Thoughts on Otherness - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Thoughts on Otherness

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

I’ve read or listened to two books recently that made me think about Jewish issues. One is The Land of Painted Caves by Jean Auel, (Crown Publishers, New York, 2011 ; Brilliance Audio on CD) which has no Jewish content since it was about early humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago, and is also fiction. The other was Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus by Jodi Magness (Grand Rapids, MI. Eerdman’s, 2011). I reviewed it for the AJL newsletter, but I wanted to express some thoughts aside from the review. I listened to The Land of Painted Caves during my longish commute to and from work. It had 29 CD’s and it kept my interest for all of them. The main flaw of the series, of which it is the latest part, is that this one cave woman, Ayla, managed to single-handedly advance civilization by several major developments: domesticating horses and wolves, using a spear thrower, using flint to start fires and discovering that men had a role in making babies and a few others as well. Her parents died in an earthquake when she was very young and she was rescued by a passing group of Neanderthals who had a very different culture (this happened in Auel’s earlier books) but who loved and raised her and taught her their ways. But being “other” caused her to be banished from that group, and eventually she hooked up with others who were “like her”. Yet her earlier experiences made her somewhat of an outsider even among her own kind, and therefore she had a clear perception of the problems of otherness. That is what caused me to ruminate on the Jewish condition, that, and perhaps also since I listened to it around the holiday season when otherness comes into sharper focus.

Jodi Magness, who wrote Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, is a respected archaeologist who combined archaeological evidence with textual passages to try to form a picture of what Jewish life was like in the late second temple period. Her main interest seemed to be the way Jewish purity laws played out in everyday life for people at that time. She talked about the “Jewish elite” of the time, who were enamored of Roman material culture and who tried to imitate it in various ways, including vessels, food, clothing, beverages, personal hygiene and other things but who tried to accommodate those things while retaining the elaborate system of purity laws. She also discussed some of the more extreme groups of Jews who rejected Roman ways, and those who fell in between. The purity laws seemed to accentuate the “otherness” of Jews in the Roman Empire at the same time as many struggled to fit in, yet retain their uniqueness. It reminds me of me, and others like me, trying to be in the modern world, while keeping traditional practices, like kashrut, Shabbat and Jewish holidays. We love Thai and Chinese cuisine and good wines, but we have to adapt it to our ways. Hanukkah begins to look a lot like Christmas, but we say no to trees and colored lights. Are we other, or do we belong, just a little differently? It is obviously a very old question, going back at least to cave man times. Can we go with the flow? How much? It reminds me of those circus performers where one beautiful lady rides two racing horses at once.

Anyway, as they say, what goes around comes around. It seems that we’ve been struggling with the same problems for a long, long time, and not only as Jews.

Sarah Barnard