Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Defining Jewishness (mine and others)

Ongoing blog friend Antigonos continues to put up with my ramblings and even wrote me a nice long note. Here it is:
Rabbi Eugene Lipman, z"l, once said to me that there is only one defining criterion in Judaism: does one believe that there was a Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai, or that the Torah was written, not by God, but by man [divinely inspired, maybe, but then, maybe not]. 
The former are Orthodox, and the rest are...well, the rest.  This is about the basic underpinning of a religious world-view, and not specifically about level of observance.  American Jews tend to get obsessed with bservance to the exclusion of philosophy.  Judaism becomes defined, on a sliding scale from 1 to 10, by how one "Jews it up" [a favorite phrase of Rabbi Alan Miller's].  Pesach is marked by a box of matzah on the table but otherwise living as usual = Reform; going berserk with spring cleaning, selling hametz, using special cutlery, plates, pots and pans = Orthodox, and doing the same as the Orthodox but not eating gebrochts as well = ultra-Orthodox. [You'll notice I'm leaving out the Conservative, for a reason]  Shabbat is a day to be a couch potato; Passover becomes a festival of "Freedom" [so blacks like the President can celebrate it too] and isn't a celebration of a particular event in the history of a particular people. 
That's a false interpretation, alas.  The basic divide concerns the place of halacha in Jewish life.  If [actually, "iiiiffff" in a Talmudic singsong ] one believes that Torah is a human product, then humans can change it, or dispense with halacha altogether, and that, to a large extent, is what the Reform have done [there's something of a backlash nowadays since Reconstructionism probably has its largest impact on current Reform thinking].  If one believes that God has directed you, through Torah [d'oraita] and the Oral Law [d'rabbanan] how to live, and to live this way is a manner of turning one's life into a form of perpetual worship, then one can't rewrite halacha to suit one's desires.  This is the view of the Orthodox.  The Conservative have never really developed a coherent philosophy on the authority and justification of halacha, and each congregation seems to be as "traditional" as they want to be.  As a result, currently the Conservative Movement is having a lot of trouble.  The Orthodox know who they are, and the Reform more or less incorporate anything they want to include, and the Conservative...well, they're there somewhere. Sort of.  I guess.

Just for a taste of where we are... I don't believe the Torah was written by God. I just don't. I don't know exactly what various people have meant by "divinely inspired," but at this point in my life, it's appropriately vague enough that I can get behind it. I guess. The short answer, I suppose, is that while I'm not sure I always believe in God, I do believe in the Jewish people, and that framework, at least these days, makes sense to me. I see halacha and Jewish traditions as important, though not necessarily binding-- or at least, not binding in a static way. This makes sense to me, given that Jewish life historically was not static. That's not to say I believe that halacha can mean "whatever I want it to mean;" on the contrary, I feel that since I am still not entirely sure where I stand on the issue of halacha being personally binding, I have less personal motivation to skew halacha one way or the other. Still, my sense is that there's more inherent flexibility to the system (as demonstrated by various thinkers and practices in Jewish history) than many contemporary Orthodox Jews (particularly on the Haredi side) give it credit.

To touch on your Passover example: our Passover consists of cleaning, selling hametz, and going 8 days on matzah and potatoes. We have a seder firmly grounded in Jewish tradition, at which invariably most of the guests aren't Jewish. We clearly aren't Orthodox. But we aren't just doing lip service either. We're somewhere in between, a distinction I will claim proudly.
This can have massive implications.  Probably the biggest one is the problem of patrilineal descent, which  imply is not accepted by any but the Reform, and has made it very difficult for ANY American Jew to get married in Israel [and I have known of some tragic situations in the US, btw, although American Orthodox rabbis are more lenient in converting the non-Jewish spouse who mistakenly thinks she -- it is usually a she, obviously -- is Jewish but really isn't.  And that's because of the children] 
So I don't think that a division between "Orthodox" and "in-married non-Orthodox" is really valid.  Reform, which I think absorbs most of the mixed marriages, isn't a "diluted" form of Judaism even though many American Jews think it is.  Further, it matters which partner is Jewish, and which is not.   American non-Orthodox Judaism is rapidly becoming a separate religion -- rather as Unitarianism is only marginally Christian compared to the Catholic Church [and I suspect many Catholics wouldn't consider it Christian at all]  Since most Israelis regard the "shul I rarely if ever attend is Orthodox", both what is called here "Progressive" [Reform] and "traditional"[Conservative] movements have expressed wonder that more Israelis don't join non-Orthodox congregations.  It really isn't odd -- Israelis may be observant or may not, but non-Orthodox forms of observance just don't seem really "Jewish".
I've definitely heard that, and I support Israelis' (and all Diaspora Jews') right to affiliate and support whichever individual congregations or movements they choose. My one quibble is that up until extremely recently, the deck has been significantly stacked against the liberal movements by virtue of the Orthodox monopoly over state functions, as well as the government providing the Orthodox funding while denying it to other movements. If the liberal movements can't seriously compete in Israel, so be it. But I don't think it's quite fair to write them off given the massive advantages the Orthodox have enjoyed thanks to the state. On an emotional/intuitive level, I think I somewhat understand the desire to have an authentic knowledge base or service aesthetic available when you want to access it (this is partially what's been percolating in me since my early college days), but it is interesting that there's such a disconnect between typical secular Israeli identity and continuing loyalty to Orthodoxy when it comes time to have a wedding or go to a holiday service. I wonder if a big part of that isn't the fact that Reform and Masorti are viewed as being foreign/imported traditions and as watered-down or somehow inauthentic versions of the real thing.
I would take issue with you when you write that "many" [I would amend that to "some"; I don't think the numbers reflect the reality of what happens to mixed marriages -- which is usually no religious affiliation at all] Reform mixed couples are raising Jewish children.  They are raising Reform children, which usually means little knowledge and less observance, not to mention the halachic problem in the case of non-Jewish mothers.  And I know Conservative rabbis who will not accept children from mixed marriages in Hebrew school according to patrilineal descent.  Like certain parts of the Episcopal Church, the whole business of homosexual and female rabbis, and gay marriage, is driving some Conservative to being modern Orthodox. [Recent studies show, btw, that in NY at least, the most rapidly growing community is the Orthodox, while both Reform and Conservative are dwindling, through indifference, not increased religious awareness]
You're quite right that I shouldn't extrapolate outwards based merely on my own experiences; however, living in a very liberal city and hopping around within the various liberal communities in that city, my observations have been that within the quasi-observant liberal community there seem to be a fair number of intermarriages. This is certainly not to claim that most intermarriages necessarily lead to Jewish children, just that it does happen, and I feel that's a worthwhile counterpoint to be aware of given that many people continue to believe the old line that as soon as a Jewish man marries out, that family and any children are by definition "gone." I'm not questioning the statistical data, just saying that the opposite is also part of the whole picture.

Yes, the Orthodox are growing. Part of this is due to organizational incompetence among the liberal movements, a general allergy to religiosity among people my age and younger, and, of course, the fact that on average Orthodox folks tend to have at least two to four more children than their liberal counterparts. I'm not begrudging the Orthodox their numbers, just saying that I'm not sure that necessarily demonstrates that more people are specifically becoming convinced of Orthodox theology or arguments.
An Israeli perspective on your survey questions might interest you.  In chu"l, you have to actively do something "Jewish" to maintain a Jewish identity [unless you are unfortunate enough to have an ID with "Zhid" stamped on it]; here you don't.  You just ARE.  Big difference! 
Seder participation is very high in Israel among secular Jews -- roughly 80% according to some articles I've read.  Pesach is one of the best-observed holidays in Israel, with otherwise secular folks going mad with cleaning. 
Ditto Hanukah candles.  I'm a little surprised by the question.  Hanukah is such an unimportant holiday, really [yes, I know it's a Jewish Christmas in the US]  Here in Israel just about everyone with kids lights candles [kids make hanukiot in school, so most families light one for each member, and put them, as required by halacha, in the window or in boxes outside the house], but there is very little gift-giving.  The kids only get a single day off school. 
As to charity ["Jewish" goes without saying], I think most Israelis do give some charity, although to an organization like Yad Sarah, which supplies medical equipment as a free loan, or to the Israeli Red Cross --  Magen David Adom -- instead of a religious charity is more common among the seculars. Donating charity as a form of giving a present for a special occasion is quite common too. 
Very, very few Israelis [unless they have medical problems, as I do -- I'm diabetic --] eat on Yom Kippur.  A lot of secular folks, however, will go to sleep after the seudah mafseket and try to stay asleep until Ne'ilah to avoid having to go to shul.  However, synagogue attendance is very high -- there's that wonderful story about how the Arabs goofed by attacking Israel on Yom Kippur.  Mobilization was very easy; men went from shul to shul and everyone was notified immediately.  If the Arabs had attacked on Sukkot, when a lot of Israelis either travel or have barbeques in the woods, mobilization would have been very difficult.  The other halachot of the fast are observed, too: no leather shoes [Crocs!], wearing a kitel or white clothes, etc., by a lot of not particularly religious* men. 
Is being Jewish important?  I think most Israelis would find that question confusing.  We would phrase it "being observant"; we're all Jewish. 
Jewish events?  Are you crazy?  The _country's_ Jewish!  I'll skip over the "are you attached to Israel" question. 
Do you talk about Jewish-related topics?  What else?  Two Israelis, three political parties.
Ipso facto, every Israeli is part of a Jewish society.  In fact, one of Israel's main problems is that the country is filled with Jews  Men wearing kippot, the crocheted variety, are everywhere, and not all of them are strictly Orthodox.  My youngest daughter's father-in-law does this, and he is "traditional". 
Shabbat meals?  I wouldn't guess a percentage, but families do get together much more here than in the States.  For one thing, the distances are smaller, which makes it easier.  A substantial percentage of Israeli "traditional" types make Kiddush, eat a Shabbat meal, sing zemirot, even bench -- and then watch TV or go to a soccer match on Saturday.  Most married women light candles on Friday night; less non-Orthdox families make Havdalah.  Some traditional Israelis won't travel on Shabbat, others will. Living in Jerusalem, where's there's no public transport means the city shuts down more on Shabbat than Tel Aviv, where everything is open. 
Synagogue membership is rather different here than in chu"l.  It's much less formal.  The davvening is also much less of a performance.  Shacharit on Shabbat is two hours, barely, from start to finish: no choir, no sermon [indeed, no rabbi].   There are little "shteibelach" on nearly every block [every ethnic group has its own, and sometimes even every family or clan within an ethnic group does].  You can drop in.  Shopping malls have synagogues and the loudspeaker will announce if they need a minyan for mincha or something.  There are even commuter trains which have a daily minyan for shacharit in one carriage.  A lot of otherwise only mildly observant men lay tefillin in the morning, which is rather surprising when you think about it, as these are the sort who only go to shul on major holidays or even only on Yom Kippur.
With easy access to kosher restaurants and kosher food generally in supermarkets, a much higher percentage of non-Orthodox Israelis keep kosher homes "because my mother did".  Young Israelis are more likely to eat non-kosher until they marry, then they keep kosher "for the kids".  [The army, of course, keeps kosher kitchens since seculars can eat kosher but religious soldiers obviously can't eat non-kosher]
Opportunities for study are all over the place; there are even radio shiurim on certain channels.  The average Israeli is, although no scholar in Judaic studies, far more knowledgeable than an American Jew -- after all, he can easily read primary source material in the original language, and living in the Land [Israelis are nuts about archeology and historical references], it all seems much more pertinent.  But the younger secular generation is becoming less interested -- partly because of the polarization between the haredim and the non-religious.
Very interesting take on the survey questions! I definitely like the fact that in Israel the "traditional" and even "liberal" streams seem to be based more on preference, ideology and tradition than a lack of knowledge about what they're doing, which I feel like, at least among the laity these days, more often tends to be the case among liberal streams in the US. I think more than anything, what I'm working towards is an ability to put the Reform/Reconstructionist philosophy of "personal choice" and "community folkways" into real practice by being informed enough about what normative/historical halachic perspectives have been to then make my own determinations about what I think is right or relevant. Where I think Conservative Judaism may have the edge on Orthodox Judaism in this regard is that CJ seems to be more tolerant of dissenting views (in terms of personal practice) than OJ, where communal pressures and conformity, particularly regarding public religiosity and strictness, seem to be ever-increasing. I like the idea of being part of a community that respects people wherever they happen to be, while also taking Jewish tradition seriously and being willing to draw some lines about where tradition does and doesn't go (which is not to say that I reject contemporary liberal values-- just that I value a community that has the intellectual honesty to admit that the conflict exists).

1 comment:

Antigonos said...

Very flattered that you quote me at such length!

Two quick points: intermarriage isn't as big a problem for Israelis in Israel as it is for Jews generally in the States, mostly, I suspect, because there is such a limited number of acceptable non-Jews here, as well as the fact that civil marriage doesn't exist. So automatically the conflicts that are caused by "marrying out" are almost nil. [There are plenty of conflicts if the partners are radically different in levels of observance, however]

Secondly, one's Jewishness does not have to be demonstrated, either to oneself or to the community at large by conspicuous displays of observance ["Jewing it up" in the words of R. Alan Miller]. In chu"l, it does. Here, we walk the talk or vice versa, by living here, going to the army, paying [and paying] taxes, etc. One gets time off on Jewish holidays -- when I was a child in Wash.DC, my mother had difficulty at times with angry teachers who couldn't understand WHY I had to have TWO days off for Rosh Hashana, or that I wouldn't attend the Christmas assembly.

So, the bottom line is that Jews here don't seem to be searching for their Jewishness in the way liberal US Jews are, and indeed, we find various American Jewish compromises and obsessions a bit outlandish, while we feel pretty comfortable with our own identity. Now, can I interest you in aliyah? :-)