When Torah Fails, Will Tevye Do?

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Subscribing to the daily e-mail bulletin of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (as I’ve recently done) has its pluses and minuses: decreased work productivity, increased fodder for blogging on Cross-Currents, increased heartburn with a concomitant increased yearning for Moshiach’s immediate arrival, etc. What follows is a recent representative news item, along with a bit of commentary.

Item: A new survey (conducted by a group strongly sympathetic to Jewish intermarriage, though the article doesn’t make this entirely clear) of adult children of intermarried parents shows “a population that ‘feels Jewish’ in many ways, despite a lack of Jewish education or affiliation.” Many of the respondents “describe themselves as half-Jewish, seemingly unaware that the Reform and Reconstructionist movements accept patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent.” (An aside: isn’t it possible that this self-description is not due to “unawareness”; that these young people, only 30% of whom “identify with Judaism as a religion,” frankly don’t give a darn what any movement says about their status?)

In light of these findings, the CCAR’s Committee on Jewish Law (a/k/a, to paraphrase Eric Yoffie, the Committee on Jewish Practices Deriving From the Individual’s Autonomous Personal Choice to Feel Commanded) will likely be facing some tough, momentous decisions. Since 1983, Reform’s position has been that Jewish status may be conferred on a child of mixed marriage by either a Jewish mother or father, but that such status must be confirmed by the child’s particpation in mitzvot such as brit milah, acquiring a Hebrew name and receiving a Jewish education leading to bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation.

What this means in practice is that individuals born to Jewish mothers, i.e. people who have been regarded as Jews by thousands of years of Jewish tradition and by the entirety of observant Jewry today, are treated as non-Jews by Reform if they lack that movement’s self-dictated indicia of Jewishness. I know a woman who was required to undergo Reform conversion for this reason (and I’d be interested to hear from others with similar or disimilar experiences). The outrage of this disenfranchisement of full-fledged Jews is almost beyond words, particularly when juxtaposed with the oft-voiced calumny alleging that the Orthodox regard the non-Orthodox as less than fully Jewish.

As noted, only 30% of those surveyed identified as Jews in a religious sense, and an equally low percentage reported receiving some formal Jewish education while growing up. A large proportion of respondents, however, “mentioned two specific Jewish experiences as being meaningful: being taken to see ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and/or ‘Schindler’s List.’ ” Query for Reform’s Law Committee: Is viewing these flicks sufficient to get into the club (Judaism, that is, not Cafe Hollywood)?

An affirmative answer would only give rise to a host of further questions. To wit: must one have seen Fiddler with Topol or Zero Mostel as Tevye or is the Harvey Feirstein, or, dare we say, Alfred Molina, version a sufficiently authentic Jewish experience?; does viewing these alone on DVD or because it was the only thing playing on Jet Blue to Bali, suffice, or must this be a public affirmation, with a full minyan?; if you spent a really, really long time yakking with the popcorn guy at intermission and missed some crucial scenes, must you see the flick again for full credit?; in extenuating circumstances, can watching Seinfeld reruns suffice, considering what a heimeshe guy he is?; then again, if Jerry makes the grade, and if a famous, foul-mouthed ’60s comedian is right, might watching any performer from New Yawk suffice ?

Questions, questions and more questions. I suppose that’s the beauty of our age-old heritage of argumentation and wrestling with tradition . . . (For those out of the loop, wrestling/grappling with tradition/G-d is way cool these days. Just last week, the Forward ran an admiring interview with a female scribette who says, by way of explaining why she’s writing a Sefer Torah in contravention of the Talmud, that she belongs to “an Orthodox community that tries to wrestle with Halacha.” Tries? Is Halacha, then, not cooperating? Reminds me of the news item in the small-town paper: “The Smalltown symphony orchestra played Beethoven last evening. Beethoven lost.”)

One last point on this piece. We are told that many respondents “describe being Jewish . . . in terms of social action, such as giving to charity and working on tikkun olam projects.” We need to know, and now, who has inculcated in these kids the narrow, illiberal, downright racist view that charity-giving and social action are the exclusive province of Jews, rather than the prerogative and concern of all the Family of Man? How very embarrassing, after all we’ve done to ensure a pluralistic conception of Judaism. Somehow, I don’t think the Orthodox are the culprits this time; but, who then?

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11 Responses

  1. dochesed says:

    I don’t understand Eytan Kobre’s “outrage of this disenfranchisement of full-fledged Jews.” What is outrageous? They have a religious community. They want to use a definition based on action, not blood. This is very consistent with Enlightenment thinking. It is internally consistent. We use a similar concept when we count people for a minyan or allow people to give testimony/serve as witnesses (only people who are shomer shabbos, or the like). Good they are not Orthodox. They do not use traditional definitions of Jewish action. They are trying to define a minimal level. Minimal levels are by definition low (for membership or required level of action is lower–nothing). We knew that.

  2. Edvallace says:

    “It is the sense of tragedy that binds men together. Men are connected in joy, but they are bound and chained by sorrow. All men can feel sorrow, can feel pain and suffering. The Holocaust unites all Jews, for all Jews can feel for that which occurred, for what was done to their people- for what was done to them. And that is the reason that the Holocaust indeed, ought to be a symbol for us all. The Holocaust united us, united all Jews, in the great and most merciless tragedy of our times.”

    First off, your premise is wrong. A little history of the Holocaust will demonstrate that your alleged unity was not quite as you picture it. Many groups were fighting to save only their own. Ever heard the saying, “One cow in Palestine is worth more than all the Jews in Europe”? A Jew said that, and it was the basis for deciding that only young Jews would be smuggled into Palestine. There are countless other examples.

    Second, according to your premise, we should be anxiously awaiting the next Holocaust so we could get back together again and be united. After all, that’s what made us such exquisite Jews, isn’t it?

    “And what has happened now? We spread apart, each of us factionalizing, dispersing into different groups and doctrines, different ideas. The ultra-Orthodox do not get along with the modern-Orthodox, and vice versa. The Conservative and Reform are not accepted into the Orthodox camp. There are issues with Lubavitch, Hasidism, and Haredi communities. How do we define a Jew? We ask him to ally himself to some sort of faction/ label. Are you right-wing/ left-wing/ a member of the Agudah/ a member of the Mizrachi/ Zionist/ anti-Zionist, etc. We have lost the common bond we shared in the time of our deepest pain, the tragedy that brought us all together. Now we are spreading farther and farther apart, and are unable to join together.”

    Again, your lack of historical knowledge is what’s misleading you. There were Chassidim, Agudists, MO, Lubavitch, Zionist, before the Holocaust as well. We didn’t split into separate factions afterwards as you maintain.

    Furthermore, these splits are not what contravenes Jewish unity. We are still united in our desire to serve God in the manner that He sees fit. We quibble over exactly how to satisfy His will, but we all agree that That is our ultimate goal and it is precisely this that unites us.

  3. Chana says:

    David:

    R’ Meir Soloveichik has recently written a very interesting article about matrilineal descent. It is availabe online, and comes from a publication called Azure. One has to register in order to access the material, but it is all free. In any case, the article can be found here:

    http://www.azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=252&search_text=Meir%20Soloveichik

    It goes under the title, “The Jewish Mother: A Theology,” by Meir Soloveichik.

    I found some of his points quite unusual. I think you will enjoy the article. ;)

  4. David says:

    I know a woman who was required to undergo Reform conversion for this reason (and I’d be interested to hear from others with similar or disimilar experiences).

    One Reform Rabbi told me I needed a conversion to be Jewish (I have a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father), because I was not raised belonging to a “Temple,” had no bar mitzvah, etc. Another told me I didn’t need a conversion, because I was always told I was Jewish growing up. It was made very clear that I was NOT Christian. For many Reform and secular, being Jewish means being NOT CHRISTIAN. Of course, as others have pointed out, the idea of a Reform conversion is not really that galling, because it is so easy. You basically just have to show an interest in “being Jewish.” One Reform convert I know had one lesson with the Rabbi, then stood up in Temple and said the opening line of the Shema and was now Jewish. I don’t really understand the matrilineal/patrilineal thing, because it seems like someone with no Jewish parents can just as easily identify if they want.

  5. Sara says:

    Chana, you note that ‘men are connected in joy, but they are bound and chained by sorrow’.
    Do you see some inherent value in being bound and chained? Even were I to accept that joy is not as strong as sorrow, why should someone elect to be bound and chained by sorrow when he might choose to experience a connection of joy? The emotions of tragedy are not those which need – or ought – to characterize a people. (And your argument that they should may be somewhat self-defeating; for tragedy is by definition destruction.) Judaism is a religion of life; you yourself note that it possesses ‘happiness, calm, and beauty’. These are not accidentals.

    You write, ‘To try to do away with the Holocaust, or make it less of the extreme binding Jewish experience is to attempt to make Judaism into a focus about the happiness, calm and beauty of the religion.’ I agree, of course, that the Holocaust must not be forgotten; that Judaism has a concrete history as well as those abstracts. But to isolate the former from the latter is to deny it meaning – to posit two separate Judaisms: one of tragedy in this world and one of slippery idealism in a higher realm. These are not the Judaism with which I am familiar– which is concerned with elevating the concrete in accordance with the abstract.

    You write of the Holocaust, ‘Such a thing could happen- and is happening again’: According to you, there is nothing unique about it. So if someone identifies himself as a Jew by the Holocaust, he might as well identify heart and soul as an American by September 11th – which, after all, occurred in our own day and locale.

    If one does not live his life in accordance with higher ideals, every outside influence will push him in a different direction, and he will never be allowed to grow upwards. History is significant – but I find that Judaism was defined at its inception at Mt. Sinai — and no Hitler should be allowed to alter that.

  6. Chana says:

    Rabbi Menken,

    You wrote:
    “No, of course they aren’t proud, at all. They have nothing of which to be proud—only ancestors who believed in antiquated religious practices, and were then led like lambs to the slaughter. It is an unmitigated disaster in modern Jewish life that the Holocaust has become arguably the most readily-identifiable symbol of Jewish identity.”

    I do not know who it is that you have been in contact with, and perhaps from what you have seen your point is valid. However, all the Conservative/ Reform people I know are very much affiliated with the Holocaust. The viewpoint you address has never crossed their minds. They are not ashamed of their brethren. Instead, they feel pained for them. They feel shock, pain, when they realize that such a thing could happen- and is happening again, in Rwanda, in Sudan. Any person who could claim the Jews were “led to the slaughter” is simply ashamed of his identity, his Jewish identity, in the first place. Children/adolescents are almost never ashamed, for they have intimate knowledge of what it means to be helpless. They understand the plight of those who could have done nothing, nothing, to save themselves. When students were taught the way in which Franklin Roosevelt simply refused to respond to the Holocaust, even though he knew in detail what was occurring, the response was shock and vicious anger. Anger that such a thing could happen, that a man could so betray human people.

    It is this emotion, this quality, which is expressed in the Holocaust. The sense of tragedy.

    It is the sense of tragedy that binds men together. Men are connected in joy, but they are bound and chained by sorrow. All men can feel sorrow, can feel pain and suffering. The Holocaust unites all Jews, for all Jews can feel for that which occurred, for what was done to their people- for what was done to them. And that is the reason that the Holocaust indeed, ought to be a symbol for us all. The Holocaust united us, united all Jews, in the great and most merciless tragedy of our times.

    And what has happened now? We spread apart, each of us factionalizing, dispersing into different groups and doctrines, different ideas. The ultra-Orthodox do not get along with the modern-Orthodox, and vice versa. The Conservative and Reform are not accepted into the Orthodox camp. There are issues with Lubavitch, Hasidism, and Haredi communities. How do we define a Jew? We ask him to ally himself to some sort of faction/ label. Are you right-wing/ left-wing/ a member of the Agudah/ a member of the Mizrachi/ Zionist/ anti-Zionist, etc. We have lost the common bond we shared in the time of our deepest pain, the tragedy that brought us all together. Now we are spreading farther and farther apart, and are unable to join together.

    The unity the Holocaust brought to all Jews is amazing. The stories of heroism are beautiful, and the stories of people who fell are sobering. But all around us we see the way in which people bound together to fight and to help. This is similar to what happened directly after September 11th- everyone was flying an American flag. People quit their jobs to go out to Ground Zero and help/ attempt to rescue people. Others were helping/ feeding the firemen. Everyone banded together and made an effort to be united. It was America’s finest moment.

    In some ways, there is a sense of victory and triumph in the Holocaust. For many Jews, that is a determining factor. They do not see it as “people dying for antiquated customs.” They see victims against aggressors, a stand made by their relatives for something they believed. They each have stories, everyone has a story- stories of people who hid them, who brought them food, who risked their lives for them. For all the stories of cruelty, there are also the stories that brought us all together.

    It is not our job to attempt to forget/ negate the Holocaust simply because there may be those who will be ashamed of the fact that we were persecuted. We do not attempt to cater to people, to present them with a “happy” side of Judaism. There is no need to revise Judaism to make it more appealing. The convert, specifically, is told of the troubles that face the Jews. And yet we survive, we were unified and remember that unity. We move forward. Mark Twain, originally anti-semitic, wrote beautiful ideas that expressed the wonder he felt for the Jewish people:

    “”If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of.

    He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

    You ask why there are those who do not feel pride in their religion. You put it down to the fact that they think this is some religion where people get killed, and therefore they don’t like it. I doubt that’s the true reason. People are killed for their beliefs everywhere, at any time, and most times are viewed as martyrs. Why do people turn away from Judaism/ don’t desire to identify as being Jewish? For many varied reasons. Some have been taught the pure law/ halakha, but have not been taught with any real emotion, do not comprehend the emotion behind the words. Sometimes the teacher is simply stating something that he does not believe in, and the student can tell. Some see Judaism as unable to make progress, and do not comprehend a Judaism that doesn’t seem to include the new American lifestyle. There are two ways to deal with this- amend Judaism to make it “fun, fancy and hip”, or try to find a balance between the old and the new. People who claim Judaism is exciting, new or fun, will invariably find congregants who will be disappointed.

    R’ Soloveitchik wrote the following:

    “The error of modern representatives of religion is tht they promise their congregants the solution to all the problems of life- an expectation which religion does not fulfill. Religion, on the contrary, deepens the problems but never intends to solve them. The grandeur of religion lies in its mysterium tremendum, its magnitude and its ultimate incomprehensibility. To cite one example, we may adduce the problem of theodicy, the justification of evil in the world, that has tantalized the inquiring mind from time immemorial till this last tragic decade. The acuteness of this problem has grown for the religious person in essence and dimensions. When a minister, rabbi, or priest attempts to solve the ancient question of Job’s suffering, through a sermon or lecture, he does not promote religious ends, but, on the contrary, does them a disservice. The beauty of religion with its grandiose vistas reveals itself to men, not in solutions but in problems, not in harmony but in the constant conflict of diversified forces and trends.”
    ~~ “Sacred and Profane”

    To try to do away with the Holocaust, or make it less of the extreme binding Jewish experience is to attempt to make Judaism into a focus about the happiness, calm and beauty of the religion. But religion does not solve all problems, and it will not make people feel excited and elated, necessarily. It causes more problems, more conflicts, more of the delving into pain, suffering, the idea of tragedy. This idea is so important to the human race, for in its wake, we bind together.

    When we learn how to bind together without tragedy, without the Holocaust, without September 11th, then we will be able to attempt to use different ideas to draw Jews together. But not until then- not until the end of all factions and groups. And that will not come about for a long, long time.

  7. Toby Katz says:

    Chana wrote:

    You write, “Query for Reform’s Law Committee: Is viewing these flicks sufficient to get into the club (Judaism, that is, not Cafe Hollywood)?” I find that somewhat insulting. What else do you want adolescents to do?

    Chana, you mis-read Eytan. He wasn’t asking Reform teenagers what they should do to feel Jewish. He was asking the head honchos of the Reform movement — who define a Jew as “anyone with one Jewish parent, and who feels Jewish” — whether watching one of these two movies would count as proof that the kid in question “feels Jewish” enough to be considered a Jew according to Reform’s definition of “Who is a Jew?”

    BTW, I certainly agree that it is outrageous for the Reform movement (or one literal-minded Reform rabbi) to demand a conversion from someone who is halachically Jewish already but who didn’t “identify” as a Jew till now. However, conversion is not too onerous, so it’s not that big a deal.

    I know a Reform convert who told me herself that her conversion was “a farce” because the Reform rabbi had asked her a few questions in his study and then signed a certificate. She felt cheated because there had been no formalities and no ceremony.

    Nevertheless, she considered herself a Jew because her husband was a Jew and because she had taken it upon herself to light candles every Friday night. She was quite sincere about this. I felt sorry for her for having been so misled and lied to. The Reform rabbi totally took advantage of her ignorance, her innocence and her sincerity. Her husband and children were lied to as well. The kids are not Jewish but everyone thinks they are.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    Chana,

    Viewing the Holocaust as “a Jewish experience that brings people together” is exceedingly unrealistic. “We got killed just for being who we are” is not a positive identity builder for the mentally healthy. Earlier, someone wrote that if “secular [or any] Jews connect their identity with the Holocaust it is a good thing.” I think my reply is relevant here as well:

    I disagree; I think it is a terrible thing. “We’re Jews. We get butchered merely because we are Jews. Aren’t we proud to be Jews?” No, of course they aren’t proud, at all. They have nothing of which to be proud–only ancestors who believed in antiquated religious practices, and were then led like lambs to the slaughter. It is an unmitigated disaster in modern Jewish life that the Holocaust has become arguably the most readily-identifiable symbol of Jewish identity.

    Go look at the surveys of Israeli (secular) high school students and see how many are proud to be Jewish. Go look at the accelerating assimilation rate of secular American Jewish families, who are fading into the American melting pot in order not to be recognized by the next Nazis. The use of the Holocaust to define Jewish identity is an ongoing tragedy, causing a Holocaust of its own. How is it a good thing?

  9. Edvallace says:

    “One last point on this piece. We are told that many respondents “describe being Jewish . . . in terms of social action, such as giving to charity and working on tikkun olam projects.” We need to know, and now, who has inculcated in these kids the narrow, illiberal, downright racist view that charity-giving and social action are the exclusive province of Jews, rather than the prerogative and concern of all the Family of Man? How very embarrassing, after all we’ve done to ensure a pluralistic conception of Judaism. Somehow, I don’t think the Orthodox are the culprits this time; but, who then?”

    Ding Ding Ding! I’ve been waiting for a long time to hear this point because it’s so on the money. I use virtually the same argument everytime someone tells me that he/she expresses their Judaism by being a nice person and a mentch. My response goes something like this, “Really? What about the people who aren’t Jewish? Are they not mentchen? Or if they are mentchen, does that mean that they’re Jewish too?”

    Keep writing – I enjoy your articles much.

  10. Chana says:

    I can understand why being taken to see The Fiddler on the Roof could be a very meaningful experience= the idea of tradition, the differences between the daughters and the way Tevye treats them, allow a glimpse into a rich framework that Reform people may not often be exposed to. I speak specifically of Reform children/ teenagers when I say that.

    Schindler’s List- one of the most powerful/ best known films having to do with the Holocaust. Again, a very powerful experience for one outside the atmosphere of a practicing Jewish community.

    Many of the Jewish teenagers who go to my Non-Jewish school have little to no idea of their heritage. But they very much identify with being Jewish because of the Holocaust. The majority of them will be taking the Holocaust class next year. And I say- kol hakavod! If there is a Jewish experience that brings people together, and it takes the form of watching powerful movies, whether they be ‘The Fiddler on the Roof,’ ‘The Pianist,’ ‘Schindler’s List,’ or whatever else, let them do so.

    You write, Query for Reform’s Law Committee: Is viewing these flicks sufficient to get into the club (Judaism, that is, not Cafe Hollywood)? I find that somewhat insulting. What else do you want adolescents to do? Suddenly dive into the Bible and study it all on their own? Somehow create some kind of study group? Start keeping most of the laws? Movies are the mainstream media, and if there are movies that Jewish people/ adolescents can connect with, well and good. It moves far beyond the realm of whether seeing those movies can officially get one into the “club.” Movies aim for emotion, for the heart, for the soul- not some set of requirements. And if they touch someone’s heart…then that is beautiful.

  11. ralphie says:

    This is outrageous! Certainly “The Jazz Singer” should count, as well!