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Being Jewish: Dissent, Self-Criticism and Self-Doubt (Lech Lecha 2015)

Rabbi Zalman Kastel
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Published: 16 October 2015

Last updated: 4 March 2024

I have been reading the often funny, interesting and nasty observations of Tuvia Tennenbom in his book ‘Catch the Jew’.1 Central to his story and argument are a few key caricatures. These include the ‘idiotic, fanatical, but sometimes interesting Haredi Jews’, and the ‘self-critical, self-doubting, self-hating, incoherent, hypocritical, humourless leftist Jews’, alongside various non-Jewish villains. It got me thinking about the nature of being Jewish and Jewish attitudes to dissent and self-doubt.

Abraham, considered to be the first Jew, discovered God through his own logic and then defiantly destroyed idols to demonstrate their powerlessness, according to oral Jewish tradition 2 (and also found in Islamic traditions). Abraham then miraculously survived the punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace.3  This story suggests that part of being Jewish involves questioning established views and tearing down conventional false idols. As attractive as the story is, it is not recorded in the text of the Torah, which arguably diminishes its significance somewhat.4  Still, although some Jews in positions of authority might find it convenient to have all dissenters fall into line, the right kind of chutzpa is clearly an important part of being Jewish.

Being Jewish and non-conformist5 also sometimes demands sacrifices in terms of relationships. The very first instruction from God to a Jew made him tear himself away from his land, his birthplace and his father’s house.6, 7  The dislocation caused by “being removed is considered to be more difficult for people than all (other difficulties)” 8  but Abraham had to abandon friends and family for the sake of his love of God.9  Moving away is also understood in a symbolic and metaphoric sense “as the thinking spirit abandoning material things…in order to occupy oneself with achieving completeness”.10  The quest for completeness can also be linked to the ritual of circumcision 11, which at its most basic level is a physical symbol of a close exclusive bond with God, called a covenant.

Someone on a mission for, and in relationship with, God might be forgiven for exhibiting some hubris. Yet we find the opposite in Abraham, the archetypal Jew. When there is a famine in the land he does not rely on a miracle to save him, instead he travels to Egypt. When God promises Abraham the land of Canaan, he questions God: “With what (personal merit12) will I know that I will (in fact) inherit it?”13  After Abraham had rescued his nephew and his fellow Sodomites in battle, he was afraid in case perhaps even one of the people he had killed in battle may have been righteous.14  Abraham’s fear is linked to the proverb “fortunate is the person who is always afraid, but the one who hardens his heart will fall into evil”.15  And Abraham himself is criticised by one authority for complicity in his wife Sarah’s mistreatment of his second wife, Hagar, conduct seen as a ‘karmic’ origin of conflict between Jews and Arabs in later times.16  Self-criticism and self-doubt are both very Jewish.

So I say to Mr. Tenenbaum, and to those who criticise me as a “dissenter” from some views that are wide-spread in our community: I make no apologies for thinking deeply about how Jews can do better and how we get it wrong sometimes. This is my obligation as a Jew. If someone doesn’t like Jewish self-doubt or criticism, an authentic response for a Jew is to “be bold like a leopard in the face of those who mock him”.17

This +61J article may be republished if acknowledged thus: “This article first appeared on www.thejewishindependent.com.au and is reprinted with permission."

  1. Tenenbom, T (2015), Catch the Jew, Gefen Publishing

  2. Bereshit Rabba 38

  3. Bereshit Rabba 38. Whether Abraham miraculously survived being inside the fire or a miracle happened to change the Kings mind and free him is discussed by some of the commentaries. Abarbanel on Lech Lcha and Ramban on Genesis 11:28 mention the alternative view that a hidden miracle occurred that the thought to free Abraham was put into the kings heart to free him from prison.

  4. Abarbanel, argues that whatever Abraham accomplished out of his own thinking and mind is less significant and worthy of being recorded in the Torah than what happened as a result of God speaking to him through prophecy.

  5. See Likutei Diburim of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, who links the meaning of the word Ivri/Hebrew to “one from the other side of the river” representing taking a different path to those around oneself.

  6. I wonder why only the father rather than the mother is mentioned here. In the same vein, the name of Abraham’s father, Terach, is given in the Torah while the name of his mother is not stated. A Midrash (Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima vol.1 p.542, note 4) states that his mother’s name was Amaslah, Amaslai.

  7. Genesis 12:1

  8. Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima vol.1 p.542, note 4

  9. Ramban

  10. Abarbanel, see also Likutei Sichos vol. 1 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe

  11. Genesis 17:10-14

  12. Bereshit Rabba 44

  13. Genesis 15:8

  14. Bereshit Rabba 44

  15. Proverbs 28:14

  16. Ramban on Genesis 16:6

  17. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, opening paragraph

About the author

Rabbi Zalman Kastel

Zalman Kastel is Director of Together for Humanity Foundation, a Christian, Jewish Muslim organisation that promotes Intercultural Understanding, primarily in schools.


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