Silly Season Is Here Again

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It’s silly season again in the Jewish world. In other words, yet another fight has broken out over conversions in Israel, and ostensibly smart people have taken to saying some truly risible things.

In one corner, we find David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, reviving an old chestnut, one I’d thought had been laid to well-deserved rest years ago, but is apparently hardier than I assumed. His argument: When Hizbollah bombed a Buenos Aires Jewish center, killing scores, all that mattered for the terrorists was that the victims identified as Jews; likewise, there were no separate Nazi box cars, ghettoes and barracks for different Jews based on degree of Jewishness. Ergo, anyone with a sustained hankering for kasha varnishkes or Israeli folk dancing has a moral right to join the Jewish people.

There are a number of ways to respond to Mr. Harris, such as testing the logical limits of his position by asking if he knows how to spell unmentionable phrases like Jews for Jesus – but, honestly, there’s other silliness to cover, so we’ll have to suffice here with saying this: No thanks, we’d prefer not to hand the ultimate authority for defining Jewishness over to Adolf Eichmann and Hassan Nasrallah. The “argument from Hitler,” to coin a phrase, has emotive power, but little else to recommend it in a serious discussion among serious people.

Before taking leave of David Harris, however, one parting thought is in order. He begins his piece: ”I am a Jewish pluralist. I recognize that we are all on one journey, even though we proceed on many diverse paths.”

No, Mr. Harris, you’re a well-meaning fellow who’s concerned about Jews, but you’re no Jewish pluralist. If you were, you wouldn’t be able to write, as you do further on, that “there are those” – e.g. this writer and a majority of the Hamodia readership, in contrast to the Reform and Conservative movements, David Harris, the Nazis and Hizbollah – “who would willfully divide us, investing a monopoly of power in one interested party, creating hierarchies of ‘membership in the club,’ and relentlessly questioning the legitimacy of other would-be Jews.”

For David Harris’ benefit, here’s a one-line primer on pluralism: It begins with the pluralist’s openness to understanding the basis of the other’s position, and certainly to not mischaracterize it, and is followed by his commitment to live and let live to the extent no one is threatened thereby. Such tolerance for the other is grounded in respect, not necessarily respect for the other’s position, which the pluralist may regard as deeply erroneous, but respect for the other’s inherent human dignity and cherished staus before G-d.

Strange as it may seem, then, I am far more of the authentic pluralist in the matter of conversions, because I fully understand both my own position and that of Mr. Harris and company.

My position? There is one G-d, Who gave the Jewish people His Torah, and in that Torah, as interpreted by the Sages to whom He entrusted its transmission, He told us who, in spiritual reality, is a Jew and who is not. Harris’ position? First, a negation of all or almost all of the above. And once G-d has had nothing to say about who’s a Jew, the field is wide open.

As he himself put his worldview so well (with the liberty of a bit of embellishment by this writer), we’re all on one indefinable, amorphous journey, of unknown duration and nature, to an inherently unknowable destination, even though we proceed on many diverse, indeterminate paths. Given this definition –for lack of a better word — of Jews and Jewishness, if you’ve got your matzah balls, you’re all set, and logically so. A dip in the mikvah? Maybe, if it’s hot out. Circumcision? Nah. Genuine acceptance of the mitzvos? Fuggedaboudit.

So, as the reader can see, I clearly understand both positions on this issue. And while I honestly rue the tragedy of David Harris being robbed, likely through no fault of his own but by historical viccissitude, of his connection to the truth about G-d, Torah, the Jewish people and, ultimately, himself, I appreciate that, given his mistaken starting premises, his position makes good sense.

More: In keeping with my commitment to pluralism, I would not oppose Israel’s granting all who hold Harris’ position, as well as heterodox movements of all flavors, full authority over conversions to their sundry belief systems, as it grants such authority, and funding, to the Samaritans and other Jewishly schismatic sects.

But to protect the wellbeing of the Jewish people, there must be one proviso: the would–be converters and converts must be willing to set aside their personal and institutional egos, and acknowledge loudly and clearly that the terms “Judaism,” “Torah” and “Mitzvos” have already been taken – trademarked, if you will — by the Orthodox, and indeed by the Judaism of the ages, and that there is truth to the words of the refreshingly honest, late Reform clergyman David Forman (about whom more shortly): “While American Jews are creating a brand of Judaism that may be legitimate for its own reality, it is creating something that is simply not recognizable to the collective historical experience of the Jewish people.”

But, David Harris, what about you? As an aspiring pluralist, do you not owe it to me to make the effort to understand the basis for my position on conversion that I outlined concisely above? And more importantly, do you not owe it to me to respect my integrity and sincerity in espousing that position, based on authoritative Jewish legal rulings and love for fellow Jews, rather than to fling hurtful, false accusations about divisiveness, monopolies of power and sinister attempts to “relentlessly question the legitimacy of other would-be Jews”? Is this, truly, the language of the pluralist?

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4 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    JacobT: The political state of Am Yisrael must remain open to all Jews, or risk complicity in the deaths of millions of…people of Jewish descent, (if that satisfies you?)

    Ori: The issue isn’t Heterodox Jews. We are considered completely Jewish according to Halacha, just not very good at it. The issue is only Heterodox converts and their descendants (from marriages with non Jews – one’s spouse having a Jewish paternal grandfather is sufficient under Israeli law). I doubt that this population would be in the millions.

  2. Jacob T says:

    Medinat Yisrael was founded by Jewish Nationalists, seeking a Jewish National home for the long-persecuted Jewish people. Judaism, to these early Zionists, was first and foremost an ethnic/racial identity. They were Am Yisrael, as defined yes, by Hitler and Stalin, but also 2000 years of European and Muslim neighbors. Liberal Jews, with “no discussion…of our history” remember that time when all Jews–the pious and the not-so-pious, the observant and the less-observant–were all forced to live by the same set of temporal laws, for better or worse in community with one another.

    Should Iran or some other power seek again to exterminate Am Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael must remain a refuge for all Jews, no matter their practice. Modern liberalism has enabled Jews for the first time to live in separate enclaves according to the traditions and practice of each group, but we cannot depend on current conditions prevailing indefinitely. I do not care how your rebbeim choose to deal with the issue of conversion. The political state of Am Yisrael must remain open to all Jews, or risk complicity in the deaths of millions of…people of Jewish descent, (if that satisfies you?)when the next crisis arises.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Well, we really are all on a journey, but a lot of us got lost. Those of us who are objectively (that is, by Torah standards) not lost have a duty to try to get the others back on track, not to let them wander further into the oblivion of assimilation.

  4. Davidf15x says:

    Precisely. As radio talk host Chris Plante likes to say, “if not for double standards, the Left would have no standards at all.”

    As a BT, I am always amazed when another BT tells me they had no idea Judaism was so rich. If they had any previous inkling, they would have made the move back to Judaism so much sooner but “they had no idea.”

    They had no idea because the liberal branches of Judaism have created a faux-“Jewish” product which is merely a pious formulation of the progressive template, with no discussion of our texts, our sages, our history, or our wisdom. If the non-Orthodox world would merely take a fair-minded take at their own tradition and be truly pluralistic in their approach, they would quickly see that the people they have chosen as their leaders are not at all similar to our Rabbis.

    This seems to be the crux of the matter: Judaism requires participants to follow a chain of transmission of knowledge which requires not only effort but the guidance of a Rabbi. The liberal movements require nothing of the sort, as Eytan Kobre argues so well, the *requirements* go no further than one’s own sense and intuition of a “good” path. Hence, a close family member comes to my area and while I walk to Shabbat services–they go to the gay pride parade. It is clear that my path is based upon my willingness to trust in the tradition to form my morality while my family’s morality is framed by their own individual sense together with a belief that going to the parade is a Jewish thing to do and that (female) “Rabbi” would approve. They might want to say, in ignorance of what Shabbat observance means for a Jew, that their Saturday activity is *equal* to mine.

    Until Jews are willing to police their leaders so that untrained facilitators they call Rabbis but have no legitimate ordination are not the SAME as a Rabbi and that a Jewish life devoid of Jewish practice is *less than* one that is full–the call for “pluralism” will not be seen as fraud. All actions are not equal, real Rabbis are not the same as women and men who get a couple years of teacher training and know almost nothing of Judaism, and a program of liberal style “social action” (primarily focused on homosexual marriage, abortion rights, sexual liberty and contempt for conservative Christians) is no genuine substitute for learning the mitzvot, daily davening and doing teshuvah. The left loves to preach tolerance but seems to have no tolerance for Jewish ritual practice and their fellow Jews.