Shelach: Cutting the Cord?

When Jews recite the Sh'ma and V'ahavtah, our custom is to gather the tassels (tzizit) of our Tallit and recite aloud the following verse from this week’s parasha, Shelach, (among others): 

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת:

Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come, you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel’.  (Numbers 15:38) 

Yet, our tassels don't have a blue cord -- an apparent blatant violation of the very directive we recite!   

This omission/violation was emphasized this week during a presentation I attended by a representative of the Karaite community of Holon, a Tel Aviv suburb.  The Karaites split with Rabbinic Judaism in the 8th century CE and rejected the validity of the “oral Torah” and Talmud.  (The Karaites number about 50,000 today, of whom 40,000 live in Israel.)  

Our tzizit do not contain blue threads because the rabbis limited the source of the dye to a species of snail (the color blue being deemed representative of the sea, the sea of the sky, and the sky of the Throne of Glory.  Philo, Of Special Laws, X).   But the Karaites argue that this restriction is a pure rabbinic fabrication, and that the only Torah requirement is the one stated: a blue cord.  Their tallits thus have it, and the blue color isn't from snails!

Today’s Karaites likewise point out that there are no distinctions in Torah between men and women concerning prayer, singing, the granting of divorce, etc. – and thus that gender segregation (and many other things, including the wearing of T’fillin, the separation of milk and meat, and the celebration of Hannukah) are invalid Rabbinic inventions.  

During Karaism’s “Golden Age” between the 10th and 12th or 13th centuries, this “Jewish sect” posed a large and powerful threat to the dominance of Rabbinic Judaism.  

My visit to the Karaites, as well as to a Samaritan community the following day, reminded me again of the tensions we face in the Jewish world.  On the one hand, “there is more than one way to be Jewish!”  (And, if you accept the Reform view, there are, and should be, as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews, since each Jew is entirely free to decide what is meaningful to him/her as an individual).  

But on the other hand, what does “to be Jewish” mean if it can mean whatever a Jew chooses it to mean?  Unlike the early “Jewish Christians,” the Karaites never stopped being Jews.  As for the Samaritans, it appears that they did not "leave;" rather, other Hebrews become something different: Jews.

As is obvious to any observer, there are many tensions and “fault lines” in the Jewish world today.  The historical examples of the Samaritans, Jewish Christians, and Karaites show us that this is nothing new.  The first two groups no longer exist as Jews.  The third does, but only as a tiny remnant.  It was Rabbinic Judaism alone -- based upon Mishnah and Talmud -- that has survived the millennia.  

It’s worth seriously pondering whether sufficient common ground exists to keep us bound together as Jews, and if so, what "glue" that is.  Have we not only stopped using blue cords, but cut them entirely? 

How do we develop as Jews in response to constantly changing modernity and, in the Diaspora, to majority cultures, without assimilating out of existence or becoming something other than Jews?  How do we maintain our communal binding for the next generation, and the next?  And, what are each of us doing to contribute to that end? 

Here in Israel, an important parallel debate is taking place – what does it mean to be an Israeli?  Can religious Jews and secular Jews; Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews; Sabras and immigrants; Jews, Arabs, Druze, and Christians agree on what being Israeli should mean for the present and, especially, future state? 

As we gather our tzizit, may we likewise learn to hold these “tensions” of the Jewish world in our hands – our desire and need for individualism balanced with our people’s need for communal/intergenerational connectedness and responsibility.  
Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem!

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  • Shelach: Cutting the Cord?



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb