What is a Jew? Well… let’s talk


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A century or so ago, famed trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong was asked “What is Jazz?”. His equally famous reply was “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know”. I couldn’t help thinking of this last night at the presentation of the new book Degli Ebrei e Dell’Ebraismo (About Jews and Judaism) by Riccardo Di Segni and Riccardo Calimani. The first question that the moderator, Corriere della Sera‘s Gian Antonio Stella, asked was “What is a Jew?”. As a Jew myself I realized that this question is almost impossible to fully answer, and the diversity of the authors’ replies certainly bore this out.

What is a Jew? Technically (Judaism is a very legalistic religion, so there is a technical answer), a Jew is anyone born to a Jewish mother. But one can also convert to Judaism, again via a specific procedure. However, here is where any further attempt to answer the question breaks down, because for all of its detailed legal frameworks, Judaism is very much defined by whomever is doing the defining. Judaism has long been made up of differing practices. The core texts of Judaism – the Torah, the Prophets, the Talmud, Halachah (Rabbinic Law), are a set group of entities, fixed in content yet fluid in meaning, around which rotate a myriad of practices, rituals and liturgy that vary from group to group, overlapping and contradicting each other. Consider, for example, that centuries ago in Italian Jewish communities in cities like Rome and Venice (from which the authors of the book being presented last night hail), Jews divided themselves into different Scuole, a word that literally means Schools, and was used to describe groups that cohered around both national identity and religious practices that were more often than not mutually incompatible. There were eight synagogues in the ghetto of Venice, five of which still stand today. The names themselves of the synagogues tell the story of their Jewish identities: the German, Italian, Spanish and Levantine synagogues are clear enough, but what about the Scuola Canton? The name only indicates its location, in the corner of the ghetto in between the German and the Italian synagogues. It was an important synagogue, but what kind of Judaism was practiced there? We can only be sure that it was different than the others.

The same phenomenon was even more pronounced in Rome, which was and is home to the oldest Jewish community in Italy and Europe. In the ghetto of Rome there were at one point a dozen or more Scuole, again based on their geographic provenance and religious/liturgical practices. These groups, which in the early 1500s were only multiplying, were forced to consolidate into five groups, all housed in the same building, by the imposition of the ghetto by Pope Carafa in 1555. The story of how this consolidation was achieved is rife with disagreement, conflict and competition.

In many ways Judaism is similarly divided today. In the US, where I live, we Jews are no longer divided by region or origin, but absolutely by religious and liturgical practices. Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism can seemingly occupy separate universes, but at times the same buildings. In the small suburb of Brookline, Mass., for example, there are five different synagogues, each with its own affiliation and practices.

For Jews, however, this seems quite natural. Judaism is not a fixed set of beliefs, nor does it imply a particular faith in anything. Being Jewish means embracing the basic and fundamental tenet of Judaism (and its historical innovation): the notion that there is only one God. The rest is open to interpretation. There is a famous story in the Talmud about Hillel, who was approached by a non-Jewish Roman with a challenge: teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot, and I’ll convert. Hillel’s famous reply was “That which is hateful unto you, do not do to another; that is the Torah. The rest is commentary, go and learn.”

Theoretically we are all subject to the same Jewish law, but how that is interpreted or implemented truly comes down not only to a group affiliation but to the individual and their personal sense of what being Jewish means to them. Religious belief or practice often plays no part. Some of the people I know whose Jewishness seems most strongly felt are self-described “secular Jews”, people who never attend a religious service but are nonetheless very engaged personally and intellectually with Judaism and their own Jewish identities.

It’s a somewhat chaotic way to run a religion, but that’s who we are. The moderator at last night’s presentation opened with the old quip that wherever you have two Jews there are three opinions, but even this doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of thought and interpretation that is at the heart of Jewishness. The labyrinthine paths of Jewish interpretation are perhaps best embodied by the Talmud, an esoteric text written in a special language and approach all its own (which is to say it requires specialized training in order to read it), which includes multiple lines of interpretation for any given line of text that often contradict each other, right on the same page. The very notion of textual meaning in Judaism is founded on a multiplicity of possible readings. Each word, and according to some, each letter, even each space between the letters found in the Torah embodies a variety of meanings. There is a practical root behind this idea in Hebrew itself, which as a Semitic language is built on words with multiple meanings. However, the Jewish intellectual and personal exercise of encountering these texts takes this notion much further. 

I will refrain from going into the “why” for this approach. The point is the approach itself, an approach that challenges each individual who cares to engage in a text or a discussion or an interpretation to find whatever it is that they find, but also to accept that their findings are merely their own, ephemeral, and possibly or even probably contradictory to those of others engaged in the same exercise. A Jew must accept from the start that there are no right answers, only insights and interpretations that live alongside each other, equally valid and equally flawed. What matters is the engagement, the inquiry, the discussion. 

This is the spirit in which Di Segni and Calimani wrote this book together. They are two very different Jews with almost completely opposing opinions on many subjects. As such their work is quintessentially Jewish, as was the presentation last night. People talked, argued, questioned, disagreed, and no real conclusions were reached. Each said what they had to say. However, I think that we all agreed that the effort and time spent were completely worthwhile, if not essential. This is what keeps Judaism and its texts alive, changing, evolving, and meaningful in such a kaleidoscope of ways as to be impossible to define.

This brings me back to the first question asked by the moderator. The Roman Orthodox Chief Rabbi/medical doctor Di Segni and the Venetian secular historian/engineer/philosopher Calimani both had very different answers to the question “what is a Jew?”. Of course they did, and they are both equally Jewish. That’s the nature of Jews and Judaism – you’ve got to ask, but you’ll never really know…

What is a Jew? Well… let’s talk ultima modifica: 2022-12-09T16:00:36+01:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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