Meeting in the Bright Light of Night
By Leon Fenster
Most of this week’s parasha reads as a long tirade against the dangers of the scary world in which the small band of early Jews find themselves. Lot, his unnamed daughters and their mother must flee from the cartoonishly evil city of Sodom in which they have been living while it is destroyed in a hail of fire. Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt for merely looking back at the city as they flee, punished for a gesture perhaps born out of despair at the hopelessness of trying to integrate into that flawed city.
Gerar, a place to which Abraham moves his family, is presented as barely less hostile. Being scared of the Phillistine king, Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister, lest he be killed for being married to her. Nonetheless the king abducts Sarah and only releases her when God intervenes though a dream. When Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham’s encampment, their enforced wandering in the hostile wider world is a fate barely short a death sentence.
The only friendly people to emerge from this dangerous world turn out to be messengers of the divine who come in disguise to bring Abraham and Sarah news that she will bear a much desired child. That this news should be delivered by, according to Midrash, angels cloaked in the guise of men heightens the impression of a perilous world surrounding Abraham’s tent through which these messengers must scurry, carrying their divine news.
This passage of the Torah fits neatly into one reading of the biblical narrative: The nascent tribe wanders precariously through the wilderness, lurching from one dangerous encounter with outside peoples to the next. Only upon reaching the land of Israel wherein outsiders are promptly purged, does this tribe find safety and fulfilment, building religious-political structures which allow for a nation state in which the divine can permanently dwell with the people.
But with the advent of Rabbinic Judaism after the exile from the land, this narrative became far richer. The period of wandering in the world, difficult and messy as it might be, arguably became the essence of Judaism.
This past Yom Kippur I was having a conversation with a good friend from Jerusalem when I was suddenly struck by how much I have internalised this view of Judaism. She was explaining her deep sense of tranquillity when, back home, the whole city slows for Yom Kippur. Even if I don’t practise Judaism actively, she suggested, it surrounds me and I gain a deep Jewish experience just from being in a place where everyone is, in some way, observing Yom Kippur. However, when I think back to my most intense Jewish experiences they come instead from the opposite act of carving out a Jewish space where none existed before.
Walking around the streets of London on Yom Kippur between services is magical precisely because I seem to float along in a parallel world to that which is around me. Its beautiful textual structures and glorious absurdity are heightened by the oblivious and ‘ordinary’ surroundings. This gives diaspora-centric Judaism its momentum: if not for practise and engagement in Jewish ritual, the whole parallel world ceases to exist. Thus we forever walk a tightrope between our secular and Jewish identities. Complete indulgence in either one destroys the other. For many people in Israel, this particular tightrope is removed. I think I would miss the balancing act if I were to make aliyah.
I credit my enjoyment of such tightropes entirely to my Masorti upbringing. The Masorti movement is the child of the transition from a world in which Jews’ surroundings were indeed scary and unwelcoming, as this week’s parasha captures, to today’s world in which our surroundings seem to present a genuine choice of identities. We can have a complete secular identity or we can have a full Jewish identity. Masorti Judaism says loudly that we can have both. The only requirement is to embrace the difficult struggle to reconcile them even though to choose one alone would be simpler.
When I tell people that I am organising the fourth Limmud China in Beijing, where I currently live, and that we have a very active Jewish community here, people are often surprised. Surely it must be difficult being Jewish in a country with virtually no Jewish history and where we are a minority within a minority: Jews are a sliver of the expat community whose numbers within China are, in turn, a drop in the ocean. But in the model of Judaism discussed above, to be a Jew in China is perhaps the pinnacle of Jewish experience.
Limmud?itself is quite possibly Anglo Jewry’s greatest gift to the world. Since beginning as a British festival of Jewish learning in which anyone can share knowledge and ideas, it has spread to over 40 countries and has become an integral part of communal life in communities across the world. In Asia, Limmud China has taken on the additional role of providing a forum to discuss and celebrate the specific challenges of building community in Asia. Foremost among these challenges is the inherent transience of Asian Jewish communities. Many people are passing through on one-year, five-year or 20-year stints in the continent. Only now are larger numbers of Jewish families laying down roots here. Thus there is a strong sense of Jews passing through lands in which they are often defined by their foreignness, and, however briefly, meeting each other to share a temporary home made vibrant by a shared experience of what it means to be the wandering diaspora Jew in the most empowering sense.
Leon Fenster is an architectural designer and artist, the chair of Limmud China and a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue in Edgware.