The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview
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The Unbroken Myth

How are we to interpret the situation of modern Jews? I have suggested that archaic Judaism constituted a rich, mythic structure, realized in important elements in every sort of experience. The issue of modern Judaism is not do Jews still believe in the old myths ? It is, rather, how have the old myths been transformed? Which of them have vanished, that is, ceased to shape the consciousness, the view of reality, of ordinary Jews? And which ones persist into modern times and continue to shape the Jewish interpretation of ordinary events ?

What we referred to as "the Jewish tradition" has become, in the felicitous phrase of Professor Ben Halpern "the Jewish consensus." Halpern says:

If certain laws, rituals, linguistic and literary traditions, together with the myth of Exile and Redemption, were the universal values that bound Jews together, then with their loss the Jewish people should have disintegrated. But these values were lost and the Jews did not fall apart. In the nineteenth century, values which had been universal among traditional Jewry still continued to be shared—but only by part of the Jews. There were some who no longer shared them, yet these dissenters continued to be regarded as Jews by the remainder who preserved the old values.... Apparently there must have been a different "consensus" binding them together—that is, a set of values that were universally shared among all the Jews.1

What were these values ? Halpern denies that it is necessary to define them, for, he points out, "What was the most striking thing ... about the cohesion and the survival ... of traditional Jewry ? It was the fact that they were united and survived without many of the shared values that are generally believed to hold a normal people together and constitute essential parts of the consensus of comparable groups." Judaism had few dogmas, and the Jewish law and courts were backed by little power or hierarchial authority.

What constituted this inchoate consensus ? Halpern sees it in a "community of fate," rather than of "faith." He writes, "Only because they are constantly involved in the consequences of each other's acts need each care what the other wants." It was a consensus, too, of shared sensitivity. The Jews remained what they had been in earlier times, a singular people, not quite like any other; and "Judaism," instead of positing a Providence receptive to the prayers and responsive to the deeds of Jewry, became instead the repository of those experiences Jews could share in common, however much they differed.


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