Over the boundaries

Over the boundaries

Shoftim | Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

One of the challenging dimensions of contemporary Jewish religious pluralism is the definition of boundaries of belief. The past century-and-a-half saw the rise of Reform, then Conservative, then Reconstructionist interpretations of Judaism, as well as more recent developments such as the Jewish Renewal movement. One consequence has been a spectrum of religious affirmations (as well as denials) regarding belief in God. 

Yet this very pluralism and renewal often stretch the borders of what for some can comfortably be called “Jewish.” At each end of the spectrum we find assertions about God that some Jews would call “heresy.” We have moved beyond bordered reimaginings of Jewish spiritual thought to the margins of porous boundaries where the exchange between “Jewish thought” and the ideas of other traditions come into contact and conversation.

These concerns can still provoke accusations of “heresy.” But given the radical changes in Jewish life and religious thought in the past two centuries, how do we know what is essential and what is marginal? And can what was once marginal, even “heretical,” be reclaimed and reimagined?

The Torah had no such problems, as this week’s portion indicates. According to Deuteronomy, if a member of the Israelite community is discovered in idolatrous worship, s/he is to be executed upon the testimony of at least two witnesses. (17:2-7) This rule is somewhat peculiar, since so much of what constitutes heresy in Judaism has to do with action rather than belief. Non-compliance with Jewish law is often a more sensitive subversion than disagreement with a given Jewish category of belief.

The Torah’s definition of idolatry terms its followers heretics if they are members of the Israelite community. Deuteronomy itself, however, suggests that “the sun and moon and stars, even the whole host of heaven” are acceptable objects of worship for other peoples (4:19), a passage that caused consternation for classical Jewish commentators.

The Torah here seems to suggest that there is nothing inherently objectionable about (some of) the beliefs of other religious traditions. What is objectionable is the attempt by Jews to incorporate those beliefs into their own religious tradition.

Some beliefs of other traditions, such as confessing Jesus as the Messiah, would still seem to provoke a consensus among many Jews that adopting such a belief creates conflict with a claim to “still be Jewish.” Hence the “Jews for Jesus” remain by and large outside of the Jewish communal conversation. 

But when we consider how many Jews are involved in meditation and mindfulness practice and access those through settings that are self-consciously Buddhist, the consensus of “outside the system” becomes much less clear. We even have a term, “Jew-Bu,” for Jews who also practice some forms of Buddhism. But whereas “Jews for Jesus” are “outside,” “Jew-Bus” are not necessarily seen as heretical or outside the community.

We live in a period of transition, when the rediscovery of those parts of Jewish tradition such as Hasidism or Jewish mysticism that were once considered heresies by some sectors of rabbinic tradition now surface as spiritual resources for contemporary Jewish seekers. One generation’s heresy may well become a later generation’s discovery. 

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