Sunday, June 12, 2011

Judaism's Embroidered Coat of Many Colors

Pick a country on the map – any country - and you will likely find that Jews have settled there at one time or another in the last five thousand years. India, Burma, Peru, Japan, Cuba, Bolivia, Lithuania, Eritrea (the Horn of Africa), Iceland, Australia, Poland and Libya - some of the most rugged, out of the way and difficult places on earth to reach have been destinations or way stations for Jews at one or another time in history. 
Sign in Kochin, India. Photo - Adam Jones,

No time seems more fitting to consider this than the month of Sivan when Jews acknowledge the receipt of the Torah from G-d. According to the Torah, the Jewish people’s true origins began in humble surroundings, far from other communities, religions and influences. Estranged in the vast desert, they had no idea of what awaited them but what G-d offered them in exchange for accepting the Torah: a homeland filled with the riches of identity and belonging. 

Several thousand years later their passage to that homeland has been anything but direct and simple. The Jewish people have been scattered to the ends of the earth multiple times, prompting the question of just what was meant in the Torah when G-d promised them a homeland.
An Indian Jewish family c. 1905. Courtesy of IndianJew.

In their evolution, the Jewish people have become world-class travelers. As a culture, they have seen places and encountered traditions that their ancestors never dreamed existed. Jewish traditions have been shaped by the many different cultural viewpoints they have encountered, and Jews have learned from those contrasts.

Who would have expected that the dispersion of the 12 tribes from the land of Israel would eventually lead to populations keeping kashrut in the remote and lush mountains of India and Myanmar (Burma), or that the children of those who were cast out at the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition would eventually adapt their traditions and language to life in Turkey, Italy and Brazil?

Who would have expected that the “New World” of the United States and Canada would one day become the single greatest haven, short of Israel for all Jewish sects, bringing together Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews on the soil of one continent?    

Georgian Jewish orchestra, 1800s, Public Domain
Many suggest that the migration of the Jewish people has been a tragedy amounting to an exile, a galut from their homeland. I wonder if it is in fact, meant as a blessing.  With the ability to fit within any segment of the world community, Jews are assured survival and enjoy the richness of a multicultural world view. 

Like a disparate family spread across the globe, the Jewish people must learn to live together and to communicate. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahim, Karaite, Humanistic, religious and secular - the list goes on, each with its distinct interests and backgrounds, each with an individual take on the Torah and Talmud that is grounded in its own defensible argument. The dilemma can’t help but lead to the question of how Jews, self-recognized guardians of the Torah, can serve as “a light unto the nations” if they cannot relate to each other in mutual respect.

And yet, the greatest single value that the Jewish people hold is their adaptability, their ability to adjust and to lay claim to the lessons they have learned and the identities they have assumed in the process, without forgetting their heritage.  

Like Joseph’s coat of many colors, we have come to be recognized by more than one hue. Our strength is not only in our similarities, but our diversity as a people, and our ability to use those strengths to discover what it really means to be Jewish.

Bnei Menashe boys from India - Photo by rajk1220

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