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

Slope-Slippage, Patrilineality, & Conservative Judaism

In the Forward, David A.M. Wilensky, a patrilineal Jew, shares his story of undergoing a Conservative movement conversion so his Conservative congregation would accept him as Jewish, and argues that he ought not to have needed to do so:

...It’s an intolerable, unsustainable situation. I don’t begrudge Orthodoxy its understanding of Jewish law — it is what it is. Conservative Judaism is another story. If Reform Judaism weren’t the largest denomination, the argument that it has irreparably torn asunder the Jewish community in accepting patrilineals might carry some weight. In the real America, though, Reform is the largest movement and the majority of American Jews don’t belong to any Jewish denomination. In my experience, these harder to categorize Jews couldn’t care less about my mom.

The Conservative rabbinate protests that it cannot recognize patrilineal descent because that would violate its understanding of Jewish law. Coming from people who drive to services on the Sabbath, that reeks. When reality, reason and the changing worldview of the Jews in the pews have called, the Conservative movement has managed to trot out new Halacha that changes the previously unchangeable.

Essentially, Wilensky makes the classic slippery slope argument, but from the pro-slip side. It's a powerful argument, the basis for which accords (as Wilensky acknowledges) with an Orthodox understanding of the ideological topography. I don't envy Conservative leaders who want to maintain status quo -- they have the task of persuading their right flank in the movement that the slope won't slip, and their left flank that it oughtn't.

Browse Conservative/Masorti Judaism on BJPA...

Our Reader's Guide to Conservative Judaism...

5 Million? 6 Million? What Counts as 1?

Recent reports that the American Jewish population is well over 6 million have been taken far too seriously, writes demographer Pini Herman:

With all the pronouncements about the newly found million Jews we don’t know anything more about one single Jew in the US than we did before this “PEGGING” of US Jews at the over 6.4 million mark rather than the previous 5.2 million which would have made Israel at 5.8 million Jews the largest Jewish population in the world.

It all hinges on how hundreds of thousands of US respondents answered the generic religion survey question on dozens of general surveys in the US and whether Jewish screening questions were properly applied in more specialized Jewish population studies.

One problem with a simple survey question, Dr. Herman notes, is " false positives, that is non-Jews claiming to be Jewish". A high likely rate of false positives, he argues, renders the claim that American Jewry is now larger than Israeli Jewry nothing more than a "Jewish demographic castle in the air".

While an Israel-Diaspora horse race is always fun sport, I am much more interested in an implicit problem underlying (and, to my mind, undermining) this entire discussion. Namely: what is a false positive, and what definition makes that determination?

It's easy enough  to think of a person who might strike you (and me, and every Jew we know) as a clear false positive. There do exist, for example, Christians with no Jewish ancestry who nonetheless call themselves Jews, taking the traditional Christian doctrine that, since Jesus, the church is the new people of Israel a little more literally than most Christians do.

My assertion that such people are not really Jews is, however, entirely subjective -- as is Dr. Herman's implicit assertion that there is even such a thing as a false positive. After all, there are many possible definitions of Jewishness, and one of them might well be that anyone who claims to be Jewish is Jewish, by virtue of claiming so. This definition would admit our over-literal Christians, as well as Messianic Jews, as well as anyone with a Jewish fourth-cousin-in-law who wants to identify as Jewish, as well as anyone else who wants to jump instantly on the bandwagon for any reason at all, with no requirements of any kind.

I think most Jews would find this definition too permissive, and I certainly join them. Indeed, my personal views of the definition of Jewishness follow my personal devotion to the Modern Orthodox type of interpretation of halakhah -- which means I personally find the definition(s) used by the Reform movement far too permissive as well. Yet most of America's Reform Jews (who far outnumber the American Orthodox) would strongly disagree with me. My point is that it is impossible to count Jews in any context without first defining Jewishness, and defining Jewishness is an issue upon which the Jewish community as a whole is vehemently and painfully splintered.

What can be said, then, of an argument between some scholars counting 5.2 million Jews and others counting 6.5, when all five-or-six-million Jews are in the middle of a massive argument about what it means to belong to the group being counted? I'm sure each of the research teams in question used precise definitions, and I imagine in this era of sophisticated social science the definitions used in various different studies most often match one another. But since no one definition can command anything even close to consensus among the Jewish people, of how much value is all the precision?

5.2 million Jews... 6.5 million Jews... Maybe if we could agree about the definition of one Jew, the rest would be a little bit easier.

(See also: the October 2010 issue of Sh'ma, focusing on "Counting Jews" and our August 2011 newsletter, focusing on the Jewish Population.)

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.

From the J-Vault: Jewish Education a Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

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As the 2011-2012 school year is begins, there's no better time to think about Jewish education. (Reminder: we're celebrating the publication of the International Handbook of Jewish Education with a symposium on September 19th.)

This week, from the J-Vault: The Study of Jewish Education in the United States (1960)

Summarizing a national study of Jewish education conducted in the late 1950s, the author applies a metaphor borrowed from Mark Twain: "a river that is a mile wide and an inch deep."

The article discusses access (the study found that 80% of Jewish children had Jewish schooling of some kind), teaching quality (poor job security and career prospects led to an ineffective pool of teachers), and curriculum (an ambitious range of topics crammed into not nearly enough time). The author also argues that denominational differences should not be a barrier to joint (cross-denominational) education programs, to maximize efficient use of education funds.

Download this publication.

 

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Random Publication of the Day: Beach Mechitzah

In the spirit of enjoying the summer while it lasts, a little beach reading:

The Rise and Washout of a Jewish Beach (Lionel Sasson, Sh'ma, 1978)

Rabbi Lazar Kahanow of the Young Israel of Long Beach Synagogue... approached members of the city council with an idea to attract Orthodox residents during the summer months. He asked if it was somehow possible to modify one of the city's twenty eight beaches so that there might be separate bathing areas for men and women. He explained that "lighdy attired men and women bathing together is a'violation of the Orthodox laws of modesty." He stated that at least one thousand of the city's residents have been disenfranchised from the beaches by the presence of mixed bathing. He cited the city of Boston which built separate bathing facilities for men and women which are utilized chiefly by the large Irish Catholic population...

...The City of New York, bowing to public pressure, recently unofficially designated a part of Riis Park in the Rockaways for nude bathing. The segregationists' viewpoint was that if the nudists could have a nude bathing beach, it was downright obscene not to permit others a place to bathe in modesty...

...Local controversy, much of it within the local Jewish population had dampened Rabbi Kahanow's plans. There was fear that vigilantes, who could only be asked voluntarily to leave since the beach remained a public one, would invade the women's section. The males feared that their section might become a loitering place for homosexuals. Outside J.D.L. factions threatened that they would come to keep the peace. Others voiced fear that the beach would become a target for antisemitism. Rabbi Kahanow maintained that if the congregants ignored the invaders and trouble makers, the trouble would leave the way it came...

...At 8 o'clock on Thursday, June 30, a small yellow bulldozer from a private contractor rambled onto Lincoln Beach and started digging out sand from
under the boardwalk to create a new beach entrance. Few realized what was going on until Rabbi Kahanow appeared on the boardwalk to give his blessings to the construction. Alex Safer, a local builder and advisor to the Rabbi, explained the drawing card aspect of the project to one irate bystander concluding vehemently, "We are not moving, we are going to fight." Replied the bystander, "Mentals or the religious, so what's the difference?"...

...When installation was nearing completion, Tom Daly, Asst. to the Chief of Lifeguards, arrived to inspect the proceedings. Upon wishing the Rabbi well, he insightfully pointed out that unless holes were cut into the fence to relieve water pressure that would build up with the pounding of the waves, the wall would be knocked down. The Rabbi protested saying that additional holes would subtract from the privacy of the fence. After some discussion the fence foreman decided to cut small 1" holes into every other slot. For this he needed a small generator which he insisted on the Rabbi procuring. Several phone calls later the Rabbi announced that one could be borrowed from the city. The fence installers boarded their truck saying they were going to get the generator and were never seen again...

...Hostility increased as more fence went up. Shouts of 'Tear it down," and "Burn Fort Zion," brought patrol cars much of the day. City Council President Harvey Weisenberg, unaware that the beach was actually being built, was alerted by numerous phone calls at his residence and came for a first hand look. Waved to from the beach, he yelled back angrily, "No, no, no, not here." For a moment it looked as though he was going to descend to the beach and tear it down board by board. At City Hall complaints jammed the switchboard...

...The tide started rising at four o'clock. A weak low pressure front clouded the skies and started sending in small swells. On the beach a lone patron chatted with the lifeguard while the crowd on the boardwalk became larger and more belligerent. At four thirty five a loud cracking sound was heard. All heads turned to the middle of the beach where the first waves from the incoming tide had reached the stockade. Like wind whipping through wheat, the fence swayed with every passing wave. The bulge of the wave traveled from one end of the fence to the other, the pieces popping out to permit the flow of water. The bottom of the fence loosened first, the nails pulled out from the wooden piling. The wood sections flapped in the wind for a second before the next wave pulled them down. Large holes appeared in the fence as sections dropped into the water and floated in the surf. The crowd cheered. At the breaker line the ominous humps of several outside large waves could be seen building. They moved in with tremendous speed. The first ones shook the remaining wall. The middle ones crashed into the piling with tons of water. By the last waves the wood was smashed to splinters...

Click here to download the full article.

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American Jewish Liberalism, Affiliation, and Denomination

Obama '12

The JTA reports that President Obama's approval rating among American Jews has remained about 14 points higher than the general public's according to the latest Gallup numbers, despite some public disagreement and distrust between the Administration and Israel's government.

This may come as something of a surprise to many Jews who feel, based on anecdotal evidence or personal experience, that the Jewish community is becoming more conservative, or at least more trusting of conservatives when it comes to Israel. Dr. Steven Windmueller conducted a survey earlier this year of some 2,300 Jewish respondents, finding "a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues." He also noted "that among highly engaged Jews, those who are active within Jewish religious and communal life, there is a sharp divide on political attitudes and policies."

The emphasis is mine, and it brings up an important factor to keep in mind when bandying about anecdotal evidence among committed and connected Jews: the "feel" of where the community is among strongly affiliated Jews is not accurately going to reflect American Jewry as a whole, because a large portion of American Jewry is not in the rooms we're getting the "feel" for. (Of course, anecdotal evidence is always the weakest kind of evidence, if it can even be called evidence at all.)

Marc Tracy, reacting to the Gallup news, points to a different distinction as one of the more interesting angles to this story:

 About half of one group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while more than one third of the same group disapproved of him; more than two-third of another group of Jewish voters has approved of Obama over the past three months, while only one quarter of this group disapproved of him. The two groups? The former, who are not as bullish on Obama, attend synagogue weekly or nearly weekly; the latter, who do still like the president by and large, attend synagogue rarely or never. The observance gap, to my mind, is the more fascinating dynamic.

Tracy is right to highlight the interplay of the religious and political spectra as deserving more attention, but I might caution him against assuming that observance per se is the critical factor. A reminder is in order regarding the findings of my esteemed boss Steven M. Cohen, along with Sam Abrams and Judith Veinstein, in their 2008 study of American Jewish political opinion. "[T]he truly significant gap," they found, "is the one that separates Orthodox Jews from all other Jews." Orthodoxy is closely correlated with observance, but as a not-insignificant number of ritually observant Conservative, Conservadox, Reconstructionist, trans-denominational, and even Reform Jews will tell you, the two are not synonymous.

Importantly, the Cohen/Abrams/Veinstein study broke down political preference not only by denomination, but by sub-groupings within denomination based on the proportion of respondents' friends who were Jewish. The result, at least to me, is partially counterintuitive:

Among Orthodox Jews, those whose close friends are all Jewish, almost universally support McCain over Obama (90% vs. 10%), far more than those with mostly, or even fewer, Jewish close friends (60% McCain vs. 40% Obama). However, the impact of having many Jewish friends is the reverse for the non-Orthodox. Among the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, having more Jewish friends is associated with greater support for Obama (and less support for McCain). Support for Obama grows from 68% among those with mostly non-Jewish friends to 77% for those with mostly Jewish friends. In similar fashion, it grows from 68% among those with non-denominational identity (“just Jewish,” “secular,” etc.) to 77% among those who identify as Reform.

Tribal insularity, it seems, has opposite effects within Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy! For the Orthodox, the further isolated one is from non-Jewish attachment, the more conservatively one votes, while for the non-Orthodox, insularity tends to perpetuate the liberal politics which have dominated American Jewry since Franklin Roosevelt.

Another helpful reminder from this 2008 study is that Israel is not the one and only issue that concerns American Jewry. "Jews do care about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than other Americans," write Cohen, Abrams and Veinstein:

Yet, with that said, the Israel issue ranked 8th out of 15 issues in importance as a presidential election consideration for Jewish respondents. Aside from the economy (a prime issue of concern for the vast majority of respondents), ahead of Israel on Jewish voters’ minds were such matters as health care, gas prices and energy, taxes, and education. Ranking just below Israel in importance for Jewish respondents were appointments to the Supreme Court and the environment. In fact, when asked to name their top three issues, just 15% of Jewish respondents chose Israel as one of the three, and these were heavily Orthodox Jews.

Orthodoxy and Same-Sex Marriage

As the JTA reports, the Orthodox Union opposed New York's recent measure legalizing same-sex marriage. But might one Orthodox rabbi have exerted a degree of influence in favor of the law's passage?

Possibly. Influence is difficult to measure, and the decision ultimately rested in the mind and heart of each state senator... but possibly. Zeek reprints an open letter from Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, to Sen. Steven Saland of Poughkeepsie, one of the two crucial Republican swing votes. In the letter, Rabbi Greenberg appeals to the memory of Saland's rabbinic ancestor, Rabbi Shmuel Salant -- a tactic shared by Agudath Israel in their own appeal to the senator, from the opposing side.

Whether Rabbi Greenberg and the Agudah had any impact or not, Saland voted for the measure in the end, putting the legislative question to rest in the state of New York. But within Orthodox Judaism, the question of how to relate to the modern world's ever-solidifying acceptance of homosexuality will continue for many years to come. Rabbi Greenberg, of course, is a significant voice in this internal debate, as are other gay Orthodox Jews, whose personal experiences make this issue impossible to ignore.

Yet, for all the consternation that this issue understandably causes in Orthodoxy when it comes to questions of halakhah, ritual, and other internal matters, it is somewhat baffling that Orthodox Jews should feel the need to maintain a correspondence between secular and religious definitions of marriage. As Rabbi Michael Broyde and Rabbi Shlomo Brody point out in the context of an article articulating a clear and strict opposition to homosexual sex,

Politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in multicultural democratic societies like America. The pragmatic decision to support equal rights for gays in the political realm is not inconsistent with our view that the underlining activity violates Jewish (and Noachide) law. We support religious freedom for all, even as we are aware that some might use this freedom to violate Jewish or Noachide law. Similarly, it is wise to support workplace policies of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, just as we support such non-discrimination based on religion, even though these laws equally protect, for example, pagans. Discrimination based on lifestyle choices may threaten our own liberties, including freedom of religious expression... 

Rabbis Broyde and Brody go on to specify that both political opposition to and political support for same-sex legal marriage are within the realm of reasonable Orthodox choice:

If one believes a civil prohibition of same-sex marriage does not threaten our rights in the long term, then joining a political alliance opposing such, based on shared values or interests, seems reasonable. If, however, one views such a campaign as an infringement of civil liberties, or a potentially bad precedent that might endanger our interests in other areas of civil life, then one should not feel compelled to combat gay marriage.

If this is not a ringing endorsement of civil marriage equality, neither is it the stance of clear opposition taken by the Orthodox Union.

The Orthodox argument in favor of maximum liberty is not a recent invention; as the blog Failed Messiah notes, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was essentially anti-abortion (except to save the life of the mother), and yet also essentially pro-choice. "In Rabbi Feinstein's view, the decision to abort was a decision that should be made by the woman and her rabbi, not by Congress."

Ultimately, as homosexuality becomes increasingly normalized in the broader world, Orthodoxy's internal and external stances on this issue will be increasingly tested and challenged.

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.

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1: The Other Israeli Conversion Crisis

With the recent Israeli conversion bill generating controversy related to pluralism in Jewish denominational context, and with the Cordoba House / “Ground Zero Mosque” plan generating controversy related to pluralism in interreligious context, pluralism is very much in public debate right now, whether or not the word is used explicitly in discussing these issues.

But what is pluralism? Let us consult the Oxford English Dictionary:

pluralism
noun
1. a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, etc. coexist; a political theory or system of power-sharing among a number of political parties.
2. a theory or system that recognizes more than one ultimate principle.

Within these two definitions I count three basic ideas: coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate(3).

Of course, these three concepts only scratch the surface of potential meanings. Wikipedia’s disambiguation page for pluralism, for its part, lists fifteen definitions or applications of the concept. Clearly, then, pluralism isn’t one thing; it is itself (appropriately enough) plural.

How, then, can we discuss it? Perhaps we ought to begin by examining pluralism in the wild, as it were – in application, or attempted application, to real situations. The BJPA features many documents on the topic of pluralism, some related to intra-Jewish matters, and some to interreligious or intercultural relations. Over the course of a few posts I intend to examine a handful of these documents in an attempt to answer these questions: what do pluralistic solutions entail; and when do they, or don't they, work?

Let us begin with a timely look back to the 1990s. In “Orthodox and Non-Orthodox: How to Square the Circle”, the prolific Daniel J. Elazar notes that the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews constitutes not merely a situation of different approaches, but “two contrary understandings of Judaism”:

The Chief Rabbinate and the Israeli religious establishment, and, for that matter, probably an overwhelming majority of Israelis as well, regardless of their own religious practices, understand Judaism to be an overarching structure, an edifice erected over thousands of years, …a complex but standing structure that technically never changes but is only reinterpreted in a limited way to function within changing realities. For those who believe and observe, this edifice gives them their daily, even hourly, marching orders. For those who observe less or do not observe at all except perhaps at the very margins of the edifice, the edifice still stands and they expect Jewish individuals, when they do act in religious ways, to do so within it. To steal an example from another religion, Judaism is like a great cathedral. It stands there and delivers its religious message whether worshippers enter or not, and while there can be discussions about what are the contents of that message, the character of the edifice is unmistakable.

American non-Orthodox Jews, who are the vast majority in the United States… see Judaism from an American religious perspective that has been shaped by the Protestant experience, as a matter of personal spirituality and belief first and foremost; which means that Jews must begin by personally accepting the fundamental beliefs and traditions of Judaism in some way but then are free to apply them operationally in ways that they find meaningful and satisfying. True, Conservative Judaism accepts the existence of the edifice of Torah and halakhah, but understands Torah more as a constitution than as a detailed code, a constitution which can and must be reinterpreted in every age according to its spirit and not merely according to the plain meaning of the text or something close to it.

Reform Judaism formally does not even accept that. For it, halakhah is not binding but is merely one of the sources of Jewish religious tradition to which attention should be paid…

Addressing an earlier “conversion crisis” (which mirrors the present crisis on certain ways), Elazar endorses the solution of the Neeman Committee, which proposed in 1997 that the Israeli government

create "conversion institutes," to prepare potential converts for conversion. The institutes would be sponsored by the Jewish Agency, and operated jointly by the three denominations. Aspiring converts would attend classes at the institutes but the actual conversion would be performed under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate, according to Orthodox guidelines. With the establishment of these institutes, the Reform and Conservative movements would agree not to perform conversions [in Israel] outside the framework of the institutes.

To Elazar, this solution

is so ingenious and important, precisely because it does appear to square the circle to everyone's advantage in some ways and to everyone's disadvantage in others. The Israeli rabbinical establishment will have to give up its exclusiveness by accepting Reform and Conservative involvement in common operational matters such as training for conversion, performance of marriages, and handling the provision of religious services to the Israeli Jewish population. At the same time, by having a majority in every body making decisions in those areas, they will keep control and be able to honestly claim that the decisions are halakhic from their standpoint and based on their standards. The Reform and Conservative movements and their rabbis will win a measure of recognition as partners in the Jewish religious enterprise, something that has been totally denied to them as movements in Israel in the past, but they will in turn have to accept the ultimate Orthodox power in determining what is halakhah in these matters. Orthodox Jews should be very pleased with this because it will bring Reform Judaism back to the recognition of the binding character of halakhah, at least in Israel, an achievement of no small proportions if their interest is honestly religious and not merely a question of who has political power…

In fact, I would argue that the compromise should not only be agreed to for Israel but for the rest of the world as well, thereby creating a basic and halachic uniformity for issues such as conversion and marriage. That would be a great achievement, especially if in doing so we also recognize that we do live in a world of plural expression.

Personally, I share Elazar’s enthusiasm for the Neeman Committee’s solution, and the wish that such a system could be established for the entire Jewish world. I also believe, however, that the chances of such a system being established, inside or outside Israel, are virtually nil.

First, the non-Orthodox movements do not, by and large, see their decisions about lenient requirements for conversion to Judaism as purely practical measures; they believe they are acting in accordance with important principles related to the deepest meanings of Judaism, and they point to nothing younger than the Book of Ruth as precedent and proof-text for their interpretations. While some non-Orthodox Jews might accept a compromise for the sake of unity, others will stand ready to do battle over these principles. To acquiesce to Orthodox standards of conversion would represent, for many Jews, not merely an inconvenience, but a cowardly surrender to an extremist, unwelcoming and immoral approach to conversion.

As for the Orthodox world, while certain Modern Orthodox Jews might embrace the Neeman model, many Orthodox Jews would reject it as an explicit recognition of the legitimacy of the non-Orthodox rabbinate. For these Jews, rabbinic authority is not merely a tool of logistical power; it is a sacred trust deriving from an unbroken chain of leadership which began with Moses, a mantle which has always been fiercely guarded against heterodoxy in order to ensure that the great Tradition which began at Sinai will be neither diluted nor abandoned. To cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis in any way, for these Jews, would be an unconscionable breach in a wall at which no lesser authority than God explicitly commanded the Jewish people to stand guard.

The Neeman Committee model of cooperation, then, asks two significant positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum – one of which dominates the Israeli religious establishment, and the other of which dominates the American religious estalblishment – simply to abandon their core principles. This solution may be desirable to those of us “in the middle,” but is it really pluralism?

Returning to my three-pronged interpretation of the OED’s definition of pluralism above – coexistence (1), power-sharing (2), and recognition of multiple principles as legitimate (3) – it seems so; the Neeman Committee solution fits all three of these concepts. The proposal envisions an Israel in which Jews of all denominations continue to practice (#1); in which rabbis of three of these denominations share power in the conversion process (#2); and in which, since the Israeli government grants all three denominations an official role, all three denominations are given government recognition as being legitimate to some degree (#3).

The reasons that this solution is unlikely to work can also be expressed in terms of the three-pronged definition: both #1 and #3 are unacceptable to the extreme left and the extreme right of the Jewish denominational spectrum, both of which consider one another to be immoral and illegitimate, and each of which wishes that the other would disappear. #2 might be acceptable to the extreme left out of a reluctant pragmatism, but is unacceptable to the extreme right, which sees sharing power with non-Orthodox rabbis as being inherently against God's explicit command. All three elements, then, face considerable opposition.

Can a framework so problematic for so much of the relevant population ever be workable? Is pluralism itself inherently impossible in this context? If not, then (to borrow Elazar's phrase) how can the circle be squared?

Contra Adam Bronfman: No, We Are Not All Jews

Seagram heir and Jewish pluralism advocate Adam Bronfman took to the blogosphere today via the JTA, declaring that "We Are All Jews," and denouncing the recently-tabled Israeli conversion bill, which critics charge would solidify Haredi control over Israeli government recognition of conversions, to the exclusion of non-Orthodox (and non-Haredi Orthodox) conversions. Bronfman writes:

[M]y interaction with the Jewish community and my engagement with Jewish foundations and organizations revealed the problematic use of the term “Jewish peoplehood,” or “klal yisrael.” I often despair and wonder if those words have lost their meaning. Is “Jewish peoplehood” a mere fantasy rather than a reality? The Rotem conversion legislation, that recently caused such an uproar, revealed an ongoing and ugly battle. We have narrowly averted a schism.

As a Jew, I was outraged by the proposed legislation. The State of Israel has no business in affiliating with or endorsing one religious group or dogma over another. When it does so it becomes complicit in the internecine strife that plagues our Jewish discourse and abdicates the responsibility it assumed at the time of its creation. That creation was meant to guarantee existential survival for all Jews, regardless of affiliation, style of worship, or geographic location. Regarding Jewish status, it is the government’s sole responsibility to secure and guard that guarantee...

It is high time for the government to get out of the business of legislating religious preference. Mr. Netanyahu must lead us to a decisive conclusion: ALL Jews enjoy equal status in the eyes of the Israeli government. Anything less is failure.

Bronfman's concern for Jewish unity, and his criticism of schismatic interdenominational battles, are noble and correct. I also share the concern of many critics that the Haredi monopoly on Israeli government definitions of Jewish identity (not to mention marriage) has been harmful, and should be revised. And while I am reticent to take a hard position on a bill I do not fully understand, I trust the judgment of many critics who say that the bill in its most recent form would have exacerbated these problems.

But on the most fundamental level of the issue of Jewish peoplehood, Adam Bronfman is unfortunately, simply, deeply wrong: we are not all Jews.

I am not arguing in favor of the current system, much less of the Rotem conversion bill itself. Nor do I disrespect the impulses behind this position. Bronfman and like-minded commentators take a stance which is wrong, but which is also deserving of real consideration. They speak up on behalf of the values of personal choice, pluralism, mutual respect, and acceptance. These are important values, to be sure, and the status quo in Israel is undeniably detrimental to all of them. But these values are not, cannot be, the only values for which we stand. Sometimes values conflict, and difficult choices must be made.

I share Bronfman's "despair," wondering along with him if the words klal Yisrael "have lost their meaning." That value, the meaning of being Jewish, is the very value which, in this case, conflicts with personal choice and complete pluralism. Either being Jewish has a specific meaning or it doesn't. There can be no neutrality on this matter; not to take a position is to take a position. Something that can be defined as anything is nothing.

If being Jewish is nothing more than a nominal affiliation, which can be chosen by anyone under no particular set of standards, devoid of commitments and obligations -- or, if being Jewish entails powerful commitments to morality and justice, but these commitments are all universal, and identical to general values of societal and personal responsibility --  then participation in Jewish life is trivial, and the creation of a Jewish state in the first place, with all the very real problems that nationalism entails, is irrational and dangerous.

Indeed, there is a serious case to be made for the scrapping of all tribal and national identities. Why persist in defining ourselves in groups at all? Why not document all the beautiful contributions of Judaism in our libraries, museums and universities, alongside the contributions of other extinct tribal identities, and let all individuals simply unite as citizens of the world? Many people, and indeed, many secular Jews, do make this argument.

But I suspect that Bronfman is not among them, since he is passionately and deeply involved in the Jewish communal world. I cannot help but assume, therefore, that Bronfman shares my belief that Judaism brings something vital and specific to the world, not only in the past but in the future, and that therefore there is important and unique value in living a Jewish life. And if living a Jewish life has specific value, must it not also have a specific range of content? Is playing frisbee a Jewish activity, if Jews do it? What about reading the telephone book? What about practicing Islam, or Christianity?

One might argue that I miss the point here -- that while Jewish denominations themselves should indeed create definitions of what it means to be Jewish, the Israeli government ought to take a neutral position between those definitions, allowing anyone to define themselves as Jewish, so that the Jewish state can be a home for all those who identify as Jews.

This policy sounds fine in theory. But here I must ask the obvious questions -- the questions which are dragged into this argument often enough to be tiresome, but which I dare not avoid because they remain powerful: are Jews for Jesus to be counted as Jews by the Israeli government? What about Christians completely unaffiliated with Messianic Judaism, but who claim that, in accordance with their theology, the Christian Church is God's new Israel, and that therefore they ought to be counted as Jews by Israel's government? If the answer is to make a policy defining anyone as Jewish who identifies as Jewish, except for those who believe in other religions, then who gets to decide what counts as another religion? The problem is not solved; the can is merely kicked  down the road. Either someone in the Israeli government makes some kind of definition of what it means to be Jewish -- which means giving up on the ideal of complete pluralism -- or no one in the government makes such a definition, and literally anyone in the world can qualify for the Law of Return.

This question is not purely abstract. With Israel currently confronting a number of issues related to immigration, it is not at all out of the realm of possibility that people who have no Jewish ancestry and no genuine interest in becoming Jewish will claim Judaism purely in order to qualify for the Law of Return, for the sake of escaping poverty. (One could hardly fault such a person in desperate circumstances for taking this course of action.)

Perhaps Bronfman doesn't really mean what he says about the Israeli government getting "out of the business of legislating" religion. Perhaps he recognizes that there is a point at which religious definition must be legislated, but he simply wishes that Haredi rabbis did not have a monopoly on this power. If that was his intended point, then I agree.

But the way we frame our arguments matters a great deal. Critics of the current system should be careful not to mount a high horse from which they decry Orthodox insistence on deciding for other people what being Jewish means, unless they are willing to follow their arguments to their logical conclusions and throw open the doors of Jewish identity to all manner of antisemites who claim to be "the real Jews". If these critics are willing to exclude even a single claimant to Jewish identity, for any reason, then that constitutes an endorsement of "one religious group or dogma over another," and the difference between the position of such critics and the position of the Haredim themselves is a difference of degree, not of essence.

If this is the case, it is only honest and proper to admit as much, and to acknowledge that if the torch our people have carried for these thousands of years is worth carrying further, it will require some concessions from the values of complete autonomy and individualism, some willingness to draw lines. That doesn't mean surrender to the Haredi position; the Jewish world can, and should, have real discussions and seek real compromises about where to draw those lines as a community. But in our denominations, in our synagogues, in our organizations -- and yes, in the Israeli government -- draw lines we must, or we are no community at all.

For more perspectives on the question of who is a Jew, click here to see related BJPA-archived articles. As always, this opinion is mine and not the BJPA's. And as always, I welcome all feedback, either of support or of dissent, in the comments section below.

Strong-Arming the Denominations

A new education grant that is forcing inter-denominational collaboration for teacher training on the MA level raises some interesting questions.

Tablet magazine reported on a recent Jim Joseph Foundation grant that requires the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform universities whose Education MA programs it supports to fund collaborative joint-teacher training endeavors. Meaning that for at least some portion of their education, future Orthodox-trained, Conservative-trained, and Reform-trained educators will themselves have studied and trained together.

The danger for the liberal Universities is that as their ideology seems to move closer and collaboration increases, the distinction between them and need for distinct organizational structures and identities weakens. For Yeshiva University, the threat seems to be more of brand dilution and credibility within the larger, more splintered orthodox world. According to Tablet's characterization, Richard Joel,head of Yeshiva University, "took pains to minimize its significance in an interview."

Economically difficult times do and always have lead to compromises (and hopefully innovation). The current wave of research, articles like,

The Unfolding Economic Crisis: Its Devastating Implications for American Jewry and Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis Into Opportunity? (2009)

echoes over and over again: 

Jewish Communal Service and the New Economy , Managing Jewish Communal Agencies in Difficult Times: Cutting and Coping (1992),

A Jewish Communal Response to the Current Economic Crisis (1983).

The Foundation seems to be using its economic leverage to (attempt to) bring Jews, or at least Jewish educational institutions, closer together. Personally I think that's a good thing, but it is another example of the power of money to set the agenda for Jewish organizational life.  I do think it's ironic that after what seems like so much angst and ink spent on the impact of the 'new trend' of independent minyanim on the established denominations, apparently anti-establishment pressure can come from arguably the most established place of all - wealth.