Author Archives: Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer

About Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Senior CLAL Associate at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Disputes that Unite

Kraemer points out that the willingness of the rabbis to tolerate significant areas of dispute and dissension came from a profound interpersonal respect, common experience, and a common sense of purpose. He realistically acknowledges that those shared values do not currently exist in Jewish society and asserts that a return to such mutual respect requires a "leap of commitment" to rejoin other Jews as covenantal partners. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma, December 12, 1997.

Common stereotypes portray Jews as an uncommonly contentious people, and insiders (that is, Jews among Jews) know that the phrase "two Jews" is completed with the words "three opinions." That there is some truth to these characterizations is unarguable. Something in the nature of traditional Jewish discourse allows (or, perhaps more accurately, encourages) us to disagree passionately with one another, sometimes so passionately that the fabric of our community appears in danger of unraveling.

But the Jewish tradition of dispute, originating in the Talmud, declares that the benefit of "a dispute for the sake of Heaven" far outweighs any imagined dangers. How could different rabbinic voices, differing so vigorously, find a peaceful home side by side? Why, in rabbinic culture, did dispute draw the disputants together, while in our day it seems destined to tear us apart?

Entering The Dispute

To answer these questions, let us take a specific talmudic example and see if we can understand what made such respectful dispute possible–even desirable–in traditional Jewish culture. The mishnah in chapter 8 of tractate Hullin records the following opinions:

R. Akiba says: [The prohibition of mixing] wild animals and fowl [with dairy] is not from the Torah…R. Yosi the Galilean says: "Thou shalt not seethe a calf in its mother’s milk "…excludes fowl, which has no mothers milk.

At first glance, R. Akiba and R. Yosi seem to be saying almost the same thing (at least with respect to the status of fowl) in slightly different ways. R. Akiba declares that the separation of fowl and dairy is not from the Torah, while R. Yosi provides the specific Torah-source for the exclusion of fowl from this prohibition. But according to the Talmud’s interpretation of their teachings (found at Hullin 116a), they do dispute, and the dispute is not insignificant.

Framing The Dispute

As the Talmud understands him, when R. Akiba says that the prohibition pertaining to fowl "is not from the Torah," he means to suggest that it is from the Rabbis. Whatever the source, he agrees that chicken parmesan (for example) would not be kosher. But R. Yosi believes that fowl is completely excluded from this prohibition so, as the Talmud reports, "in the locale of R. Yosi the Galilean they would eat the flesh of fowl with milk." The Talmud follows this report with another showing that this practice was not limited to R. Yosi’s generation. Others later followed his position and their alternate practice was respected.

In the world of Jewish observance, such a difference of opinion and practice has potentially serious consequences. If I belong to a group of Jews who categorize poultry flesh as meat, I will probably not be able to eat at the home of my neighbor who views chicken as parve (neither meat nor dairy and permissible to eat with either). If we have difficulty eating together, we will have a difficult time maintaining our common bond and we will grow apart socially. I may begin to claim that my more lenient neighbor is wrong, that he misinterprets the Torah, that he has little regard for Jewish unity. If I gain control of the community’s kashrut-granting apparatus, I might refuse to certify his restaurant. Less significant differences might perhaps be tolerated, but kashrut is a central marker of Jewish observance and identity. How can we accept such differences when the stakes are so high?

Common Commitment As Common Bond

The probable explanations of the tolerant rabbinic attitude toward disputes range from the mundane to the profound. At first glance, it seems obvious that the fact that R. Akiba (presumably) and R. Yosi (explicitly) could both offer proofs of their positions (in this and other matters) based upon close readings of the Torah meant that they had to be taken seriously. Their source was the recognized, authoritative source of Jewish practice, so the foundation of their teachings was strong. But in reality, this would have made little difference if they were not respected voices in the rabbinic community, for it is possible that a particular reading of Torah could he declared "wrong." So the question must be, why did the rabbinic community respect these and other voices, even when they were in serious disagreement?

To answer this question, again the example of R. Akiba and R. Yosi is instructive. Whatever their interpretation of the Torah in this or any other case, it is beyond question that they were profoundly committed to the Torah, its God, and its people. This common commitment allowed for respectful dispute where lesser commitment would not. These rabbis, who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, shared a common history, an ancient history that included the revelation of Torah at Sinai and, as important, a more recent history of struggle against an insensitive, sometimes tyrannical imperial force. By virtue of this common history, they also shared a common sense of purpose: the need to uphold (and therefore transform) the covenant in the face of radical upheaval. And they understood the challenge and the risk. Simply put, if they could not work together to forge an inclusive vision of Judaism after destruction, the Jewish community at large, leaderless and directionless, might disappear.

Overcoming Our Differences

There is another factor that we might easily overlook. At the beginning, in the decades following the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis were a small movement, living, for the most part, in close proximity, composed of masters and their disciples. And even when the rabbinic movement grew in number and spread, it remained a relatively small proportion of the Jewish population as a whole. Let us not forget, we preserve the disputes of rabbis, not of rabbis and common Jews. Moreover, the rabbis and their disciples instituted rituals of gathering and study (the kallot) that assured that they would be together, study together, live and express their common commitment and faith. In such settings, among loved and trusted companions, they could disagree even forcefully without risking a serious rift. Needless to say, the same disagreements they could allow in the company of rabbis they would not share with outsiders.

All of which demands that we evaluate contemporary Jewish disputes with considerable sobriety. I have argued that the rabbis could tolerate and respect dispute because of their common sense of history, purpose, and fate, and because of the lives they shared. If we are honest, it will be difficult to claim that the same can be said of large segments of the Jewish community today. Our size and diversity make it difficult for us to share our Jewish experiences in any immediate sense. The size of the world we live in allows us to live separated lives–Israelis from American Jews, Orthodox from liberal Jews, dati (religiously observant) Jerusalemites from secular residents of Tel Aviv. With different experiences, we will interpret our covenantal commitments differently (or not at all), we will develop different opinions regarding the purpose of Jewish existence and the fate of Jews and Judaism in the next century.

Leap Of Commitment

Our only hope is a "leap of commitment." Given the diversity of the contemporary Jewish community, we must commit to one another not merely because it is pragmaticallv necessary, but as an act of faith. The problem with the purely pragmatic approach is that, though many of us would agree that we need the cooperation and support of Jews unlike ourselves, selected Jewish groups might conclude that they can survive without other Jews: Haredi without secular, Israeli without American. Pragmatism is a cold, uncaring calculation. But if we believe that we are all children of Abraham and Sarah, all receivers of the Torah of Moses, all fellow survivors of the massacres of Hadrian and Hitler, then we will be less quick to dismiss others who interpret their covenantal commitment differently. Of course, belief is not enough. If we do not act with covenantal commitment, we should be dismissed by those who have taken up the yoke of the covenant. But if we act on this faith, struggling seriously with the responsibilities of Jewishness, we will be compelled to respect our differences. We will disagree, but as covenantal partners.

I am aware that this is an idealistic vision, a dream that many will dismiss as beyond reach. It is for this reason that I offer it with sober hesitation. Still, the "realistic" alternative is too awful to speak.

Dramatizing the Torah

Kraemer makes several suggestions, drawn in some cases from classical models, to improve the experience of the Torah reading. Kraemer argues, “The books on our laps create a gulf between our experience and the dramatic performance” of the Torah reading. Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: The Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

Imagine yourself sitting in the audience at an avant-garde performance in a foreign language. Onstage is a main performer, reciting quickly in a repetitive sing-song. He is surrounded by others who occasion­ally interrupt with brief interjections. You have been provided with a translation, but not understanding the language of perfor­mance, you have no way of judging precisely where your attention should be directed at any given moment. Chances are, you are tempted to walk out and never come back.

dramatizing the torahThis is the experience of most Ameri­can Jews during the Shabbat morning Torah service. There are many reasons for the situation just described, some of them obvious: few American Jews understand Hebrew, few have adequate Jewish educations, few conduct their lives according to the precepts first suggested in the Torah, and so forth. But such expla­nations (however true they might be) are just excuses for not acting to improve matters.

Make Ritual Meaningful

If we want to bring Jews back to the synagogue, to educate them and increase their commitment to Jewish religious expressions, we must recognize what has been demanded of them, and how intoler­able it is. True, there is value to tradition on its own terms, and the Torah service as we know it does reenact, as best it can, a tradition of many centuries. But, as presently conducted, it no longer speaks meaningfully. It is not feasible, therefore, to maintain this practice without modifica­tion. Jewish tradition does not demand that Jews suffer through ritual that offers little, if any, edification.

The Power of Performance

Ours are not the first generations that have had little comprehension of biblical Hebrew. Most Jews in the first centuries of the common era, in the Land of Israel as well as in the Diaspora, spoke Ara­maic, some spoke Greek, and only a few spoke/understood Hebrew. How did religious leaders of that age respond to Hebrew illiteracy? They made oral translation a regular part of the Shabbat morning Torah reading.

Medieval Jewish Responses to Suffering & Evil

Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, in 4 volumes, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Exponents of the medieval Jewish philosophical tradition represent a range of opinions regarding suffering and evil. Saadia, writing in the early tenth century, follows a traditional path. Beginning with the uncompromising insistence that humans have free will, he offers that suffering may be either punishment for the few sins a person commits in this world (assuring his place in the future world) or a test from God, later to be compensated. Judah Halevi likewise writes (early twelfth century) that a person’s troubles serve to cleanse sins, and therefore he recommends a pious attitude of acceptance and joy.

In the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Repentance, chapter 5), Maimonides (twelfth century) polemically insists that God has granted humans complete free will; he will allow no room for the opinion, evidently still popular, that God decrees the course a person will follow from his or her youth. Thus, evil caused by humans must be understood as the result of their freely chosen path. Those who fail properly to repent will, as the tradition suggests, die as a consequence of their sins. Obviously speaking from a philosophical perspective, Maimonides nevertheless employs the voice of Torah.

Evil as Absence

But in his Guide for the Perplexed (3:10‑12), Maimonides forces a distinctive philosophical position. He begins with the assumption that God’s created world is thoroughly good. Contrary to the claim of [the biblical book of] Isaiah, then, God cannot have created evil in any of its forms. If not, then how can the obvious evils of creation be explained? He answers that evil is privation, and privation, being not a thing but the absence of some thing or quality, is not created.

By his enumeration, there are three species of evil: 1) evils that befall people because they possess a body that degenerates; 2) evils that people, because of their ignorance (that is, the absence of wisdom), cause one another; and 3) evils that people, because of their ignorance, cause themselves. God creates none of these evils or their associated sufferings. According to Maimonides’ system, all are caused by natural forces, by essential human failings, or by human ignorance.

Revering Rebekah

Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In Haye Sarah, we are introduced to perhaps the most powerful woman in Torah (or the Bible as a whole, for that matter), Rebekah. The model that Rebekah offers is a challenging one, well worth considering in an age when powerful women often imagine (and not without some reason) that Jewish tradition preserves few models for the kind of women they aspire to be.

The Torah makes it clear that Rebekah is exemplary of traditional values. First, we are told that in addition to being beautiful, she is (at the time we first meet her) "a virgin, neither had any man known her" (Genesis 24:16). She is modest as well; upon being introduced to Isaac, "she took her veil and covered herself" (24:65). She is even pious; when afflicted with two children struggling within her womb, "she went to inquire of the Lord" (25:22).

At the same time, Rebekah is a confident woman, willing to assert herself and use the power available to her. When asked whether she would accompany Eliezer to Canaan, she responds without hesitation: "I will go" (24:58). After God reveals to her which of her sons would rule the other (25:23), she does not hesitate to orchestrate affairs so that God’s will would be done. Rebekah is the insightful partner, the protector of the covenant; Isaac is blind to it all (until the very end).

Thus, we may understand that there is no necessary conflict between the Torah’s vision and a woman of power and insight. Whatever one wants to make of’ "traditional womanly values," taking command of her own affairs and the affairs of her nation need not be thought to be in tension with such values.

Torah and Diaspora

Reprinted with permission from Clal–the National Jewish Center for Learning And Leadership

The joyous Simchat Torah celebration is a relative latecomer to the Jewish calendar. In reality the Diaspora’s second day of the biblical Shemini Azeret, Simchat Torah takes a day that might have been experienced as redundant and–at the end of a long holiday season–boring, and transforms it into one of the most thrilling experiences that Judaism has to offer.

The fact that this transformation took place in the Diaspora and was only later imported back to the Land of Israel (where Shemini Azeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated on the same day) shows how important the partnership of Israel and the Diaspora has always been.

In fact, the relationship of Torah and Diaspora goes back to the very beginning. Whatever one’s view of the history of the composition of the Torah, all agree that it was often disregarded during the first Temple period. It was finally accepted as authoritative by the people only during and after the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.E.).

Why then precisely? Yehezkel Kaufmann explains: "…the Torah book… served to express the yearning to heal the breach between God and the people opened by the fall (of the Temple)…. The product of the mood of exile, it was well adapted to the needs of a dispersed people…. The idea of the Torah book…harbored the seed of an ultimate liberation of the religion of Israel from ethnic and territorial limitations. Without the formation of the Torah book, the prophetic vision of the universalization of Israel’s religion could not have been realized" (The Religion of Israel, p. 448).

Thus, the Torah itself is a symbol of the eternal partnership between Israel and the Diaspora. Without that partnership, Judaism itself could never have survived and flourished.