Cultures of the Jews

by Dr. Gil Graff

Over the Passover holiday, I enjoyed the company of 500+ Jews of diverse backgrounds who gathered from different parts of the United States (and beyond) to celebrate the festival at a resort location. Extended families of multiple generations as well as couples and singles shared the holiday experience. While, at the start of Pesach, most families conducted their own sedarim, about 75 people chose to participate in a community seder.

Privileged to lead a community seder one night, I was delighted at the array of issues raised for discussion. “Is it not true that there is no shred of evidence to support the narrative of an exodus from Egypt? Is the declaration ‘Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that do not know You’ consistent with Jewish values? What are we to make of references to the ‘hand of God’ and ‘arm of God’? Granting that these descriptions are to be understood metaphorically, what is conveyed by ‘arm’ and by ‘hand’? And what of dayyenu? Would it really have sufficed to have gotten only as far as the desert?” Such questions, posed by participants as we engaged with the haggadah and with one another, evoked considerable discussion. While those who framed the seder ritual would, likely, have been surprised at some of the questions (let alone the phenomenon of Pesach at a resort) the significance of the occasion to these 21st century discussants – and the enduring value of the seder – would have been palpable.

Over centuries and millennia, there have been diverse “cultures of the Jews.” A book of that title, edited by historian David Biale, offers important perspective on this subject. While some cultures of the Jews have had enduring impact, others are footnotes in the history of Jews and Judaism.

During Pesach, I read a book of essays – published nearly a century ago – by Israel Friedlaender. Friedlaender was an Eastern European Jew who traveled to Berlin for higher education, then came to the United States at the invitation of Solomon Schechter to teach at the fledgling Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Friedlaender was not only an academic, but a public intellectual involved with initiatives ranging from the Kehillah of New York and its Bureau of Jewish Education to the Young Israel movement. He was murdered in 1920, while on a mission to the Ukraine on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee.

Friedlaender brought his scholarship to bear on analysis of trends and needs within the American Jewish community. He observed that the challenge of “the reconciliation of Judaism with non-Jewish culture renews itself with every generation, and never more persistently than today when the visible barriers between the Jewish and non-Jewish environments have been raised.” Friedlaender contrasted the work of Maimonides and of Philo of Alexandria in this regard, noting that Maimonides’ contribution to Jewish life is enduring while Philo’s influence was of limited scope and duration. For Friedlaender, the reason for the difference was clear: “Maimonides mastered all the branches of Jewish knowledge and was intimately associated with all phases of Jewish life, whereas Philo was a stranger in the field of Judaism, and could not even read the Bible in the original.”

Friedlaender did not pine for the days of yore; he saw a bright future for American Jewry. “Jewish learning in this country,” he wrote, “like that of our ancestors in Spain, will rise and develop in intimate association with the culture of our neighbors. It will be American in culture, in scope, in method, and yet be distinctively Jewish in essence, the proud possession of American Israel and through it in God’s own time the cherished property of Universal Israel.”

Questions and discussions at the seder table of 21st century American Jews differ from those of 12th century Spanish Jewry or 17th century Polish Jewry. Answers of enduring significance will connect contemporary experience with the rich wellspring of Jewish learning that has nurtured the cultures of the Jews through time and place. The seder reminds us that inclusivity and the experiential engagement of successive generations of Jews are essential dimensions of Jewish vitality. At the same time, the haggadah calls attention to the abiding roles of ritual, a shared narrative – linking past, present and future – and Jewish learning as sustaining elements of cultures of the Jews that will inform the lives of those who follow.

Dr. Gil Graff is Executive Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.