Is Judaism Necessarily Insular?

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


Recently my husband and I attended his first Conservative Shabbat, or Sabbath, morning service.

For me, the service was familiar. I loved hearing the chanted Torah. I studied religion in college; I’m a writer by trade; the Torah is a resonant symbol for me.

I’d forgotten how long a Torah service takes when the portion is broken into pieces, each book-ended with aliyot, or people going up to say the blessing over the Torah reading. But even as I fidgeted, I hummed the Torah blessings, which are as familiar to me as breathing.

For my husband, the morning was frustrating. Most churches, he pointed out, do everything they can to make the outsider welcome. Services are in English, hymnals pair words with music, often there’s a pause in the service where congregants are urged to greet one another.

In contrast, this service was mostly in Hebrew; prayers were only partially-transliterated, or not transliterated at all; melodies weren’t notated; and we sang things that weren’t even in the prayer book, like when the Torah processional took longer than expected and the cantor led us in “Al Shlosha D¹varim” ­ which the congregation, unlike my husband, knew by heart.

This service, he said, did not make him feel welcome.

My response: it wasn’t designed to. Which speaks to a really profound difference between Judaism and Christianity, one that I’m still working on articulating.

When the Shabbat liturgy was written and codified, the only people who encountered it were Jews. If you were Jewish, you learned this stuff from birth; and if you weren¹t Jewish, you never encountered it. Judaism was insular, a closed bubble.

Why is Judaism so insular?

Perhaps because, unlike Christianity, Judaism traditionally hasn’t proselytized. In fact, tradition holds that a potential convert should be turned away three times.

Perhaps because we call ourselves “chosen” ­ though chosen-ness is a mixed blessing. There’s a midrash, an interpretative story, that God offered the Torah to every nation in the world before offering it to the Jews; but it was so difficult, no one else wanted it.

Perhaps because of persecution. Are Jews insular because we were persecuted, or persecuted because we were insular? Hard to say.

Part of what makes us insular is Hebrew. Which, my husband knows, some Jews can’t read: and many who can sound out the words, don’t know their meaning.

“Doesn’t that strike you as strange,” he asked?

“Well,” I said, “I¹m the wrong person to ask, because I do understand. I’ve learned what the prayers mean.”

For others, the words are a mantra. This is true for my friend L, a feminist who resists feminizing Hebrew God-language. If we change the words, she says, she can’t lose herself in their sounds. For her, the words are a ladder to the divine. What’s important is their familiarity.

But I know that she and I are relative rarities. Most people don’t regard the words as a mantra or as a ladder to God. Many people don’t know what they’re saying when they recite passages in Hebrew, and for some, like my husband, Hebrew might as well be Martian.

So is Hebrew the tool he needs to find the service meaningful and welcoming? I’m not sure it would be enough. This year I attended Kol Nidre, a service held the evening of Yom Kippur, with four Israelis. After the service (almost all in Hebrew), I asked what they thought. “It was . . . nice,” one said gamely. “You really do this every year?” another asked. They smiled. They did not return.

The Israelis had no access to our service. They understood the language, but the framework ­ the repetition of the same prayers and melodies year after year, the association of the prayers with family and repentance and God ­ wasn’t there. The service made literal sense, but it wasn’t spiritually accessible.

Language is a barrier for my husband and for Jews unfamiliar with the liturgy, but I think lack of cultural and familial context is the larger problem. But if I’m right, then what? I have context; he doesn’t. Now what do we do?

Reform Judaism is one answer. Reform has transliterations, translations. Reform Judaism allows the vernacular. Reform Judaism holds that, while Torah and Shabbat and Israel are still fundamental, multiple interpretations are possible. It’s the Reform Jew’s responsibility to engage with Judaism for herself.

But is traditional Judaism’s closed-ness somehow vital? Is insularity inherently Jewish? Does Reform’s openness make it less Jewish?

Reform Judaism isn’t perfect, either. It is open-minded, and has politics and policies I can support, but the flipside of the liberal religion coin is that it can also lack kavvanah, or focus. Repetition of familiar prayers can calm one into transcendence ­ or it can become rote and meaningless. Reform services make the prayers more accessible, but that doesn’t guarantee that people enter into the prayers with complete heart, soul and mind.

Create your own Judaism, my friend D would advise. Do you really think that the Infinite Radiant Is — a term for God — cares what kind of Judaism you practice?

No, I have to admit, I don’t. God is God, regardless of whether I light Shabbat candles six minutes before sundown or two hours later, regardless of what I practice or what I believe.

So what’s important about preserving Judaism? The relativist in me doesn’t think any one religion is inherently better or worse than any other, but the Jew in me wants to remain Jewish, and I’m not sure how to resolve that contradiction.

The best answer I’ve come up with is that the contradictions, the tensions, are themselves important. Judaism is full of people arguing with God and wrestling with angels; this struggle is my variation on that. I’m commanded to be a Jew; my arguing with the implications and interpretations of that commandment is a quintessentially Jewish enterprise.

This doesn’t answer whether Judaism must be insular, but it gives me grounds for continuing to engage what upsets me about my tradition. Lately, I’m choosing to regard “insular” as descriptive, not prescriptive. That is to say: Judaism has been insular, but I don’t think it necessarily needs to be. Are we not commanded to be “a light unto the nations”?

In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic wisdom, there’s a proverb, “It is not incumbent upon us to finish the work. However, neither are we free from beginning it.”

It is not incumbent upon me to solve the contradictions between Judaism and modernity. The tension they embody generates the tradition’s richness. But the sages were right: even if I can’t solve them, that doesn’t free me of the responsibility to try.

How can we make Judaism less insular? Bringing English into the service is a start. Providing good transliterations and translations is another. We can offer resources which explain Judaism to the non-Jews among us ­ the “other half” of each interfaith couple ­ in the form of books, lectures, classes and magazines.

But the most important shift is a conceptual one. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as a closed system, and of non-Jews as outsiders who are “infiltrating” our community. Focusing our energies internally made sense in previous centuries, but it is time to take our place in the larger world. That means redefining our relationship to non-Jews, including the ones who have married into our families and our congregations.

Letting go of insularity doesn’t mean letting go of our uniqueness, our heritage, or our traditions. It means interacting with the entire world, whether Jewish or gentile, in what Martin Buber calls an I-Thou relationship. This isn’t a departure from Judaism; to my mind, it’s the most Jewish thing of all.


About Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.