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The Myth of Jewish History

Miriam ShavivFilmed at JDOV Live with the JC and JW3

Several years ago, Miriam Shaviv helped found a Partnership Minyan, an Orthodox service where women take on more roles, such as reading from the Torah. One of the objections that they have consistently faced is that their practice is not “authentic”, disrupts 2,000 years of unbroken tradition and is a dangerous change to the status quo. Is there, however, such a thing as “authentic” Jewish tradition? In this talk, Miriam shows that this is a myth which stems from our lack of familiarity with the history of Judaism (as opposed to the history of the Jews, which is widely studied). Although we are a people who claim to revere history, we seem to prefer myths. She examines why this is the case, and argues that Orthodoxy must become much more familiar with and honest about its past, if it wants to secure its future.

Miriam Shaviv is a Jewish Chronicle columnist. She was previously the paper’s foreign editor and opinion editor, and has also held senior editorial positions at Times Higher Education Magazine and The Jerusalem Post, where she was literary editor and Knesset correspondent. She is currently co-director of Brainstorm Digital, an online marketing agency. In her spare time, she volunteers as gabbait (warden) of the Borehamwood Partnership Minyan.

[Barchu et Hashem Hamevorach….] I was 37 years old when I first uttered those words in front of a congregation. 37 years old when I was first called up to the Torah in shul, and recited those blessings. As I watched the Torah being read, between aliyot, it seemed incredible that I had never been that close to an open Torah scroll – the beating heart of our religion. I suddenly felt an intimacy with the Torah which was completely new to me. And a powerful connection to the Jewish people – both past and present.

Now imagine the same scene playing out for any Jewish male having the same first opportunity, at the same age, in a standard Orthodox synagogue. It would have been hailed as a moment of celebration and joy.

But while there were certainly many people cheering me on, not everyone was celebrating the scene that I described. For we were a group of women and men, here in the UK, who had founded a Partnership Minyan – a service in which women take on the maximum ritual roles according to Orthodox halachah.

The objections from within the Orthodox community have varied. But one complaint persists, above all, even from some people who say that they have no halachic objection to what we do. Women reading from the Torah is “new” and “unprecedented.” We’re told that it is a “break with a tradition of 2,000 years.” It is not “authentic”. It is a change to the ‘status quo’.

At the root of all these protests is a strange idea about how Jewish tradition has evolved. It posits that ‘real’ Judaism and Jewish law is timeless and unchanging. That there’s a central body of practice that has always been constant. That in fact it doesn’t evolve at all.

But this doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny. It’s a myth.

And it’s a toxic one, because it is used to resist and to de-legitimise changes which have proved essential for Orthodox Judaism to survive modernity.

An obvious one is the Chassidic movement – today it’s seen as very conservative, but it was bitterly opposed at its inception as an innovative change. Others include sermons in the vernacular, nowadays taken for granted in every synagogue; giving women a Jewish education; and even the religious Zionist movement.

The problem is that we are all familiar with the history of the Jews. Yet very few of us study the history of Judaism. If we did, this historical revisionism would be more difficult. Real Jewish history includes the story of how our traditions and practices have evolved over time. It is an inspiration to change, not a barrier to change.

The Progressive movements have known this for 200 years. It’s partially in reaction to this that some of Orthodoxy prefers an idealised past to an honest one. This tendency has been noted time and again. Its manifestations are many – from straightforward rewriting of history, to doctoring old photos, so that the people in these photos adhere to contemporary Orthodox dress codes, to hagiographical and idealized ‘biographies’ of great rabbis. But it’s time to stop being afraid of historical truths. If the Orthodox community wants to flourish in the 21st, it too needs to study, understand and internalise the history of Judaism. And make room for history alongside mythology.

The truth is that Judaism has never stood still. There’s an old joke (not terribly funny) that if Moses somehow found himself in a 21st Century synagogue, he wouldn’t recognise the religion that today’s Jews practice. 
But the same is true of the Baal Shem Tov, he wouldn’t know where he was at one of today’s grandiose Hasidic weddings! And I daresay that if we somehow found ourselves in the Second Temple, with its high priest and its animal sacrifices, we wouldn’t recognise that Judaism, either.

But we really don’t have to go as far back as that. Many customs that we believe are ancient are no more than a few centuries old – if that.

There are hundreds of examples, from the entire festival of Tu Bishvat (basically unknown until the 16th Century), and the final version of the Haggadah, to something as silly as crunchy matzahs, which were always soft before they were machine-baked.

Yet other customs which were once part of the fabric of Jewish life are now long forgotten. Maybe we should bring back Shabbat Yetziat Hayoledet. That’s the medieval ceremony where women who had given birth and just completed their four-week laying in period, were walked to synagogue by their female friends. Maybe we should bring back polygamy….!

My favourite example is Simchat Torah. For a full history, you can consult Avraham Yaari’s classic book, The Origins of the Festival of Simchat Torah. It’s 600 pages long, which might give you an indication of just how many twists and turns it’s been through.

Suffice to say, it’s a Babylonian diaspora festival which was only adopted by the Jews of Israel 1,000 years ago. Until then, they only completed the reading of the Torah about once every 3 years.

The rest of the traditions which we consider essential today – for example including reading from the book of Genesis, taking out all the Torah scrolls – evolved over an entire millennium. In many areas it was a festival associated with bonfires, firecrackers and incense in shul.

Today’s highlight, hakafot – circling around the Bimah with Torah scrolls – originated only at the end of the 16th Century, in Tzfat, and took hundreds of years to spread. Indeed, as late as the very end of the 19th Century – so maybe just 130-140 years ago – the religious authorities in Frankfurt banned Hakafot because they were…. You guessed it… new, unfamiliar and innovative.

Given this context, it seems ridiculous that women’s hakafot are today resisted largely because they are new, unprecedented and inauthentic. Anyone with even basic familiarity with this festival knows that the only authentic thing about it is the constant change in the way that it’s celebrated.

And yet, none of this is ever studied – or even acknowledged. In our collective mind, Jewish people have been planting trees on Tu Bishvat since time immemorial, the Haggadah appeared ex nihilo, and Simchat Torah has always followed the format with which we are familiar. We prefer the mythology to the history.

Now I have no problem with that; it is both natural and common. Every society has its cherished myths and traditions. These play a vital role in shaping national identity, giving us a sense of purpose and a connection to the past. And Orthodox Jews are not the only ones to claim (or believe) that some of their myths and traditions are far more ancient than they really are.

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his essay, Inventing Traditions, gives a whole list of them, including the pageantry surrounding the British monarchy, which he claims much of which dates back just 100 or 200 years. To this we may add Father Christmas, the decorated Christmas tree, and even the Scottish kilt. Hugh Trevor-Roper famously shows that this was a modern, 18th Century invention, deliberately promoted as ‘traditional’ to help shape the Highland identity.

Whether these traditions are deliberately invented, or adapted and modified from genuinely old practices, their role is to “attempt to establish continuity with a suitably historic past,” he says. “There is probably no time and place… which has not seen the invention of tradition. However, we should expect it to occur more frequently when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which the ‘old’ traditions… are eliminated.” “Such changes have been particularly significant in the past 200 years,” Hobsbawm concludes.

This is self-evidently true for the Jewish people. Not only have we had the disruption of modernity – which is truly an existential challenge for a traditional community like ours – we’ve had the Holocaust, too. At a stroke, the Shoah disrupted and erased centuries of living tradition. It’s no wonder that our instinct is to “establish continuity with our historic past,” to strengthen our collective identity with strong mythology, and to derive security and comfort by rejecting change.

And yet, and yet, this cannot be the full picture. Certainly not for a people which claims to revere history, and which has ‘zachor’ – remember – as one of its central tenets. The pretense that our traditions are unchanged and unchanging is not only intellectually dishonest, it denies our tradition’s key strength. It holds us back and harms us – rather than builds and preserves us.

You see, when I look back, for example, on Simchat Torah’s various iterations throughout the centuries…. The tradition in Worms to dance around bonfires, the minhag in Lithuania, where women came into the synagogue to kiss the Torah scrolls, the hundreds of years where no one took out the Torah scrolls at all, and no one read from Genesis – indeed the hundreds of years when no one outside of Babylon celebrated Simchat Torah – I can only conclude that Judaism’s ability to adapt to its local surroundings and to every time period is not only truly beautiful, but one of the reasons it’s still with us today.

And indeed, how could it be otherwise? Change is a natural and healthy process. I change. You change. Cultures and societies change. If they didn’t, they would stultify. No one wants to be friends with a 40 year old who hasn’t changed since their teens. And I don’t think, deep down, that any of us really wants to go back to the Judaism of year 1,000 – without Simchat Torah, without Tu Bishvat, without a full Haggadah… and with polygamy.

A contemporary Orthodoxy that denies change is even a possibility, and fights it tooth and nail, is harming itself. The modern world throws up enormous challenges for our tradition. We need to find the flexibility within the halachic system to deal with these challenges. Everything changes, and we will too – whether we want to or not. That’s the way of the world, and that is the authentic Jewish way, too. We haven’t yet reached the end of Jewish history.

So where does that leave us? I would like to see an Orthodoxy which takes a more honest view of its past, because it will smooth its way to the future.

We need to expand our definition of ‘Jewish history’ to include the history of Judaism, not just of Jews – and to include in this the evolution of halachah. We need to make sure that this is part and parcel of every Jewish Studies curriculum and part of every Jew’s basic Jewish education, even in adulthood.

Now I recognise that taking a more candid historical view is a difficult ask for many people in the Orthodox world. This idea that we don’t change has become dogma for many. It’s even become a cornerstone of Orthodox identity for entire segments of my community, partially because it differentiates Orthodoxy from the Progressive movements. But we need to accept that the real differentiator isn’t whether change is allowed, it’s what kind of change we accept. It’s about the parameters of change.

And yet at the same time, I don’t think that we can take a completely factual, historical dry view. We cannot simply dismiss the myths which unite us, which help forge a clear national identity and which give us, and have given us, so much comfort. We need both history and mythology.

How can they coexist? Here I am reminded of a Chassidic story related by Martin Buber in Tales of the Chassidim. When Rabbi Noah became the Rebbe following his father’s death, his Chassidim noticed that he did some things differently to his father, and began to introduce changes to the way that the group functioned. They decided to confront him.

He replied to them: “I do just as my father did. He did not imitate, and I do not imitate.” Or, as he replied in another version of the story: “He changed some of the customs of his father. I follow in my father’s tradition of change.”

Here we have a model for how to come to terms with the process of change. Change becomes acceptable when it is endowed with the authority of tradition. History is no longer threatening when change becomes one of those cherished myths.

Nowadays, when I stand in front of our thriving Partnership Minyan, and leyn myself, as I have learned to do, I know that I am following in the footsteps of very few women who have come before me. But I know that, in a broader sense, I am following an authentic, unbroken tradition of at least 2,000 years. They did not imitate, and I do not imitate. And while it sounds paradoxical, that has to be the future for a healthy halachic process and for a thriving Orthodox Judaism.

Thank you.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

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