Why Does Jewish Exceptionalism Get Such A Bad Rap?

There’s a frightening trend in most of the Western world these days which condemns any thoughts of “exceptionalism”.  It’s as if every accomplished group has been infected with self-hate and doubt and focuses only on their contribution to the very real challenges the world faces.  We blame ourselves for degrading the environment, for imperialism and for all the problems that might be traced to them.  Non-developed groups seem to get a free pass, perhaps under the guise of “indigenousness”.  (Although when we Jews return to our indigenous home, there is little welcome or celebration….)

Perhaps because of the life-and-death struggle Israel faces in the middle east, many Jews view Judaism itself as cause for many of these problems.  All too often, those of us quickest to condemn ourselves have never had the opportunity to explore and experience our Jewish tradition in any sort of healthy manner.  This is a tragedy.  Without direct experience of the profundity and humanism that are fundamental to our tradition, they condemn all of us as creating the now-global conflict with Islam, for providing the foundation for Christianity which they see as the foundation for imperialism and exploitation.  If you listen carefully, it’s very difficult to distinguish their “self-criticism” from the most anti-semitic rants that have been repeated throughout history.

I’m willing, proud, to say that Judaism is exceptional.  It provides insights and guides to living that are found nowhere else.  I’m not saying that other spiritual traditions aren’t exceptional themselves.  While I take it on faith that these other traditions do provide many insights and many good ways of living, I take it on personal experience, as well as on the accumulated experience transmitted by our ancestors, generation after generation, that Judaism is.  I haven’t deeply studied other religious traditions, although I have studied about them.  I’d never claim any expertise about any of them.  I base my faith on their inherent potential for good on the obvious fact that they are also brought into our world by God, that He wasn’t stuck in the check-out line at Starbucks and missed their emergence, and that God’s creation of everything is for the ultimate benefit of humanity and not so that 99% of it would tempt frum Jews to stray.

I’m not the first to notice that most spiritual traditions seem to develop societies that either favor empiricism or intuition (Ken Wilber, in his Theory of Everything, as well as other books quite convincingly talks about this).  The extreme position of western culture is that only the empirically experienced, analyzed and proven is “true” while the mirror-image of much eastern culture is that everything we see is but illusion.

As far as I’ve been able to find, Judaism is the only spiritual tradition and way of life that insists on the validity of both types of experience.  Not only can’t we deny the reality of the empirical, we can’t deny the reality of the intuitive/ethereal.  We don’t merely pay lip-service to that concept, but base our entire traditional education on developing the skill to navigate and integrate both.

As I repeatedly say to all my private students, the purpose of Talmud study is not to glean curious factoids about our ancient culture.  It’s also not even to learn what the halacha (ritual/religious “law”) is.  Rather, much like a math text, the purpose is to teach us a way of thinking.  And this way of thinking, which we view as authentic Torah, meaning the miraculous inclusion of the Infinite within the Finite, is very curious indeed.  It contains a very definite set of logical rules, many of which parallel secular, math-based logic.  It also deliberately leads us in digressions, story-telling and mysterious, mystical visions.  Neither is the ikkar, the “real stuff”, with the other being mere window-dressing or comic relief, but both, just like both the Oral and the Written Torah, are of exactly equal validity and importance.  Just like an elementary arithmetic text with problems such as “Mark has seven apples and Betty has fifteen oranges” is not about agriculture or botany, but rather is teaching the skill of addition, our Talmud is teaching us how to simultaneously work both logically/empiracally and imaginatively/intuitively.

Another common aspect of the Talmud experience is repeatedly processing two differing opinions fractalizing into four and then into eight and more until, each of us according to our mental capacity, we can no longer keep all the balls in the air, as it were.  We’re being trained to understand the world as more than a binary environment. We’re also being trained to accept that no matter how smart each of us might be, eventually we’ll reach a limit to our mental ability–in other words, we’re all finite and that there will always be infinitely more that we’ll never know than what we will.  This is also unique, as far as I know, in both religious and secular education.

And even more unique is that we don’t guard this type of mental conditioning, admitting only a select few.  Rather, it’s considered the birthright of all Jews (I’ll discuss in another article that, contrary to many people’s belief (both secular and religious) women are, indeed, included).  And, in addition to that, we’re all mandated to find our own unique path, in other words, we simultaneously emphasize both unity and individuality.

Unfortunately, there are too many Jews who are so turned off that they won’t even begin to try to experience their own tradition.  Partially this is because much of what is accepted as “common knowledge” about Judaism derives from non-Jewish sources altogether.  An even worse obstacle is that way too many people who present themselves as “authentic Torah Jews”, who look the stereotyped part, who indeed do spend large amounts of each day in environments that are supposed to teach these lessons, act in ways that are repulsive and wrong.  And the louder they proclaim their outrageous actions to be “authentic Torah”, the more Jews are so discouraged that many leave and many more won’t even explore.  Like any other phenomenon in our post modern “fifteen minutes of fame” world, it seems that most attention is grabbed by the loudest, most extreme, most obnoxious and, in the final analysis, the least representative–much like the neo-Leninist radicals, the tea-partiers, the radical Islamists, the ultra fundamentalist Christian.  But we need to remember that self-appointed “guardians of the faith”, be it political, religious, economic, whichever extreme side they choose, rarely know what they’re talking about.

So, as the new year approaches for the Jewish people, I want to invite all to explore the truly exceptional wisdom our tradition contains.  Please, look beyond the superficial voices that trivialize, demonize or repel.  Experience for yourselves the true sweetness we only begin to taste when we dip our apples into honey.  Find your unique path in our very exceptional, indeed, Torah.

Shana Tova

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