In a recent commentary in The Jewish Forward, author David Hazony decries what he sees as the “death of peoplehood” among the Jewish people. By way of evidence he points to politically conservative American Jews who renounce liberal Jews as no longer members of the “family,” but who do feel a sense of kinship with the Christian right.
He accurately points to similar sentiments emanating from politically liberal Jews who are growing increasingly estranged from both the Israeli political right as well Jewish “neo-cons” in the Washington political establishment
“Frum” (Orthodox-observant) Jews, Hazony points out, view the real Jewish world as the “frum-world.”
According Hazony, among liberal Jews, the focus on “universal values” marks the death of Jewish tribal loyalties. Does that mean Jews shouldn’t subscribe to values that encourage less provincial perspectives on humanity? But aren’t those universal values based on Jewish teachings?
It is the Torah that demands that we see every human being as created in the Divine Image; it is the Torah that demands that we not turn away from the blood of our neighbor and seek justice for all; it is the Torah that demands that we respond to the needs of the less fortunate, and it is the Torah that repeatedly reminds us that we were once strangers in a strange land and as such, must treat the stranger in our midst as our equal.
Hazony’s point is accurate in that commitment to such values can be more important to many of us than tribal loyalty; e.g., how many modern, educated American Jews support the Haredi (rigidly Orthodox) community’s preference for referring child molesters in their yeshivas to community rabbis and not the police?
Those universal values make it difficult if not virtually impossible for many Jewish people to feel a sense of kinship with extremist Israeli settlers who resist all efforts at living peace with Palestinians; who advocate for their deportation, who burn Palestinian olive trees and crops and teach their children to hate and throw stones at Arabs.
Even on the religious side of Jewish life, the barriers that have separated people by perspective and lifestyle seem to growing. A valued friend recently suggested to me that the downfall of Conservative Judaism began when the movement went beyond the mild liberality of “mixed seating” to actually treating women as equals. Personally, I’m no longer comfortable in non-egalitarian synagogues and no, I don’t think I’m defying God in subscribing to a more contemporary understanding of gender roles. But should we all sit behind a mechitza (physical divider in Orthodox synagogues) for the sake of shalom bayit (domestic peace)?
Conservative and Orthodox Jews have long condemned the acceptance of patrilineal descent in Reform Judaism. Regardless of the logic of the decision, it certainly makes the sticky issue of “who is a Jew?” more complicated.
And Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis have for some time now been performing gay commitment ceremonies and marriages. Many Conservative rabbis have quietly been performing such ceremonies as well. It’s only a matter of time before most Conservative rabbis will feel it appropriate to bless and sanction the union of gay congregants.
Many of us demand that Judaism evolve as society’s understanding of the human condition expands. So where does that leave Jewish peoplehood?
The notion of, “my tribe, right or wrong,” is antithetical to everything that Judaism stands for. If God demands that we be righteous, moral and ethical people, how can anyone be asked to sacrifice their convictions on the altar of peoplehood? I love being Jewish, I love the Jewish people. But don’t ask me to accept or sanction ideas that contradict my convictions which were in large measure, shaped by Jewish teachings.
That said, Jewish affinity for one another is not as “dead” as Hazony and other pundits might suggest. Differences of opinion among Jews? Who doesn’t know one or more versions of the joke about two Jewish castaways who end up building 3 or more synagogues on their island home?
While we acknowledge the ever-more passionate disagreements of the Jewish people, let’s not assume that, at the end of the day, we care less about one another. Was there a Jew in the world who didn’t feel some sense of heartache upon learning what happened to 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky a few weeks ago? And no, I’m not talking about the kind of melancholy most decent people felt upon hearing the news. We may not have known Leiby personally, but he was “mishpacha,” he was part of our extended Jewish family; the heartfelt feelings ran deeper.
Does anyone recall the kind of financial and moral support the Jewish community of New Orleans received following Hurricane Katrina? Political and religious differences weren’t even considerations for the literally tens of thousands of Jews who sent checks and letters of support. (I will not forget the famous picture of an Orthodox rabbi from New York rescuing the Torah scrolls from the ark of a flooded Reform Temple in New Orleans.)
When a bomb goes off in Israel, is there really a Jew on the political right or left who doesn’t want details of what happened?
While it is true that the Jewish people appear to be growing apart, is that really news? Let’s remember the greatest lesson our teacher, Elie Wiesel, has offered the world: the ultimate enemy of humanity is indifference, not caring about issues and events that impact people other than you.
Thank God Jewish people think and care as much as they do. That’s a character trait we can be proud of.