A friend at church gave me this morning a copy of Born To Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (presumably because I, like, care about language). I’ve already devoured the first chapter; rather, I had to consciously slow myself down so I could savour it more fully. This chapter is about the the Biblical (or as we will see, rather Talmudic) genesis of Yiddish as the linguistic expression of Jewish exile. And of course, exile is a big theme around here, so I wanted to share (I make no apologies for the length!):
[Consider] the fundamental absurdity of Jewish existence in the world. We are God’s chosen people; it says so over and over in the Bible, His favorites. And how does he show it? Just look at Jewish history: persecution and pariahhood are both tributaries of one big river of goles — exile — the fundamental fact of Jewish life for the last couple of thousand years. Indeed, scholars question whether pre-exilic Judaean society can even be called Jewish, in the sense in which we understand the term. Judaism is defined by exile, and exile without complaint is tourism, not deportation; “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). If we stop kvetching, how will we know that life isn’t supposed to be like this? If we don’t keep kvetching we’ll forget who we really are. Kvetching lets us remember that we’ve got nowhere to go because we’re so special. Kvetching lets us know that we’re in exile, that the Jew, and hence the “Jewish,” is out of place everywhere, all the time.
…It started with the Exodus from Egypt. Seven weeks after leaving the country, the Hebrew ex-slaves received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Most of the Torah — the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible — is made up of orders, orders that the ancient Israelites were so eager to receive that a well-known Talmudic tradition states that the Lord held the mountain over them like a bucket, threatening to crush them if the didn’t say yes to His rules: “If you accept the Torah–good. And if not–this is where you’ll be buried” (Shabbos 88a).
It was a Torah they couldn’t refuse, and after 210 years of servitude, they must have felt that it was being given them aftselakhis [out of spite], to make freedom as full of obligations as slavery. The orders or commandments that they received are known as mitsves (singular, mitsve), and tradition says that there are 613 of them: 248 “thou shalts” and 365 “thou shalt nots.” … These mitsves are the foundations of every aspect of Jewish life; in a very real sense, they are Judaism. You can be as monotheistic as you like, without the mitsves you’re still not Jewish. … According to Rashi, whose commentaries on the Bible and Talmud are an integral part of traditional methods of study, “The whole point of Torah is its mitsves.” What the chosen people have been chosen for is the obligation of fulfilling mitsves that are incumbent on nobody else. The Jews have been chosen not to: not to have that BLT; not to sit on Santa’s knee; not to catch the Saturday matinee or blend in with the people around them. The election of Israel, as the theologians call it, is like the election of the kid who has to practice the violin while the rest of the neighborhood plays ball — what’s normal for everyone else is a sin for the one who’s been chosen.
…Contrary to the usual “people of the book” shtik (the phrase, incidentally, comes from the Koran), Judaism is a Talmudic, not a biblical religion; without the interpretive guidance of the Talmud, the Hebrew Bible can lead to Jesus on the cross as easily as to me at my bar mitzvah. The Talmud is even called the Oral Torah and is considered to have been given to Moses along with the Written Torah.
… The Oral and Written Laws are both at considerable pains to emphasize that it is the mitsves that make the Jews unique: “And gentiles are never exiled? Even in exile, though, they’re gentiles and their exile is no exile; they will eat the bread and drink the wine of the people among whom they are exiled. But the Jews won’t eat their bread and won’t drink their wine — the Jews’ exile is Exile (Eykho Rabbo 1).
Wow! What an utterly fascinating peek into the Jewish understanding of Law and Exile. (I didn’t quote any of his equally fascinating exposition of the Jewish view of Jesus; if you ask nice, maybe I’ll type that in as a separate post!) I wish I was pals with this guy, so we could have coffee and I could pick his brain for more; for instance, he demonstrates awareness of the prophets (“what is Hebrew prophecy but kvetching in the name of God?”), but what does he make of Jeremiah’s guidelines for exile in ch. 29, or promise of a new, non-Mosaic covenant in ch. 31?
What insight this gives to the problem Paul addresses in Galatians! How thankful we can be that Christ freed us from this unbearable yoke of law, and that our exile does not have to be one filled with kvetching, but rather we can enjoy bread and wine (in different, but true, senses) with both our brothers and our neighbors.