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.
Much has been written about the impact of Rabbi Barry Freundel on the Orthodox world. In a community that sees the mikveh as essential to their practice of Judaism, this is a fundamental tear in the fabric that weaves together ideals of halakhic observance with the messy realities of daily life. But much less commented upon are the ways in which this tragedy has implications beyond the Orthodox world.
Jewish feminists of all stripes, and mikveh activists like Mayyim Hayyim in Boston have been working to help reimagine mikveh. In my own life and rabbinate, I’ve been to the mikveh with women after abortions and miscarriages. I’ve seen its healing powers provide a balm to those struggling with illness or dramatic life changes. I’ve had the privilege of celebrating brides, b’not mitzvah and mothers of b’nai mitzvah with a spiritual dip. For many, the power of this ritual exceeds rational expectations and is profoundly meaningful.
Unfortunately, this scandal has reinforced preexisting negative assumptions about mikveh which abound in the liberal Jewish communities I inhabit. Part of this emerges from a feminist critique of the laws which link women’s menstruation with the need for purification. There are concerns about privacy, cleanliness, and irrational outmoded rituals. The extent to which Freundel’s alleged corruption focused around mikveh has put the healing and spiritual potential of this ritual even further from the reach of liberal Jews. Since news broke, I have been part of many conversations, on line and in person, where people are seeing Freundel’s actions as vindication for having avoided the ritual in their lives to date. Others, looking for life cycle rituals, have voiced trepidation about going to the mikveh in the future. The loss of trust and the positive potential of this ritual has been compromised beyond the narrow confines of the Washington, Orthodox community.
Additionally, while the majority of non-Orthodox commentators have been thoughtful in their reactions, I have been troubled by the tendency of some to wonder why any Jewish women stay in the male-dominated Orthodox world. Some cite the exclusively male rabbinate as reason enough for women to leave. Others suggest that given the more egalitarian options in the Jewish religious landscape, women should be moving out of Orthodoxy.
This line of thinking is highly problematic. Whatever denomination or affiliation a particular Jew holds, it is important to recognize that other streams of Jewish life have their own value. If we are intellectually honest, most of us can recognize that there is no perfect religious community. But more troubling than the dismissal of Orthodoxy as a valid approach to Jewish living is the victim-blaming implied by such critiques. Let us be clear: None of the victims of Rabbi Freundel’s alleged misdeeds bears any fault or blame for what has happened. We should not underestimate the intelligence, passion or thoughtfulness of the women in Rabbi Freundel’s community. That these women might have chosen less male-dominated forms of Jewish living does not by any means lessen Rabbi Freundel’s responsibility or the obligation of the RCA to live up to its own standards and those of secular law. They bear the entire responsibility. No one should expect or put up with abuse of power or sexual abuse.
Finally, the focus on Rabbi Freundel and the RCA should not obscure that the abuse of women or rabbinic power is not unique to the Orthodox. Seeing abuse as primarily an Orthodox problem minimizes the pain and suffering of those who have been sexually harassed or abused by non-Orthodox rabbis and Jewish leaders in non-Orthodox settings. The limited circles of Jewish power and community often have a chilling effect on women’s ability to stand up to abuse, no matter the denomination. Furthermore, I have worked with converts from all denominations who have had rabbis charge exorbitant fees for conversions or required favors be performed, exploiting their spiritual vulnerability. Across the board, Jews have to condemn sexual and religious exploitation within our communities.
As it should, Rabbi Freundel’s arrest has rocked the Kesher Israel community and the Orthodox circles that held this man in great esteem. Yet the implications are much broader. We should take the opportunity to open conversations about what are often taboo subjects. Rabbi Freundel’s alleged actions have shined a light on mikveh, abuse of power in the Jewish community, and the challenges of conversion. None of these issues is unique to the Orthodox world.
In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?
When we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.
I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.
Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”
On one hand, we encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.
The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.
The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.
Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.
When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.
The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.
These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.
A few weeks ago Elad Nehorai of Pop Chassid posted a provocative piece entitled, “Jews, It’s Time To Abolish The Word ‘Orthodox’“. This article made its way through my Facebook newsfeed at the time of its posting with people agreeing with his idea and those disagreeing. This conversation: The utility of labels and the cost/benefit analysis of the term “Orthodox” is one that I have been party to on numerous occasions. The discussion is usually colored by the intra-denominational tensions within Orthodoxy and where the people who are conversing fall in those larger debates. This question is often used as a tool to either bolster or tear down another person’s identity claims in order to delegitimize or add legitimacy to their approach and philosophy.
Gratefully, Elad does not engage in that conversation but rather opens us up to thinking about whether it is time to abolish labels that are unnecessarily divisive. He wonders whether embracing a label implies spiritual and religious stagnation (i.e. “I’ve made it!”). These are important questions. Yet, I do not believe the problem is the label. As people we live in a world ordered by labels and categories. The entire pursuit of taxonomy in the scientific fields allows us to delve further into the biological world. Taxonomy, the pursuit of classifying in order to understand, is not an inherently negative notion. It is a necessary fact of life and the way we as human beings think.
Similarly, an undeniable part of the transition from pure science to humanities is one will have a harder time of achieving absolutely consistent definitions. There will be at times inconsistencies. Sociologically, different groupings of people, even within a similar religious culture, will use the same title and mean slightly different things. Thus, when one sees different types of Orthodox Jews claiming the title Orthodox and yet they have differences in belief or practice that does not ipso facto mean the label is worthless. There are a myriad of ways of broadly being Jewish and yet we do not say the term “Jewish” or “Jew” is meaningless because there are differences amongst Jews.
My main contention with this article though is the non-personal nature of it. What do I mean by that? In claiming that the title ought to be abandoned Elad (and others who say the same thing in conversations) disregard the meaning the title holds for people who claim it as an identity construct. It may not be helpful, meaningful or useful for you but that is not the same thing as saying it is therefore not helpful, meaningful or useful for anyone else. In fact, to do so is to be dismissive of other people’s identity and the way they form themselves in the world.
I am Orthodox. The Orthodox title is useful for me in conceiving of how I go about in the world. It is helpful for me in framing my particular sub-community within the Jewish religious world. It is meaningful for me to describe not the journey that I have completed (contrary to Elad’s claim) but rather the journey I am still on. Furthermore, as a person with some ancestral connections to the German Jewish experience, I find inspiration, motivation and wisdom from the intellectual vibrancy, spiritual probing and engagement with the world offered by figures such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt”l and Rabbi Dovid Tsvi Hoffmann zt”l among others.
The term historically arose as a pejorative for the traditional in a post-ghettoized Europe but that does not mean there are many, including myself, who have come to embrace it. The label may be home to intense intra-fighting but that has always been the case since the dawn of the label (e.g. the German Neo-Orthodoxy in contrast to the Hungarian Ultra-Orthodoxy debates of the 19th century). I respect the decision of those who choose to no longer identify with the label or who no longer find it helpful or meaningful but I ask that those same people respect my decision to maintain it.
Last week my Facebook feed was busy lining up responses to two online articles that got a lot of professional Jews (and plenty of lay people too) talking. The first, by Barak Hullman, was provocatively titled, Why Reform Judaism Doesn’t Work, Won’t Work, and How to Fix It.
A child of the Reform movement, Hullman describes an awakening he had at college when, during a search for a Shabbat service that felt comfortable and familiar, he eventually found himself at the Chabad house. He felt that his childhood education had ill-prepared him to know what to do in a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. He felt that his rabbi had done him a disservice by claiming that certain Jewish practices were not relevant to him, rather than presenting a broader kind of Judaism and permitting him to make a truly informed choice.
As with all lived experiences, he shares some partial truths that are worthy of reflection. However, when he concludes that both the problem (and therefore the answer) lies in a lack of acceptance of Torah as God’s word and law, he loses a good proportion of his readers. If only Reform Judaism were Orthodox Judaism, we’d be back on track.
Susan Esther Barnes wrote a response to Hullman’s piece entitled, Why Reform Judaism Does Work. Reform Judaism “works,” she tells us, in the way that Judaism as a whole works – by calling us to be closer to God. She adds to this definition by expressing that one way that this is felt by people is by being closer to our true selves, as God intended us. For a great many people, this is an essential component of spiritual practice. For some, the close observation of halachah helps them to discern what this truth looks like. But for others who are deeply engaged by and committed to Jewish ritual practice and cultural expression, this discernment leads them to reject some of the strictures of halachah which can be described and explained as socially-constructed human responses to the seeking of God in our lives as convincingly as they can be described as God’s actual word. Barnes shares her truth – Reform Judaism works for her in just the kinds of ways that Hullman found in a different expression of Judaism.
Barnes makes it quite clear in her article that she is not seeking to critique a more Orthodox Judaism. She simply asks that Hullman consider that he has found a Judaism that works for him without determining that an entire branch of Judaism, therefore, must be dismissed as dysfunctional.
Barnes highlights a lesson that I learned early on in my time being part of the CLAL community, of which Rabbis Without Borders is a central component. The evolution of a plurality of Jewish expression over the centuries is, in large part, because there was something inherent in one expression that didn’t work for a significant number of people who, nevertheless, sought to remain and live Jewishly. Hence, we could describe a more traditional, halachically-rooted Judaism of the 18th century as failing the thousands of Jews who, once granted emancipation in Europe, were choosing to convert to Christianity. Reform Judaism emerged, in large part, as a response to that crisis in urban, modernizing communities. Conservative Judaism emerged, significantly, as a response to a brand of Reform Judaism in America that seemed to prioritize assimilation into American culture in a way that went too far for some Jews who wanted to hold on to more of the ritual traditions of Judaism. Hasidic Judaism, in its origins, was a response to a European Judaism that was overly focused on strictures, fasting, and a cultural narrative that saw the sufferings of the diaspora as proportionate to the people’s need to repent for sin. Hasidism restored joy to Jewish life. It drew deeply on the well of Jewish mysticism to offer hope to people whose lives were so very hard.
And so we could go on. It is the diversity of Jewish expression that enables so many to find their place within such a deep and rich spiritual wisdom tradition. Today we find ourselves, quite possibly, at another of those crossroads that, in past generations, led to some of these new expressions taking root. What new expressions may arise that will animate a new generation of young Jews seeking meaning in their lives are already slowly taking shape via experimentation and a variety of responses that are just beginning to emerge to respond to the changing social and cultural waves that we are all trying to ride.
That is why pluralism is so important. I can believe strongly that, as a Reform rabbi, I have an important role to play in guiding my community toward a deeper and more engaged Jewish life while, simultaneously, deeply knowing that my colleagues who align themselves with many other denominations, and those who choose not to be labelled denominationally, are likewise doing the same important work with Jews that I will not or cannot reach. And, together, that is the work of Rabbis Without Borders, as we do this work with a fundamental awareness of the societal shifts and cultural milieu in which we are seeking to share the wisdom found in our faith tradition. We can point toward a Judaism that works for all precisely because we understand that to do so, we need a plurality of Jewish expression to meet the needs of a pluralistic, multifaceted, constantly shifting and evolving Jewish community.
The topic of patrilineal descent has been discussed recently by three fellow Rabbis Without Borders. I find myself agreeing with Rabbis Suskin, Greenberg and Gurevitz in part and disagreeing with each in part.
Rabbi Gurevitz is surely correct in that the Reform movement affirmed patrilineal descent “because it was the right thing to do” — for itself, in the context in which it operates and according to the principles that it holds dear. Yet Rabbis Greenberg and Suskin are also correct that this decision has at times caused difficulties for Orthodox and Conservative rabbis.
To be clear, no one in this discussion is challenging the right of a particular community to define its own practices and membership. Difficult conversations arise and difficult decisions have to be made because none of the movements in American Judaism exists in a vacuum. Rabbi Suskin and Rabbi Greenberg, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, both note in their blog posts that they were raised in the Reform movement and are grateful for the experiences they had in that community when they were younger.
Rabbi Gurevitz is correct that the Reform movement’s acceptance of patrilineal descent was not the first and is not the only instance of complications and questions about Jewish status. Many Orthodox rabbis don’t accept conversions performed by more liberal Orthodox rabbis, let alone by non-Orthodox rabbis. And although we Conservative rabbis don’t go around advertising the fact, we don’t always or automatically accept every conversion done by colleagues to our left either. This in and of itself is not a problem. It becomes problematic only when “borders” are crossed — a Reform-raised patrilineal Jew seeks to have a Conservative rabbi officiate at her wedding, a young man whose mother had a Conservative conversation becomes involved in the Orthodox community at his college’s Hillel.
I started rabbinical school in 1982 so I still remember the hubbub in 1985 when Rabbi Irving Greenberg famously asked “Will There Be One Jewish People By The Year 2000”? The Year 2000 has come and gone, and the fact that we are even having this discussion proves in a way that we are still one people. Very few Jews are disturbed that they can’t take communion at a Catholic church. Precisely because the borders between Jewish communities are still porous, because Jews are raised in one community but wish to join another as adults, because neither Reform Jews nor Orthodox Jews consider a Reform/Orthodox wedding an “intermarriage,” we on occasion have unfortunate situations where problems or questions arise about Jewish identity. Whatever one may think about the original wisdom of the Reform movement’s decision to accept patrilinearity, that horse has long since left the barn and is not going back inside it. Any rabbi should be delighted when a young man or woman identifies as a Jew, seeks to participate in their community, wants to marry another Jew.
I would love to see all rabbis of whatever community make the following two commitments:
1.) We will explain, accurately and without contempt, the practices and standards of communities not our own. No one who is raised in any of our communities should be surprised to get to a college campus and find that there might be a question about their Jewish status in another community.
2.) When encountering a person who identifies as a Jew but doesn’t meet the standards for identity of our community, we will not tell them “you are not Jewish.” We will respect and acknowledge their self-identification as a Jew, embrace them as someone who shares our faith and fate, and seek to resolve these issues with compassion and empathy.
Wow. It has been quite a busy week here at the Rabbis Without Borders blog discussing patrilineal descent and its implications. Rabbi Alana Suskin got the conversation rolling with a personal reflection on some of the struggles she faces as a Conservative rabbi when addressing status issues (marriage, divorce, and especially conversion) because of Reform Judaism’s decision to accept as Jews those whose father is Jewish but mother is not.
Rabbi Ben Greenberg responded that the Reform Movement’s decision to adopt patrilineal descent as a legitimate means of establishing Jewish identity was a strategic mistake because Reform Judaism failed to take into account the toll this decision would take on relations with non-Reform Jewry since Reform Jews do not exist in a vacuum.
Most recently, Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz posted a response in which she affirmed patrilineal descent as the right thing to do based on an egalitarian ethos, as well as the practical argument that individuals who consider themselves to be Jews, regardless of their conversion status, generally don’t care what rabbis think about their status.
All 3 rabbis have written eloquently and passionately in defense of their positions. And all three have generated a plethora of strident responses, many of which were constructive, in the comments to their posts. It is precisely this passion that I wish to address here. While I am not normally a “meta” person, it does seem worth exploring why the question of who is a Jew generates such vociferous reactions? At a time when all Jewish denominations are striving to increase Jewish engagement and affiliation, why are we so fixated on, and argumentative about, whom we ought to exclude from Judaism?
This debate sometimes has reminded me of the nastiness of the Birther Movement. For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the “Movement” sought to disprove President Obama’s citizenship during the 2008 national election by spreading rumors and innuendo about whether he was actually born in Hawaii, and was later revived by Donald Trump during his fleeting candidacy in 2012. And I have a feeling that should Senator Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling of the moment, decide to run for President in 2016, liberals might mount their own birther challenge to the Canadian-born Cruz. What’s the link? Both patrilineality and birther-ism implicate questions of eligibility of inclusion within what is deemed to be a privileged group identity. And both generate not just passionate but vitriolic responses by those who seek to defend their positions on either side of the inclusion divide. But why?
My humble suggestion is that the reason for such sensitivity to the issue of patrilineality, as it was for the birthers, is that we see ourselves as gate-keepers to a tradition where, for the first time since Sinai, anyone can get a key. As Rabbi Gurevitz points out at the end of her piece, all rabbis who work at synagogues are gate-keepers. From Reform to Orthodox, we all have our particular limits for who is in and who is out. Indeed, no denomination is so egalitarian that a person without a Jewish mother or father, who has not converted, is welcomed as a Jew (though, God-willing, such individuals will be welcomed and treated with the dignity we should accord all people). But our role as gate-keepers has been eviscerated in an era where Judaism, along with the world, is now flat.
The floodgates have opened and we are adrift, searching for a lifeboat of control that just isn’t there. We are powerless to prevent non-Jews from adopting Jewish rituals, as the “bar mitzvah” of Madonna’s son recently proved. What’s more, Rabbis and learned laity no longer hold a monopoly on Torah (however we define Torah) because anyone with wifi and an electronic device can gain access to virtually the entire corpus of biblical and Rabbinic literature. Perhaps the scariest realization, for those of us who are rabbis, is that It is becoming less and less clear why the world needs rabbis for the propagation of Judaism.
I won’t presume to speak for my colleagues, but for me, this paradigm shift is dizzying and disorienting As someone who enjoys the idea of broadening my borders, I often feel as though each time I “boldly” confront (and maybe even transcend) an halakhic, theological, or other border, some of the borders that remain quickly feel ossified and obsolete. It is like buying a Smartphone–the newest model, within a few months, simply becomes outdated.
So how do we handle this shift? Is there a way to address the meta issues without becoming embroiled in the contentious legal debate over who is a Jew? I certainly don’t have the answers (and I welcome your thoughts). But before we respond viscerally in our comments to the next post on patrilineality, I suggest that we start pointing the finger at ourselves, asking why it is that our feelings are so intense when it comes to questions of Jewish status.
This past week, two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues have shared their perspectives and struggles with the religious identities of individuals who have a Jewish father and not a Jewish mother, and who have been recognized as fully Jewish by the Reform movement in the USA. Rabbi Alana Suskin focuses on her personal challenges in working compassionately and appropriately with congregants while respecting the strictures of halachah as it has evolved on conversion and questions of who is a Jew. Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes a step back from the pastoral questions and considers the complications caused in a larger network of Jewish interactions across multiple institutional and movement-based systems that do not all work with a shared understanding of who is considered a Jew. I’d like to bring another framework to the discussion.
We rabbis are very good at explaining “the rules” of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was a law-based system, created to provide governance to communities that were locally based, once we no longer had a monarchy-based nation and a sacrificial system in Jerusalem. But while we rabbis may be well versed in the rules, we live in a time where, across all faiths, large swaths of the population are not interested in the “rules” of faith. They are interested in the meaning of faith.
Reform Judaism has made a conscious decision not to be a halakhic movement, in the traditional sense of the word. However, there are still principles that govern how we interact with Rabbinic tradition that help us navigate the path between tradition and change. These principles include equality, human dignity, a re-examination of ethical foundations, and more. Sometimes, it is true, there is also a degree of pragmatism – the religious leadership of the movement may not have been looking to make a change based on principles, but the recognition that change has happened in our society requires of us a decision as to whether we will make certain changes so as to continue to travel with our people in their life journeys. My sense of freedom to change in these ways comes from my understanding that Torah and Rabbinic Judaism are human constructions that are responses to God’s Revelation, but not the specific content of the Revelation itself.
Now, let me be clear. Does this mean that anything goes? No, absolutely not. Having specific ways to observe a ritual, celebrate a holiday, eat food, pray as a community, to respond after a death, etc. provides structure to the cultural signs and expressions of our faith. There is no question that such structure is necessary and also evokes a connection to a sense of shared heritage. For some people, the lack of simple clarity of what the ‘rules’ are, and the ever-shifting ground that is a result of re-conceptualizing Revelation as something that is continuous, is destabilizing and discomforting. But for others, it is incredibly freeing. I see that in the audible sigh of relief that comes from someone who has struggled with believing the literal surface of Torah but has new vistas opened when they are shown how to read it as sacred myth that provides gateways into the inner spiritual life of the individual and the community. And I see it when someone who has lived a Jewish life and claims that identity as meaningful to how they navigate life, where they feel they belong, and the community of which they choose to be a part, has that identity affirmed by their rabbi.
Patrilineal descent was affirmed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis because it was the right thing to do. It conforms with our principles of egalitarianism, and it is an expression of our understanding of kiruv – embracing and encouraging the living of Jewish lives in the context of Jewish community. Furthermore, as Rabbi Phillip Hiat and Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz demonstrated in their 1983 paper, “Biblical and Rabbinical Sources on Patrilineal Descent”, a close examination of the evolution of halakhah on the issue of who is a Jew reveals changing tides over time and very little meaningful basis for continuing to only recognize the matrilineal line other than ‘that’s what we’ve been doing for a long time.’
But what of Rabbi Greenberg’s concern that, by acting alone, new complications have arisen for klal yisrael with regard to whether someone’s Jewish status is accepted or not? I believe that this is a red herring. The truth is that such questioning exists along a continuum that exists even within movements. Within the Orthodox branches of Judaism, only certain rabbis are recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel as performing accepted conversions. So yes, I agree with my colleagues that we have a responsibility to make our converts and our patrilineal Jews aware of the larger context, although I admit to doing so apologetically because I don’t find these explanations to make Judaism very appealing.
I wish to end by returning to the individuals whose lives and identities we are talking about. Here’s the bottom line. The reality is that if someone is observing Jewish practice, celebrating in Jewish time, identifying with the Jewish people, or perhaps doing none of these things but, when asked, makes a claim to be Jewish or “part Jewish” because of their ancestry, it is largely irrelevant to them whether you or I agree or approve. When it does become relevant is when they seek access to our institutions, and especially our synagogues. At that point, we rabbis become the gatekeepers. And we are entitled to abide by whatever formulation of what makes a Jew that we, or our larger denominations, decide. We all have our requirements. And we all have good reasons for those requirements that we can articulate to those seeking entry. But let us recognize that what we are doing is gate-keeping, and let us be mindful of how and when we act as gatekeepers and what our purpose in those moments is. And let us celebrate and be proud of sustaining and sharing a religious heritage that others wish to claim as their own and live by.
This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.
Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past President of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:
“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.
I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”
Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.
It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.
Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.
The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.
Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?
A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.
In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.
It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.
The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.