A Jew had lived alone on an island for years. When he was finally found, his rescuers saw that he had built two synagogues on the island. “Why two synagogues?” they asked him. The Jew pointed to one and said, “This is the synagogue where I pray regularly, and over there I would never set foot in that one!”
This joke describes quite accurately the attitude of many Jews who may still feel the old tribal thinking from biblical times. At that time the people were divided into 13 tribes (the tribe of Joseph was divided into Manasseh and Ephraim) and we know from the Bible that this division was important to God. The reason for this is that each tribe had its own character and specialization and that the Jewish people, as a “light to the nations,” should show that there is not only one way to God. The path to holiness can be reached not only through solitary meditation, but in various different ways. A warrior tribe like Gad was just as holy and close to God as the merchant tribe of Zevulun, or the priestly tribe of Levi.
Today we don’t have any tribes, but we have hundreds of different communities with different traditions and even laws. It must be said that the differences lie in the details and not the important, overarching principles. For example, all currents of authentic Judaism recognize the duty to observe Shabbat, but some communities allow cycling on this day, while others consider it too dangerous, as the bike can break and it would then need to be repaired, which everyone agrees is a form of work forbidden on Shabbat.
As in the joke above, every community now has its own path to God, some on bikes and others on foot. And like in the joke, each looks down a little on the others.
“Oh, these crazy Hasidim!” say the Lithuanian Jews, “They don’t start their morning prayer until 10 o’clock and then pray long enough for them to start their noon prayer right afterwards!”
“These bourgeois Litvaks,” say the Hasids, “they have absolutely no joy in life, they always come to prayer on time, but has anyone ever seen a Litvak smile!?”
From the point of view of many Ashkenazi Jews, the Sephardi Jews come from a completely different planet, and the Yemenite community, which after thousands of years of isolation has perhaps the most unique authentic Jewish tradition, is seen by everyone else as “a bit strange.”
Then there are the Ethiopians, the Bnei Menashe from India, the various communities from the south of the former Soviet Union and so on. Each community has its own rules and traditions, and often its own appearance. Many people immediately recognize me as an Ashkenazi Russian, and I recently had a sense of achievement in my synagogue when new faces appeared there that I easily recognized them as South Americans.
All of these communities basically form their own tribes, but it is easy to switch between them. Many a Litvak who suddenly feel a sparkle of joie de vivre, become Breslav Hasids. I met an Italian once who was very fond of the Yemenite tradition, and thus became a member of this community.
But since we all now live together in Israel and the communities are no longer regionally separated from one another, as in biblical times, a common Judaism is emerging very, very slowly. When I’m in Jerusalem, I pray in the synagogue next to our editorial office in the Sephardic way. In many synagogues there is also no fixed tradition during the week, the prayer leader prays in the way that suits him best and everyone else joins in.
So there is a Judaism, but with many different flavors. Maybe beer is the best analogy. Beer is made from hops and malt, but there are still many different types and regional differences. The core stays the same, but each strain has its own recipe, preferences and taste that reflect its character. With that I bid you L’Chaim and Shabbat Shalom!