Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
I love the ocean. Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific. Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses. From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly. I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago: caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.
This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Iran is the most obvious of these threats. Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race. It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah. Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel.
Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists. Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth.
Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs. Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women. Who was that country? Not Saudi Arabia. Not Sudan. Not Nigeria. Israel.
These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel. Period.
On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government? In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.” I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state. He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.
Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights. Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands. Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population. Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”
So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies. Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance. How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)? The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason. Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel? As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?
The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations. It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation. Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East. Israel is my spiritual and moral home. As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard. I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality. Am I expecting too much?
So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it. I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity. I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.
You say you care about the Israeli election? Me too, but how much do you know? How many political parties are represented in the Israeli election? Which party best represents your views?(You can take this quiz if you are curious to see if your assumptions about yourself line up).
First, let me say that I love America. I love America in a way that is statistically consistent with the majority of Americans (only 15% of Americans said they were following elections ‘very closely’ just one month prior to the 2014 mid-term election, only 36% of Americans actually voted).
Politics is a strange thing; we say we care, but do we really? Of the 561 bills passed by last year’s Congress, how many can you name? Me, I can’t name even one. I remember the spectacle of Washington the past few years; Republicans blocked Obama; Obama snubbed John Boehner by not inviting him to golf. It was all very House of Cards – great theater. D.C. is rightfully called Hollywood on the Hudson because Washington politics are as entertaining, and as forgettable as a Netflix series. Who is running for president in 2016? That’s pretty far in the future, but someone named Bush or Clinton is always a safe bet. I love America and I think the laws we live by are very important, just not important enough to capture my full attention.
Let me also say that I love Israel, but I couldn’t tell you which 13 political parties are currently represented in the Knesset without Googling it. Today is election day in Israel and either Bibi will win or ‘Not Bibi’ will win (His real name is Isaac ‘Boujie’ Herzog of the Zionist Union Party). But, winning doesn’t mean that either one will necessarily take over. It just means that the ‘winner’ will be given 40 some days to see if he can build a coalition of 51% by making pacts with other smaller parties. [For more, check out JTA’s Who’s who in the Israel’s elections or 5 things you need to know about today’s election.
I know that Herzog is willing to work closer with the Arabs and that Bibi no longer supports a two state solution, but where do they stand on religious equality, the cost of housing in Tel Aviv, or on health care? I don’t actually know. It isn’t too hard to find out more about what is going on in Congress, or in the Knesset for that matter, so why don’t I?
In my defense, not investing significant energy in something that I purport to care about is not a new issue, nor am I alone. Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th Century Spain) said that people fail to pay greater attention to vital things (for him, God) because we become so enamored with the most immediate cause and effect, that we fail to look at the larger picture. He said that we either grow so comfortable with our present situation that we fail to look beyond simply preserving our personal station. Or, he said, we become so downtrodden, that we again fail to look beyond our own discomfort.
Our focus day-to-day is on ourselves. Which means that we are capable of deeply caring about something larger, say God, America, Israel, without feeling obligated to pay a commiserate balance of attention, even to these vital, greater-than-self ideals and values.
The 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The internet, and specifically YouTube, were recognized for the powerful reflection of society that was then just exploding. The picture on the cover was a reflective mylar mirror. Just last week, ten years latter, the National Academy of Sciences published a study linking a rise in narcissism with a rise in aggression and violence. Other studies found a connection between narcissism and another growing plague, loneliness.
If I love America and I love Israel, why don’t I invest more time in learning and studying the minutiae of every bill and every election that shape my two home countries?
Hey, that’s a good question for my Facebook friends.
I cannot remember the last time I switched on the news—be it on the television or the radio—or glanced at a newspaper headline without cringing and wanting to turn away. Without wanting to stop the world and all of its madness and bring about a cure for these seemingly endless ills.
The reports seem to physically rush at my ears and heart as I hold my aching head and wonder at the inhumanity of so much of humankind.
Clearly, many are suffering from this same fatigue. We need to be informed—but we may wonder… how much information is too much? Can we, as concerned creations, look away from our fellow suffering creatures? Are we exhibiting a lack of compassion when we enjoy the lives we are lent? Are we really able to do much of anything to help?
I recently reread Anne Frank’s diary, which speaks of the human struggle to remain reasonable and even good humored, and not lose faith in humanity, even while very well aware of the heart-wrenching fate of others. I am now reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin—another tale of the plague of the powerful over their hapless victims. These timeless stories speak volumes to us in the light our world’s countless present and historical travesties, all of which are committed by the strong over the vulnerable in the name of some terrible immoral ideology.
All who live and have lived in these circumstances have known full-force the reality that we, here, allow only to flutter around the edges of our anxious minds: that life is fragile and sacred, and that we are all vulnerable. That people can be capable of heroism or cruelty. And if we give in to our fears and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, the enemy is victorious not over just the body, but over hearts, minds and the spark that spurs us on to live and love.
And I sense that, as you are reading this, you are no more prepared to let the enemy win that I am, even as we face the harsh reality that the enemy is not just far away, but very near. It is fed by ignorance and cruelty and despotism in all of its forms – all around us.
So what are we to do? First, of course, we can redirect the energy of our frustrations and stand up for what is right and moral and loving. We can educate ourselves and others, and raise our voices about injustices. And yet… we may still feel as if we are small and unable to bring others out of the enslavement of brutality.
We recall a wise and powerful adage from our tradition: If you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. But which life? Where? When? And how?
It seems to me that the evils of the world are fostered where there is a lack of the one thing that makes us human and compassionate, civilized and humane: LOVE. It is the lack of love and kindness and the hope they engender that brings human beings to desperate measures and terrible acts that we cannot in any other way comprehend.
I do believe that love is the only force powerful enough to put an end to hatred and cruelty. And everywhere you look, people are desperate for love. Souls are waiting to be infused with hope. Ignorance is ripe to be overcome. So yes, we need to be vigilant and active about what is happening far away. But perhaps even more so, and every day, to be involved with what is happening here, in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities.
Can we make a difference? Of course we can. It is because we are vulnerable that we cannot give in to feelings of helplessness. As we read in Pirke Avot—we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to turn away. With every act of kindness offered generously and with full hearts—from working at the food pantry to mentoring a child, from offering rides to the infirm to visiting prisoners—we plant a seed of hope not only in the person we help—but also in our own hearts. In a hundred thousand small ways, we can shine light into dark the corners and help ensure that fear and desperation will find no firm foothold. At least not on our watch.
On Friday, Leonard Nimoy, an actor most famed for his role in a science-fiction television show, died.
Since then, my social media feeds have been jam-packed with tributes to him. This actor, who, although he also had some success in directing film, photography, writing of various sorts, and other television and film work, is likely to have his most enduring work be his portrayal of an alien in a science fiction series. And, despite the fact that television is not “serious” in the way that doctors saving lives are, or politicians when they can bring themselves to pass legislation can feed the hungry or bring justice to millions—Nimoy’s life’s work, being an alien—a role he first struggled against, and then came to accept—was also a form of greatness.
When I was very young, I used to watch reruns of the original Star Trek with my father, and I was lucky enough to also have caught the animated series on television. In that world, racial diversity was a matter of course, even while the series creators’ failed to pay Nichelle Nichols the same wage that the other actors received, and initially failing to include George Takei and Nichols in the animated show’s casting. Nimoy was the one who stood up for them in both cases, insisting on her salary being equivalent (in the 60’s!), and on including both her and Takei in the series, insisting on their importance as proof of diversity in the 23rd century.
Aside from the commitment Nimoy had to the values of the show in his life—values that he demonstrated in his Jewish commitments, including his work for peace in Israel, his feminism, and his commitment to diversity throughout his life—it was nevertheless his portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock that is behind the outpouring of love for his memory from those of us who never knew him as a person.
Plenty of people have written about how Spock’s outsider-ness gave them hope, allowed them to be okay with being a geek. Me, too. Spock was my hero. Not just because he was physically different, with his pointy ears and green blood, someone who looked at the other kids from the outside and longed to join them but didn’t really understand their interests or fit in—but he managed nevertheless to be buddies with the irascible McCoy and the very normal, sporty, Kirk.
Spock was gently teased by his friends for not having emotions – but it was clear that he DID have them. As a half-Vulcan, he had been raised to value reason, but his internal struggle was not to have emotions, it was to understand them and have them serve reason. And they did. It was his refrain of “fascinating,” that underlined the ethos of Star Trek—differences, whether of the skin or the heart, were of interest, to be sought and understood. One of my favorite episodes, The Devil in the Dark, has Spock mind-meld with essentially a living rock—the Horta. The episode starts with the assumption that it is dangerous and violent, and only Spock’s intervention allows them to ultimately understand the real issue—that the Horta is a rational creature protecting her young.
Throughout the years of the show and the films, these values showed through: he was fascinated by not only human reactions, but by those of all the peoples that they encountered. His friendships with Kirk and McCoy were deep and lasting—full of humor, in which the character of Spock made himself the knowing straight man—and full of love.
IRL, we know that in fact, reason can’t exist without emotion: we have a good bit of accumulated data that shows that people whose brains are damaged in a particular way so as to impair their emotions are unable to make choices because they cannot weigh one thing against another. Values, it turns out, require emotions to drive them. This is the reason that Star Trek remains so potent despite its green scantily dressed alien ladies and highly amusing production values: it gives us hope for ourselves, hope for a future in which we can look at our differences and say, fascinating.
We loved Spock because, in a way, all of us are Spock. We fail to understand the people around us, struggle to fit in, strive to know ourselves and often fail to see that all the things we fight so hard against are part of what make us loveable. We hope that our differences will make us useful to someone, that some gift of ours will be valued. In his portrayal of the lonely alien who fits in nowhere- Nimoy brought the best of himself, and his values, and gave them to us. Thank you Mr. Spock, and thank you, Rav Nimoy. Because that’s Torah.
As has been said by a number of quicker people than me: We are, and always will be, your fans.
I have been thinking a lot again recently about the correspondence between one of the great Orthodox luminaries of the 20th century, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg z”l and Professor Samuel Atlas z”l, a leading thinker of his time at Hebrew Union College, the flagship academy of Reform Judaism. In particular, one line from a letter Rabbi Weinberg wrote to Professor Atlas in 1957 has provoked much thought for me:
“I see that in the end there will be a split in the body of the nation.”
Rabbi Weinberg was referencing an upcoming Congress for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in which there was great controversy over who was or was not invited. In the letter Rabbi Weinberg makes note that the Haredi community both simultaneously poured fury on those who chose to participate and were furious more Haredi rabbis were not invited to participate. It is in that context that he makes his stark and devastating prediction that there will indeed be a split in the Jewish people.
Was he right? If so, where are the fault lines in that split?
Much has been written about various divides within the Jewish community. There are the well known denominational divisions between the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal and Orthodox. There are the differences between historic ethnic communities; Sephardim and Ashkenazim, Persians and Yemenites, Bukharians and Syrians. Perhaps less well known in larger audiences are the current disputes within Orthodoxy between various sectors, left and right; Modern, Centrist, Open, Yeshivish and Chassidish.
Yet, what if the split Rabbi Weinberg predicted would come was not a split along denominational lines or ethnic communities or even something internally within Orthodoxy but was a meta-divide happening across the entire spectrum of those people who are committed to Jewish peoplehood and Jewish identity? (A separate but important conversation is the place of the large and growing percentage of Jews who are opting out of the Jewish community entirely.)
I recently attended and presented at Limmud New York for the first time. I have participated and presented at two other Limmud conferences but had not had the chance prior to attend the New York Limmud. Throughout the Shabbat and weekend in the hotel surrounded by hundreds of Jews from all backgrounds, all types of Jewish practice and Jewish ways of living, it occurred to me that the split Rabbi Weinberg was so afraid of was a split between what I am calling the maximalists and the minimalists.
The maximalists are those people who seek to maximize their definition of the Jewish people. They seek to engage in conversation and dialogue with as many Jews as possible and be part of the broadest Jewish community (see this thought-provoking article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo on a related topic from 2014). The minimalists are those people who seek to narrow the definition of the Jewish people to the most particular definitions of Jewishness. They seek to maintain a Jewish community that is as homogeneous as possible.
Minimalists and maximalists transcend denominational, ethnic and ideological lines. There can be Orthodox maximalists and Reform minimalists and vice versa. At the most recent Limmud NY weekend one could find Jews in payos and bekishes and Jews with nose rings and tattoos. This dynamic is not one concerned with theological difference or denominational integrity but rather about one’s outlook on Jewish peoplehood.
When one conceives of an impending split in these terms one can see two vibrant but distinct communities evolving. On one hand there is the community of Jews who attempt to learn from each other, share in Torah study and build bridges to each other while on the other hand there are micro-communities within a larger community of Jews who value ideological purity and communal conformity above all else. Both of these visions of the Jewish people are thriving. Both are competing for the heart and soul of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in reflecting on his career as Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom in 2013 published a pamphlet entitled A Judaism Engaged With The World and in it he lays forth the powerful idea that:
“In the twenty-first century, Jews will need the world, and the world will need the Jews. We will not win the respect of the world if we ourselves do not respect the world: if we look down on non-Jews and on Jews less religious than ourselves. Nor will we win the respect of the world if we do not respect ourselves and our own distinctive identity. Now more than ever the time has come for us to engage with the world as Jews, and we will find that our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.”
Rabbi Sacks powerfully articulates in this pamphlet an Orthodox approach to a maximalist Jewish community. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks continues to be an inspiring figure for this approach. The language he uses to express his ideas is an Orthodox language, the ideas are rooted in Orthodoxy and this pamphlet would look different if it was written by a Conservative or Reconstructionist rabbi. This is because, as said earlier, the divide between the minimalists and the maximalists is not a denominational divide. There are Orthodox maximalists, like Rabbi Sacks, just as there are Orthodox minimalists. So too, there are Conservative maximalists and Conservative minimalists.
In this era of two competing trends for the Jewish people, let us commit ourselves to the trend of Jewish maximalism so that we will find “our own world of mind and spirit will be enlarged.” We cannot decide for others what kind of Jewish community they seek to create. We cannot prevent others from isolating and presenting narrower and narrower definitions of who is in and who is out. However, what we can do is demonstrate the joy of a Jewish people that is broad and diverse, that welcomes the many and learns, celebrates and lives together. If we do so in a compelling fashion, perhaps and just perhaps, we can maintain a single Jewish people into the future.
The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?
The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.
There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.
I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)
Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?
These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.
Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.
One way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).
Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.
This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.
We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.
Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.
To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.
Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).
In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.
Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.
For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.
Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.
So explained five teenage boys in France after they turned themselves into the police. They had vandalized the cemetery, upending tombstones and spray-painting swastikas.
Let us suppose it is possible that their naiveté is genuine. If what they say is true, then without specific malice towards Jews, these five, aged 15-16 chose a random symbol, which just turned out to be a sign of Aryan power and hatred towards Jews. Nor were they aware that the tombstones marked the graves of Jews. Sure they knew it was bad, and they are willing to admit they were up to some mischief, but by no means were they out to make national news as Antisemites.
If is it is hard for you to believe, that is understandable. Even if their naiveté were believable (which it is not,) the context in which their actions took place, moves it from being an isolated act of individuals to part of a broader narrative of hatred. Their actions are framed by hundreds of years of desecrating Jewish cemeteries in Europe, the Nazi atrocities in Europe and the current wave of small and large acts of violence towards Jews in France and across Europe.
Whether these boys intended Antisemitism or not, it is impossible to remove this incident from the history and contemporary reality in which acts against Jews are in part of a systematic ongoing hatred against Jews.
When a systematic pattern of hatred and discrimination has been entrenched over the generations, it is impossible to remove a single event from that context. The pervasive denigration of another group contributes to the permissibility of action against that group, the use of particular symbols or tropes in acting out. That these boys painted swastikas instead of smiley faces is no random act.
Recently in sentencing three young white men for beating and then driving over James Craig, an African American, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, provided historical context for this heinous crime. His thoughtful and painful look at the role racial hatred has played in Mississippi made it clear that no amount of general good behavior or church involvement on the part of the perpetrators could lessen the meaning or impact of this crime. As they drove over and killed Mr. Craig, they yelled about White Power. This was no random act.
Similarly, last week when three Muslim American students were shot in cold blood in their home in North Carolina, it was hard to see the act as distinct from the culture of Islamophobia that exists currently in the United States. That Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 had run-ins with Chris Hicks (the alleged murderer) about parking has been established. But we cannot remove that dispute, or Hicks’ turning up to game night with a shotgun in hand, or his eventual shooting of three innocent people in their home, from the general negative vision of Islam that has become commonly acceptable in many quarters.
Persistent communal hatred is frightening on many levels. It is not easily banished. It seeps into our day to day. When we knowingly or even unintentionally contribute to narratives of discrimination, against people with different colored skin, different religions, from different regions, sexual orientations, or abilities, we contribute to creating a broader culture of communal hatred. Our tradition teaches us the need to be vigilant and think about how we act and treat the other, for there is no room for claims of naiveté when it comes to acting in or contributing to a context of hatred.
If a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?
So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.
And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.
So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?
Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.
Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).
I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.
So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.
It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.
Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.