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Mirna Funk explains the relevance of ancient Jewish rules

Suzanne Cords
April 10, 2024

Everyone must make the world a better place; slander is worse than murder; women have the right to good sex. In "Learning from Jews," Mirna Funk explores what we can learn from commandments from biblical times.

Hands of a person writing scriptures in Hebrew.
What can we learn from the Jewish commandments today?Image: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa/picture alliance

"There's a lot said about Jews, there's a lot written about Jews, but no one really knows anything about Jews," says Mirna Funk. Speaking with DW, the 43-year-old Berlin journalist and writer said she did not grow up with Jewish traditions. But she's since learned a lot about Jewish history and culture, and she's summarized the most important lessons she's gleaned in her new book, "Von Juden lernen" ("Learning from Jews").

The mission: To improve the world

Funk is in the shower and struggling with life: there's the war in Ukraine, not enough money in her bank account, no lover in sight — couldn't God intervene? But complaining contradicts the Jewish commandment of "tikkun olam," which means repairing the world.

While the Christian tradition calls on believers to wait patiently for the Last Judgement and the return of the Messiah, who will then bring them paradise, Judaism calls for personal initiative: "God expects activity, not passive torpor and the illusory belief that things will somehow work out," Funk explains.

So the mission is to get down to the work of improving the world. But a paradise on Earth is a utopian dream, says Funk. "Humans always have both positive and negative qualities, so they can't make this world into a paradise." But, she says, we can at least try to do our best.

A woman with long brown hair looks into the camera.
Mirna Funk has devoted a book to Jewish teachingsImage: Anna Rose

Helping people to help themselves

Part of improving the world involves helping those in need. "It's not a virtue, but an obligation," Funk writes. The concept is called "tzedakah" in Hebrew, which translates to both "righteousness" and "charity." Giving alms is the lowest level of tzedakah.

The real aim is to give work to those in need so that they are not dependent on others. Because of that, Funk is critical of those in Germany calling for a universal basic income. She advocates personal responsibility: "It is important not to leave people dependent and without freedom by restricting their independence through financial assistance."

A disobedient Eve

Christianity teaches that Eve is to blame for man's banishment from Eden. Against God's will, she ate an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and tempted Adam to do the same. But to Funk, Eve is a rebel.

Matthäus Merian the Elder - Merian, The Fall of Man Merian, Matthaeus the Elder, 1593-1650, "The Fall of Man". (Genesis 3:1-7). Copperplate engraving, 1625/27, coloration by the Merian workshop. From: Biblia (..), published by M. Luther, Strasbourg (L. Zetzner) 1630. (Only colored copy) Kunsthandel Berlin 1990.
To Christians, Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit is the end of paradise — for Mirna Funk, Eve is a woman with a mind of her ownImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

Tolerating dissent is a cornerstone of the Jewish tradition, which relies on dialogue and does not demonize those who disagree. That also applies to partnerships. You shouldn't try to become as similar as possible, because, as Funk says, "There is no movement without friction, no growth without criticism."

And because women are not simply yea-sayers, they do not take on the role of the obedient companion in Judaism. More than 3,000 years ago, King Solomon wrote the poem "Eshet Chayil," which translates as "woman of valor" and is still sung on Shabbat today.

"In this song of praise, the woman looks after the children, bakes and cooks, but at the same time she has her own business," says Funk. "She is strong, she is brave, she is courageous."

13/08/2019 Anita Kantor holds a prayer book in her hands at the Abraham Geiger College (AGK).
Women are allowed to become rabbisImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

This image of women characterizes the Jewish community. "Israel had a female prime minister in the 1970s, Golda Meir," says Funk. "While women in West Germany weren't even allowed to open their own bank accounts, Israel already had a female politician running the country."

How can that self-assurance be reconciled with the image of the modestly dressed Jewish woman in a wig who owes her husband obedience and, above all, is supposed have as many children as possible? Funk says those are the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, and they make up the smallest part of the world's Jewish population.

"That is simply a cult-like sect, and they exist in every religion. A lot is written about them, but for me they are not relevant because they don't play a major role in Judaism."

A right to good sex

Women also have the right to good sex, according to the Torah. As the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote: "A man has the duty to satisfy his wife in sexual matters." If he did not, she had the right to divorce him.

A statue of Moses Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain.
Moses Maimonides was a scholar and doctor who rejected taboos about sexImage: B. Bönsch/imageBROKER/picture alliance

Women's sexuality was therefore never taboo in Judaism, and chastity was not elevated to an ideal as it was in Christianity. "Yada" is the name of sexual union — "to recognize each other and to enter into a relationship with God through the act."

Feathers in the wind and social media pile-ons

In a well-known Jewish story, a man spreads lies about another person, then feels guilty about it and consults his rabbi. "What should I do?" he asks. The rabbi advises him to slit open a pillow and throw all the feathers to the wind. The man follows the instructions and goes back to the rabbi. "And now collect all the feathers again," he tells him. "Impossible!" shouts the man. "You see," replies the rabbi, "it's like the rumors you spread about another person. You can never undo them."

That's precisely why defamation ("lashon hara") is considered a grave sin in Judaism, even worse than murder.

The modern variant of this all-too-human foible is the social media pile-on. According to Funk, that's no longer an unusual phenomenon, but rather the rule. "It shows in a frightening way that the opinion of others is disregarded as soon as it does not agree with our own. The person exposed to the pile-on is defamed and degraded." She says that dialogue doesn't have a chance under this polarized viewpoint, because "what constitutes the pile-on is the totalitarian denial of otherness."

Judaism rejects this view and does not divide the world ideologically into good and evil. Instead of condemning others, one should learn to argue properly. "Machloket" is considered a method of exploring different points of view and is seen as a sign of dedication and respect. Funk says that this nuanced perspective has been lost in the current social climate.

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In dialogue with the past

Jewish American writer Elie Wiesel once said, "To be Jewish is, above all, to safeguard memory." According to Funk, that has changed. She says we now live in a time that has forgotten history, in which the focus is on the present.

"When terms such as apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing and colonial power have increasingly been applied to Israel since October 7, 2023 and sold as truth, that reveals an absolutely inadequate understanding of history," she says.

She observes a very young generation becoming politicized and positioning itself against Israel. "Terms that are so historically loaded, like apartheid, immediately trigger emotions in others," she says. What she finds especially frightening is that, "now even German or European Jews are being attacked because of this war." She says it's that much more important to never forget the past, but to enter into a dialogue with it and create a deliberate future out of it.

As current as ever

"What makes Judaism special is its flexibility and willingness to embrace doubt," says Funk, attributing that aspect to the rabbis who continually discarded outdated traditions and adapted the religion's rules and laws to the times. She adds that Judaism doesn't focus only on metaphysical questions, but always considers the dilemmas of human existence. "Those are all reasons why most Jews who lead a secular life can still identify with the religion."

She says she wrote her book for those people — but also for anyone who immediately associates Jews with the Holocaust, antisemitism or the Arab-Israeli conflict. "As if that were all that Jewish life or culture or Jewishness was about." Funk's book proves there is much more to it than that.

This article was originally written in German.