«Jewish Observer»
December 2001
5762 Tevet

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Interview with Doctor Tsvi Zoar, Head of the Center for Galakha Studies in "Makhone Khartmana" (Jerusalem), a religious research institute studying the problems of Jewish tradition, Talmud, Tanakha, Jewish communities.

- Orthodoxes. Ultra-orthodoxes ...

These terms are much heard and much spoken. What do they mean? No doubt, they are "real" religious Jews! They are the true representatives of Judaism! "Knitted" kippahs? They are liberal, almost secular. Such questions one may hear not only from the CIS natives but from Israeli natives too, even from Knesset members who consider that any point of view that does not coincide with the orthodox one contradicts the Judaic outlook, is the heresy, reformation, etc. If it is not so? If it is not very so?

- Orthodoxy in Judaism is a later phenomenon. It was born in Hungary and spread over Eastern and Central Europe somewhere in the first half of the XIX century as a reaction towards emancipation and Enlightenment. The basis of the orthodox outlook is the notion taken from Talmud: "new is prohibited by the Torah". Talmud says about a new harvest that can't be used until its first yields are brought to the Temple. Hungarian rabbi Khatam Sofer spread a particular Talmud statement over all areas of Jewish life. It is interesting to say that the interpretation itself of this Talmud notion was a bright example of the "new". In fact, it was a reform of Judaism.

The thing is that the ideal existence of Jews in diaspora in Europe was established before the Enlightenment epoch, in the period of forced residing in "ghettos". Jews were isolated from the outward life. They differed from others by their clothes. Children were taught only Gemar. So, this situation, which in Khatam Sofer's and his adherents' opinion was ideal, had to be preserved by all means.

- Were they aware how long they could keep the people in such a "frozen" state?

- In their opinion, our people were always kept in such a state. This ideology rejects the very fact of historical development. It states that if even there were Galakha, philosophy events in the Jewish life in galut, including Mishna, Talmud, Rambama, Kabbal, "Shulkhan Aruch",etc. (bright and deep events) then they were not a result of the society development but the result of different views on the same object by people living outside the time and motion. If so, the change of the old, which became obsolete due to the situation that did not exist before, is impossible. From the orthodox point of view nothing can be restored or changed against the early XIX century in Europe. Only the aggravation of the situation is possible. In this sense, orthodoxy can be considered to be a Middle-Age phenomenon. Because the Middle Ages in Judaism (mainly we mean the Elderly of Spain and Islamic countries) were the period of high blossom of philosophical, Galakha and mystical thoughts.

The Jewish University has recently had a discussion on how the spreading of orthodoxy in Central and Eastern Europe was held. The scientists didn't come to a common decision. Nowadays the situation is that the term "orthodoxy" covers different communities of religious Jews, most of which do not meet the requirements. Let us take, for example, the organization of kibbutz. The members of this organization call themselves "orthodox" to differ from "reformists" and "conservatives". The main criterion for "true orthodoxy" is not to take into consideration what happens around you - neither public, scientific, government or any other activities. In his time Khatam Sofer had strong objections against teaching general subjects.

In times of English mandate one religious Jew came to a famous rabbi with a question: how one can avoid working on Saturday if you are a policeman. "Why should you work in police?" - was the answer. What can be said more?

- Was the orthodox outlook widespread among Eastern Sefard communities?

- No. Jews in Eastern countries used to come into the environment more harmonically than in the Middle-Age Europe. They actively participated in the cultural, political and public life of the country-residence. Dialectics of Jewish life was always linked with the development of the environment.

In Europe the church for intelligentsia was the image of ignorance, superstition and hypocrisy. Therefore the renovation of the world meant the rejection of the church and religion. There was never such a negative attitude to religion and religious institutions in Islamic countries. As to the Jewry in Islamic countries, such rabbis as Saadia Gaon, Rambam, Iyerud Galevi were known as connoisseurs of the law, well-educated people almost in all areas of culture. Even in later times, in Christian Spain, the Sefard elderly were well-educated.

The Jews of the East peacefully develop different Galakhah and philosophical schools. None of them is considered reformist, no opposition to religion, no opposition to philosophy and other sciences. The leaders of the Jewish communities used to think first of all about the unity and peace, and did their best to hold in the community people who abandoned the religious way of life. The orthodox interpretation that the "existence of God in this world is restricted by four elbows of Galakhah" has never been characteristic to the Sefard outlook.

By the way, rabbi Yosef Karo, when compiling :Shulkhan Arukh", never thought the chosen by him Galakhah statements would become dogmas for all years to come. He tried to systematize everything that was actual in his time, to stop disagreements between different Jewish communities. Orthodoxy has "tinned" all his thoughts.

This was the end of our interview with Tsvi Zoar about orthodoxy. Orthodoxy in Judaism is a reaction to the unthinkable-before openness of Jewish world in Christian Europe. European rabbis could suggest only ghetto against assimilation. The walls of the new ghetto should be then higher, thicker and stronger. How long could it go on? Soon orthodoxy became a brake fruitlessly trying to stop the spinning wheel of social development. In crowds, the Jews began to leave traditions and indulge in other cultures and revolutions. The Zionist movement rejected by orthodoxy had to forget to a great extent the great values of many-thousand-year-old Jewish culture. Unfortunately, not willing to see the world around them, the orthodox leaders didn't notice the coming Catastrophe. They did not let their supporters to timely leave for Palestine.

In fact, it was the true European orthodoxy that was annihilated with 6 millions of Jews. The modern orthodoxy the one that appeared after the Catastrophe, in my opinion, was not set up in proper time and place. That is why it is deprived of that strength and responsibility which were the attributes of the pre-war European orthodoxy.

Today, secular people who are looking for the truth, the essence of living but not a cozy place where they can hide from numerous problems cannot reach in their search the treasures of Judaism. They erroneously think that religiosity that kept Jews in spiritual and physical ghetto and looked with disgust at the surrounding world is the "true" Judaism.

In conclusion I want to quote a wise and great Jew, the former chief Sefard rabbi of Tel Aviv, rabbi Khaim-David Galevi who died not long ago.

"If Galakha was not flexible and didn't react on dialectics of life, our people would have stopped existing long ago".

Interviewed by Dina Yablonska ("7 days")
"Otkrytaya dver", Kiev

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