These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Fluidity and Dynamism

Posted on July 23, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,
This week I read the parsha ‘cover to cover’ and am stumped. There is a lot to talk about in the parsha: the status of women in Jewish (biblical) law, a gruesome (and vengeful) battle against idolators and the decision of two tribes to settle outside the Land of Israel. But somehow as I sit in front of my computer trying to compile a thought, question or comment on any one of these issues, my screen remains blank. My mind wanders to this article written by my teacher, Levi Cooper, that I read a few hours prior.

Levi writes about the descendants of the Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762-1839), who was a well-known leader of the Orthodox community of Central Europe, as it encountered the modern world. (My paternal grandmother was a direct descedant of his so I am particularly connected to this figure in Jewish History.) The Chatam Sofer believed that “what was new was forbidden from the Torah” (or in Hebrew חדש אסור מן התורה) – he wanted to preserve Tradition, devout ritual observance and social norms of Central European Jewry, no matter what innovations were taking place in the world.

But Levi continues to describe the fascinating evolution of this rabbinic line. He writes in his article:

“One of the Erlau Sofer grandchildren to survive – Rabbi Yohanan Sofer – began to resurrect the Sofer legacy in postwar Hungary, first in Budapest and later in Eger. Only in 1950 did he, together with a group of students, move to Jerusalem. At first they joined other scions of the Sofer family at the Pressburg Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but in 1953 Rabbi Yohanan and his students purchased rooms of the former Syrian consulate in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem where they reestablished the Erlau Yeshiva.”

Although Rabbi Yochanan does not come from a hasidic background, he has adopted many of its customs. Having said that, Rabbi Yochanan (the Erlau rebbe) still retains and cherishes much of the Chatam Sofer’s creed.

When I learned this about the great-grandson of the Chatam Sofer, I was amazed. I was amazed at how much dynamism he brings to his Jewish identity; how even someone seemingly so dogmatic and principled is able to innovate and redefine the scope of his spiritual/religious ancestry.

Reading about the two and a half tribes who chose to live in the Transjordan, outside the Land of Israel, I wonder if they had hoped for the same. Maybe they believed that their relocation would not automatically cut them off from the ethics and way of life of their brothers and sisters in Israel. Maybe they believed that their sense of peoplehood transcended space. And maybe they even believed that they could tweak their spiritual practices to include some of their neighbours’ practices of spiritual/personal betterment. Maybe their Jewish identities were fluid.

In this sense, I think these tribes were ahead of their time: they could foresee that they would eventually confront new communities with new conventions, and therefore would be called upon to struggle and continually redefine their Jewish selves. What makes me Jewish now? Is it the same as what characterized my ancestors as Jewish? How can I be Jewish in my new context?  

But the Torah does not simply let these tribes go off into the distance and live as they wish. They are required to assist the nation in settling the Land of Israel. And God is certainly not happy with their decision to settle outside the land. So what, then, are we to make of these tribes’ choice to leave the other tribes and live in the Diaspora?

I don’t know. I don’t know if I am even in a position to judge the actions of thes tribes. But I do know from my own experience living in the Diaspora, and even living in Israel when much of world Jewry lives outside its borders, that I am constantly bombarded with new art, changing political-economic circumstances, personal challenges and professional choices all the time. And in order for my Jewish self – my sense of community, my observance of Jewish law, my heart and soul – to survive, I must balance my commitment to my heritage while allowing my Jewish identity to be fluid and open to creativity.

To borrow from Viktor Frankl (no relation), no matter how grounded I am in Jewish Tradition, I will always be a woman in search of meaning. Maybe this is the lesson of the two and a half tribes who wanted to settle outside the land, and that of the great-grandson of the Chatam Sofer.

May the search for meaning continue!
Shabbat Shalom,