I recently received an email from a high school student who was writing a paper on Judaism for a class in Comparative Religion. She was Catholic, and thought the best way to complete her assignment was collect a variety of responses to the question “What is Judaism?” from different rabbis. I made her list.
I get over one hundred emails daily. While most of these are from marketers following a computer cookie trail, many require thoughtful responses. More often than not, however, I tend to answer my email on automatic writing. Until I reread it before hitting “Send” I often don’t know just what it is that I have written. Someday I hope to discover that I have in this way channeled a new revelation from God. In the meantime I will content myself to be surprised now and again by my own words. Responding to this young woman was one of those times. This is the opening paragraph to my email:
Asking me “What is Judaism?” is like asking a fish “What is water?” Like water to the fish, Judaism is the transparent ether through which I move. It is the text and context of my life. It is that environment without which I cannot breathe.
I was stunned. Is that true? Without Judaism would I be a fish out of water? Something deep inside of me denied this. Something even deeper affirmed it. Judaism is the field in which I play. It is my chosen game. So what is this game?
Here is a tentative definition: Judaism is the ancient and on-going drash (interpretation) of the Jews on sacred text. In a sense this definition is circular. What makes a text sacred is that we bother to do drash on it. So one could ask which comes first the text or the drash? My sense is that they arise together. As soon as we create a text for ourselves we create variations on it. Judaism is jazz.
As in jazz there is a thematic constant from which one innovates. In Jewish Jazz one might say that this constant is Torah, but I suspect that is not exactly right. Torah is a drash on lived experience. Torah arose out of the Jewish people’s encounters with God, however they understood God at the time. Torah arose out of revelation, and since revelation cannot be fixed, for God is by definition unconditional and therefore unfixed, the constant is not Torah but God encounter.
Given the fact that there is no single definition for God in Jewish text we can say we have a contentless constant. But this, too, is not exactly true. While we cannot and need not define God we can say that a careful reading of Judaism would reveal that whatever God may be, our experience of God always reveals to us some level of nonduality. God breaks down barriers. Our historical experience of God as God has always been to engage us in the quest for unity through diversity.
Thus we can define Judaism as the ancient and on-going drash of the Jewish people on unity. We read ancient text, write new texts, and do midrash on both all in a never ending attempt to understand and apply unity in our time.
Judaism, then, is not a noun but a verb; not a product but a process. Product Judaism posits a fixed set of behaviors and says “This is Judaism.” Process Judaism, Judaism as jazz, says the thematic constant is unity and however the Jews play out that theme is Judaism. With this understanding we can detect a variety of jazz improvisations: biblical, prophetic, priestly, Pharisaic, Essene, Pauline, Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Marxist, Freudian, Einsteinian, and Friedanian, to name just a few. Whenever Jews push for unity we see Jewish jazz at play.