The Conspiracy

A Renaissance Man of Religions


How Jews separate themselves from the rest of the world is an interesting issue, and a hot topic this week. It so happens, at Pardes this week, we looked at issues of separatism in Judaism, from the extremely current issue of the letter banning rental of apartments to Arabs to the more theoretical ‘how should Judaism treat those outside of its (exclusive) community?’ We also had a guest speaker talk about how Jews have viewed other religions in previous time periods, specifically how Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) viewed Christians in relation to the Jewish community.

The key takeaway from our discussion was not just that the halachic basis on which the rabbis who signed the letter based their arguments was spurious.  More importantly, we must remember that no one has the right to make a claim on behalf of Judaism as a whole. The tradition is too complex, too multifaceted and containing too many values that can be put into tension with each other for there to be a single voice on almost any topic that represents all of Judaism.

Looking more theoretically at the same set of issues, it is clear to me that there is a serious ‘conflict of interests’ for many young North American Jews today when being exposed to texts that purport that Jews are somehow special and deserving of recognition for that uniqueness. I have commented previously about my views on Jews being “a light unto the nations.” How one relates to that question says a lot about how one will think that Jews ought to treat non-Jewish populations, both locally and abroad. A more positive way to look at spreading wisdom is that Jews should try their best to improve the world, which hopefully would encourage others to do the same, rather than implying that others do not have as much to offer. The fact is that, for most of us, we will always be part of many overlapping and sometimes contradicting exclusive communities, and that is simply part of the struggle of living in the modern world yet maintaining deep ties to the Jewish community.

Finally, I learned a little bit about the work of Rabbi Jacob Emden for the first time, and was struck by two things. First, the concept of a renaissance man seems like a forgotten ideal for the most part &#8212 or simply impractical given the depth of knowledge that would be required to become an expert in more than one discipline &#8212 but I think that it should be reinvigorated when it comes to religion. We lack today religious leaders who are truly well read in religions other than their own. Second, I was intrigued that neither I nor anyone else who attended the lecture had ever heard of Rabbi Emden. The Jewish tradition has so many gems, even just talking on a textual basis, which are rarely discussed or studied. But I couldn’t help but wonder if his views on Christians &#8212 that they should be respected and thanked for helping to spread ‘morality’ much more effectively than Judaism ever did &#8212 have played a role in his not being included in the traditional Jewish ‘canon’ of rabbis and thinkers that the mainstream of Jewish students are exposed to.

Benjamin Barer is studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, one of Masa Israel’s 180 programs.

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