We live in a modern Jewish world. The world that existed before modernity was a very different kind of a world, organized in a totally different way, based on different premises. In this chapter we are going to try and survey the changes in the Jewish world and the reasons for those changes.
In the previous chapters, we have dealt with all four of these themes – Jewish identity and the relationship of the individual to the community, the structure of the community, the relationships between different communities and different centres and the relationship with Eretz Israel – in relation to the pre-modern world. Now we bring the story forward and turn to them, systematically, one at a time, to create an understanding of the Jewish community in the world surrounding us today.
Marriage and family life are central values in Judaism. Jewish law and custom is family oriented and transmitting eternal truths to one’s children is the mainstay of Jewish thought. Israel, as we have seen, is also a central value in Judaism. It is therefore interesting to see how these two important principles reflect and reinforce each other. References to the land of Israel are intentionally included in the wedding ceremony itself. On the other hand, what happens when these two principles come into direct conflict with each other? The centrality of marriage in Judaism also makes it a lightning rod for issues in Israel today dealing with religion and state, Jewish identity and nationhood. If marriage is the Jewish framework for families and families are the bricks out of which the Jewish nation is built then the question of what constitutes a marriage is not just a personal one but a national one as well and one which the state today is struggling answer.
One of the first symbolic acts in the Torah connecting the Jewish people to the land of Israel is Abraham’s purchase of a burial cave in Hebron for Sarah (Genesis 23). Since burial represents a deeply emotional and long-term connection to a particular piece of land, it stands to reason that in studying the beliefs and customs centered around burial, we will discover various dimensions of our connection to the land of Israel. Beyond the historical and halachic questions, thinking about burial practices and places leads to a discussion of the nature of “holy ground:” what makes a place holy?