Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday 4 August 2014

Ethnicity and Nationality

One of the weirdest phenomena among non-observant Jews is the idea of "Jewish pride".  You meet a Jewish guy or girl that is completely or mostly non-religious.  They might even be intermarried.  Suggest that they are anything other than a member of tribe in good standing and you get strong negative responses.  For a Torah observant Jew this often makes no sense.  It's the Wolowitz effect: he might be married to a Blonde Shiksa Goddess (same initials as his favourite TV show, BattleStar Galactica, am I the only one to notice that?), he might enjoy a good pork roast and have no trouble with going to the movies on Friday night but he is strongly proud of his jewish identity.  What gives?
It is important to remember that there are different understandings of what Judaism is out there in society.  For many of our non-observant brethren it is not a religious identity or a national one but rather simply one of ethnic belonging.  Vinnie is a good Italian even though he's married to a WASP, V. Stiviano is a good Polynesian even though she's hanging out with a racist Jew and Morris at the law firm is a great Jew even though he's got the firm's annual pool party to attend on Rosh HaShanah.  When it comes to ethnic identity it's the highlight of Western civilization: all entitlement, no obligations.
The reason I mention this is because much of modern kiruv is dedicated to appealing to just that ethnic identity.  Have you noticed?  Programs around holidays, fun events with alcohol and some kind of Jewish food, efforts to have Jewish boys meet Jewish girls to cut down on intermarriage, so much of the industry appeals to the ethnic Jew without a hint of the national aspect.
And I think this is very wrong.  It creates an impression that the real difference between a non-observant Jew and an observant one is in the amount of ethnic behaviours each engages in.  The Reformative Jew does Jewish things once in a while while the Orthodox one does them all the time but they're just behaviours.
In fact I think too many Orthodox Jews define their Orthodoxy this way.  It's not so much about beliefs and a feeling of connection with the Ribono shel Olam as it is about how much "doing Jewish" one can shove into one's life.  Behaviour without belief, is it any wonder that we see so many frum Jews in the news for the wrong reasons today?
I'm not saying that kiruv rechokim isn't important.  Frankly I think it's terribly important.  Too many of our brethren are cut off from their eternal heritage and their portion in Torah.  As observant Jews we have to feel a sense of crisis when 90% of us have forgotten or deny the Sinai experience.  However we have to ask: do we in the Orthodox community also need kiruv rechokim?  Do we need to correct those things we are doing wrong yet are treating as holy minhagim due to intellectual laziness and inertia?
We need to recall that we are not an ethnic group but a nation and as a nation we are defined by our connection to the Creator and His Torah, His expressed will for the way He wants the universe to run.  We need to put less emphasis on the ritual behaviours (although they remain important) and more on rebuilding each individuals sense of connection with God and our nation.  This means a kiruv system in which we openly identify ourselves as separate and different.  We don't want to attract unaffiliated brethren with humantaschen and klezmer music.  We want them to feel a part of the Jewish nation which includes identifying with our origins and having a desire to share our fate together as we stumble towards the Final Redemption.  Enough with lines like "If you keep taharas mishpacha you'll have a happier marriage" or "Keeping Shabbos keeps you happy".  Everyone knows that's a load. 
"If you keep taharas mishpachah you are fulfilling your obligation to God."  "We pray because we have an obligation to and a desire to speak to God."  It isn't as fun or sexy but it would create a better sense of commitment and understanding amongst new recruits and old ones as well.

Sunday 3 August 2014

The Beast Reawakens

Those of us born in the West since the end of World War 2 live much different Jewish lives than our ancestors.  For millenia we have been discriminated again, persecuted, pillaged and murdered for the simple crime of being Jews.  The last three generations, on the other hand, have been almost the opposite.  We are now an integrated part of Western society, full mobile within it and possessed of the same rights as all other citizens of the countries in which we live.  Yes there have been occasional Jew-hating episodes here and there, and there's always the quiet Jew hatred of British civil society, but they have been aberrations, not the norm. 
In short, we have been on vacation and the vacation in ending.
It's not a terrible surprise to note that Europe is the vanguard in the resurgence of open and socially acceptable Jew hatred.  The influx of Muslims from poor and underdeveloped countries, with all their social prejudices and beliefs, along with a post-national multi-cultural death wish amongst the old stock Europeans which allowed these old world hatreds to fester and grow without any judgement against them, has brought out open Jew-hatred in Europe once again.  Simmering over the last 25 years, the pot is now on full boil with the onset of the latest Israel-'Aza war.
For years people warned of this and were dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists.  We were told about rule of law, about assimilation, about how "those days" were in the past.  Anyone reading the news these last couple of weeks knows that this is a lie.  Open calls for death to us, open calls for the destruction of Israel, open calls for boycotts of Jewish (not Israeli, pay attention, but specifically Jewish) shops and business, all the stuff of the early 1930's come back to life.  For years many of us warned that the situation in the West was growing eerily similar to the situation that brought Nazism to power and we were told we were overreacting.  When a Belgian doctor refuses to treat a Jewish pateitn, when shops in Europe post signs that say "Dogs are okay but no Jews allowed", are we still overreacting?
But surely the rule of law would still protect us.  Muslims may riot in the streets and attack synagogues but there are laws against those kinds of things.  Wouldn't the protests be controlled?  Wouldn't we be protected?
Let me share a cynical point: a law is only as effective as the will to uphold it.  If European or North American police are going to stand back and watch as a mob displays its bloodlust and attacks Jews or Jewish institutions then there is no security in knowing the law protects us.  As Europe's Jews have started to learn, the police have no interest in tangling with a large crowd of violence-happy Muslims intent on torching the local shul.  They'd rather not have to engage a crowd that size with all the implications such an encounter would engender and frankly most of them don't care as long as we're the target.
North America is still behind Europe in this latest trend.  Our immigrant Muslim populations are relatively smaller.  Our police forces are still not thrilled with the ideas of uncontained rioting.  But we in North America would be fools to think that in the next few years, certainly within the next decade or two, that the open and tolerated Jew hatred will find its way here.
During the Three Weeks we confront our dismal history and remember not only the destruction of our Temples (may it be speedily rebuilt) but also all the other tragedies that have occured to us over the centuries.  It is sad to think that on the horizon there are more waiting to happen after this prolonged period of peace and quiet but perhaps it is something we need to start adapting to.