These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Intrafaith Engagement

Posted on October 17, 2012 by Emma Sevitz

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by Ben Barer (Fall 2010, Fellows 2011-12)

Cross-posted from his blog.

“All Jews are friends”

I came across this article recently, and the tenor of the article greatly disturbed me.  My friend and fellow Pardes alum did a wonderful job setting the record straight, but I see the underlying problem as requiring more thought as well.  Why are we so quick to demonize fellow Jews?  This is not a case of unaffiliated Jews who see no particular connection between themselves and other Jews, nor is it a case of questioning whether criticism of the State of Israel is legitimate coming (loudly) from a Jewish voice.  This is the question of whether committed Jews from various denominations in the global Jewish community can see that there is much to be lost from sniping at each other, and much to be gained by trying to understand one another, despite our differences.

In the Crimson article, the following were among the inflammatory words that appeared: “endangered,” “anathema,” “medieval,” and “parochial zeal.”  I struggle to understand what the goal of inciting such antagonism is.  The author himself states that the Orthodox community is the dominant demography in Judaism today.  While he claims that Reform and Conservative Judaism stand for tikkun olam — repairing the world — the concept of כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה (Sanhedrin 27b), that all Jews are inextricably bound up in each others’ lives, has been sidelined.

I am not arguing that, if only Jews would all unite, there would be peace in the Middle East — or anything similarly grandiose.  I actually think that the people who stand to benefit most from Jews making a concerted effort to decrease a rhetoric of hate and increase understanding are Jews.  The Jewish tradition stands to be enriched by having Jews of all backgrounds come together and grapple with the issues that animate our lives.  This is in large part because there are so many different, institutionally sanctioned ways of being Jewish today.  We live in one of the first generations where almost every single Jew who partakes in this conversation is a Jew by choice.  That term is not meant to include just those Jews who have converted to Judaism, but rather all of us, who feel no pressures beyond those we and our larger communities place on ourselves to value our heritage.

I am privileged in this discussion in that I am comfortable in many different Jewish religious spaces, and do not feel ostracized, even in very Orthodox spaces — though I am eternally conscious of the fact that this is only possible because I am male.  I do not stare with contempt upon ancient rituals practiced by many Orthodox Jews, as I do not see modernity as the crowning source of our values.  Judaism, over the course of her long history, has gotten many things both wrong and right.  In today’s Jewish world, one is almost assured of being able to find a Jewish community that caters to their personal, political, and religious needs.  Having found one’s perfect community, though, the next question is how to relate to, and talk about and with, the rest of the Jewish world?  If you see yourself as American first, or as Jewish first, how do you comport yourself in respect to those who identify with the other side of the coin?  Can we all engage in the world adopting a posture of intellectual humility — acknowledging that we might know what is right for us, but have next to no chance of knowing what is right for another?

I think that this is not only possible, but necessary.  In the 21st century, when everyone can share their views with everyone else at the click of a button, the only way to mitigate the effects of everyone being given an audience previously unheard of for any but the most influential people in the world is to speak humbly.  I have no doubt that a Hillel which is overwhelmingly Orthodox can be an intimidating place for a Jew of a different denomination.  That problem will only be exacerbated, though, if all we do after such an experience is rant about it.  The only people who will be positively inclined to such feelings are those who already agree with us, and we risk further alienating any Orthodox Jews who might genuinely wish to bridge the gaps.  How do we bridge the gaps?  How do we inculcate in the current and future generations of Jews the sense that they share a beautiful, diverse tradition with all Jews, regardless of which rituals they observe or how central the Babylonian Talmud is to their lives?

I think that the easiest way to do this is by educating Jews about the diversity within Judaism, without a trace of hierarchy.  This is extremely hard to do, as it seems almost natural that someone who is ‘more’ religiously observant must be ‘more’ Jewish.  The educational hurdle, especially at a young age, is staggering.  For post-secondary students and adults, we must further improve the opportunities that Jews of different denominations have of communicating and learning together.  The texts of the Jewish tradition are not the treasure-chest of one denomination, or one gender, of Jews.  They must be shared liberally, as the Torah states: “תורה צוה לנו משה, מורשה קהילת יעקב” — “The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance for the entire congregation of Yaakov” (Deuteronomy 33:4, translation and emphasis mine).  One of the ways that the Torah (here referring broadly to the entire corpus of Jewish text, not just the first five books of the Tanach) can be shared while at the same time increasing our opportunities to understand one another as Jews of different backgrounds is through studying together.  We all share these texts, and, as committed Jews, we all hold strong attachments to them.  Creating a space in which to engage critically both with our own views of the texts and with others’ is, in my opinion, one of the most effective ways of promoting intrafaith engagement.