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The Flexigidity Exchange, Part 2: On Jewish Leadership and Intermarriage

by Shmuel Rosner

March 13, 2014 | 3:18 am

Gidi Grinstein

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of The Reut Institute, a Tel-Aviv based nonprofit and nonpartisan institution, described by Tom Friedman of the New York Times as "Israel's premier strategy group". Between 1999 and 2001 he served as the Secretary and Coordinator of the Israeli delegation to the Peace Negotiations with the PLO in the Bureau of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. In his capacity, he participated in the 2000 Camp David Summit and in the negotiations on the Clinton Ideas. Prior hereto, Grinstein worked in the Economic Cooperation Foundation. He holds a Master degree in Public Policy from the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government as a Wexner-Israel Fellow (2002) and a Bachelor degree in Economics (1991) and Law (1999) from Tel-Aviv University. He served as an economist in the Israeli Navy (1991-1995) and holds the rank of Captain (Res).

The following exchange will focus on Grinstein's new book  Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability & Challenge and Opportunity Facing Israel.

(Part one of the Exchange can be found right here)

 

Dear Gidi,

In round one you mentioned that the Jewish people "has rarely been as vulnerable" as it is now and that there is "a dire need for more leaders who take the broad view of Jewish history and society". I am sure you are aware that these words could be read in many different ways. For some people, 'taking a broad view' could mean being faithful to liberal (and, in their view, Jewish) values, such as Moral Justice, Tikkun Olam, and a general commitment to societal progress; for others it could mean combating assimilation and the decline in the number of practicing Jews.   

Let's take the issue of intermarriage (a topic we have been discussing quite a lot recently): It seems that in the past, most Rabbis and their congregation members had little disagreement about the importance of preventing the phenomenon, and, up until recent decades, "taking a broad view of Jewish history and society" in that sense would have automatically meant, to most Jewish leaders, finding ways to stop it. Nowadays, many Rabbis serve congregations which value personal freedom as the number one priority -  more than the continuation of Jewish traditions. These people sometimes even see intermarriage as a positive phenomenon.

What would "taking a broad view of Jewish history and society" consist of in this case? Can you explain what flexigid leadership entails when it comes to making actual decisions?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Shmuel,

In Flexigidity I call for a specific type of leadership, ‘Flexigid leadership,’ as a response to the great Jewish paradox of our time: our people has never been more powerful and prosperous, yet we have rarely been as vulnerable. The fundamental character of ‘Flexigid leadership’ is that it must stem from “a broad view of Jewish history and society,” Hence, it must seek to address the needs of a significant portion of Jewish society, if not all Jews, and be placed on the trajectory of Jewish history, looking not only deep into the  past, but into the future as well. It therefore cannot be factional, situational, contextual and personal. Articulating a narrative, which places a specific leadership intervention, in such broad context, is essential for Flexigid leadership.

The issue of intermarriage and assimilation, which seems to be a chief concern in many communities, provides an opportunity to bring these criteria to life. Here is what ‘Flexigid leadership’ may mean in that specific context.

First, in Flexigidity I show how assimilation and intermarriage have been integral to the history of the Jewish People, dating back to the First Temple exile, twenty-six centuries ago. In fact, whenever Jews encountered a welcoming culture – under the Persians, the Greeks, in Europe and in the USA – these phenomena existed to significant degrees. This is an inevitable consequence of the collective decision of the Jewish People to engage with the whole of humanity in philosophy, leadership, trade and diplomacy, in the same manner that metal inevitably oxidizes when it is exposed to air and humidity.

A second point to note is that the Jewish People has developed a range of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ tools to combat assimilation and intermarriage. In rare and extreme cases, these tools include ex-communication, as well as insulating, to the extent possible, the ultra-orthodox factions from any interaction with non-Jewish society and even with ‘progressive’ Jews. Softer tools include education and even the invocation of feelings of guilt.

A third point would emphasize that, for the first time in Jewish history, many non-Jewish spouses want to become a part of the Jewish People. This is truly unprecedented, as, in the past, marrying-out typically indicated desire to leave the Jewish People.

A fourth point would appreciate how the Jewish worldwide web of communities responds to such a challenge by leveraging its so-called ‘network effect’. Intermarriage and assimilation are a global challenge for Judaism,  common in Russia and the Former Soviet Union countries, in all Western European nations, in Latin America, in Australia and in the USA and Canada. This means that thousands of rabbis and other community leaders are responding to this challenge in different cultural, economic and institutional settings. While, obviously, there is no single universal response, some actions will be more effective than others. Our history teaches us that the more successful experiments will be modeled, turned into best-practices and ‘scaled’ to other communities throughout the Jewish network.

Finally, such a broad view may appreciate that the administrative and legal condition in Israel with regards to conversion and marriage is disruptive to the dynamics of Jewish Flexigidity in this respect, and must be ended. As mentioned earlier, the Jewish People is organized as a network of small units, communities, which are interdependent and interconnected, permanently interacting in addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities that face Judaism. In this setting, no denomination or community has authority over another, and only the powers of inspiration and persuasion underlie leadership. However, in Israel, the electoral and political system grants the authority to govern in such matters of personal status to the Rabbinate, controlled by orthodox factions, which exercises it over people who do not share its orthodox world view. Therefore, more than forty percent of the Jews of the world, those who live in Israel, are rendered outside of the Flexigid dynamics of Judaism as they relate to intermarriage and assimilation.

Thus, an actual decision and action path of a Flexigid leader, who takes on the challenge of decreasing intermarriage and assimilation, may consist of the following: first, developing a broad view of this phenomenon; second, deciding on the intervention strategy. For example, such intervention may take the form of developing a new model for converting non-Jewish spouses into Judaism or of insulating young Jewish adults from non-Jews within separate education systems. Both of these ideas, as well as others, can be legitimate from the perspective of Jewish Flexigidity; third, effectuating that approach within a given community; fourth, improving the practice to the point where it can be modeled and then, if successful, scaled by developing the capacities and the institutions essential for its longevity, thus effectuating systemic societal change in Judaism.

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