Half-Truths of Judaism | Letters | Chicago Reader

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Half-Truths of Judaism

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To the editors:

For the small amount of readers who happen to be contemplating the role and importance of Judaism in modern society, Florence Hamlish Levinsohn's article, "The Importance of Being Jewish" [August 7], will undoubtedly confuse them. Unfortunately, Ms. Levinsohn's personal study is riddled with historical inaccuracies and implied half-truths.

Contrary to Ms. Levinsohn's conviction that, "By the time of the destruction of the Temple there were as many as 25 different Jewish sects, each with its own observances based loosely on the laws of the Torah," is historical fact. The various "sects" she refers to were different from one another in regard to their geographical location only, not "in observances that were loosely based on the Torah." The distinctions between these "sects" became apparent many decades after the destruction of the Temple (the second one by the way) and the exiling of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). One significant distinction was between a small group of Jews known as the Karaites who took the Torah at face value, and the rest of the world's Jewish population who believed in the idea of rabbinic interpretation and criticism of the Torah. Later on, Judaism spawned two categories of Jews, those that practiced their Judaism and those that didn't. The latter group called themselves "Humanists" or "Hellenists," anything but Jewish. In short they were running from their Jewish identity into the perceived arms of a "world identity" in order to escape pogroms and persecution by the fast growing Christian world.

Rabbinic law (the Talmud) is infinitely more profound and complex than Ms. Levinsohn's sleight-of-hand dismissal of it. The Talmud is not a body of "rigid proscriptions designed to be pretty limiting." In fact it sets a historical precedent by being one of the oldest traditions of criticism, interpretation, and appropriation. Orthodox Jews don't "reject anything beyond the laws' scope, including Zionism," because there is nothing conceivable that can be beyond its scope. It is a constant source of argument and therefore a growth oriented body of work. Every Jew who practices his Judaism (whether nationally or religiously) is a "Zionist." Jews pray for their return to Eretz Yisrael, the promised land, and they've been doing this for 2,000 years, not "a couple hundred."

To be sure there are many different kinds of Zionists but what Zionist is not also a Jew? Judaism is unique in the world due to the fact that it is the only religion that also happens to be a nation (something Ms. Levinsohn fails to even mention). All Jews, whether they be of Sephardic origin (Oriental, Spanish), Ashkenazic origin (European), or African origin (Falashins from Ethiopia) ultimately trace their roots back to the 12 tribes of Israel. Each tribe was led by one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Jacob was of course the son of Isaac who was the son of Abraham, the "founder" of Judaism. This historical linkage is of the utmost importance to understand the concept of Jewish identity and it was astonishing that Ms. Levinsohn didn't even write a word about it.

Finally, it is incumbent upon me to write about the often misunderstood "Chosen People" concept. No Jewish person of sound mind has ever thought he or she was any better than the rest of the world. The separation between the Jew and the rest of the world is not self-aggrandizing. Jews view the word "chosen" in terms of existential responsibility, like Nietzsche. Jews are expected to be responsible for 613 mitzvot (deeds). These mitzvot set Jews apart from the rest of the world who recognize only the Ten Commandments. Jews are to be like a "light unto the nations." Ms. Levinsohn identifies herself with the "Jewish faith" (sic) but then goes on to say that she doesn't act on this identification. She implies her Judaism is in name only. It would behoove Ms. Levinsohn to be more thorough and objective in her investigative reporting before embarking on complex subjects.

Rross Alan Feller

Chicago

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