The Idolatry in Binaries

By David J. Steiner

“God is a fundamental axiom of Judaism,” exclaimed one of the people who came to console us upon the death of Herbert M. Kliebard, acclaimed scholar and author of The Struggle for the American Curriculum, who would have been my father in law. Though they were friends for over forty years, I could see Herb turning in his grave as I debated his colleague and friend and made him my chevruta for the afternoon.

By declaring “fundamental axioms,” we create binaries, which serve as false gods because they generate the illusion of an absolute choice in a fluid trajectory of culture and ideas. Decisions we make today may be correct today and could also be inappropriate, irrelevant or simply wrong tomorrow. The idea of making a fence around the Torah, from Pirkei Avot, does not mean that the fence should always be the same.

In a letter to William S. Smith, in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, who canonized the United States rebellion from England with our Declaration of Independence, wrote, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always, well informed.” Jefferson understood that context is much of what makes something right. He asked, “[W]hat country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

The 2013 Pew study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” has shown us a direction of many members of our community. Twenty percent are labeled “Jews of no Religion,” and this number is growing. In a recent article I wrote, published in these pages, I tried to make the case that; at least, we should not make the God question the obstacle to entrance into our synagogues and religious schools. Here I would like to make the case that posing the God question at all is actually heretical because this binary verges on idolatry. Our people self identify as wrestlers with God, which is a process, yet the dichotomy of believers and non-believers, Jews with and without religion, forces us to make superfluous choices.

When I worked at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, I learned from Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l) the reason he dropped the second paragraph of the V’ahavta prayer, which follows the Shema, from the congregation’s liturgy. He told me that we don’t believe that God is a behaviorist anymore. It was that simple. However, some would say that changing the ways of our forefather’s and mothers is actually very complex. Do you exorcise or change the “n” word from Mark Twain’s oeuvre because we ought not say that anymore? Can we have Judaism without God?

Herb Kliebard taught me, and I quote from his opus, “[T]he curriculum in any time and place becomes the site of a battleground where the fight is over whose values and beliefs will achieve the legitimation and respect that acceptance into the national discourse provides.” When people or denominations declare fundamental axioms, they are seeking authenticity and authority that are not the purpose of the plethora of binaries in Judaism. They are seeking to dominate the Jewish national discourse, but discourses are not catechisms nor are they monolithic.

To illustrate, I turn to the Bard of early Zionism, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who addresses one of the greatest binaries in Judaism, the contrast between aggadah and halacha in the Talmud:

Halacha [Jewish law] wears a frown, aggadah [legend] a smile. The one is pedantic, severe, unbending – all justice; the other is accommodating, lenient, pliable – all mercy. The one commands and knows no half-way house; her yea is yea and her nay is nay. The other advises and takes account of human limitations; she admits something between yea and nay.”

The purpose of his essay is not to call out a problem but to illuminate its blessings. He asks, “ Must we conclude – as many think – that Halacha and Aggadah are irreconcilable opposites?” But he does not affirm. Instead he offers,

Aggadah is the plaintive voice of the heart’s yearning as it wings its way to its haven; Halacha is the resting-place, where for a moment the yearning is satisfied and stilled. As a dream seeks its fulfillment in interpretation, as a will in action, as thought in speech, as flower in fruit – so Aggadah in Halacha.”

As Bialik so gracefully implies, the benefit of binaries is clear. They are interdependent as they enhance one another. They present us with a spectrum of ideas, but they are also two sides of the same coin, lest we forget the lesson of BT Eruvin 13b, “Since a Divine Echo declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.”

Eli Weisel suggests, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” He declares that, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” In other words, not choosing is choosing, or as the historian Howard Zinn declared in the title of his autobiography, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.” But choosing should not be mistaken for getting something right.

In the lexicon of education, Elliot Eisner refers to the “null curriculum,” which he defines as, “… the options students are not afforded, the perspectives they may never know about, much less be able to use, the concepts and skills that are not part of their intellectual repertoire.” These “options” exist and their absence shapes learners perspectives, even though they are not legitimized by acceptance into the curriculum. Claiming God as a fundamental axiom in Judaism creates a “null curriculum” as well. It is an effort to make all the great accomplishments and values of our people that don’t include God into something that isn’t Jewish. It ignores those parts of the Jewish experience dictated by geography, demographics, politics, economics and culture, and it also doesn’t consider our encounter with those who hate us. All of these contribute to making us the vital and exuberant nation that we are, and by proclaiming “fundamental axioms,” we create idols that do a great disservice to our people.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a mediator and educator in Chicago.