Returning to Jewish Texts

By Epstein, Marc M | Tikkun, March/April 1997 | Go to article overview

Returning to Jewish Texts


Epstein, Marc M, Tikkun


Returning to Jewish Texts

Marc M. Epstein is professor of religion and director of the Jewish Studies program at Vassar College. He is the author of the recently published Jeusalem Haggadah.

From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven, by Ari Elon, JPS, 1996.

Until recently the names Elul, Milah, and Almah were virtually unknown in America. The proliferation of institutions in Israel devoted to the study of traditional texts in a new non-sectarian, extra-academic, post-rabbinic context was hardly deemed worthy of comment in the media. But in the wake of the Rabin assassination, with the quest for a new sense of purpose and direction for the whole of Israeli culture, these bisyllabic acronyms have become increasingly familiar to more and more people both in Israel and abroad. What is happening in upscale neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is nothing less than a quiet revolution: a broad spectrum of individuals of the political left who exhibit an extraordinary religious and spiritual diversity--identifying as halakhic and post-halakhic, orthodox, traditional and secular-- are getting together to `learn,' (rather than to `study' or to `research') the classic texts of the rabbinic tradition. Previously established arenas for the study of the political implications of religious texts, such as the Hartman Institute, are expanding, and institutions such as Pardes and Yakar, which seek authentic, open-minded (though not necessarily always liberal) and inclusive socio-political direction within the four amot of Halakha are attracting larger and larger numbers of people. The salient question of this revolution, like any revolution is, of course, "Whose culture is this, what will we take from the tradition and how will we use it?"

Every revolution needs a manifesto, and some are predicated on declarations of independence. In From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven, the recently released English translation of Ari Elon's epically challenging work, Alma Dee, this nascent movement `back to the sources' finds both its manifesto and declaration of independence. Elon is the scion of a prominent Israeli family which has produced scholars and politicians representing the entire continuum of Israeli political opinion, and now Director of the Rabbinic Texts program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His work, stunningly produced by the Jewish Publication Society, is rendered in a pellucid translation by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, through which we can clearly see Elon's clever and incisive mind at work and at play. The book itself combines elements of memoir, diary, religio-political manifesto and literary critique in a quirkily poetic, often dreamlike stream-of-consciousness anti-narrative.

Early on in this profoundly difficult and often disturbing work, Elon tells what can only be described as a postmodern horror story. He describes entering a senior class at a well-known secular high school in Jerusalem in order to teach, well, `Judaism.' The students insist that he cannot be their Judaism teacher because such a teacher would necessarily wear a kippah and a beard and tzizit; he counters by asserting that he does not know what `Judaism' is, and then asks the boys if they wear kippot in math class. No--they do not wear kippot in math class. As for Judaism, it consists of "the subjects of the datti'im [the `religious']... subjects that the datti'im teach." And as for themselves:"...We're Jews a little--they [the datti'im] are much more Jews than we."

The story is frightening on a number of levels. For one, it shows that `secular' education in Israel has not succeeded any better than American after-school Hebrew schools at inculcating a sense of Jewish identity in Israeli students. But much worse than that, it shows that Israelis-- the very people held up in afternoon Hebrew schools as alternate paradigms for what it means to be a Jew--have fallen into the very same trap of defaulting on the tradition as have the majority of American Jews. …

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