Episode: TWENTY-SEVEN (December 2016)
Shalom Rabbi Cutler!
It is a zekhut (a privilege) to correspond with you. And speaking of zekhuiot (privileges or merits), with H̱anukkah, a holiday which foregrounds the challenges of cultural and religious assimilation, soon approaching, I have been thinking about that oft-quoted midrash that the children of Israel were
saved from Egypt on account of the three things: that they did not change their names, neither did they change their language, nor did they change their manner of dress.
Already in my early years of Jewish day school education, this midrash about the famed trifecta which saved the Jews always seemed to hover in the background as an exemplar of how we ought to conduct ourselves as Jews, especially as modern Jews living amidst a secular world. Even as a child, there
seemed to be an urgency to this teaching, which informed my own nascent sense of Jewish peoplehood and identity.
There was something intriguingly cyclical about the teaching—on one level, one could read it as a statement of Divine Providence (viz. that G-d interceded on behalf of the people on account of their righteous behaviour), but I found it far more interesting to think how the people’s action, in and of itself, yielded the everlasting fruit of their survival as both a people and a religious community. In other words, the Jews survived because of their unyielding ideological and cultural commitments. This idea mesmerized me from an early age, and many years ago, I sought to trace back the original source for this much-touted, but generally unattributed, teaching.
My investigations revealed that the likely original source for this teaching extends as far back as the Tannaitic period, in which the children of Israel’s redemption was attributed to four behaviors:
1) that they did not change their names,
2) that they did not change their language,
3) that they did not engage in slander (lashon hara), and
4) that they did not partake in sexual impropriety (see, for example Vayikra
Rabbah Parashar Emor Parasha 32:5 and Shir haShirim Rabbah, parasha 4 1/11.
Variations of these four foundations of Jewish identity preservation include a replacement of not speaking slanderously with the more elusive description of the children of Israel “not revealing their secret” (see, for example, Shemot Rabbah, Parashat Shemot, Parasha 1 1:28).
The “famous three” oft-cited criteria for Jewish identity preservation (viz.,names, language, and manner of dress—the last being a seemingly new category) to which I alluded at the start of my email, did not appear to be concretized as such until much later, starting with Eliyahu Bachur in the 16th century in
the introduction to his Sefer Meturgeman. It should also be noted that in the 15th century, Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel, in his commentary on the passage from the Passover Haggadah, “",ויהיושםלגוי: מלמדשהיוישראלמצויניםשם (“And they became a nation there: to teach that Israel was distinguished there”)
writes of a similar four—the preservation of their names, their language, their dress, and their religion, which made them stand out or “distinguished” from their Egyptian neighbours.
While Shlomo Buber (in his notes to Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, Parsha Veyehi Beshalach, fn. #66) notes that Eliyahu Bachur’s three item list has no clear source in the midrash, certain later Rabbinic commentators believe that Bachur’s inclusion of the “dress” category is based on a midrash in Badmidbar Rabbah (13:20), which lists “Gedurim Min ha-ervah” (carefulness about not exposing themselves, in a sexual sense) as the source of Bachur’s inclusion of their manner of dress in his list of behaviours that helped maintain the exiled Israelite’s identity in Egypt.
These days, more than the accuracy of the original teaching (or teachings, as the case may be), I am most interested in the ways these three categories might reflect the cultural circumstances and the resultant religious priorities of their rabbinic authors and their peers. I would even go as far as to say that
it is incumbent upon us, as modern rabbis, to re-visit this iconic teaching and infuse it with our own religious and cultural sensibilities as Jewish leaders living today in Canada. Reflecting on the legacy and struggles embedded in the Hanukkah story, while also processing the many exciting opportunities and
challenges that we, as modern North American Jews face today, I’m wondering what you would identify as the “three things” on account of which our people will be saved.
I am eager to hear your thoughts.
Rabbi Raysh Weiss, Ph.D.
Congregation Shaar Shalom
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Dear R' Raysh,
Names, language and dress aren't exactly trivial, but they also don't lie at what is essential to being Jewish. Clearly, there are many Jews today—including some highly committed Jews—whose names are undifferentiable from those of the local population, who (only) speak the local language (though may
have some facility with Hebrew or another Jewish language) and who dress like everybody else. As a marker for Jewish continuity today, these incorrectly don't give us much hope.
I am a fan of Ahad Haam's maxim that "more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept that Jews". While recognizing that there is no universal Shabbat observance, this teaching signifies the importance of Jewish ritual marked in time. For me, a vibrant Jewish future is assured through the creation and maintenance of meaningful and relevant ritual, learning, and prayer.
As a newly minted rabbi serving in a small(ish) Jewish community, what areas of focus do you believe are crucial to ensure a bright Jewish future?
Rabbi Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation
Dear Rabbi Cutler,
I also love the Ahad Haam maxim about the centrality of the Sabbath to the continued existence of the Jewish people. Having a defined calendar and Jewish “rhythm” creates the possibility for marking sacred space together and sustaining meaningful practice that will translate across different host cultures and withstand the test of time.
In terms of specific areas of focus to ensure a meaningful Jewish future, I’d like to “update” or creatively re-imagine the three “musts” to Jewish identity outlined by Bachur and re-cast them within a modern context:
1) “they didn’t change their names”:
I believe that our Jewish sacred texts and the intellectually and spiritually daring dialogues that emerge from them, which traverse the centuries and many countries our people has inhabited, lie at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. In this sense, I understand our deeply textual tradition and commitment to learning and specifically to questioning, to be our “names,”or how we identify ourselves both intellectually and spiritually. We realize our Jewish identities and selves via the questions we ask. This
process of questioning is, indeed, the textual legacy bequeathed to us by our rabbinic forbears. In this spirit, I would advocate for continued and increased commitment to Jewish literacy as a central focus.
2) “they didn’t change their language”:
While the original meaning of this element was likely intended in a literal vein as well (celebrating Hebrew, an indisputably beautiful and singularly sacred tongue, as the language of the Jews), I’d like to extend the understanding of this concept to include a call to translate our people’s ethical values into
communicable, beautiful idioms which become powerfully meaningful whenrealized in practice. I understand this charge, especially in our highly globalized, modern context, as a call to extend our social responsibility as Jews to call attention to that which is broken in our world and to dedicate ourselves to working to repair it. In order to remain relevant, authentic, and to survive, we must commit ourselves to the diction of social awareness and to the syntax of applied action.
3)” they didn’t change their manner of dress”:
While, as you correctly point out, Jews tend to adopt the sartorial sensibilities of those around them, I think this element speaks to the larger importance of the visibility of Jewish lived culture. This concept is perhaps the most elusive and seemingly least urgent of the three, but for so many Jews, the cultural piece represents a viscerally sacred part of their Jewish identity and that which distinguishes them within the broader society. Whether through traditional food, an ironic Jewish humour, literature, movies, song
or even dress, Jewish culture is undeniably one of our people’s richest and most ubiquitous inheritances, and has, indisputably, contributed very significantly to our people’s remarkable continuity.
Returning back to the three important pieces you identified as essential ingredients for a dynamic, thriving Jewish future: meaningful ritual, learning, and prayer. As a relatively recent émigré to Canada, I’d be eager to hear about examples of each of these categories realized in your community (or in
Toronto at large), including interesting initiatives, resources, institutions, and programs, and what steps you would recommend to help strengthen each of these areas, on both a local and global level.
Rabbi Raysh Weiss, Ph.D.
Congregation Shaar Shalom
Dear R' Raysh,
Except in the cases of learners who are committed totally lishma (for its own sake) to many hours of study over an extended period of time, when we choose texts for study, we must meet the desire of our community for the material to connect to their lives as parents, children, managers, employees, citizens of a foreign land, people who struggle, etc. This need not mean that the lecture or class be without depth or substance. Rather, it must plumb the depth of Jewish wisdom and honestly present what 3500 years of Jewish thought may say about a subject.
I recently concluded teaching a six-part series together with an Ontario Superior Court Justice on the Jewish writings of the acclaimed legal scholar Robert Cover. The students were primarily lawyers. It was my hope that as the judge and I drew from Canadian and Jewish legal traditions respectively, the
students would gain insight into their own practice of law. I was hoping that Jewish wisdom would guide their professional pursuits.
Similarly, in "H̱avurat HaSefer", my Jewish philosophy reading group, I am most pleased when the conversations turns from the headiness of the materials to its perceived ramifications in the lived spiritual experience of the readers. I am ultimately less interested in what an author writes than how she enters into the heart, mind and daily lived life of the book club participant.
As seminary graduates, we may tend toward the intellectual. As teachers of Torah, we must focus on the ways by which the materials selected and methodology of instruction bring meaning to the lives of our people.
Rabbi Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation