Question. What is the state of Jewish Orthodoxy today?
Answer. British Jewry recently produced a report that confirms what many of its leaders have been feeling for years, that young people are more Orthodox than their elders. Once upon a time the growing movements were the Reform and Liberal (in some places the two terms are basically identical; in Britain the Reform group is more traditional, almost but not quite like Conservatism in the USA, and the Liberals are more radical). Both groups still have large numbers of adherents, but strict Orthodoxy is on the road to matching, overtaking and eclipsing them (another qualification: “establishment” Orthodoxy in Britain used to be known for a rather lax kind of commitment, but that is now receding into history).
The difference between non-Orthodox and Orthodox is both quantitative, and qualitative. Quantitatively, it’s the Orthodox who are producing large families. In addition, it’s they who gain the “ba’alei t’shuvah” – the Jews who return from the periphery.
Qualitatively, they are the ones that have the visibly growing rates of Jewish learning, commitment and observance, and the resurgence of Jewish intellectuality.
An Australian professor of science once said to me,
“I’m not religious, but if I were I’d be Orthodox”.
Orthodoxy stands for something and does not try to be all things to all people.
One of the weaknesses of Conservatism, Reform and Liberalism is that their adherents tend to choose them for negative more than positive reasons –
“It’s not because of what I believe and do,”
an Australian Liberal Jew told me,
“but it’s because I’m not Orthodox… I don’t keep Shabbat strictly, I don’t keep kosher, I don’t like Orthodox synagogues”.
Not that Orthodoxy has all the cards. Some of its sub-groups – and, unfortunately, some of its rabbis – give belief and observance a bad name. Narrowness and intolerance are unpleasant to behold. It’s only a minority that allow themselves these habits, but that’s already a problem.
Further, being or becoming Orthodox sometimes means disengaging from the world. It’s not only that some of the Orthodox can’t hide their feeling of superiority towards other Jewish group; they can’t hide their superiority complex towards the wider world.
There’s also the problem of cultural narrowness. It shocked me to find a young Australian Orthodox Jew who had never heard of the Aborigines. If he knows any music it may be Chassidic melodies and even Carlebach, but Mozart and Beethoven are not on his horizon. He has learnt Rambam but not Plato. Even Jewish thinkers are beyond his ken: maybe he knows Tanya but not Rosenzweig or even Soloveitchik.
Orthodoxy never over-simplified or shied away from ideological challenges. It met them head-on. Today’s orthodox academics tend to choose “safe” subjects. They don’t mind mathematics and some of the sciences – but literature or history often raise too many difficult questions.
The pendulum is swinging towards Orthodoxy. Let’s hope it finds some balance.
BREAKING THE GLASS
Question. Why does the groom break a glass at a wedding ceremony?
Answer. There is an old witticism,
“When the bridegroom breaks the glass it is the last time he can put his foot down”.
The folklorists connect the custom with the consummation of the marriage. Homileticists say,
“As one step shatters the glass, so will one act of unfaithfulness for ever destroy the happiness of the home” (JH Hertz).
The generally accepted explanation is that it recalls the destruction of the Temple and ensures that even in the midst of joy we remember the tragedies. The Talmud reports that when Mar, son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son the guests were in an uproarious mood, so he took a costly vase and shattered it in order to curb their spirits (Ber. 30b). Tosafot says this is the origin of breaking the glass at weddings.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT & THE CITY OF WOMEN.
Question. Is it true that a Jewish source mentions a city in the time of Alexander the Great inhabited only by women?
Answer. The Talmud (Tamid 32a; there are versions in various Midrashim) relates that after the “elders of the south” showed Alexander how to cross the “mountains of darkness”, he found a land somewhere in Africa inhabited only by women. He wanted to start a war against them, but they said,
“If you fight us, people will mock you and say that you make war on women; if we kill you, people will say that Alexander was the king who was killed by women”.
He asked for bread, and they gave him a loaf of gold on a table of gold. He asked,
“Do people in your city eat gold?”
“Did you want ordinary bread? Had you no bread in your own country that you had to come here?” When he left the place, he wrote on the gate of the city, “I, Alexander of Macedon, was a fool until I came to the city of women and learned counsel”.
The story has no specifically Jewish content, though it illustrates the age-old Jewish fascination with Alexander who not only defeated the great Persian empire but is said (the story is told in Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”, Book 11) to have come to Jerusalem, made peace with the high priest, showed respect to God and the Temple, and allowed the Jews to live “by the laws of their ancestors”.
There are stories in many cultures about a place where there were only women, often called the Amazons. In another Jewish source the place inhabited by women is called Kartagena (“Karta” from an Aramaic word for “city” and “gena” from a Greek word for “woman”).
In the Greek version of the story, the women’s city was near the Black Sea. The Alexander stories often depict the king as a philosopher who admitted that he learned wisdom from many sources. In the Talmudic passage in the tractate Tamid some of his discussions with the sages echo the fourth chapter of Pir’kei Avot.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.