Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Catering to Any Denominator

One of the starkest differences between observant Jewish organizations and non-observant ones is what they focus on as the important factors in their Jewishness. Orthodox organizations tend to invoke Torah and important Jewish rituals while non-observant organizations use more nebulous feel-good slogans revolving around tzedakah or tikun olam(is there a more misused term in Judaism?). As this article notes:
“Fear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
No, it's not a typo. The Shema, which starts “Hear O Israel,” is the central credo of the Jewish people. It states that there is only one God -- and as a result, only one set of divinely authored ethics and imperatives.
According to the Torah, the Jews were given the daunting task of bringing God-based universal ethics to the world. However, given the number of Jews who are uncomfortable with such a mandate and with religious imperatives in general, I now worry that our prayer could read “Fear O Israel.”
I have this worry because a great number of non-Orthodox Jews -- I am not Orthodox -- are afraid to mention the core concepts of our remarkable religion. We fear that by talking too much or even about any Judaism, even among ourselves, we’ll sound too Christian, too much like our religious oppressors of centuries past, or like Orthodox Jews.
I’ve collected the mission statements of the largest 17 Jewish federations in North America, and not one mentions “God,” “Torah” or “Judaism.” Nor do the mission statements of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Hillel, the National Council of Jewish Women, The Wexner Heritage Foundation, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund. Of all the organizations I looked into, only United Jewish Communities mentions but one of the three words, Torah, in its mission statement.
Some surely will be quick to say that the above organizations were not created to convey religious concepts. That is precisely my point: How can we say these organizations are Jewish and at the same time don’t need to mention God, Torah or Judaism?
They are not afraid to use other religious terms -- many of them mention “tzedakah” (charity), “klal yisroel” (Jewish peoplehood) and “tikkun olam” (repair the world). Why are those words appropriate and not the others I’ve mentioned?
Many Jewish organizations apparently feel the need to embrace terms that are universal in nature and avoid terms that are more particularistic. Tzedakah, tikkun olam and klal yisroel are considered universal and inclusive terms.

It's easy to see why more specific religious references are ignored. With all the fractures in the Jewish nation today, there is very little that unites all Jews across the religious spectrum. In fact, there's only one thing: a rejection of JC as the saviour of mankind and of Mohammed as an authentic prophet. Other than that, there is little that Eric Yoffe, the head of the Reformers, and the Neturei Karta have in common.
As a result, secular Jewish organizations have to be careful. Mention Torah and you'll get people who think it's a archaic document feeling excluded. Mention God and the atheists will freak out. Charity? Can't argue with that. And as I noted, tikun olam is so misused and twisted that only frum people who know what it actually means get offended, and who cares about offending us?
The Jews are a nation by virtue of the Torah. Any Jewish group which strays from that principle not only sees a precipitous drop in its level of observance but also in all the feel-good activities that secular groups would normally see as positive behaviours. There's no arguing, for example, about who gives more charity per capita: Orthodox Jews give far more than the non-religious.
Catering to a lowest common denominator doesn't inspire people or make them feel more committed. It validates their lack of enthusaism by telling them it's just fine. It's not what will bring a strong future to our people.


Not Brisk said...

Interesting how Tikkun Olam is used, or rather misused, by groups who want to bridge the gap amongst the nations.

The sefarim say the T"O is accomplished via us becoming what we are supposed to be; nurturing the good. That primarily can only be accomplished by isolation from negative influences.

It is kinda counter-intuitive

Dr Mike said...

Tikun olam is paving the roads so the festival pilgrims don't sprain their ankles!

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Not sure what you're recommending here. Are all non-Orthodox organizations supposed to become Orthodox? Why the constant floccinaucinihilipilification of the beliefs/attitudes of 90% of your fellow Jews? Maybe there's something in the ideas that gave us so much of value from Yiddish literature, to Marc Chagall, to the modern State of Israel that's worth preserving?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Absolutely but I am suggesting that there are certain things that all Jewish concepts need to be anchored in - God, Torah, etc. It doesn't hurt to have a relevant Biblical verse or saying from the Talmud to back up your Jewish cause, for example.


Finger spasm?

David said...


Lots of Jewish ideas are not rooted in God or the Torah, but in the collective experience of the Jews as a people. Again, the "Jewish" state is almost entirely the product of non-Orthodox ideas that owed far more to nationalistic notions than theistic ones. You may or may not like that (frummies have more or less attempted to hijack the concept of Israel), but I don't think you can fairly ignore it.

And, no, that wasn't a finger spasm (although it might have been an honest spelling error). Look it up. I choose my words carefully, even the ridiculous ones.

Garnel Ironheart said...


Thank you. I don't think I'll be slipping it into casual parlance but it's always nice to learn a new word.

As for Zionism, don't forget the first Zionists, the Chovevei Tzion, were all religious but when they went to the secular Rothchilds for funding they were turned down for lack of interest. There is certainly a nationalistic streak in religious Judaism despite Chareidi protestations to the contrary.

And yes, lots of Jewish ideas are rooted in our collective experience but we only have that collective experience because we are one people and we are only one people because of our origin in God and Torah.

Not Brisk said...

I want to send you an email. How do I do that?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Why, send all mail to

E-Man said...

David said-
Lots of Jewish ideas are not rooted in God or the Torah, but in the collective experience of the Jews as a people. Again, the "Jewish" state is almost entirely the product of non-Orthodox ideas that owed far more to nationalistic notions than theistic ones.

David, why did the non-religious choose Israel instead of Uganda if all they cared about was a nation? Wasn't it influenced by a belief in G-D and the Torah?