Fuzzy Boundaries

So the class we joined the past few of weeks was called

The Fuzzy Boundaries of Jewishness:  Ancient and Modern

The class discusses the boundaries of Jewish identity and how it traces back to Antiquity and how it is still an issue today.  Hence, “Ancient and Modern”.  During the first week, I was fascinated by the ancient texts we studied.  Afterwards, I could not wait for Week 2 so we could hear about a subject I have ALWAYS been extremely curious about.  But have you ever spent a long time wishing you knew more about something and then you actually start to learn about it and think you don’t want to know anymore?  This might’ve happened to me on the day of the second class, but it could’ve been a slew of other things that had me so emotionally overwhelmed.  I literally came home and was STOMPING around the house!  I got extra angry at my husband for making a rude comment, extra angry that my oldest was still up and not sleeping,  and extra angry that I didn’t know if I enjoyed the class or not.  Seriously, my mind was running a million thoughts per second.  I even thought I would cry on the way home.  Why? I’m not sure.

Let me just say, that I have been taking some time to try and calm my emotions and organize my thoughts before writing, but I can’t promise that this entry might not be somewhat of a rant.  I apologize if these thoughts are not as organized as we may want them to be.  Perhaps if I tell you first briefly what we discussed and let the subject matter lead us into my feelings, that might organize this better.

I went into this considering “Fuzzy Boundaries” to mean one thing, and halfway through the course the term became a part of my life, and how I, myself, AM just one big fuzzy boundary.  Remember what I always say about myself: I am a Traditionalist at heart with a Liberal & Modern mindset.  An internal struggle I have learned to live with my entire life in every aspect.  I walk a path that’s right in the middle of everything.  I am not one or the other, but a little bit of everything.  The question always arises for ME, too – What kind of Jew are you?  For instance, I attend shul and approach Judaism & Torah usually from a spiritual place.  Now, this is not to mean that I don’t ALSO wish to learn in an academic environment.  The History and Academia of Judaic Studies is actually quite fascinating for me mostly due to curiosity and an intense love of Judaism.  So even though there was nothing holy or spiritual about this man’s class, I was equally as enthusiastic about it as I would be going to shul to daven or study a Parshah lesson.


As I mentioned, the first week was spent studying ancient texts.

 We read excerpts from:  Strabo (d. 24CE) Geography, Flavius Josephus (d. 100CE) Antiquities & War, Ptolemy the Historian, Philo (d. 50 CE) De Virtutibus, even from Leviticus, Book of Jubilees, Talmud, & Mishnah (Bikkurim)

We set a foundation for the study itself.  That from the oldest  of times to the newest, there has always been ambiguity in Jewish identity.  We looked at the earliest mentions of “conversion” and “converts” (even though it wasn’t always named as so).  We discussed how for some Jews, you’re not REALLY Jewish, but KIND OF Jewish and how this idea of SORT OF, COMPLETELY, NATURALLY, NOT REALLY has always been around.  In ancient times there were people referred to as half – Jews and we even read where there were instructions for how a convert should pray differently. There was almost an obsession with circumcision (actually in all 3 sessions) and many mentions regarding “being born a Jew”.  We see in antiquity that some texts are very firm in their conclusions,

[e.g.  Book of Jubilees 15:  Anyone who is born, the flesh of whose private parts has not been circumcised on the eighth day, does not belong to the people of the pact which the Lord made with Abraham but to the people (meant for) destruction.]

while there are texts that show disagreement and conflict:

[e.g. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 146b:  (R. Aha asked R. Ashi about converts not being at Mt Sinai) Even though they were not there, their guiding stars were there, as it is written…This is at odds with R. Abba bar Kahana [who said] “It took three generations for the pollution to be eliminated from our forefathers.  Abraham sired Ishmael,…]

As fascinating as the texts were, my hippy parts kept wanting to ask Why is this an issue?  Who cares?  Let everyone have their own opinions and live their own lives, right?  Let the converts be happy with their practice and acceptance wherever they are, let the Ultra Orthodox live their lives with their conclusions and all Jews live in peace and harmony, right?  I guess not.  It’s an issue for a lot of reasons.  The reasons, however, is not something we discussed in detail.  Just the ambiguity.

So the first week we established (or imagined) that if you had a line of people that started at one end with Jews you were certain were Jewish and ended with people that most certainly were not Jewish; in the middle of this line there would be a good amount of people that were in this “Fuzzy” place.  People that are KIND OF Jewish; or Jewish to some people but not to others.  Jews that were born Jewish versus those that married a Jew, or whose land was taken over by Jews.  People that were born Jewish but didn’t want to be Jewish anymore (believe it or not).  Lots of fuzziness! This would lead us all to the following class where we would discuss Early Christianity.

I could not WAIT!

My curiosity certainly came back to bite me on the second week.

I have always been curious about Early Christianity.  But here’s what I would always ask myself “How did it happen?”  “How COULD this happen?”  “How did SO MANY PEOPLE turn their backs on our beautiful Torah and go on this completely separate & contradicting (to Torah) path?”  (remember:  Nerdy lover of Torah = me)  I’ve always wondered, because you HAVE to wonder.  Because of how much of a minority we are now, you have to wonder:  how?  So now it’s Session II and we study mostly the texts written by (or thought to be written by) Paul.  A Jew who had a revelation about a certain man’s life and created ideas about baptizing, being born again, redemption and so on and traveled around spreading a new concept based on his revelation and ideas.  Probably some emotions, too.  And some Torah, which he analyzed in a way to better suit his case.

Putting our emotions aside (at least mine, anyway) let’s understand that the point of reading these texts was to illustrate how those folks (that were not called Christians yet) were SORT OF Jews.  That even long after Ancient times (but still a couple of thousand years ago) there was ambiguity in Jewish identity.  These people believed in Torah but accepted that it may not be needed anymore.  This also meant that Paul’s ideas of baptism etc could ALSO mean that “Gentiles” could KIND OF become Jewish.  This could be kind of confusing but this new concept of Paul’s was open to everyone and at the time it was still, sort of, a Jewish thing.  Super interesting and odd.

The text and the professor’s comments created emotional turmoil and utter confusion to me.  I understand why we were studying these.  I understand the point.  But for me (and maybe others) it was also shedding light on how so many people turned their back on the Torah.  I couldn’t let go of the fact that what was being sold during this time was the Torah was no longer necessary,  nor were any of the laws!  I could not swallow it and found myself heating up!  I also had a lot of questions about the text itself which I didn’t feel I could ask every single one because there was so much to cover in such little time.  I wanted to know where some of the writings he was quoting are found originally, where Paul was getting some of these notions from….question after question.

Even more troubling than turning one’s back on the Torah was to hear Paul quoting words of the Torah and using those words to make his case.  It was just so hard.  I don’t know if this was the case for the entire class but for some reason I could not separate my heart and logic during this particular session.  I get the professor’s point in showing us that Paul was a Jew like many of us that spend time analyzing the words and try to figure out what it means.  Yes, he was a Jew, but it lead to everyone (almost) turning their back on it.  The laws, our traditions.  Gone.  And because the professor was coming from the side of, not only Academia, but also the Reform Movement – it almost seemed that he TOO was ready to dismiss the Torah! After I calmed down, I realized that’s not exactly the case at all (he’s a good guy, he’s a Rabbi – I mean our kids are at the same school! Please don’t see judgement) Nonetheless, all I kept saying to myself in the car was “I’m just not that ready to turn my back on the Torah”.   Which no one was suggesting I do in the first place!!  It was my own reaction to the knowledge I had just acquired.  It was an emotional reaction to a History lesson.  Maybe it’s how I would react in the time of Paul?  I DO sometimes suggest I was born in the wrong time, I don’t know.  There was also a good amount of segue into the basis of the Reform movement, and why the professor actually likes Paul – I wasn’t expecting a lesson in Reform Judaism, I thought he should keep that information to himself or for a different class.  Again, once I calmed down (a couple of days later) I realized that I actually don’t know a lot about the Reform movement and was happy to learn.  I enjoy learning, please don’t get me wrong.  I am actually really happy with everything I learned.  I just want to express how emotional my initial reaction was.  It’s something I want to think about in how I approach learning in general.  You’ve got to take it eeeeeaaasy…… 

In conclusion,

there actually was no real conclusion on Day 3.  He might’ve run out of time, I am not sure, but the session stood on its own because it was readings of modern literature on the subject.  We received a collection of questions and conclusions made within the Reform and Conservative movements about

  • Patrilineal/Matrilineal Descent (1983)
  • Status of Non-Halakhic Conversions (1982)
  • Status of “Completed Jews” aka “Messianic Jews” (1983 & 2012)
  • Status Children born to “Messianic Jews”  (2012)
  • Practicing Buddhism (1991) – “and how it’s kind of cute”
  • Humanistic Congregations (1991)

As you might expect, what was found was more ambiguity.  Just like in ancient times, some conclusions had more firm decisions (usually on the Conservative side) and some conclusions had various possibilities and would “depend on the Rabbi” (usually one the Reform side).  Truly fascinating to read official answers from the “higher ups” on topics we’ve probably all brought up in our own lives.

The last day had an interesting twist because the discussion was made open to student opinions.  Since we were on a more “modern” basis there was some “By a show of hands, who thinks this is correct?” which lead into “tell us why”.  This was great but was short also.  I would have enjoyed more opinions and thoughts from the class.  I certainly have a lot to say, I’m sure others do too.  I suppose I could have gone on into the whee hours of the night on such topics but the tough part of the professor’s job is to present the education in an organized manner with limited time.  At the end, is where I say there wasn’t much conclusion or summary of everything.  What the point was.  What we should think about or take with us.  Just Thank you for coming!  I guess that’s for US to come up with, hence this blog entry of mine attempting to sum it up.

It is likely that all these questions and topics might’ve come up in our own personal lives, maybe around a dinner table or while having coffee.   In this particular environment, however, it takes a step further.  You are really brought face to face with real issues facing Jews today.  It is brought to your consciousness.  We can’t just hide in our own bubble of “well, this is what I think and what I practice so leave me alone”.  I mean, I suppose you could if you want, but if you think about Israel and its politics, these things come up a lot.  If you think about it long enough, you’re bound to come up with your own conclusions, opinions, and even more questions.  If you were active enough to sit in a class, you’re bound to bump into someone who was also in the class and will ask “What did you think about that class?” and bring it to the forefront again.  I’m all for discussion and bringing matters to the table.  So overall, I thought the class was incredibly thought-provoking, very well taught, fascinating, informative, and even entertaining at times.  It made me question my own practices, traditions, faith, and beliefs and I feel stronger being exposed to the information.

heart torah


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