites still prevailed.

Today an overwhelming majority of Jews follow the French rite, while concurrently, the French Siddur, once considered as important as the German Siddur of Rhineland, died out completely and can only be found in rare books and manuscripts.

J. Jean Ajdler, “The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles: The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the Publication of the Shulhan Arukh”, Hakirah 7 (Winter 2009), 205.

The question of the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles was not raised before the thirteenth century when it was reported that when R. Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg (Maharam) was lighting the Hanukkah candles, he began on the left side and then turned to the right, following the Talmudic aphorism “all the rotations that you do, should be to the right.” Maharam thus always began the lighting of the candles by the same left candle, the lighting of which he considered as the basic fulfillment of the mitzvah.

From that time onward the order of lighting the Hanukkah candles became a recurrent theme among scholars and each author adopted a definite position about this issue. Similarly, the question of whether the Hanukkah candles should still be placed at the left of the entrance when there is no mezuzah, or on the right, continued to be debated.

J. Jean Ajdler, “The Order of Lighting the Hanukkah Candles: The Evolution of a Custom and the Influence of the Publication of the Shulhan Arukh”, Hakirah 7 (Winter 2009), 209.