The Infinite Depth of Judaism (in Israel)

Make sure you also check out my Instagram feed from the past couple weeks and the Israel 2019 story highlighted on my profile. Thank you to my hevruta partner Michael for the picture of me studying a text.

As my final blog post of my 2019 Israel trip, I’d like to philosophize about two points, both related to this trip and related to my Jewish experience beyond this trip. First, that Jewish knowledge is seemingly infinite makes an inability to truly master it a “feature, not a bug.” Secondly, and necessarily following from the first point but more visible in Israel, there are infinite shades of religiousness, which sounds obvious but is often not.Much of the past couple years has been spent stressing that I will not master all there is to know in my short few years of school. Do I need to take more time in school? Am I just hopelessly incompetent? These thoughts play on my anxiety. Learning at Pardes, though, where to goal was not to master anything for an exam, I still felt this way. Even more, I found my fellow students and even teachers had gaps in what they knew. Sometimes they knew things I didn’t know, but there were still things they didn’t know. I learned the Talmud is the longest ancient text by far, and that not even Rashi mastered it well enough to be the actual author of all the material we think of as “Rashi” in Talmud commentary. The great sages were always debating and, in the reports of those debates, coming from places of imperfect knowledge and acting in error.

I‘m starting to think that this that this is the whole idea. Jewish life and learning is supposed to humble you. It’s not supposed to be something you can master. Mastering a certain subset well enough that I can serve a congregation professionally, well, I may be getting there. But feeling like I have unquestionably mastered everything I might need? Not going to happen, not because of some problem with me particular, but because I am just one person, imperfect compared to the aggregate of our tradition’s wisdom, which is still imperfect compared to all the wisdom that could be known.

Someone pointed out it’s like a driver’s license. You get a license when you know enough to drive on your own. You keep becoming a better driver for years and need to keep practicing it for a lifetime.

An idea that might not seem related is the range of observance that exists in Judaism. There is religious vs. secular; certainly that’s how things are often framed in Israel. It’s easy to feel that one is secular compared to the religious people who observe “all” the mitzvot; that the men with black hats and payot are a different category from me entirely. Except, it’s not like that: Jewish life and learning has no end for everyone.

One way to explain this could be to point out that, when you’re among Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, it’s obvious that even Orthodoxy has so many divisions and Orthodox people are people who have all the regular range of people and personalities you find in any population. You could look closely and notice that there are different types of hats and jackets and facial hair, different standards of modesty for women, different ways of studying and praying.

The other way to explain this is: there’s all type of people going to Burgers Bar in the Old City and having a hamburger. Or some have schnitzel. It’s not like the Orthodox Jews in the Old City only have a pure spiritual experience and that every action they take is some Orthodox practice that secular people don’t do. People are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Meanwhile, secular people, in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv, are excited to be out at night in the city and having a hamburger with their friends or family. Maybe one hamburger is kosher and the other is a cheeseburger. Still, it’s easy to pay attention to the differences between people, but of course people have much more in common than different. And if you think about it, this even is true about practicing Judaism, especially among Jews in Israel. Secular cultural Jews still end up doing mitzvot and religious Jews aren’t perfect. Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment, but it’s not like you can ask someone if they keep this mitzvah and know if they’re “religious” or not.

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