Swimming in the Sea of Jewish Tradition

Swimming in the Sea of Jewish Tradition January 31, 2020

I named this post as a play on the title of the excellent book, Swimming in the Sea of Talmud, by Rabbi Gershon Schwartz. The work is a readable, insightful introduction to, and sampling of, the wisdom in the Talmud. A few years ago, a group of ten or so of us from my local Temple met for a few weeks to read and discuss this book together – it was a delightful and enriching experience.

The book recognizes the enormity of Talmud – its size and scope – and compares immersing oneself in the Talmud as to swimming in the sea. An apt analogy in my thinking, and one we can expand to all of Jewish tradition.

The Meaning of Tradition

Yet before we start diving into analogies, let’s talk further about the meaning of tradition. I liked this definition of the term from Merriam Webster’s Online dictionary:


1aan inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)
ba belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable,
2the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction,

3cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions,
4characteristic manner, method, or style.

This quote from Jewish Virtual Library is also useful for our discussion:
In rabbinic literature the chain of tradition is given as follows: Moses received the Torah on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, who in turn delivered it to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Synagogue (Avot 1:1). According to rabbinic Judaism, the teaching of the great sages in every generation in keeping with the halakhah is binding (Deut. 17:88).

For the various forms of Jewish orthodoxy, tradition is authoritative and binding. An observant Jew is one who adheres to the tradition as best understood by their community and taught by their rabbis. The Hebrew word for tradition- masoret – implies the notion of being bound or fettered.

Additionally, orthodoxy tends to limit the term Jewish Tradition to the teachings of Moses given at Sinai, while using different terms to speak of later writings, commentary, teaching, interpretation, and customs.  Again, from Jewish Virtual Library:

Those legal traditions which were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and were later preserved in writing, were known as *Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai (“law given to Moses on Sinai”). A legal tradition which was handed down by word of mouth, but did not necessarily emanate from Sinai, was called shemu’ah (“a report”). Religious and general traditions which became binding as result of long observance by successive generations were termed *minhag (“custom”). Prophetic traditions described in the books of the prophets and Hagiographa were known as Divrei Kabbalah (“words of tradition”). Esoteric and mystical traditions concerning God and the world transmitted to the elect and then passed down through the ages were called Kabbalah, from kibbel (“to receive”).
Today, most Jews would explain Jewish tradition in a broad sense – tradition as comprehensive, as a Jewish worldview that touches on ethics, existential issues, holidays, spiritual practice, the meaning of life, and more. In this sense, Jewish tradition is vast, as vast as the sea.

The Liberal Jewish Approach to Tradition 

The Reform, and subsequent other liberal Jewish movements, are rooted in an alternative approach to tradition. Reform Judaism recognizes every Jew’s responsibility to study, understand, and engage the tradition, but does not view the tradition as binding. From the 1885 Reform Pittsburgh Platform:

We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.

Other liberal Jewish movements and groups don’t go quite as far as Reform. For example, Conservative Judaism (a liberal form of Judaism, despite the name) adopts a default position that the tradition should be understood as binding, but allows for well thought out, carefully considered exceptions and innovations.

Sadly, some Reform Jews interpret the Reform stance toward tradition as a straightforward, wholesale rejection of Jewish tradition, thus, basically leading some Jews to ignore it altogether. But this view isn’t quite correct.

The classical Reform stance is that every Jew must engage the tradition to the best of their ability – understand it, sample it, try it on – and then decide what proves meaningful and worthy of adopting and adapting. The process of engagement and learning should be ongoing. Yes, Reform thinkers have traditionally valued the moral insights and the prophets’ calls for social justice over other aspects of the tradition, but that doesn’t mean we simply exclude or ignore the rest of it.

In fact, much of Reform Judaism has moved back toward a more robust engagement of Jewish tradition and practice, with many communities and individuals adopting and adapting more of the tradition than in the movement’s earlier history. Many Reform congregations today use more Hebrew, might keep Kosher kitchens, have Torah and Talmud study groups, have returned to wearing kippot, and so on.

To go back to our initial analogy of tradition as the sea, Reform Judaism offers a particular manner of Jewish swimming. Reform, recognizing the enormity of Jewish tradition, calls on each Jew to swim, to get in the water, to go further than just dipping our toes. We shouldn’t remain on the sand of the beach, but rather get in the water and swim. What we might find one day, in a moment of need, or even in moments of joy, is that the warm waters of tradition help keep us afloat, providing meaning and solace, even if we’re only treading water.

The Unifying Power of Tradition

Orthodox or Liberal, regardless of our approach to Jewish tradition, that tradition unites us, gives us a significant part of our identity, and makes us the one, Jewish people. As Reform Rabbi Michael Marmur writes for

One might ask then: if everyone’s interpretation of tradition is as strong or as weak as the next person’s, then what use is it? … We can begin with the value of inclusivity.  As Reform Jews, we sometimes find ourselves adopting a dismissive, sometimes angry, sometimes insecure attitude toward those who interpret Judaism differently than we do. Instead, we should strive to see ourselves alongside other interpreters of that elusive term, masoret. Indeed, pluralism is part of our masoret.


Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, Tradition
Jewish Virtual Library, article on Tradition
Wikipedia article on the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform’s article by Rabbi Marmur

Browse Our Archives