Jewish denominations have made virtual sport about what the main objectives of Judaism, the Torah’s priorities, really are. There are intense philosophical disputes that predicate how these different Jews (both old members of the faith and new) learn, practice and apply the Torah. I feel safe saying the divergence robs Jews of the true richness of Judaism, both its conservative and liberal elements. But of chief concern at this time of the year is this communal dynamic . . . or lack thereof.
Orthodox Judaism tends to emphasize the internal needs of the Jewish people. Liberal Jews trend toward emphasizing more global issues or ones which might not affect Jews directly. We all think we know someone who only cares about one type of issue or the other, and fear not enough people see the importance of being activists for both kinds of causes.
Compare American Jews’ current issues and the politics of yesteryear in the United States. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Americans started debating the US role fighting oppressive dictatorships in Iraq or acculturating non-Westerners to liberal ideals in Afghanistan. Liberal Americans that argued resources should be spent at home instead of abroad.
In contrast, today’s more right-wing Jews would rather see resources spent on non-Jewish causes shifted in favor of Jewish philanthropies and needs. But this debate, “Do we protect S’derot and the settlers living in the West Bank before the residents of Darfur?,” is only the surface structure of a greater issue facing us all.
Focusing Inward while We Branch Out
There should be no debate about both sets of priorities. The Jewish people are in a position to help both fellow Jews and non-Jews who cannot help themselves. But there is no organization, no plan, no contingency, and especially no leadership to make both happen simultaneously. The Jewish world, some places more than others, lack vision.
If the Jewish world is going to address both of these kinds of issues with any sort of competency, it will have to address the warnings of Tisha B’Av, and strive to function as a single unbreakable unit. Differences between family members, between friends and between leaders of the same community are inevitable. Those differences do not justify schisms like we have today.
The common religious lesson for this hollow memorial day decries a concept known in Hebrew as”שינאת חינם,” often translated as “baseless hatred,” but better understood as “needless hatred.” With no good reason to fragment, the residents of Roman-occupied Judea divided and sub-divided into several splinter groups that often found reasons to fight each other instead of the greater Roman threat.
The multiplying minuscule branches of Judaism show how successful our stubbornness to talk has been. Instead of reconciling our differences through intellectually honest debate, we protect our personal theologies and avoid having them challenged. The result is factionalism.
Taking Both Sides
Which type of issue is more important? I sympathize with the view like those Americans who criticized the intervention of the US and UK militaries in Iraq – we have issues at home we need to take care of before we go and save the world. But my sympathy doesn’t negate the need to put our best foot forward and stand up for what is right beyond our own physical and cultural borders. Both issues are important, and both need vast amounts of energy and analysis to make Jewish efforts to fix the world successful, for ourselves and everyone else.
There’s a host of categorical issues that need to be addressed by the Jewish people in a practical, organized and constructive sense. I would generalize them by three categories:
Intrafaith dialogue is by far a more urgent issue than any sort of interfaith dialogue.
Polarizing trends will continue socially dividing our world into completely segregated pieces. Orthodox ought to remember where to tolerate variation and Reform remember where Judaism cannot be altered, lest we submit to the temptation for political power instead of religious leadership.
At any given time in American Jewish history, there has been a denomination on the decline and another denomination on the incline. At this point in history, it seems that any growth by any denomination is negatively accelerating – its growth continues, but at an increasingly slower pace. There is little theological discussion or religious interest in our community relative to its population. Liberal Jews and Traditional Jews have been divided for a long time congregationally. Each faction has maintained preferred approaches to Judaism, at the extreme expense of other approaches which are “too far to the left” or “to the right.”
It may be unthinkable, but a push to hold the center and bring denominations closer together is happening. The chancellor of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Norman Lamm, has pushed for the last twenty years to come to an amicable agreement with the Reform and Conservative movements on universally accepted conversions despite imposing opposition from more right-wing Rabbis. Reform leader and president of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi David Ellenson, has been an advocate of reinstalling many traditional practices in Reform Judaism.
Coming from very different directions, they are all pushing toward something astonishingly important. And best yet, they do it with mutual respect.
It seems like there are issues that cannot be reconciled, like homosexuality or religious authority. But these are issues much richer in opinions and options than laymen would think, and how our people can reconcile with each other on these concerns will not come via segregating our denominations or with rancor. It’ll be by communicating, critical learning, intense debate, and rapport.
Each Jewish community has its own cultural experience, but there is an apparent continuum in cultural openness to cultural particularity. Alternatively, there are different sorts of social advantages and crises along with any of these cultural lifestyles.
It is important to maintain a culture all our own, which will develop simply by having better mutual contact among all of us. We each have our cultural concerns, which we will fight to hold onto, particularly issues of individuality and chastity. But neither of those are mutually exclusive to liberal or conservative lifestyles. Our philosophies are closer to each other than we lead ourselves to believe, and the same for our core values. Inevitably, we will find more areas to find common ground.
It should be indisputable that a reverberation in Jewish music, art, literature and language would cross barriers very quickly, as shown by example of phenomena like Jewish music labels emerging out of NYC and their cross-section of artists.
We’ve tried addressing our collective inability to communicate with each other this way before, and its has only gotten us so far. This is something we’ll always be trying to address together, adequately or not. It is not as important as these other two issues, but for certain we need to better congregate and represent ourselves, in order to coordinate our diverse communities, within certain countries and internationally. In the United States, with a new leader of the United Jewish Communities (the unifying organization for all the country’s Jewish federations), there is an opportunity for staggering change.
Unfortunately, our leaders tend to either lack an all-encompassing vision, or earn their positions by virtue of their substantial financial donations to synagogues, federations or other major Jewish causes. It will take a combination of the financial leadership and the motivated lay leadership to make the community comprehensive. The initial political vision should be just to have Jewish politics in this country worth talking about. Our leaders would actually have policies and plans of action that generate attention and involvement on the part of the Jews of America.
All of these things would radiate across American culture. Jews we think could never be reached by a small minority’s renaissance would notice the growing consistency, consensus and clarity of Jewish religiosity. Jewish culture would penetrate untouched corners of American society. Jewish political and social activism would blossom from small private organizations like Hazon or the American Jewish World Service into full-fledged departments of a more active UJC.
America is estimated to have 5.5 – 6 million Jewish citizens. This number is probably a gross underestimation. No matter we define who a Jew is, a stronger Jewish community in the United States will welcome anyone who wants to play a part in its welfare and prosperity, with or without a conversion up to Jewish law’s standards. Character will be the issue, and individuals will choose at what point they want to upgrade their identity and at what pace. But this type of culture of mutual respect can only happen with patience and vision, or simply a more durable idea of a strong Jewish community.