Fein & Cohen to Yoffie: Let Secular Jews Be Secular

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Responding a HuffPo column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie (former President of the Union for Reform Judaism) entitled "The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews", Leonard Fein and BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen pen a defense of secular/cultural Judaism, also in the Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard themselves as "people of reason and not of faith, as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief." They seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past."... Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism....

True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe...

In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews...

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural. These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless...

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.

 Read the entire piece here.

BJPA publications by Leonard Fein.

BJPA publications by Steven M. Cohen

BJPA publications by Eric Yoffie

Politics & Scripture

Romney-Obama

Both President Obama and Governor Romney recently granted an interview on faith to the magazine of National Cathedral in Washington. Both candidates named favorite passages of scripture, with the choices revealing a fascinating difference in emphasis. One candidate's chosen passage focuses on charity, and specifically on helping the needy with their physical needs. The other candidate's passage discusses God's power over the world, and to provide protection for human beings who trust Him.

If you think you know which favorite scriptural inspiration belongs to which candidate, think twice.

It was Pres. Obama who cited Isaiah 40:31—"But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (NIV)—and Psalm 46. And it was Gov. Romney who cited Matthew 25:35-6—"For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me" (KJV).

What, if anything, can we learn from this seeming inversion of what we might expect the two candidates' theologies to emphasize? Why does the President, whose politics insist we are all collectively responsible as a human society to tend to the physical needs of the needy, emphasize God's sovereignty and ability to provide protection? Why does his conservative opponent emphasize handouts of food, hospitality and clothing? If the candidates chose these passages with an eye toward political traction, perhaps the inversion is a deliberate attempt to reassure religious swing voters that they are not the caricature the other side would paint. Pres. Obama is attacked as a secret Muslim and/or godless Communist, so his biblical passages imply his Christian faith is rock solid. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, knows that conservatism is often attacked as heartless, and one of his gaffes was a declaration that he was "not concerned about the very poor". So his biblical passage implies that he cares deeply about the needy, and his desire to cut government programs doesn't mean he doesn't value charity on a private basis.  Both choices can be read as damage control.

(You could argue that a New Testament passage might have made the Christian point for Pres. Obama more clearly than two Old Testament passages, but nobody is attacking him for being a secret Jew... Wait, scratch that, people in the Middle East probably are attacking him for being a secret Jew. But no significant voting bloc in America is doing so... Could the Old Testament choices have been aimed at shoring up the Jewish vote? Quite unlikely.)

What, if anything, can we make of Gov. Romney's decision to truncate verse 36? In the interview, the Governor didn't only mention the verses by name, he quoted them as above. But the complete verse 36 continues further than he quoted. The part of the verse Gov. Romney left out is in bold: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (KJV).

Drawing conclusions from this is awfully tempting. Is visiting prisoners not tough enough on crime for the Republican candidate to include in his favorite quotation? Did Gov. Romney stop where he stopped so as not to bring up the issue of health care, and the similarity of his Massachusetts plan to the President's national version? Or was the truncation simply a forgetful mistake? (And if he did forget the verse's conclusion, what (if anything) can we make of that?)

On all counts, the answer should be that there's nothing we can make of this at all. In a reasonably sane world, I'd be the first one to criticize a blog post like this one and say, "Are you crazy? Have some respect. Don't assume the candidates chose these passages cynically. Why not give these two leaders the benefit of the doubt and assume they both made their choices solely out of a genuine affinity for these verses, and not read political calculations into their choices?"

That's what I'd think in a sane world... Meanwhile, in this world: so vitriolic has this election been—so divisive and rhetorically dishonest—that the kind of cynical speculations in which I've just indulged (and I have indulged in them, I will say, not without a small hint of guilt) don't feel very much out of place. Both campaigns have at various times advanced such blatantly unfair arguments against the other side that I have a hard time imagining that either of these two candidates could let an opportunity to score even the tiniest political point go by, and simply choose their favorite passages without running it by a pollster.

Hanukkah and the Other December Dilemmas

Hanukkiah

Hopefully you saw our December newsletter on intermarriage, but as the Festival of Lights begins, it is appropriate to note that not every "December Dilemma" has anything whatsoever to do with intermarriage. Tonight begins Hanukkah, a holiday defined in America by its awkward juxtaposition with Christmas -- a juxtaposition which is the source of much consternation, but also, perhaps, an entirely appropriate layer of meaning. Here are a few publications on the subject.

High school student Jessica Schutz tells the story of her family's "Hanukkah bush" and her own response: "I was forced to question my identity as a Jew. What kind of Jew was I? What entitled me to bear that title, besides birth to a Jewish mother?"

Nancy Wallack looks at Hanukkah cards and doesn't like what she sees:

Jews' beefing up of Chanukah celebrations to console our children (and perhaps ourselves), has crept into cards mixing Christmas and Chanukah, gentile and Jewish imagery. Mealy-mouthed "seasons greetings" are joined with wishes for "Shalom." My guess is that the Shalom is a straight translation of the Christian concept of the coming of or the promise of peace, in the birth of the Prince of Peace. Carolers sing, "Peace on earth, good will to men," why not extend this to our friends the Jews?

Steven Greenberg seeks "a plausible meaning of Hanukkah" that can be shared with non-Jewish friends and neighbors, specifically thinking of the common situation of explaining the holiday to public schoolchildren. He settles on two:

1. Hanukkah celebrates the strength it takes to be different. The Jewish people had a different way of looking at the world than their Greek neighbors. Although they learned much from Greek culture, Jews were proud of their very different way of living life. Everyone knows what it's like to be in the minority. We all are, in some way, different from the pack. It takes a lot of courage to be unique, to like yourself when you march to a different drummer. It takes even more courage to fight for what you believe in. Hanukkah celebrates the freedom everyone needs to be a little, or sometimes a lot different, from the majority.

2. Hanukkah means rededication. When Judah rededicated the Temple, he was also rededicating his people to their vision of the world, the Jewish dream of a world of justice and goodness. Justice and goodness are easier to talk about than to do. It takes a lot of work. Anyone can get tired working for even the greatest of goals. That's why rededication is so important. We all need a "Hanukkah" to remind us of our dreams as we work in small ways to make them happen, little by little, every day.

A final thought, in synthesis of these three perspectives: if a holiday can be seen as, in addition to a time to celebrate, a challenge to us to live up to that holiday's message, then Hanukkah's juxtaposition with Christmas could not possibly be more appropriate. As Wallack laments, it is true that Christmas often threatens to engulf Hanukkah and replace its native meanings. But, as Schutz discovers, this confrontation can crystallize the questions we must ask ourselves as Jews, and force us to ask them. The season may be a difficult time to be different, but as Rabbi Greenberg notes, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to being different.

Ḥag urim sameaḥ!

New Canadian Rabbinical School Opens, Proclaims Itself Pre-Denominational

Read all about it at the JTA.

Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, president of the yeshiva and rabbinical school, told the National Post newspaper that the definition follows the European Judaism of the 1700s in which denominational differences were absent.

"We don't think the struggle between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox is a good thing for Jewish life. We believe that it is destructive," he said. "There's reasons why during the Enlightenment these groups began, but it is important to go back to when Jews were just Jews."

That sounds nice in theory... In fact, however, all varieties of trans-denominationalism (or, as in this case, pre-denominationalism) basically amount to heroic and well-meaning forms of self-deception.

The school will not ordain women, though they will be able to attend and receive a degree in Jewish theology.

See? No denominationalism there.

The Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School has an About page that compares itself to segments of the Orthodox and Conservative worlds. (A ctrl+F search shows that the words "Reform," "Liberal" and "Progressive" literally do not appear on the page.) "We, however," the page hastens to add, "do not see ourselves as some kind of 'Conservadox,' as that would imply a mixture of the two, which we are not. Rather, we hark back to the ever-lasting pre-denominational Classic Judaism from which both derive."

Of course this is all anything but non- or trans- or pre- or post-denominational. This is denominational, in that it takes a stand on a number of critical issues which define many denominational boundaries. Does this new vision correspond to any one existing denomination? Well, perhaps. It bears a striking resemblance to an existing (if small) denomination. But perhaps not. Either way, it makes choices which have denominational valence.

I could see my way to agreeing that this vision of Classic Judaism is multi-denominational, embracing segments of Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism. But pre-denominational? You can't put the toothpaste back in that tube. Lines have been drawn. Sides have been taken. Either you will ordain women or (as in this case) you won't. Either (as in this case) you will embrace halakhah as a binding obligation or (as in the cases of Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular Humanist Judaism) you won't. There is no splitting this baby. There is no Schrodinger's Denomination.

At least, there isn't for rabbinical schools. Many individual Jews have paradoxical views and denominational identities, but rabbinical schools don't exist on the same plane as individual Jews. Once a school ordains a female rabbi, or refuses to do so, it has taken a side in one of the major denominational battles of our time. An individual Jew in the pews can be of two minds on the subject, but an institution must choose one action or the other.

This critique, of course, applies just as much to liberal schools which pretend trans-denominationalism as it does to the Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School. Hebrew College Rabbinical School, the Academy for Jewish Religion, and other such supposedly trans- or non-denominational institutions really represent a range of denominations -- the range which is not Orthodox. Even if one or two self-defined Orthodox students are ordained at such places, they must still certainly be considered as representing the range of denominations which is not Haredi -- unless Haredi Jews somehow don't count in the grand unity we all seem to envision.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the new Canadian Yeshiva and Rabbinical School. I congratulate them on their opening, and I wish them all success. Indeed, my personal religious ideology accords rather well with the vision laid out on the CYRS website. Sign me up for Classic Judaism! Just don't sign me up for pretending my chosen position isn't an ideological stance in an ongoing normative argument over what Judaism ought to be -- a stance which holds its own accepted range of views to be right and various other ranges of views to be wrong -- in other words, a distinct denominational position, whether singular or multiple.

David Elcott on Faith in Academia

As part of our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses the place of religion in an academic setting.

Sukkot Resources

Rabbi Richard (Rick) Jacobs says that dwelling in sukkot offers us the opportunity to connect to our own history of wandering in an African desert. 

Is erecting a sukkah publicly breaking down the separation of church and state

Latino Evangelical Christians join in the Sukkot celebrations 

Could our sins be the covering over G-d’s sukkah?
 
Sukkot as a metaphor for relocation as a preemptive response to the threat of violence 
 
Browse more Sukkot publications.
 
 

Yom Kippur Resources

Browse more Yom Kippur and High Holiday publications.

גמר חתימה טובה

Insisting on Forever

Jonathan S. Tobin is incensed in Commentary that Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh doesn't accept the formula of Israel as "a Jewish State." Nusseibeh feels that the term "Jewish state" implies either a theocracy (if Judaism is a religion) or apartheid (if Jewishness is racial or ethnic). He instead suggests "that Israeli leaders ask instead that Palestinians recognise Israel (proper) as a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism, and whose majority is Jewish."

As Tobin correctly points out, "that is what it is now and what Israelis and those who support it understand to be a Jewish state." Nusseibeh's is a classic distinction without a difference.

Still, I can't seem to bring myself to care as much as Tobin what Palestinians think about Israel being a Jewish state. "The reason for Israel’s demand is simple," writes Tobin. "Unless and until the Palestinians specifically accept that the part of the country they do not control is forever Jewish, the conflict will not be over."

Forever Jewish, he wants from them? Forever is a pretty big deal. Will Israelis agree that even one inch of the West Bank will be forever Palestinian? (Giving up entirely the messianic visions of the Hebrew Bible.) Forever is an entirely unreasonable demand to make of either side. Maybe it's just me, but I say let's work on a practical peace deal for the forseeable future and leave the question of forever to a higher Authority. Both parties should be willing to let the other nation live in peace in its own state, and both parties will doubtless continue to dream of the messianic utopian day in which our side gets all the land back. As long as everybody's stays calm and respectful in the here and now, who cares about competing dreams of forever? Let the songs and dreams embrace and contain the conflict, and let the practical reality contain only peace, tolerance, and mutual dignity and security.

Tobin is right when he says that "Jewish identity is complex, and Israelis may well spend the rest of eternity trying to define themselves." (What a Jewish state means is a topic of constant debate among Jews.) That's all the more reason to say it's an unnecessary waste of time and diplomatic capital insisting that Palestinians call Israel a Jewish state.

On Belief, for Elul

Accounting of the soul

Yesterday began the Hebrew calendar month of Elul, the month of spiritual accounting and preparation for the High Holidays.

The journal Sh'ma dedicated its September 1993 issue to the month of Elul, with five essays about belief.

Bonus: it is traditional to hear the shofar after morning prayers every morning of Elul. Here is the sounding of the shofar during Elul 5766 (2006) at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

Church and State and Social Services

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Controversy continues to unfold regarding the US Department of Health and Human Service's announcement that new guidelines will require employers who offer health coverage to cover a number of women's health services, including contraception -- with religious exemptions. Some argue that the exemption denies vital services to women who work for religious employers, while others maintain that the exemption does not go far enough.

As long as private religious groups have been involved in the provision of services, whether as agencies (directly) or as employers (indirectly, as in the current controversy), questions of freedom, regulation, accomodation and coercion have appeared difficult to resolve, with religious freedom and full provision of services to individuals locked in seemingly insoluble conflict. This week's J-Vault pick, written by a distinguished New York family court judge, explores some of these questions as they relate to adoption.

This week, from the J-Vault: State, Religion and Child Welfare (1956)

The Hon. Justine Wise Polier was born into a prominent Jewish family, the daughter of the celebrated Rabbi Stephen Wise. She made her own name, however, when Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to a family court judgeship, making her the youngest municipal justice in the country, and the first woman in New York State to hold a judicial post above magistrate.

In her address to the 1956 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Jewish Communal Service (later published in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service) Judge Polier argued that the state frequently intruded into private religious affairs, and frequently neglected vital needs of clients for religious purposes. Ironically, she explained, these abuses originate in a desire that the state precisely not engage in religious coercion:

There was the deep concern that the state, through its representatives, should not misuse the power to provide care for children outside their own homes in order to change their religion or engage in proselytizing. There was also the strong feeling on the part of many religious groups that they should provide for the needy children of their own faith.

The problem, said Judge Polier, was that such religious matching was being placed above quality and type of care being provided:

The state has a basic responsibility to see that every child who needs placement outside his own home shall receive the type of care which the child needs. It may under the laws of many states delegate its responsibility for providing such care to voluntary agencies, sectarian or non-sectarian. It does not have the right, in my opinion, to turn a child over to any kind of care, so long as the child is placed with an agency of its own faith, or to keep a child in cold storage till a sectarian agency has a vacancy...

...Over and over again, we find that though the social study may clearly indicate that a baby needs a foster or adoptive home, if none is available within his own religious group, rather than refer him to an agency of another faith or a non-sectarian agency, such an infant or child will be kept for weeks, months, and even years, in a hospital or shelter. We find that even when a diagnostic study shows the need of psychotherapy and individual care, if none is available within his sectarian group, the child is frequently sent off to a custodial institution in violation of all we know as to his needs...

...There are other areas where the question of the role of religion in child care must be examined. While there is little question that religion can be a significant moral and ethical force in the life of a child, it would certainly seem contrary to the American principle of religious freedom to impose and demand religious adherence and observance of children or parents without at least the consent of the parents. Yet, in recent years, in more and more children's courts, we find judges, as representatives of the state, requiring the performance of religious obligations as a condition of probation. We hear the rationale that if a child is found neglected or delinquent the parent has failed, and the judge has a right to require religious training as part of a program of rehabilitation...

...In New York City we have also been faced by the development of a policy by the Presiding Justice of the Domestic Relations Court that raises yet another question concerning religion and child care. He has decided that probation officers shall be appointed on the basis of a religious quota roughly following the religious affiliation of the children brought before the Court. This means that although the Jewish population of New York City is slightly under 30 per cent, since the percentage of delinquent and neglected Jewish children brought before the Court is roughly 5 per cent, he has decided that only 5 per cent of the probation officers may be Jewish. As a result, even though a qualified Jewish young man or woman has passed his Civil Service Examination, he will be passed over in favor of a less qualified non-Jew...

The Judge did not argue for ignoring religion in adoption:

To the extent that children can be placed in homes of the same faith, as that of their parents, this should be done, except in those cases where the parent or parents freely choose to have their children placed in a home of another faith. Americans have the right to choose and to change their faiths and those of their children. That a parent decides to surrender his or her child for adoption does not abrogate this right or transfer it to any other person, official, institution or the State.

However:

When no adoptive home of the child's faith is available for a child, it is the duty of the State and indeed of voluntary agencies to see that, in the interests of the child's welfare, he shall be placed in the best adoptive home available. No person, no religious institution, no public department, and no State has the right to say to a defenseless child, "You have no home. But because of your race or religion, you shall stay in an institution until you are 16 or 17 and then be turned out into a world in which you have no one to whom you belong." This is happening today in too many areas. It is our duty to see that such injuries to children shall not continue.

Download the full publication.

 

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Tishah B'Av 5771

Hayez

(Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez)

For Tishah B'Av today, excerpts from "Temple and Synagogue" by Rabbi Neil GIllman, from Sh'ma in June 2007:

The Bible knows two models of sacred space. On one model, what may be called “intrinsic sacred space,” God chooses one point on earth to reveal God’s presence. That point becomes axis mundi, the center of the world, around which the rest of the world is structured in descending levels of sanctity. The
source for this model is... the binding of Isaac. Abraham is dispatched to “the land of Moriah,” to offer Isaac as a sacrifice “on one of the heights which I
[God] will point out to you.” Subsequently, in II Chronicles 3:2, Moriah becomes the spot on which Solomon builds the Temple...

...The second model may be called “extrinsic sacred space.” Here, any spot on earth can become the center of the world. In the Bible, this model is illustrated by the Israelite encampment during the desert wanderings. The camp could be located at any place in the wilderness, but wherever it stood, the sanctuary was at its center...

...The Temple, intrinsic sacred space, could only be in Jerusalem. But the synagogue could be wherever a minyan of Jews with their Torah scroll chose to settle. God sanctifies intrinsic sacred space; the community sanctifies extrinsic sacred space.

Jeremiah 29 contains the text of a letter sent by Jeremiah to the community of exiles in Babylonia. It is an extraordinary document. In it, God counsels the exiles to “build houses and live in them, plant fields and eat their fruit, take wives and beget sons and daughters; . . . multiply there. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Then, “When you call Me and
come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you. You will search for Me and find Me. I will be at hand for you and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations, and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

This letter... affirms the religious legitimacy of extrinsic sacred space. Its theological basis is a statement about God. God’s power is not bounded by geography... One of the traditional names for God is HaMakom, literally “The Place.” But according to the rabbinic understanding of that name, God is “the place” of the world, not the other way around. God does not inhabit space. The exiled community can flourish but it cannot have a Temple; that is reserved for Jerusalem. But it can still worship God without a Temple, without sacrifices, through the words of prayer. “Instead of bulls, we will pay [with] the offerings of our lips.” (Hosea 6:3)

This pattern goes a long way toward explaining the ambiguities of our relationship to Israel, both land and state. For centuries, we prayed and dreamed of a return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple; we worship facing Jerusalem; we conclude Yom Kippur and our Passover sedarim with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Yet we remain here. Ironically, it is precisely our religious structures that make it possible for us to live an authentic Jewish religious life anywhere on earth. We carry our religion on our backs. Halakhah enables us to worship God at every moment of our lives, wherever we may be...

 

Cain's Incomplete Apology, and Religion in Politics

After offending Muslims (and at least one Jew) last week by saying localities have the right to ban mosques because Islam includes the concept of shari'a law, Herman Cain has now met with Muslim leaders and released an apology:

...While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

As I expected, we discovered we have much more in common in our values and virtues. In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes. Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists...

Cain's apology is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, he ought to have stated specifically that he now realizes that localities do not have the right to ban mosques, if in fact he has come to that realization.  If he has not, and he still believes localities may ban mosques, then his apology for causing offense is utterly hollow. If he has changed his position, then he should say so directly; dodging the specific issue just leaves him looking weaselish. (Speaking of weaselish, see also the phrase "..any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution...")

Second, Cain again makes the problematic assertion that shari'a has no right to "interfere" in the American legal system (see the first sentence excerpted above). It is actually quite tricky to pin down what this might mean, and once again a glance at parallel concepts in other American religions is instructive. Does Cain believe that shari'a should be held to a different standard than Jewish halakhah and Catholic canon law? If so, he continues to favor bigotry. Even if this is the case, I can't imagine he'll be up front about it, so let's assume he would say he believes that religious legal systems should all be held to the same standards. How, then, would Herman Cain define interfering, and how precisely would he seek to curb it?

I have emailed the following questions to Herman Cain's campaign:

  1. Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
  2. If a Muslim citizen believes shari'a law reflects God's will, and that shari'a prohibits gay marriage, and so votes for a candidate who opposes gay marriage, does that count as "interference"?
  3. If a Jewish citizen believes halakhah reflects God's will, and that halakhah requires a middle ground between the standard pro-life and pro-choice abortion positions, and so votes for a candidate who is centrist on abortion, is that "interference"?
  4. If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
  5. When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
  6. When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
  7. When, today, pro-life Christian clergy instruct their flocks that God wants the United States to protect unborn life by force of law, is that "interference"?
  8. Please provide a clear, specific hypothetical example of something that would be "interference": an example for shari'a, for halakhah, and for canon law.

We'll have to see whether or not some campaign staffer sends answers.

(As I mentioned last week, the gold standard for addressing these questions, in my opinion, is Prof. Stephen L. Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.)

Jewish Text for Shavuot

Wheat harvest

Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuot, an agricultural festival which also commemorates the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

In honor of this celebration of the Jewish Urtext, why not browse our holdings of over 800 publications on the topic of Jewish Text?

Chag Shavuot sameach!

Mount Sinai

From the J-Vault: Kids for Peace

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The year was 1915, and the Great War (World War I) was devastating Europe. An ocean (and then half a continent) away, The Chicago Hebrew Institute decided to enlist their Sabbath and Sunday school students to promote the ideal of peace.

This week, from the J-Vault: A Peace Movement Among Children (1915)

Writing in the Bulletin of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, Philip L. Seman used terms for his school's initiative which, in modern times, would be criticized as an unacceptable form of indoctrination of the youth:

The children of the Peace Society are recruited from various classes conducted at the Institute, particularly from the Sabbath and Sunday school. The main effort is to saturate the children's minds and hearts against the horrors of war, and in favor of universal peace. At a recent meeting of the teachers of the Sabbath school, we have made clear that the teachers, in instructing the children in Bible history, should underestimate the heroism, too often made much of in the Sabbath schools, regarding the wars the Hebrews fought in early days, and to draw ethical lessons in favor of peace. In other words, our teachers were instructed, not as has been the fashion heretofore, to encourage young Judea to emulate the militarism of the Maccabees, but rather to hope for the realization of the human peace prophecy of Isaiah.

Read more...

Browse the BJPA for publications on War and Peace, or search for "indoctrination".

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Adventures in Pluralism, Part 2: Jewish Education Beyond Denominational Boundaries

In Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1, we found that issues of Jewish conversion and Jewish peoplehood in Israeli governmental context seemed to be immune to pluralism, because there are well-populated positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum from whose perspective the application of pluralist concepts to these issues would be impossible -- that is to say, to acquiesce to pluralism would constitute an abandonment of these positions on the spectrum.

Yet there are other pluralistic activities, taking place across Jewish denominational divides, which appear to be more successful. Many of these are educational institutions, from yeshivot like Jerusalem's Pardes, to community day schools like New York's Heschel school.

It is easy to see why education might be the ideal setting for pluralism. After all, education seeks knowledge, and knowledge can be separated from values and judgements. To know something is not to endorse something, and so people with divergent values can learn together, even if they disagree about what they are learning. Writing in  the summer 2005 issue of Contact: the Journal of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundarion, Rabbi Arthur Green quotes Rabbi David Hartman on the potential for pluralist, trans-denominational Jewish learning: "As long as we are learning, we can all be together. As soon as we start davening, we go off into separate rooms." This quote comes from R' Green's article about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, "the first full-time, trans-denominational Rabbinical school in Jewish history", of which he is Rector. "Rabbis will be better trained for having sat in classes alongside others who disagree with them on almost every issue imaginable," writes R' Green. "How better to sharpen your understanding, to hone your own point of view, than by looking at the sources in a mixed group, where opinions and readings diverge across a wide spectrum?"

The same issue of Contact contains an article by Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School at the New Community Jewish High School in greater Los Angeles, on the success of the community day school model. "[C]ommunity schools are about ideas," writes Powell, "not ideology. They are about an honest and open dialogue on Jewish practice, philosophy and history... [W]hereas denominational schools might mandate a particular mode of prayer, a community school... might offer multiple minyan options where students can explore a plurality of spiritual modalities."

But is pluralism in education really so picture-perfect? How far apart can learning and values be pulled before one or the other is weakened? To their credit, both R' Green and Powell acknowledge that education, especially in a religious context, involves values as much as ideas. Both also describe approaches for meeting these challenges. R' Green writes:

Don't rabbis have to stand for something...? And doesn't that mean that my viewpoint is  right and yours is wrong?... Yes, a program of rabbinic studies does have to stand for something, and we clearly do. Ahavat Torah, the love of wisdom and the pursuit of Jewish learning, is the hallmark of our program. We find that it brings us together, even as we argue over the meaning of a passage... [T]here are two more areas where denominational differences have little place. One is in the growth and development of spiritual life... The same is true for activism. There is little difference between Jews when it comes to what are called mitzvot beyn adam le-havero, the good deeds we do toward our fellow humans. We all believe in reaching out to the poor, the sick and the needy. We care about the elderly and the disabled, and want to help.... Learning, spiritual work and human kindness. (Might one call them Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim?) These are areas where our rabbinical students, for all their diverse viewpoints, can work together and build a single Jewish community.

Powell writes:

Creating a non-denominational school is rife with challenge. Among the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “Upon what do we agree?” Creating a single track for prayer is hopeless; setting standard policies for the wearing of kippot, Shabbat observance, kashruth, student attire and modesty, and holiday celebrations stretches the notion of inclusivity often to a point of vagueness and uselessness. Board agreement on admission policies, especially regarding “who is a Jew” and whether or not non-Jews (whoever they may be) ought be admitted, breeds tension, at best, and dissolution in the worst cases... [T]he greatest advantage of a Jewish community school is also its greatest challenge: how to avoid trying to be everything to all and ending up with nothing — no strong views, weak knowledge base, vagueness of purpose and mission, blandness of identity, and graduates without a place to go...

The community school faces a tough order. It needs to establish clear goals and missions across a broad fabric. It needs to have a sharp and clear identity without alienating its constituents, yet be true to its pluralistic macro purpose. It needs to create trans-denominational Jews who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins and who can move with comfort and competence throughout the rich diversity of Jewish secular and denominational life. This Jewish community school challenge is, from my view, the single most invigorating and transformational moment in recent Jewish memory. It forces those of us dedicated to this awesome business of “touching the future” to once again become “God wrestlers,” grapplers, idea entrepreneurs. It causes us all to sharpen our visions, to ask if and how we ought to disturb the universe.

Both authors acknowledge, then, that Jewish education requires the articulation and promulgation of values. Interestingly, though, both also write that the way for a pluralist Jewish educational institution to meet this challenge involves the creation of something new -- in R' Green's words, to "build a single Jewish community," and in Powell's words, "to create trans-denominational Jews".

And this begs the question: if something new is being created, then is this model really a pluralistic cooperation between groups, or is it simply the creation of a new group?

Creating a new group does not require the dissolution or abandonment of the old denominations, nor the establishment of a new one. Rather, it means drawing a new line, a line that cuts across denominations, between those for whom denominational differences exist, but can be surmounted, and those for whom denominational differences are so great, and so important, that they make cooperation impossible. Those "inside the line", no matter to what denomination they belong, are members of the new group.

The mechanism used to draw this line is self-selection. Only rabbinical students who already believe in this pluralist form of learning and community will choose to enroll in Hebrew College's rabbinical program. Only families who believe in (or at least, do not object to) this kind of pluralism will enroll their children in community day schools. This element of self-selection is critical in explaining why these institutions are so conducive to pluralism while issues of peoplehood and conversion in context of Israeli policy are not: the group of Jews who wants to be involved with the state of Israel is much broader than the group that believes in pluralistic approaches to these issues. In other words, pluralism is only more "successful" in these educational contexts than in the Israeli conversion context because self-selection excludes the group for whom pluralism is impossible.

This kind of pluralism really does bridge divides between groups to some degree. But it also exposes pre-existing divisions within groups, and creates a layer of new groupings which overlaps the old.

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