What does Jewish identity mean for you

Jewish identitySearching for the Truth in Scripture

Rudiger Achenbach: If one does not claim to have an absolute truth, then one also treats the Holy Scriptures differently. In Judaism, this affects the understanding of the oral and written Torah. What exactly is meant by that?

Edna Brocke: In the narrowest sense it is the five books of Moses. In a somewhat broader sense, it is the entire Jewish Bible that Christians call the Old Testament. Because these two parts of Jewish history and tradition have more than just a religious component, but also help shape or even shape an image of man and society, very quickly after these first writings came into being, there was a desire to interpret and interpret these writings to update how am I supposed to implement this now.

Achenbach: So basically every generation has the task of updating that again.

Chunks: Exactly. I'll give you an example like that. The Torah says you should not do any work on the Sabbath day. That sounds plausible. The rabbis understood very early that we have to sit down and define what we mean by work. Because what is work for me can be a hobby for you, for example, or vice versa. So when we form a community in which we say no work should be done on the Sabbath day, we must first come to an agreement about what we mean by work and what not. That is a question of legal definition. That is a plausible example. There are quite a few of them. But this has found its way into the oral Torah. And this interpretation, as I understand - let's stay with this example - work on the Sabbath, is being reinterpreted from generation to generation, interpreted differently. Certain principles are always maintained. That would lead us too far to go into details. But there is an overall framework. But otherwise it has to be explained.
This tradition of the oral Torah has become necessary because with the emergence of Christianity the internal biblical commentary process had to come to an end. You had to decide which books would go into a canon. The others then have to stay outside. For the Jews who followed Jesus and the Jews-Jews were in competition with one another. The first followers of Jesus from Judaism were, ontically speaking, still Jews, were still part of the Jewish people. And this process, which was customary until then, of including certain interpretations in the scriptures and dropping others again, this process of writing discussions had to be interrupted, not broken off by creating a canon - i.e. the Old Testament or the Jewish Bible. But you immediately felt the need to open the book cover again. We continued the process, so to speak, but no longer in the same dignity as the written Torah, but then as the oral Torah.

Achenbach: You don't have the truth. That means one tries to get closer to the truth, but there is never an absolute claim at a certain point. So that means there can be contradictions in the interpretation. And that actually belongs to it, when one is in search of the truth, there are also contradicting interpretations. Now there is no binding teaching post in Judaism.

Chunks: Yes.

Achenbach: What then is the criterion for the acceptance of certain interpretations?

Chunks: In the Talmud alone - let's just take the Babylonian Talmud - you can find contradicting interpretations on various topics and forms that are written in the Torah, which have simply arisen over the centuries. And in the responsen literature, which was common until the mid-eighteenth century, different rabbis from one city and from another city had opposing opinions. In the end it always says, we have the position and the position, we are guided by the majority today.

Achenbach: So whoever enters the process of interpretation today can join one or the other.

Chunks: Just like that. And what constitutes acceptance is the group in which you then find yourself - that can be very orthodox, that can be traditional, that can be a reform. Consensus will be found in the group. For example, here in the Federal Republic of Germany this can vary from municipality to municipality. But in the group you find this consensus and you stick to it on site because they say: Our members have agreed on it. Of course in the diaspora the difficulty is when the consensus in community A does not suit me, but I live in community A, I have a problem because there is not a second or third community around the corner. Completely different compromises still have to be made - obeying the need, but not the insight that the other way is the right one. But well, then I have no choice. Either I'm a member here or I'll leave it. But I have no alternative with another church.

Achenbach: That would then correspond to the concept of the unified church today, where one tries to keep different currents but still together in one church.

Chunks: That is the post-war variant here in the Federal Republic, exactly. Out of necessity that there are no numerical options to go any other way.

Achenbach: Can this ongoing process of interpretation that you have just described also protect Judaism from scriptural fundamentalism?

Chunks: I would like to answer with a straight yes, but truthfully I have to say that in the orthodox and ultra-orthodox scene - so my formulation is - there are excesses of such fundamentalist directions. One small group of those who may or may have heard of here is one group that has a vision of wanting to rebuild the Third Temple. These are people, these are Jews, who derive very fundamentalistically from the texts what they would have liked to achieve politically. But they are - now my rating - thank God only a small minority. But there are.

Achenbach: And of course there is a minority that does not participate in this ongoing process of interpretation, but that preserves certain written forms and leaves them as we know it from some Christian and some Muslim communities.

Chunks: Just like that. A second example are the visually best known Jews in this country, namely older men with long black coats, with beards and sidelocks and with such a fur hat. It has nothing to do with Judaism at all. This is the costume of the Polish nobility in the 17th century. And because the Jews in Poland reached a higher economic level in the 17th century, he was allowed to wear this noble costume. So has nothing to do with Jewish tradition. The Polish nobility no longer exists. Polish aristocrats walking around in such costumes no longer exist either. Only the ultra-Orthodox Jews continue to run around like that and hold on to this costume - now I would almost say fundamentalist - because they now regard it as their branded clothing.

Achenbach: For them it is part of the Jewish identity.

Chunks: For these circles this aristocratic costume of 17th century Poland is part of the Jewish identity. Yes.