When asked “How Jews have contributed to American life?” the easy temptation is to offer a laundry list of Jews and their achievements—a Hall of Fame top-heavy with Nobel Prize winners, dramatists, musicians and artists; a parade of business leaders, movie moguls, educators, journalists, and entertainers who influenced the American scene.
But there is one area that is not often mentioned, that should be an integral part of our American thinking. Jews have always been people who wrestle with G-d. That is after all what Israel literally means. We ask tough questions. We often don’t agree with the prevailing wisdom. We are skeptical.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis in his book, “Does the World Need Jews?” discusses Judaism as a tradition committed to recognizing complexity. He writes, “It insists that the value of religion ought not be providing pithy theological positions that make intricate questions facile. Its real value is in sensitizing human beings and society to the profound intricacies raised by controversial issues. Some people want absolute answers. They think that what matters is resolving questions not dwelling on them”
We have seen that so often in the political arena, complex social and economic issues are reduced to simple statements that one has to either agree or disagree with. Alas, when we say “put two Jews in a room you will get three opinions,” we laugh. But couldn’t that be symptomatic of our unwillingness to confront complex issues and truly deal with them?
Gordis points out that while “people may chuckle at the images of the traditional rabbi unable to make up his/her mind because both sides of a dispute seem legitimate; Judaism sees that as a virtue.” Think of Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” as he vacillates, “on one hand… but on the other hand.”
Any student of the Talmud knows that a variety of opinions are offered, and while one may receive rabbinic approval, many more are left for us to explore. But all of them are recorded.
Gordis continues saying that, “Rabbinic literature had no tolerance for a society that no longer engaged in serious debate. Ours is a world, the Talmud would have said, in which complex issues are too often oversimplified and in which the agonizing is too frequently reduced to the easily resolvable. Judaism insists that the world needs more; the genius of Judaism’s tradition is its devotion to training Jews to think that way.”
It is this unique contribution Judaism can make to the area of discourse, although it is unlikely in this political and social climate that it will happen. Nevertheless, we can take pride in a tradition that recognizes the complexity of our world and attempts to address it. “In Jewish discourse,” writes Gordis, “certainty is taboo. In its rituals, its literature and its legal arguments, Judaism insists that intelligent debate is never easy and that simple solutions are probably illusions.”
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.