A letter from
Ira Bedzow, Executive Director of the The Aspen Center for Social Values
As many of you know, though few are learning for the first time, the mission of The Aspen Center for Social Values (www.theaspencenter.org) is to leverage the unique assets of the Jewish tradition to promote serious thought about - and to bring a fresh and unique voice to - social and societal challenges that confront the world today.
What do we mean by the "Jewish tradition" and how is its voice unique?
A tradition (whether it be moral, national, or religious) is the story that we tell ourselves to help us make sense of our lives. It connects us to our history and it provides a vision for our future. While it may contain certain "rituals" (like the pledge of allegiance or the handshake) and certain norms (such as wearing business casual to work or keeping the elevator door open for the person behind you), the power of a tradition is in how it provides meaning and purpose for both individuals and the community at large.
The way in which we describe why we do things not only shapes our understanding of our past but it also shapes our own self-perception. To take one example from the Jewish tradition, many Jewish people eat gefilte fish (a dish made of ground, boneless fish) on Friday nights, yet it is very seldom eaten randomly (except by those who love its taste) during the week. When asked why Jews eat gefilte fish, many offer the explanation that Jews could not afford to buy fish in Europe, so they made a concoction of fish meal to be able to have some fish to eat. This explanation assumes a view of Jews in Europe as downtrodden, and it creates a prejudicial hurdle that contemporary Jews have to overcome in order to see themselves as integrated into contemporary American society.
An alternative explanation, which provides a more complete picture of Jewish history and a more productive picture for maintaining the contemporary Jewish practice of eating gefilte fish, is that Jews in Europe were presented with a difficulty, namely accommodating the belief that eating fish on Shabbat was beneficial and the Shabbat prohibition of separating the fish bones from the fish. As a solution, Jews invented gefilte fish, which has become the quintessential Jewish dish served on Friday nights (at least for European Jews). No longer is the dish a reminder of a difficult past but rather a symbol of creativity and of thinking outside the box. The reason why Jews were presented with this difficulty may have importance for some Jews and not others, yet the Jewish tradition of eating gefilte fish is shared by all.
People across different traditions seem to do the same things in general, such as congregate regularly (in synagogue, at church, at the lodge or country club) or celebrate historical events, and this may lead one to conclude that social values across traditions are basically the same. The difficulty, however, with looking at the general or the abstract is that it seldom helps to guide a person in the particular situations of everyday life. Social values, and the social norms and practices that underscore them, have meaning in their application. Therefore, particular differences across traditions will lead to nuances and distinctions in the understanding of particular social values.
As such, the unique voice of a tradition comes from the particular experiences that its community has undergone and the lessons it has learned so as to become resilient and successful in imparting its values onto the next generation. As anthropologist Ruth Benedict stated, "The eye that sees is not a mere physical organ but a means of perception conditioned by the tradition in which its possessor has been reared."
By the "Jewish tradition" I mean the entire Jewish canon, which is neither monolithic nor relativistic. Rather, diversity within the Jewish tradition creates a multifaceted yet coherent worldview, since it accommodates the different views of its participants in such a way as to maintain a collective vision. For example, even when the Jewish tradition seems to take a strong normative stance on an issue, it still transmits rejected opinions, because they have value in their own right and because minority voices may help in the future when considering changing social conditions.
The Jewish tradition is much more than any modern denomination or expression of Judaism. Denominational differences, such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, are just over 200 years old. The Jewish tradition as a whole, on the other hand, claims roots that are about 4,000 years old. We would be selling ourselves short to focus only on the latest expressions of Judaism, whichever expression we personally want to observe; to do so would be like trying to enjoy only one point of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – 1884 or only the last pages of The DaVinci Code. It is the tradition as a whole that provides meaning, not just a give slice of it in time.
The unique voice that the "Jewish tradition" has to offer comes from its experience. Through introducing a fresh voice into the discussion, different perspectives may be considered which can then be integrated into a "larger picture" of the issues. With more and different ways to approach a question, we can be hopeful for fuller and more productive answers.
For more information about The Aspen Center for Social Values (www.theaspencenter.org), please check us out online. Also, don't forget to sign up for our Public Conversation (www.theaspencenter.org/public-conversation/), which is August 11-13.