Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Defining Secular Judaism

Are we even one people anymore?  With all the differences between religious and non-religious Jews one wonders where the common ground is some days.  Belief in matan Torah?  Nope. Heck, belief in God is, chas v'shalom, optional for some "humanist" Jews.  Support for Israel?  Nope.  Love of bagels?  Gosh, have you seen the calorie count on those things?
It's a matter of historical fact that there have always been both Torah-observant and non-observant Jews.  However, other than brief periods of history there have been few movements that avidly sought to redefine Judaism along the lines of another religion or school of thought and rebrand it as actual Jewishness.  Most Jews who did not observe the mitzvos simply acknowledged that they were "lapsed" and went on with their lives.  It is really only over the last couple of centuries that the opposite has happened - Jews have lapsed from observance, still wanted to call themselves good faithful Jews and then invented a new religion to justify their claim.
In this piece from Commentary, Jack Wertheimer brilliantly summarizes the definition of this new Judiams.  Here's how the definition works:
I. I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt to ‘repair the world.’
II. You shall not be judgmental.
III. You shall be pluralistic.
IV. You shall personalize your Judaism.
V. Meaning, meaning you shall pursue.
VI. You shall create caring communities.
VII. You shall encourage the airing of all views.
VIII. You shall not be tribal.
IX. You shall celebrate your Jewishness.
X. You shall hold the Jewish conversation in public.
Fascinating in it simplicity and damning in its accuracy these principles seem to underlie the ongoing activities of most non-Orthodox Jewish organizations.
I can share one story to buttress the point.  In the city I live in a Hindu temple burned down a few years ago.  After raising money to rebuild the structure the call went out for more funds in order to buy a new idol of their "god" and bring it over from India.  A frum friend of mine attended a UJA Federation meeting shortly after and was stunned to hear calls from some members to assist in fund raising efforts and participate in the welcoming ceremonies for the idol when it arrived!
From hippie gatherings to proudly defining oneself as a Jewish atheist, a complete contradiction in terms, there is no limit to how strange this new religion's followers are.
Excuse me?  Is there something more defining of Judaism than its absolute rejection of all idols and fake gods?  Yet these folks saw it as their Jewish duty to assist in bringing an idol to town to show that Jews are caring, involved members of the greater community.
Consider the issue of gay marriage.  While Judaism certainly does not encourage discrimination against homosexuals it does categorically forbid same-sex marriage, the wistful yearnings of some Morethodox folk notwithstanding.  Yet time and time again we see Jewish groups eagerly participating in activities to promote such legal unions.
Now again there is a great reason for this from their perspective.  Seeing themselves not as a religion but as an ethnic group with optional observances, such advocacy makes sense.  Consider the fight against segregation of Blacks in the United States only two generations ago.  At that time the popular opinion of the majority was all for such a system.  Had referendums been held in U.S. states over whether or not to reject integration, the rejectionist side would have carried the day repeatedly.  However, we know that segregation was racist and wrong.  The secular Jews in the gay marriage fight are simply bringing this forward into today.  The majority may reject it, their own backgrounds might reject it but it is wrong in their eyes and they are fighting for equality against a discriminatory majority, the very essence of their Judaism.
As Wertheimer notes:

It is no coincidence that the ideas and attitudes embodied in the new American Judaism are largely indistinguishable from the cluster of ideas and attitudes that inform liberal American culture at large. The abhorrence of chauvinism, the refusal to privilege any culture’s values over any other’s, the emphasis on doing good: What are these if not the hallmarks of today’s regnant multiculturalist dispensation? As noted 15 years ago by the late Charles S. Liebman, Jews, like their neighbors, increasingly embrace an ethos “marked by voluntarism (radical choice), autonomy (the license for invention),personalism (the quest for personal meaning), universalism (the abnegation of parochial collective identity), and moralism (the emphasis on the moral and ethical value of rites and customs).” If, at mid-20th century, Jews in record numbers joined synagogues in silent agreement with the slogan “the family that prays together stays together” and in a later period embraced a more inward-looking pride as ethnic assertion was sweeping the land, today’s Jewish vanguard faithfully reflects the culture of the moment.
Upon closer inspection, however, the new Jewish consensus (like, it must be said, its American prototype) is hardly without ironies, contradictions, problems, and costs. Take, for example, the goal of fostering diversity and inclusion. Lofty aspirations, they can also yield the reverse effect on what can actually be said and done. In order to bring everyone under one big tent, potentially divisive issues must be shelved—leading right back to the narrow rigidity that the new inclusiveness was ostensibly designed to replace.

Thus the circle is complete.  The new "tolerance" becomes intolerant of the old system.  I recall reading a story about a Conservative convention 10 years ago or so at which a big fuss broke out because, while the main daily services were strictly egalitarian there was a small group of folks who wanted to run a traditional style service.  Even after being relegated to a small side hall there was still opposition from folks who felt that traditional services had no place in Conservatism.  They were intolerant of intolerance!
Ultimately these systems cannot succeed.  They rely on narcissism, a willful ignorance of traditional Judaism and a self-defeating insistence on assimilationist tendencies.  In place of a God who command us to be distinct and moral, we have a people that presumes to command God to be liberal and amoral.  Is it any wonder that there seems to be less and less to talk about between us and them these days?


Anonymous said...

I read in the Forward (here in NYC) that during the debate over ending slavery, a well-known orthodox rabbi (proud of his knowledge of the Torah) said it was sanctioned – and therefore we should not end it. A reform rabbi took the other side and said we are all created in the image of G-d.

Re gay marriage – Jews should not have a problem with it (including Orthodox Jews) because it is a secular issue. No one is forcing religions to perform these marriages. Just as Orthodox Jews do not fight against the law that says women can obtain a divorce (in the secular world) without her husband’s permission (even though this is against halachah), why should they bother with fighting against secular gay marriage?

I read this too: Orthodoxy recommends an uncle marry his niece in certain circumstances (I guess.) Secular law forbids it. I don’t see this conflict causing much concern among the Orthodox either.


Adam Zur said...

If pluralism is an a priori vale then what could be wrong with being Nazi? [that is as long as she is sincere.]

SJ said...

the liberal jews are retards for some reasons the orthodox are retards for other reasons.

both sectors of judaism are gay the liberal sector openly and the orthodox sector with little kids. the normal straight people are leaving!

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Adam, one of the secular principles is "Thou shalt not adopt a value that requires you to hurt another". Since being a Nazi involves inflicting a racist, violent agenda on other groups, it would be unacceptable.

Adam Zur said...

"Thou shalt not adopt a value that requires you to hurt another." is directly opposed to pluralism. It is a value that one demands of all people regardless of their system of values. The person demanding pluralism is demanding for herself a objective perspective that she denies to others.

Adam Zur said...

even further i could say that pluralism is self contradictory. it is claiming an absolute objective value for the principle that there are no objective absolute values.People that believe in pluralism clearly have not thought through this belief system throughly. and this certainly was not a value for any Jews in Europe.
It is just that the reform movement took advantage of the fact that Jews wanted to be progressive and used that energy to funnel people in a false value system.

JRKmommy said...

Were Jews ever defined just by their beliefs? Even in the Torah, there are Israelites worshipping Canaanite gods, and even bringing them into the Temple. These were clearly viewed as Very Bad Things, but they didn't change people's identity.

Why the insistence on dividing Jews by elements of theology? I think that part of the secret of success of groups like Aish and Chabad, over groups that look more liberal on paper, is that they don't insist on this division. If you are Jewish, you're Jewish. I remember a Chabad rabbi correcting a man who described his late father as "not religious", pointing out that he had done tremendous service to the Jewish service by serving in the Israeli army.

Ultimately, at whom is this post aimed, and what does it accomplish? A liberal Jew who agrees with the list of "new commandments" won't see anything wrong with them, and the only message that will come across is "we think you are strange and reject you."

Finally - is it more accurate to say that Jews have adopted liberal American culture, or that liberal American culture has been influenced by Jews?

Y. Ben-David said...

There is a joke told about Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism which is the most vocal proponent of the Liberal Theology outlined here. It goes like this:

"The Jews are a divinely chosen people whose heavenly mandated mission is to teach the world that there is no deity and that the Jews are no different than anyone else."