Thursday, January 31, 2008

Rabbi Shafran officially runs out of ideas

I don't know what R. Avi Shafran has been up to lately, but clearly it's affecting his writing schedule. His latest contributions to Cross-Currents are stale and, frankly, plagiarized. First he had the ever-popular Returns Welcome. Now he's tossed out this ancient chestnut, Dear Sean. Various versions of this astonishingly bad attempt at a last-ditch Jewish guilt trip have been circulating the net (and print) since at least 2000. I first encountered it at this extremely patronizing waste of server space (you can tell they're gloriously unbiased by how passionately they shill for the Orthodox).

Let's get to the actual text (though I can't really do much better than Ori at Cross-Currents did). Ori actually does so well in deflating the letter that other commenters are forced to wonder out loud what R. Shafran thinks he is accomplishing by reprinting it: "I am wondering if it’s possible that Rabbi Shafran intended to show the contradictions in the father’s position?" Even the esteemed Mrs. Katz seems stumped. "Ori: The letter you wrote (#2 above) is very eloquent and very powerful. It is hard to answer it from the POV of a secular Jew who wants his children to marry Jews — they really don’t have good reasons — except that the pintele Yid speaks from their neshamos when they contemplate the thought that they may be the last Jew in their family, the last link in a chain that continued for 3000 years and then snapped with them."

All right, enough stalling:

Dear Sean,
I know this might sound strange coming from a father who’s far from a religious Jew, but now that you’re dating, there’s something I need you to understand.
The single most important decision you’ll ever make in life will not be about your education or career but about whom you’ll marry.
Because who your wife is will determine, more than anything else in your adult life, the person you become, the family you’ll raise, what you’ll leave on earth when it will be time to go.
Wait a minute, who said I was going to marry a WOMAN? You don't seem to know me very well, "Dad."

I know the end of life isn’t something you probably give much thought to. Not many of us do, at least not until we became sick or old enough to see it hovering on the horizon. But a final day does arrive, sooner or later, for each of us. And when it comes, very few of the things we thought made such a big difference will seem to matter at all anymore. And other things we never gave much thought to will suddenly be very important. We’ll want to look back at our lives and feel that, in those areas, we pretty much did the right thing.
Sean, the right thing for a Jewish person is to marry another Jew.
To the exclusion of everything else? Because I have to tell you, Dad, knowing what I do about all the skeletons in our family's closet, it seems like we have innumerable cases of Jewish men and women marrying fellow Jews and then either treating them or their children like dirt. If that's the kind of love that "the tribe" passes on, I'm not so convinced.
Not only because our religion requires it. But because when Jews “marry out,” they disrespect who they are, they are disloyal to the Jewish past and they chip away at the Jewish future.

What a wonderfully emotionally blackmailing way of putting it! It seems to me that all this would be entirely dependent on what kind of home and FUTURE LIFE they create for themselves, their spouse, and any potential children they wind up having. Furthermore, there are a myriad number of ways in which one can, in one's personal or private life, contribute to the Jewish people and Jewish world, none of which have anything to do with one's choice of spouse. That takes care of disrespecting oneself and assisting the Jewish future. As for the Jewish past, this also doesn't necessarily follow. If you are someone intimately acquainted with and involved in preserving Jewish history, for instance, choosing to marry a non-Jew does not invalidate that. On what basis do we decide that activity X is the line-crosser which determines one's loyalty or betrayal of the collective "Jewish past?" Why isn't it eating bacon or driving to synagogue? They didn't do those in the Old Country either. Besides, coming from a secular Jew, any argument from religion seems like it's going to be pretty badly handicapped from the get-go.
Whether or not our family kept strictly kosher or celebrated the Sabbath or attended services often enough is all one thing. But the thought of bringing about the end of a proud Jewish line stretching back in time for centuries is something else. It’s more than some religious transgression.
First of all, there are plenty of halachic Jews, now and in the past, who might have chosen any number of other adjectives besides "proud." Second, you seem to be defining "Jewish" in a very limited way. What about patrilineal descent? It's not like Sean's deciding to go become a Methodist.
You never asked to be a Jew, I know. You were born one. But being Jewish isn’t a burden. It’s a gift. It means you are part of something bigger, much bigger, than yourself.
And there is no reason this not-quite-definable gift cannot be passed on to a child even if only one of their parents is Jewish.

Each of us Jews represents the hopes of so many Jewish ancestors. Don’t forget, you’re not just Sean, you’re Shmuel too. And even if you only used your Jewish name when you made the blessings over the Torah at your bar-mitzvah, it is still who you really are, an inheritance from your grandfather.
So am I "really" Shmuel when do any number of other things that grandpa wouldn't have approved of? What about you, Dad? How do you justify all the things you do that YOUR namesake wouldn't have liked? How is this one issue uniquely different?

And it was the same thing to him from an ancestor of his. You can’t just ignore the meaning of something like that. It’s a responsibility. All of my ancestors and your mother’s, all those Jews who came before us, lived, and sometimes died to keep their Jewish identity and heritage going.
But the fact that I never used my Hebrew name except for my Bar Mitzvah indicates that neither you guys nor I seemed to care very much about it. Which makes it as much your failing as mine. And suggests that most of this is your own guilt talking, many years after it's too late. Thanks.

I know that love is a powerful emotion. That’s exactly why I’m writing this as you begin to date. The young women you become close to will form the pool where you’ll find the person you want to spend your life with. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with someone you cannot, as a Jew in good conscience, marry.
This seems like it's straddling a creepy pseudo-racism line, Dad. How is this different from telling a white person, "Don't give yourself the opportunity to make friends with someone you cannot, as a proud WASP, tolerate as a friend."

And never forget that what the world calls “love” isn’t all there is to a successful and happy life. Every marriage that ended in divorce or worse, after all, started in a rush of love. For a marriage to really work, there has to be not only attraction and care but shared ideals and goals. And part of a Jewish man or woman’s goals has to be to take their Jewish identity seriously, and to instill it into their children.
What about all the Jewish Communists? Or secular Jews? You guys don't seem to have done too well. What about Jewish marriages that fail?

I don’t care whether the girl you marry is white, black or yellow. I don’t care if she speaks English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Swahili. I don’t care if she was born a Jew or became one, legally, properly, and sincerely. But if she isn’t Jewish, I know there will be tears, in your mother’s eyes and mine – and also in heaven.
So NOW you care about heaven? Where were you the day after my Bar Mitzvah? And call me skeptical, but something tells me you would still care if I found the one Swahili-speaking Jew in existence. And what's with this "legal and proper" crap? Why is Sean's Dad following Orthodox-only halacha? After all, how religious can they be if they named him "Sean?"

They say these days that most Jewish parents in America don’t care if their children marry other Jews or not. I hope it’s not true, but even if it is, we do. Remember what I’ve told you many times: Being a Jew means being ready to buck the tide, to say no to others – even a lot of others – when something important’s at stake. Sean, you’re the future of our family. I hope you’ll have the courage and the strength to do the right thing.
Thanks so much, Dad. I'm so glad the brain-chip that R. Shafran implanted in your head is working properly. Now that I'm furious at you, let's never talk about this again. Better yet, let's just not talk at all. Well, I'm off to college. Bye!

* * *
My own situation, luckily, is much simpler. I have the luck to be involved with a former Christian who, absent meeting me, probably would have been content to become a Unitarian Universalist. Ironically enough, at the moment (and there's no reason to think this will change), we are among the most knowledgeable and "religious" of anyone in my family. (My parents were simultaneously impressed and embarassed at a Bar Mitzvah quasi-recently where Shiksa Girlfriend knew more Hebrew than they did.) My and my brother also happen to be the only children in our entire extended family whose parents married fellow Jews (by accident, of course). Some of our cousins were raised Jewish (Reform), some were raised Christian (Lutheran, I think). Some identify as both depending on the time of year and which set of relatives they're visiting at the time.

The simple truth, especially these days, is that Jewish identity is complicated AND multi-faceted. You have all sorts of Jews (halachic and not) who identify themselves and their Jewishness in all sorts of ways. Are there still people like Sean's Dad? Sure. They're the kind of people who buy these books, which contain such brilliant advice as "bribe your kids- tell them you'll pay for dates with Jewish teenagers, but they have to pay to date non-Jews." They're entitled to their views. I don't agree with them, I actually feel sorry for them (though not as much as I do for their kids). But they're out there, and they're real. And that's ok.

But personally, I'm happy that I'm in a situation where I don't have to deal with hypocritical secular parents who have arbitrarily decided that the be-all and end-all of Jewish identity is if your child pops out of a womb with a Magen David on it. (related question: what about Gershom?)

Because the reality is that these days, it's really not as important (or, let's say, as vital) as some people seem to think.


Anonymous said...

Saying "Shiksa Girlfriend" is like saying "Nigger Girlfriend" or "Kike Girlfriend." All have no place in modern discourse.

Shiksa, or "object of loathing" is a word you should not use in an sentence but a self-referential one. (Of course, you're free to use all those words, they're just bigoted).

Friar Yid said...

Anon- Thanks for writing in.

You're entitled to feel how you feel. I certainly would be more than a tad annoyed if some alter kocker used it as a slur. That said, know that not everyone sees it that way. Needless to say, SG is not bothered by my usage of it as a pseudonym. (As far as I can recall, she picked it.)

Still, I'll pass your comment along.