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An old synagogue in Krakow could heal our social ills

From the cobblestone streets, a lesson in religious (and cultural) diversity.

The Remah Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Photo by Laima Gūtmane (simka)/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Before I mentally leave Poland, I want to invite you to make one more stop with me.

Let us walk to the Jewish Quarter, in the Kazimierz district in Krakow. I have already taken you around the Quarter, but there is one place where we should linger for a little while: the Remah Synagogue, built in the 1550s, named for Rabbi Moses Isserles, known by the acronym ReMa.

The synagogue is beautiful; its cemetery, including the grave of Isserles himself, haunting; the plaques with the names of overseas benefactors (some of whom had been “Schindler’s Jews”), impressive.

But, those niceties are already beside the point.

I stand in this synagogue, and I think of the legacy of the man whose name it bears.

Rabbi Isserles was born in Krakow. His father, Israel ben Josef (the surname Isserles enshrines his name Israel) had been head of the community; his grandfather, Jehiel Luria, had been the first rabbi of Brisk. Isserles was an expert in Talmud and learned in kabbalah, history and astronomy.

But there is far more than that.

Consider the classic work of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch (the “set table”). The Shulchan Aruch was written by Joseph Caro in the city of Safed in the 1500s.

Who were the Jews of Safed, the intended audience of the Shulchan Aruch? They were mostly Sephardic Jews. Many were the children of refugees from Spain, many of whom had lived as secret Jews and now needed an “introduction to Judaism” program to bring them back into the mainstream of Jewish life and practice.

Back in Krakow, Moses Isserles had been compiling his own code of Jewish law, which reflected Ashkenazic understandings.

Rabbi Moses Isserles. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Rabbi Moses Isserles. Image courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons

What did Isserles bring, so to speak, to the “table”? His code of law became a companion piece to the Shulchan Aruch known as the Mappah — the “tablecloth” for the Shulchan Aruch’s “set table.”

Isserles’ comments sit within the printed text of the Shulchan Aruch itself as a counter-voice and as a complement to Caro’s teachings.

What an amazing model that was — a text, and the response to that text — on the same page!

In fact, that is the way that printers produced Jewish texts such as the classic Mekr’ot Gedolot, the “rabbinic Bible,” in which the biblical text sits in the middle of the page, surrounded by commentators who lived in different places and times, and whose comments interact with each other. In silent cacophony, but at the very least, together.

That is the way that the Talmud is presented as well — text, surrounded by comments and glosses and differing understandings and traditions.

When I think of the Shulchan Aruch and its companion, the Mappah, I imagine what it would mean to live in a Jewish world that truly honors diversity of both practice and opinion.

Isserles could imagine a Jewish world of halacha that honored ethnic differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. We still do that, though increasingly many Jews are finding such ethnic differences in observance to be cumbersome and divisive — for instance, the whole “Do you eat legumes on Pesach” thing, not to mention that on Pesach many Ashkenazic Jews, tired of the ban on legumes, decide that their ancestors were really from Aleppo rather than Vilna.

So, too: European Jews and Sephardic Jews, as well as Jews of the Arab lands, view tradition in entirely different ways. Non-European Jews view “tradition” as a way of life, a resource for joy and meaning, but do not adhere to halacha in the same way as their European cousins.

But imagine if mainstream Orthodox Jews and their authorities could extend the same generosity of spirit to non-Orthodox Jews: “In our community, this is what we do. But, we honor the sincere work of other communities, whose teachers are no less learned than we are, and who also live within the covenant of the Jewish people.” 

I am not advocating uniformity, or even begrudging acceptance. Neither am I advocating that Jewish groups abandon their principles in order to have shalom bayit.

I am simply advocating that we all cut each other just a little bit more slack.

But there is more than that. The very tone of the Caro/Isserles “conversation” has something to teach us about how we handle disagreement around social and political issues.

Imagine if we could agree that there are certain core challenges in society — race, gender, economic justice — and find room in our discourse for people who share our concerns but differ in their proposed solutions.

I think of the wicked or rebellious child in the Passover Haggadah. S/he asks a pointed question, which some might find impertinent.

And yet, notice what does not happen. We do not send that kid away from the table.

This is a world of open conversation, respecting each other and maintaining the boundaries of civil discourse, a world in which, rather than tearing each other’s reputations and personhood apart, we might learn to ask the question: “How did you come to that position?”

The "Torah scrolls" in the ark of the Remah Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Courtesy photo

The “Torah scrolls” in the ark of the Remah Synagogue in Krakow, Poland. Courtesy photo

Or, a world in which each of us is a text, and the comments dance around the margins of our lives.

Oh: about the photo of the ark of the Remah Synagogue, which adorns this blog.

Look at the ark and at the beautiful scrolls within it.

Except, there is one thing.

There are no scrolls in the ark at all.

Those are simply painted images of Torah scrolls.

The Jewish Quarter of Krakow serves mostly as a Jewish Disney, a theme park that remembers what was.

May God, through our own best and sincere efforts, spare our own communities such a fate.