COMMENTARY: Intramural squabbles among Jews are as old as Moses

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.)

UNDATED _ Recently, a small group of Orthodox rabbis in the United States asserted that they alone are the true representatives of the Jewish religion. They singled out Conservative and Reform Jews for special contempt, declaring,”Their religion is not Judaism.” The rabbis’ assault attracted extensive news coverage and the media seemed surprised that one Jewish group had so bitterly attacked another in public. But, of course, displaying sharp differences within the same religious community is an old story. Every group does it, and when it comes to lobbing verbal hand grenades at one another, Jews are like everyone else, only more so.

Even in the Bible, strict uniformity of belief and practice has never been part of Jewish life: The towering teacher and prophet Moses was confronted with a revolt and faced complaints about his leadership despite the daring Exodus from Egyptian slavery.

Two centuries ago, a pair of extraordinary rabbis, both spiritual heavyweights, battled for the hearts, souls, and minds of millions of European Jews in a turbulent dispute that shook the community to its foundations. The troubling issues raised in the 1700s are far from settled as we approach the 21st century because they still spark profound questions about religious belief and identity.

On one side was Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, who lived in Lithuania and was popularly known as the Vilna Gaon (genius scholar). A child prodigy, he reached the apex of Jewish learning at an early age, and it is said young Elijah lectured before adults in the synagogue when only 7 years old.

The Vilna Gaon placed enormous emphasis on rationalism, scientific learning, and the common sense meaning of texts as a method of strengthening traditional religious beliefs. He studied 18 hours a day, every day of his long life (he died in 1797 at 77). In addition to the Bible, the Talmud, legal codes, and rabbinic commentaries, the Vilna Gaon investigated algebra, astronomy, geometry, and geography.

He usually slept only two or three hours a night, and although he had a wife and children, the Vilna Gaon lived an ascetic life and devoted his awesome intellect to explaining the complexities of Jewish learning to his faithful students. The Vilna Gaon was a one man think tank, a universe of incredible knowledge living within a single person.

But the Vilna Gaon abandoned his usual restraint when another rabbinic titan from Eastern Europe threatened to undermine his carefully developed form of Judaism. That roaring challenge came from the followers of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who was also given a popular name by his adoring students. He was the Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Holy Name of God, and the founder of the Hasidic (pious) movement.

Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760) left almost no writings, but his disciples lovingly recorded their master’s teachings and accounts of his remarkable deeds. The Baal Shem Tov was one of the world’s great mystics, proclaiming that God was everywhere and within each person, but especially present among those whose prayers focused on dance, song, and ecstasy.

He taught that God lies just behind the words of religious texts. What counts most is the rhapsodic joy a human experiences in performing God’s commandments. Everyone can pray, he taught, even illiterates and those without the mental capabilities to read the Bible or a prayerbook. To him, the shrill sound of a simpleton’s whistle was a rapturous prayer of great power.

As the Hasidic movement, with its deviations from established religious belief and behavior, spread among the oppressed Jewish masses, it collided with the cold, clear logic of the Vilna Gaon and his students. It became an angry clash between head and heart, between meticulous interpretations of sacred texts and monosyllables of religious ecstacy.

Believing that Hasidic passion and rapture was a grave threat to Jewish life, the Vilna Gaon attempted unsuccessfully to excommunicate the followers of the Baal Shem Tov from Judaism. And there are stories that the Villa Gaon’s opponents happily danced on the great scholar’s grave.

After 200 years, the battle between rationalism and mysticism continues. Nothing has really been resolved, and similar spiritual contests are taking place within other religions, too.

We poor humans desperately seek to reconcile our logic and minds with our passions and souls. Ideally, we balance the lucid rationality of the Vilna Gaon with the fiery exhilaration of the Baal Shem Tov.

Can it be done? Well, isn’t that what religion is all about?


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