Monday, September 17, 2012

Let's Be Honest--About Jewish Denominations--How Do You Jew--Part 1

The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the "Days of Awe" since we are supposed to spend them making our case before God that we are worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life for yet another year.  It is the one short period when we are supposed to focus completely on our own strengths and weaknesses and our personal relationship with God.  The rest of the year, and Judaism in general, focuses on prayers for the Jewish people, the communities in which we live, and the rest of the world.

The various flavors of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Vegan, Jew-Bu, etc.--have always more or less agreed on this model.  We are very different in the trappings and the role that ritual observance plays in the process.  But the various denominational labels have been used for decades to help Jews and other differentiate between the various denominations and how different Jews choose to be religious in their own way.

But as with most labels that have served us well for a long time, those denominational labels are becoming more meaningless by the day.  In the past, the list above (in order) has been used to determine which Jews are "more Jewish" ranging from Orthodox at the top to Jew-Bu at the bottom.
But now, many of my Orthodox friends have become more flexible in their levels of observance while more and more of my Reform friends are wearing kippot and keeping kosher. 

As with our relationship to Israel and a whole broad range of issues, things are just getting more and more complicated when it comes to using the old measures and language to talk about what it means to be Jewish.

I would suggest that as a practical matter, there are really only two denominations of American Judaism that exist today and that they have far less to do with ritual observance per se than they do with the macro view regarding what it means to be Jewish.

One view--the one I hear about in emails from my older Jewish friends of all existing denominations--is that Judaism carries with it first and foremost a set of obligations.  Those of us who were born Jewish have a duty to perpetuate the Jewish people (by marrying inside the faith), to unequivocally support the government of the State of Israel without which Judaism would essentially cease to exist, and to be fully aware that even though things may seem pretty good for us right now, the anti-Semites and Jew haters are still out there and we must always be alert and vigilant for the signs of the next catastrophe. 

We owe it to the memory of those who died in the Holocaust not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory and must forward every article and statement documenting horrible acts of anti-Semitism from anywhere in the world to make sure that the current complacent generation of Jews is snapped out of its dangerous illusion that life for Jews is pretty good here.

The other denomination consists of those who believe that in this new open source world without boundaries and limitations in which we are blessed to live in this country, Judaism like every other religion, way of life, and wisdom tradition, is to be viewed as a choice--not a burden or responsibility.  It will thrive or wither based on the ability of its rituals, ethics, values, historical memories and insights to help people live happier, better, and more productive lives. 

The same applies to the legacy organizations such as synagogues, Federations, pro-Israel groups and all of the other entities that for decades essentially had a large captive audience and suddenly find themselves having to compete for customers in the open market.

Perhaps the best example of how the failure of most Jews and the media to understand that there are now just two relevant denominations has surfaced in the jumbled and contradictory conversations about "The Jewish Vote" and whether President Obama is as popular with Jews as he was four years ago or if he is losing ground to Mitt Romney.  It also applies to the corollary question regarding the role that Israel plays in the voting decision of Jews.

Polls and surveys have yielded a broad range of results and answers to those questions because the pollsters and pundits don't understand that the differences in issues, politics, and actual definition of what it means to be Jewish is so profoundly different between the denominations that the term "Jewish" no longer has a single definition.

Among the "tribal" Jews, unequivocal support for Israel and its government is a huge priority and the almost omnipresent sense of victimhood, fear, and anger that is voiced at meetings and articles that are forwarded by these folks has caused many of them to employ the tactics and tone of the political Right.

Within the other denomination people who turn to Judaism as an important part of their lives embrace its rituals, culture, history, wisdom, ethics, and values as a life choice due to its ability to help them live happier, better, and more productive lives.  They believe that a Jew's first responsibility is to leave the world a better place (tikkun olam) than it was when we got here. 

I will call this group Aspirational Jews--not because they don't feel as strong an historical and cultural connection to Judaism and Israel but because they tend to pick and choose among the rituals and traditions and focus on observing only those that make their lives better, happier, and more productive.  They don't feel "commanded" nearly as much as they feel empowered to make relevant and value-added choices.

As is always the case, the best result will occur when pluralism prevails and the extremists of each denomination work hard to find the partial truths that certainly exist in the positions of the other.

The Tribalists need to understand that we live in times when even the legacy organizations that they embrace have determined that the greatest threat that American Jews face today is not that gentiles hate Jews and want to destroy us but is rather that so many gentiles love Jews so much that they can't wait to marry our children.  That fact should cut into the fear just a smidge.

The Aspirational Jews need to understand that although we enjoy a life in the U.S. that none of our forefathers and mothers ever dreamed possible, there are still enormous threats that exist in a very ugly world and that Jew hatred is a very major challenge in many places around the world.

Our tradition teaches us over and over that some version of the middle road is always the best way to travel.  It also teaches that we grow and survive not by demonizing those with whom we disagree but rather by engaging those very people in dialogue and conversations that will make each of us wiser and lead to the best result possible.

During these Day of Awe we need to look at ourselves and determine how we can best make the positive difference that our tradition teaches were are all obliged to seek.

Part 2 will  be a discussion of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days of Awe and point out new differences are emerging the the way the Tribalists and the Jews by Choice frame this period as well.

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