“The dynamic is much more characteristic of this people than the static, the flexible conception more than the exact organization, the vision more than the system.”
– Leo Baeck, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence
As Shavuot approaches I find myself reading from Leo Baeck’s profoundly moving, This People Israel. Written before and during the Shoah (in some cases on scraps of paper and from within Theresienstadt), This People Israel is a book that warrants close study. Let’s briefly unpack the above quotation…
Dynamic/Static: From Sinai until today Judaism has remained a living tradition. Its authority derives from the fact of its ongoing relevance in the modern world. As times change, Judaism changes. Though much of Jewish tradition is “static”, Judaism’s interaction with our changing world is meant to be dynamic. While Judaism is undeniably a “tradition” and therefore craves a certain measure of consistency and continuity, the excitement and potential of Judaism emerge only in the context of dynamism.
Flexible Concept/Exact Organization: Judaism isn’t a bureaucracy. It isn’t a rigid, impersonal, series of considerations. Judaism is flexible, or at least it’s supposed to be. It should be tolerant of humanness, of mistakes, of failures, of weaknesses of will, of lapses. It should also be tolerant of people who don’t always make the best choices and those who deviate from the letter of the law. Being flexible is different from being weak, shallow, or lacking a spine. Flexibility means the recognition that there’s a gap between perfection and human aspiration, with the later being, in many ways, more beautiful. Judaism is flexible and resilient, rather than rigid and brittle. Flexibility and resilience are important features of Judaism both throughout history and today.
Vision/System: As someone who is fundamentally skeptical of all “isms” I love the idea that Judaism is a “vision” and not a “system.” Sure, Judaism attempts to describe and systematize the world, but “vision” is the guiding principle rather than “system.” When I think of “system” I think of a self-contained, self-organized, self-aware structure. Systems crave stability and strive to be comprehensive and all-encompassing. Things that threaten a system or undermine its integrity are often marginalized or even excluded from the system, as they threaten the status quo and established order. “Vision” is able to absorb and incorporate difference and divergent thinking. Vision is enriched by the marketplace of ideas and through the critiques and challenges of iconoclasts and varied perspectives. Rather than attempting to harmonize and incorporate, vision engages ideas, gleans from them, and transforms itself. I am interested in the Judaism of vision and in celebrating visions of Judaism. The prophets didn’t experience “systems” they experienced and prophesied “visions.” So too may we in our own day.