Stars and stripes of David at odds

November 24, 2016 23:17

On a humid Manhattan morning, four Jewish religious leaders came to speak with us, students of the Ruderman Program in American Jewish Studies, on the current state of American Jewry. The four were Rabbi Jonathan Blake from the Westchester Reform Temple; Rabbi Lawrence Schiffman - an Orthodox rabbi and world-renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Yeshiva University; Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, a Reconstructionist; and Rabbi Shuly Rubin Schwartz, a Conservative rabbi and a Professor of American Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

They represented four denominations of modern American Judaism, but there are many other congregations, such as Secular Humanist Jews, the LGBTQS (LGBT, Queer, and Straight) Jews, and others, each with their own organisations, synagogues, and often their own prayer book, liturgical music, and more.

Contrast this with the situation in Israel. There are secular, traditional (masorti), Orthodox (dati) and strictly Orthodox (charedi) Jews. But until recently there was little interest in observing Judaism in a way other than the Orthodox manner. The difference between the secular or traditional and the Orthodox is one of degree: the former keep fewer commandments, but those they do keep are observed in the Orthodox manner. There is no hiloni (secular) or masorti prayer books, synagogues, or religious dogma.

Also, until recently, there was little interest in dealing from a fresh religious perspective with burning issues, from gay rights or female rabbis to possible peace agreements - issues that are constantly part of the American Jewish discussion. It was assumed that the "Jewish" or "religious" perspective is simply the Orthodox one (eg, against gay marriages or female rabbis), whether one is personally for or against.

Why is Judaism so much more diverse in its ideas, more willing to engage in current events, in the USA than in Israel? The rabbis at our discussion disagreed on the details but all agreed with Rabbi Blake's statement that a central factor is the absence of state-sanctioned clerics of a particular stream, as is the case in Israel. Diversity follows, since one can more easily develop and follow a religious dogma that fits with modern times and with one's own wider concerns, without having to worry about whether one's views are "really" Jewish.

American Jews are equipped to enage in current events

Some research done in Israel offers an opposing view. It suggests that Israeli Jews of all stripes find it hard to take the non-Orthodox American denominations seriously. They consider certain beliefs (in a transcendental deity, or in keeping certain kosher laws, or support of Zionism or the maintenance of Jews as a distinct people, celebration of Jewish holydays and days of rest, speaking Hebrew) as a minimum, thus de facto rejecting the Jewishness of many Reform or Reconstructionist Jews. Also, secular Israeli Jews tend not to express their Jewishness by adherence to a non-Orthodox denomination, since in Israel traditionally it was not required to do anything to be recognised as, or consider oneself, Jewish. American Jews had to maintain their Judaism actively, in order that their families did not discard their Jewishness completely. Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism - while denigrated by some Orthodox Israelis as "ersatz Judaism" - often serve this function for those who can no longer accept the Orthodox way of life but do not want to leave Judaism altogether.

Israeli Jews may be suspicious of the dangers inherent in American Jewish diversity (such as the growing rate of intermarriage), while American Jews can be offended by the Israelis' refusal to take their engagement seriously.

It would benefit Israeli Jews to learn to appreciate American Jewish diversity. It could help rejuvenate Israeli Judaism and enable it to deal more effectively with the modern world. And American Jews would do well to heed the warnings of Israeli Jews about the risks of sliding into atheism or reducing Judaism to a social club.

November 24, 2016 23:17

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