Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Who Serves Whom

One of the most important findings of the Pew Report on Jewish identity was that many, if not most, non-religious younger Jews are turning away from Judaism because they don't find it relevant to them.  The idea of being Jewish as an obligation simply doesn't exist in their personal frames of reference and as a result they treat being Jewish as one option among many for meeting their personal and spiritual needs.    As Rav Yonatan Rosenblum eloquently notes in a recent essay:
THE HIGH INTERMARRIAGE RATE should occasion no surprise. "Jewish" has long since ceased to be a primary, or even tertiary, identity for most American Jews. Those things that most American Jews associate with Jewish identity – a sense of humor, a taste for certain foods, commitment to social justice, Holocaust remembrance – are by no means exclusive to Jews. If politics or a sense of humor or taste in movies are primary to one's self-identity, then one is likely to choose one's spouse on the basis of those things, not religion.
Nor is it any surprise that "Jewish" should rank so low on the totem pole of self-identification. For the one message that most American Jews have never heard is: Judaism is unique; Judaism has a message that differs from the prevailing zeitgeist. Rather they have been told that Judaism is trivial, and its rituals and proscriptions outdated and primitive.
Every time, "Jewish" or "marriage" are redefined to "keep the kids within the fold" or to maintain the demographic numbers, the message is conveyed that Judaism is meaningless and exists only for its own self-perpetuation. Judaism, our young understand, makes no demands and will accommodate them however far afield they travel.
AMERICAN JEWISH LEADERS, including a large swath of the clergy, have not followed Wertheimer's minimum prescription for the preservation of American Jewry as a distinct community: to address directly about where, how, and why Judaism dissents from the universalistic ethic of the culture at large, by "speaking on behalf of the distinctive commandments, beliefs and values for the sake of which Jews over the millennia . . . have willingly and gratefully set themselves apart."
Years ago I went to a student forum at the local university where three local rabbis were asked to speak.  The Reform rabbi waxed on about how his daughter lived her Jewish values by volunteering at the local food bank and homeless shelter.  Shabbos was a nice idea, of course, but she felt it was more important to express her Jewishness by spending Saturday afternoons helping the homeless.  I then asked what I thought was the obvious challenge: when she meets someone non-Jewish who has exactly the same values as her what will keep her in the fold?  I saw this myself with an old friend who was raising in the Conservative system through school, camps and youth groups.  She was a big leftist social justice type and ultimately met a non-Jewish guy who shared her values.  She saw no trouble with marrying him because he was exactly the kind of guy she was looking for and his not being Jewish didn't factor into it.
Much of the fault for this can be laid squarely in the Orthodox community.  Our public obsessions with those things that are not relevant to non-religious folks like kashrus, Shabbos and taharas mishpacha give the impression that Judaism is all about personal ritual with no connection to societal concerns.  The endless parade of Orthodox Jews in the headlines for various crimes along with the public disheveled appearance of many Orthodox neighbourhoods only helps to make the non-religious feel like there is nothing in true Judaism that is of relevance to the 21st century liberal.
All this also brings to mine the old JFK quote (which wasn't his, by the way): "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.The other factor that works against Judaism and spring from this quote is bigger than that.  Our civilization is one in which "duty" is a dirty word to be used on other people, not on oneself.  The combination of increasing convenience through technology and rising entitlements from oversized government has created a society of folks who are interested in the opposite of JFK's great quote.  Young Jews, it would seem, want their local synagogue/temple to do something to entertain them as opposed to seeing it as a place to congregate out of obligation to the community.  They look at Judaism and ask "What's in it for me?" instead of "How can I contribute to Judaism"?
Rav Rosenblum's article brings an example of a community which has successfully engaged in efforts to change the slide away from Judaism but, as he notes, the success of the small and homogenous South African community cannot be duplicated in North America for various reasons.  This does not mean that the underlying principle, presenting Judaism as a faith with distinct values, is a wash.
What is needed, however, is leadership on both the Torah observant and non-religious sides of the divide to change their presentations.  Non-religious leaders are pandering to the secular liberals in their congregations in increasing radical ways but are not gaining any ground.  As the kids in my childhood synagogue once told the rabbi when he asked them why they didn't come out for youth activities, "the non-Jewish people have lots better parties and lots more fun".  The Conservatives seem to have shrunk after every step they take away from Torah observance in order to accommodate secular liberals.  The Reform have reached the point where a good number of those who even participate minimally in the movement aren't even really Jewish.  
On the Orthodox side there has to be a step away from the obsession with the minutiae of ritual.  We have to ask ourselves a simple question: are non-black stockings on a woman worse than theft and pedophiles?  How can we penetrate the klipah of selfishness our culture has wrapped our non-Jewish brethren in if we don't show them that Judaism does speak to their values but only as a whole system instead of bits and parts?
On the non-religious side there has to be a recognition that only Jewish unique values make one's actions Jewish.  Helping out at the local shelter because that's what makes you feel Jewish isn't authentic.  Helping out because the Torah obliges us to clothe the poor and shelter the homeless and by doing so we are connecting to God, that's authentic.  And building that connection to God comes with personal and ritual obligations.  At some point Reformative clergy have to swallow a bitter pill and say "Look, if you want to be a good Jew you also have to do the following..."  Intermarriage will only drop when the non-Orthodox Jew decides to marry another Jew not because of "Well, I don't want to marry a non-Jew" but because only another Jew can match their values.
The Torah and Talmud have no shortage of exhortations on how to help the poor and enact social justice.  Instead of figuring out new ways to make keeping kosher more difficult we should be figuring out how to be machmir on helping the homeless.  Instead of worrying about whether or not women and men can sit in sight of one another on a public bus we should be stocking our local food banks, both kosher and not.  Somewhere along the way the books of Yishiyahu, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel, uncensored, must make their way back into our curriculum.
We observant Jews have as much an obligation to save our non-religious brethren from assimilated obscurity but we have to change ourselves as well in order to do that.


SJ said...

>> we observant jews have an obligation to save our nonreligious brethren ..... we have to change ourselves

And in other news, the indians became a horse and rifle culture too late. The white man was already prevalent in North America.

TK said...

I wholly agree with your argument, but I question the solution proposed, which I believe is missing the point: any overlap of "social justice" and "charitable/kindness" is like two traintracks crossing an intersection, going in very different directions. They are not running parallel, and trying to co-opt rather than staying true to own your track may make more long term sense.

The question I ponder is why there is such a pull in these directions. What is the ying to the yang?

Anonymous said...

There are about ten books one could write on this subject.

The biggest problem I think is most Jews are modern. This means they will evaluate all claims. They refuse to be hoodwinked into any religious dogma.

Are they capable of making commitments and meeting obligations? Of course. They commit to people, to ideals, to civic responsibility. Mainly they are sympathetic to Israel.

But that is about the extent of it.

They see no reason to view Judaism as anything more than a culture and an ethnicity.

There has yet to be articulated ANY particularly powerful or persuasive argument that will bring anything more than a small fraction of Jews back to observance. NOT ONE argument has done more than make a small dent in assimiliation.

The ONLY fix (maybe.)

Invite people into Judaism. Invite spouses and fiancés. I have yet to hear ONE good argument why Judaism cannot be more open to conversion.

In the past (and aren’t we supposed to hold the past on a kind of pedestal??) Jews proselytized. They also did mass conversions and conversions for marriage.

(Did you see the NY Times – the study a couple of weeks ago that showed that it is likely that as much as eighty percent of Ashkenazim are descended from Jewish men in Europe who converted women for the purposes of marriage?)

If this is true – we should accept quick conversions / conversions for marriage, or we should admit that eighty percent of Jews may not even be halachically Jewish!

The only, only argument you hear about easy conversion is that it will send Jewish men into the arms of shiksas and Asian women everywhere!

Well WHO CARES? We will have more Jews – and they will start to resemble all kinds of races and ethnicities of people. And the shidduch crisis among secular Jews will go away. And Jewish girls can marry the dreamboat with the blonde hair and the blue eyes (and he can become a Jew easily and happily and with the community’s blessing.)

What do we have to lose? Absolutely NOTHING.


Ephrem said...

Good comments, but what to do about various supposedly religious Jews who, through their own depredations (sexual and otherwise) have made massive and well publicized Chillul Hashem despite the accoutrements of a supposedly Frum Jew? Granted, Nechemia Weberman is a dirtbag who got what he deserved (I think)- but look at the coverage given to his Satmar "community" that raised like $500,000 for his defense? And the disgraceful treatment the victim and her family was subject to? And worse- the holy "Rebbe" who publically referred to her as a "whore" in the Yiddish vernacular. Every one of these events were reported in the anglo-Jewish and secular press. And I haven't even touched the surface of horrific behaviour perpetrated by religious Jews, that may well have fallen within the daled amos of Halacha, but is often so immature, selfish, and stupid that one wonders where any semblence of grey matter is to be found amoung them. Think of the public whining and kvetching about Metzitzah B'Peh (with Satmar's threat to protest wearing concentration camp uniforms, no less...) including Agudah's attempt to refute established scientific facts using an unpublished study that was never meant to be referrenced (talk about getting caught with your schmeckel out) ....It was a disgrace.

So my point is this: as much as we want to challenge secular belief with authentic Jewish practices and ideology, there are powerful forces working against the moral underpinnings of Judaism- and those forces are commandeered by religious Jews. I have no answers; I can say with much chagrin that it is highly unlikely I would become religious, as I did 25+ years ago, had I been both aware of, and had experienced so many examples of immoral and horrid midos- aka, menuvalos b'reshus ha Torah- by the very group of people- in the abstract- that were trying to get me to commit to a Torah life. And for anyone who raises these points today, under the ausipces of "kiruv"-- I have no answers to counter their criticisms of what orthodoxy has become. I cannot continue to excuse the inexcusable, and Yiddishkeit as I used to know it has been hijacked- indeed, stolen- by many Rabbis and organizations that they represent, usually associated with the same Haredi mentality that is more concerned about the opaquness of a women's stockings than the presence of a pedophile lurking as a counselor in a summer camp. Belksky should be on the unemployment line, and Avram Schorr should be forced to issue an apology to Lipa Schmeltzer over his well publicized ban on the Big Event Concert. But it will never happen because the praxis of Orthodoxy has been polluted and hijacked by fanaticism and extremism.

Might I add that I was, at one time, a close Talmud of Rabbi Leib Tropper, who read the Ketubah at my wedding, whose former Yeshiva bestowed an award on me years ago, and, alas, who became a public example of how Torah Judaism can be used to perpetuate the basest, and most disgusting behaviour without a whisper of criticism from so called Daas Torah- many of whom were on the take from the largesse of Tropper's primary benefactor. After awhile, you put it all together, and the idea of becoming OTD does not seem so hard to fathom afterall.

I would welcome some conciliatory remarks from Garnel's esteemed readership, provided, of course, that their sentiment does not hinge on the old and tired canard that you cannot judge Judaism by the behaviour of Jews...

SJ said...

You can always allow antisemites to be Jews if you are desperate enough. You can have your kkk Jews, Islamic terrorist Jews, and your black power Jews

Atheodox Jew said...

Great post. If we don't have kashrut, eventually we don't have Jews. (i.e. If I'm not for myself who will be for me?) But if we only have kashrut, what the heck do we think we're accomplishing? (i.e. If I'm only for myself, what am I?)

the one message that most American Jews have never heard is: Judaism is unique; Judaism has a message that differs from the prevailing zeitgeist.

You can replace "Jews" and "Judaism" here with "Christians" and "Christianity" or "Muslims and "Islam". Every religion is "unique" in terms of the details of its faith.

But in my interpretation of Judaism, it's unique in a much more radical and profound way. Whereas all other religions will have you believe in myths and superstition, Judaism will have none of that. It's 100% opposed to false beliefs - including those beliefs which have come down in the Torah tradition itself! Whereas every other religion's argument comes down to authority claims - my God vs. your God - with Judaism, ideas have to stand on their own.

Again, that's according to my view of Judaism. But for me it's "muchrach" - it has to be that way or it's not "Torat emet".

SJ said...

I'm going to be like Obama now.

If you like your judaism, you can keep your judaism.

However the new regulations are that circumcisions must cut off at least an inch and all shirts must be Hawaiian themes and all women must not be prudes unless they are either ugly or lesbian.

Ths point is, if you like your judaism, you can keep your judaism.

But wait, there's more.

If you like your beard you can keep your beard. It just had to be dyed pink.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

AJ, what makes Judaism unique, at least when compared to Islam and Chrisianity is that it allows non-believers into Heaven if they keep the 7 rules of Bnei Noach. The others demand you join if you want Heaven. That universality, that you can be righteous without being a member of the club, is a pretty unique feature.

SJ, screw Obama's slogan. Those health plans he said you could keep if you liked them? He went and cancelled them all!

SJ said...

It gets worse.

The reason why Haiti is still a shithouse despite all the aid is because all the politicians, bureaucrats, and the like steal all the money so only .0000000001% of it goes where it's supposed to go.

Obama admin spent billions on a stimulus that didn't stimulate millions on obamacare that don't give healthcare. The USA is becoming like Haiti. The aid money isn't going where it's supposed to be going.

SJ said...

Obama slogan take two

If you like your wife you can keep your wife, I just need to be able to ravage her if she's hot.

Efrem said...

I was hoping my request for some concilatory comments would have yielded some responses. I guess my expectations were far too high.

SJ said...

I know what efram is saying the stuff on failedmessiah just keeps getting worse year after year.

Anonymous said...


Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews. Judge it by the reasonableness of its claims.

If you are a cretin, then national revelation means Judaims MUST be true! No one would accept a book that said their ancestors were there if they didn’t KNOW it was true! Yah!

If you are a thinker, you will think that a story can have gradual acceptance. It can start as a bed-time story, move on to being a “some say” story, and wind up “official history”! So national revelation never is challenged as it morphs in importance. Boooo. The Jews made it up! Booooo. Bummer. Downer. Thinker.

If you are a cretin, the Torah MUST be from G-d, because it promises things that came true!

If you are a thinker, the Torah promises many things that don’t come true. And when it talks of exile and return, it is talking about the first exile and return! And it looks (from several disciplines with converging lines of evidence) like it was written over about four hundred years and with several hands involved. Boooooo. Boooooo. Our book isn’t magic! Booooooo.

This can go on all night.

Just be a thinker Efram. It will all become crystal clear to you. You will have graduated to adulthood. You will realize that fundamentalist religion appeals to the child in all of us. And kids have criminal minds!