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‘What Happens When People are Cedars, not Reeds?’

Vol. 2. No. 1: Joanna Samuels says she feels less hopeful than Donniel Hartman and that a Jewish philosophical enterprise must engage the reality in which it finds itself


In the realm of philosophy, and in the realm of community, ethnic consciousness and mitzvah consciousness are powerful frames to understand two different expressions of Jewish identity. Donniel Hartman’s exhortation that these two forms of identity must exist in creative tension – or even in robust dialogue – promises an outcome of some time or place or community on which something substantive and enduring gets created from these differences. Underlying his desire for this outcome is a faith that the shakla v’tarya of these two distinct strands of communal consciousness will produce something generative – something other than the hardening of our respective hearts.

Here is where I feel less hopeful than Donniel Hartman. I agree that a Jewish philosophical enterprise must engage the reality – filled with extremes and internal inconsistencies – in which it finds itself. Indeed, a Jewish community that honors ethnic consciousness and mitzvah consciousness as separate components contributing to a greater whole may well be a healthy one. A Jewish individual, however, who exists entirely within one of these spheres may well not be. 

Hyper-connected tentacles of modern life show us the extreme versions of these two types of consciousness as they are lived in the realm of the individual. On one side might be the proudly secular non-joining Jew, whose ethnic consciousness extends to memories of his grandparents and a love for deli; the other, the scrupulously mitzvah-driven, tribal Jew whose every moment is circumscribed by the will of rabbinic authority. These two prototypes have nearly nothing in common, unless we accept that the DNA that (might) establish their Jewish lineage has metaphysical import (which may itself be an important element of ethnic consciousness).

Of course, in this funhouse mirror, these two icons of consciousness also have much in common: each depends on the other as the cautionary tale that affirms her own choices. Are these two individuals aware of creative tension? Are they open to dialogue that places their life-choices in generative disequilibrium? I fear not. I fear that mitzvah consciousness and ethnic consciousness, as embedded in individual human lives, show us the natural outcomes of a world without porousness, a world in which tension is anything but creative.

Massechet Ta’anit of the Talmud teaches the abiding lesson that a person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar. I have spent much of my adult life trying to live up to this teaching, and to build communities that inspire people to join in that work. I think our philosophies and our communal narratives ultimately are reeds. They bend and sway, bravely, to keep moving forward a creative, responsive path of peoplehood and Torah. But what happens when the people are cedars, ever more in need of certainty and stasis?  

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