The Judaism Balancing Act

The Judaism Balancing Act
adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg’s comments on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah 2015

A little more than 50 years ago, some American theater producers were trying to create a new play about about the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe.  This play - hopefully to be Broadway-bound - was to be based on the short stories of the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, and it was to be a musical.  It was felt, though, that the original name of the story series - ‘Tevye the Dairyman’ - would not capture the attention of american audiences in the 1960s.  Just a few weeks before rehearsals were supposed to begin, they still hadn’t figured out the title.  They generated a long list of potential names, including “A Village Story,” “Make a Circle,” “Once There Was a Town”:“To Light a Candle,” “Three Brides and a Man,” “Homemade Wine,” “Not So Long Ago”.  
The playwright, Joseph Stein, thought that they should choose “Where Poppa Came From.” But the show’s producer, Hal Prince, thought that the name should indicate that the play is a musical. Just a couple of months away from the opening, Stein said to Prince, “You just choose anything. I don’t even care anymore.”  Prince looked again at the list and chose “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Stein responded:  “But what does that even mean!??”  But the decision had been made.

The title “Fidder on the Roof” had nothing to do with the Sholom Aleichem stories about Tevye the Dairyman; rather, it had to do with the artwork of Marc Chagall, another major influence on the musical; there are two Chagall paintings that show fiddlers on rooftops, and one of them shows a huge fiddler straddling two different roofs, one foot on each roof.  (By the way, there is no particular Jewish tradition for people to play violins on the roof.  Some believe that Chagall’s inspiration for painting fiddlers on the roof was that he had an eccentric uncle who played the violin on the roof.)

The title was chosen out of frustration with everything else on the list.  But in retrospect, no one can doubt that it was clearly an inspired choice that was key to the musical’s success.  The title evokes joy and music, and also precariousness, balancing Tevye’s desire to stay faithful to the traditions of his ancestors and to appreciate his daughters’ new and different ideas of what the world could be.  Tevye tries to take some tentative steps to live with one foot in the world of traditional Judaism  and one foot in modernity, like Chagall's violinist with one foot on one roof and one foot on another.

Fiddler on the Roof is not history.  It romanticizes shtetl life that was so often impoverished, obscurantist, and bleak.  It was created by and large by secular Jews who admired Jewish tradition enough to be nostalgic about it, but not enough to actually want to do Jewish things in their own lives.  As a result, the tremendous popularity of Fiddler on the Roof led many to understand Jewish tradition as something that you would only undertake out of a sense of Eastern European nostalgia and not because any of these traditions are actually meaningful. (Many of us may have had the frustrating opportunity to meet people who think they really understand Judaism because they saw Fiddler on the Roof, and let’s just say that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing!)

But there is one thing that Fiddler on the Roof absolutely got right:  that being Jewish is, and has always been, about keeping your balance.  
We see the value of balance in every aspect of Jewish thought and in just about every traditional Jewish text.  Each and every Jewish berakhah, every blessing we say, begins with the words baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam.  In one breath, we refer to God as ‘Eloheinu,’ ‘our God,’ and then we immediately say ‘Melech Ha-olam’ - ‘ruler of the universe,’ balancing our belief in God as both the God of everyone and the God who cultivates a special relationship with us.  And the four-letter name of God,  yod-hey-vav-hey, shows up repeatedly in our prayerbook and yet is unpronounceable, signifying that we balance between believing that God is both knowable and unknowable.  And in the realm of recommended behavior and temperament, the great sage Moses Maimonides consistently counseled that we adopt the shvil ha-zahav, the golden mean, the balance between various traits.  Should we be proud, or should we be self-effacing?  - Maimonides says, we should strive to balance these tendencies, and be humble but in a healthy way.  Should we be sad, or frivolous and joking all the time? - Maimonides says: we should strive to balance these tendencies, and be generally happy.  These are just a few examples; to be Jewish is to be balancing all the time.

And all the more so in the modern era.  The balances in Fiddler on the Roof are about what is usually summarized as “tradition and change,” how to stay faithful to a traditional way of life while being part of a rapidly changing modern world. There is no doubt that this has been a primary challenge for 20th and now 21st century Jews, which may indicate some of Fiddler on the Roof’s staying power.

As last year’s Pew Study of the Jewish community demonstrates, with each passing generation there are more and more people who identify their ethnicity as ‘Jewish’ but when they are asked what religion they are, they don’t say ‘Jewish’;  rather, they say ‘none.’  The Pew study says that 22% of American Jews now define themselves as ‘Jews of no religion,’ and for young Jews that percentage goes up to 32%.  In other words, they are proud to maintain some degree of Jewish ethnic connection and affiliation or labeling, but they don’t see their Judaism being expressed in religious terms at all.  For people interested in the endurance of the American Jewish community, this statistic is challenging.

I am in very regular contact with many people from this kind of group, who are not interested in doing the balancing act.  Sometimes, more committed Jews lash out in anger against this group, which I think is unfair. Truth be told, it’s hard to sustain a minority identity in a free society. And in many cases these are people who were never exposed to a Judaism that was vibrant and joyful, that encouraged people to engage thoughtfully with the world using relevant teachings from an ancient wisdom tradition.  It’s my sense that guilt alone doesn’t motivate anyone to be Jewish in a serious way.  The only way that the next generation is going to make Jewish choices is if they are presented with a Judaism that makes them feel truly welcome, binds them to community, that makes their lives more meaningful and joyful, that addresses their big life questions and that enhances their lives.  (In fact, the single most important goal of this and any other synagogue today is to help people to connect with such an understanding of Judaism.)  And similarly, the biggest question for parents today, if they are interested in transmitting Jewish identity,  is:  how can I give my child Jewish experiences that are both positive and significant enough that my child will regard this as an indispensable part of his or her identity?

There is another growing segment of Jews in the US and around the world who are also not interested in balancing tradition and modernity, because they define themselves as the only version of authentic Judaism.  These are communities where Jewish tradition is understood as being generally unchanging, and fixed, essentially the same today as it was thousands of years ago and as it will be thousands of years from now.   No matter how the world’s perspectives have changed, with regard to gender, or democracy, or science, or the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish world, they will hold that any idea that in their opinion did not originate in Judaism cannot ultimately be true.  And this segment of the American Jewish community is also growing very fast - mostly because of the high birthrate among Haredi Jews. I am in regular contact with Jews from this category. I live a lifestyle with regard to kosher food, shabbat and holiday observance, and Jewish study that bears a lot of resemblance with many Jews of this category.  They also, as a group, get a lot of anger directed their way, and they are sometimes even demonized, which is terribly unfortunate.  They are most often kind and thoughtful and generous, as human beings tend to be, even though I may disagree vehemently with them on a host of issues.  But though I can share some parts of the Jewish journey with them, and I can even learn some torah from them and with them, I cannot fully consider them my fellow travellers, because they are not balancers.

My fellow travelers are the balancers.  My fellow travelers include, for example, the ancient Rabbi Ishmael, who wrote that the torah reads like a human document, using metaphors and figures of speech, and this means that taking the torah seriously will sometimes mean NOT taking the torah literally.

My fellow travelers include the medieval Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who wrote that the Torah could not possibly be in conflict with science, and that if it ever appears that the torah is directly contradicting something that we know to be true from the opinion of the finest scientists of the day, then we need to revise our understanding of that section in the Torah.

My fellow travelers include Zacharias Frankel, who as a Reform-leaning Rabbi in Germany in 1845 respectfully walked out of a conference of Reform rabbis when it became clear that while he agreed with them on some matters, he disagreed with them about the Hebrew language and its role in the Jewish future.  The majority of the Reformers had said:  No one speaks or understands Hebrew anymore; there is no reason why sermons, prayers and biblical readings cannot all take place in German rather than in Hebrew.  But Frankel responded:  We must prioritize the Hebrew language!  Without Hebrew, our communities will be cut off from each other horizontally - because Jews in France and Germany and England and the United States will have so little in common and will not be able to worship together - and we will be cut off vertically from our tradition - because we will not be able to access the Bible in the original, and other Jewish traditional texts in the original!  Frankel would go on to become one of the founders of the Positive-Historical school and founding ideologues of Conservative Judaism.

My fellow travelers include scholars like Solomon Schechter and Louis Ginzburg and Louis Finkelstein, who taught that it’s a fallacy to think that ideas like justice for all, and ethics, should be considered to have an origin outside of Judaism, and who demonstrated through their scholarship that Judaism has always changed from one generation to the next.   They recognized that it is also a fallacy to say that we are balancing “tradition” and “change,” because constant change, and receptivity to cultural influences from outside of Judaism, has always been part of Jewish tradition.

My fellow travelers include Abraham Joshua Heschel, who lived a scrupulously traditional Jewish life and saw being a civil rights activist as part of what it means to live a scrupulously traditional Jewish life, because he took very seriously the Jewish teachings about all people being created in God’s image, just as seriously as he took Jewish teachings about Shabbat and observance of the Jewish holidays.

My fellow travelers, not surprisingly, are disproportionately connected to Conservative Judaism, which is the segment of American Judaism that has for so long been identified with this particular balancing act.  To use Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s formulation, Conservative Judaism is characterized by “substantial engagement with Judaism as it has long been taught and practiced, along with equally full engagement with the society and culture of which Jews are now a full part.”

I have been fortunate, however, to find teachers from across all the Jewish movements who are also my fellow travelers. My fellow travelers also include contemporary Orthodox rabbis who are expanding roles for women in Jewish worship within what they understand to be an Orthodox framework, even to the point of ordaining women to roles of rabbinic leadership within Orthodoxy. My fellow travelers also include contemporary Reform rabbis who embrace Jewish tradition deeply, whose new prayerbooks demonstrate a renewed and ever stronger priority on the Hebrew language and traditional liturgy.

My fellow travelers include Orthodox Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, who has said that the real distinction in American Judaism is not between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, but it is between the serious Jews and the non-serious Jews.  The serious Jews can be in any denomination or no denomination.  What sets them apart is that they are committed to making the full range of Jewish teachings an active part of their lives, and to have Jewish choices affect their decision-making on significant issues in their lives, in a way that the non-serious Jews are not.

My fellow travelers include those who recognize that Jewish life is enhanced by diverse expressions of Judaism.

What do all these fellow travelers have in common? In all cases, their positions are thoughtful rather than based on knee-jerk reactions.  They take criticism from all sides; the left thinks they are too traditional, while the right thinks they are too liberal.  

It’s well known that it’s hard to be a passionate centrist.  It is much easier to be passionate on the ideological extremes. The people on the extremes are the ones whose perspectives are more consistent, who don’t have to worry about the balance.  But Judaism has always been about balance.  The varieties of Judaism that have had profound positive effects on our world have those varieties of Judaism that embrace the principle of balance -- to which we recommit ourselves during the coming year.


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