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Yehuda Kurtzer: We do the Jewish past a disservice when we make it holier than the present

by Shmuel Rosner

December 20, 2011 | 12:06 pm

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and author of the forthcoming Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past (due for release in spring 2012). He previously served as the inaugural Chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis University, and lectures and teaches widely in both academic and educational settings.

An essay written by Kurtzer recently won first place in Moment Magazine’s inaugural Elephant in the Room Contest. The topic this year was “Can there be Judaism without belief in God?”

“Our tradition is riddled with a kind of theological pluralism” - yes. But your portrayal of open-border Judaism as the golden standard for traditional Judaism isn’t exactly a fair description of most Diasporic Jewish communities, is it?

If by “gold standard” you mean the best of what we can and should be aspiring for, then yes, absolutely! Diaspora has long been a creative breeding ground for Jews to test out the good kind of assimilation in practice, the kind that absorbs the best of the world of non-native ideas and makes Judaism better as a result. And the reality is that Jewish communities are moving in the direction of open-borders especially in the Diaspora – more on Israel later – with growing trends around embracing interfaith families into Jewish life, a wider recognition of the need for bigger and wider tents of Jewish ideas and commitments, and more and more institutions premised on pluralism as both an ideal methodology and as an aspirational vision. Now, turning pluralism into reality is both philosophically and practically complex. After all, being part of a Jewish community should mean something, and there should be boundaries as part of any belonging – otherwise belonging is somewhat insignificant. But I would rather invest in a serious engagement with the content and consequences of belonging than a fixation with the enforcement of what keeps people in or out.

“We are not Jewish because we believe”. Yes, but that’s easy - saying what isn’t the answer is always easy. Why are we Jewish? That’s the real question; do you have an answer?

Actually, this was the least controversial line in my piece. I don’t think anyone prior to Maimonides would have even dared to propose that lack of belief would cast you out of belonging in the Jewish people, even if – and I am not sure that classic sources would be clear on this point – certain ideas or the lack of belief in some axioms might be met with eternal damnation. The real threats to being Jewish are and always have been an unwillingness to be part of the Jewish people or to contribute meaningfully to Jewish life, neither of which requires the theological category of ‘belief.’ I think that being Jewish means belonging to an extremely powerful story, which brings with it the implications both of the story itself – commitments born out of the accident of birth, the consequence of a marriage or as part of deciding to join – as well as towards both the past legacy of the story and its future success. Rabbi David Wolpe has said about the stuff of Jewish tradition that it is usually subjected to these kinds of inquiries of faith and doubt: “I don’t know if it’s true, but they don’t tell stories like that about you or me.” I don’t think I can answer why we are Jewish in the metaphysical sense, but I think there are ideas and ideals that Jewishness can still bring to the world, and I think that athe Jewish people have an extraordinary past and destiny that still needs to be carried and fulfilled, independent of any theological passports to entry.

What happens if I try to translate your article and draw real-life lessons from it. What message could I draw from it on, say, intermarriage?

Since it is Hanukkah time, let’s use the metaphor of Hellenism to deal with this question. Though our most pedagogic retellings of the Hanukkah story refer to it a battle between Jews and Greeks, we know very well that these absolutes are not so useful, that in reality we experienced a battle between people struggling along a continuum of ethnic complexity. The Maccabees and the Jews they opposed had different red lines that they felt couldn’t be reasonably crossed in the interest of preserving a vital and intact Jewishness, and one set of cultural choices won out. Now today we face the same challenge. We know – and that includes even the most ardent anti-intermarriage voices – that we all benefit from assimilation and exogamy; some of our best ideas are shared with or learned from other communities, and frankly ethnic diversity is good for the gene pool. The question is just whether we are taking seriously enough when these boundary-crossings are jeopardizing the core commitments of Jewishness. The Jewish community has a ‘thickness’ problem everywhere, and not just among the intermarried. We make insufficient demands of those who belong to Jewish life, and offer not enough deep and rich content to make belonging worthwhile. We also confuse intermarriage with interfaith blending, as though raising your children as deeply and genuinely Jewish is identical to a Hanukkah ornament on a Christmas tree because both of those choices are made by someone not actually born Jewish or converted to Judaism. If we did a better job at promoting Jewish “thickness” – making Jewish commitments serious and rewarding, building institutions premised around deep meaning and talking about the consequences of belonging – I think in the long run we would worry a lot less about ‘intermarriage’ as its own problem – or in other words, “Hellenism.”

“Fluid boundaries” might work for the American Jewish community, but you can’t have “fluid boundaries” in Israel, where Jewishness also means that one is eligible to become a citizen - or can you?

In the current model, we have allowed the category of Jewishness that the state uses to determine citizenship in Israel to be restricted to theological and halakhic categories of belonging; and have left the administration of that category to people with dogmatic and antiquated beliefs. Both of these are historic mistakes, but neither are inevitable. My colleague Rabbi Mishael Zion likes to point out how overwhelmingly prevalent the obligations are mentioned in the Torah to care for the widow and the orphan, in contrast to – let’s say – eating pure or kosher animals. But which of them do we use to determine serious Jewishness? Which do we choose as criteria of belonging or as characteristics of distinctiveness? My point is that Israel can and should be a Jewish state, but the hallmarks of the Jewish state should be Jewish values that express the best of our tradition – and not the most rigid and exclusive.  Anyway, why must the criteria of citizenship for the Jewish state be identical as criteria for halakhic marriageability, and especially for those with the most stringent standards? But just to be clear: if we want an alternative, we need to invest in Judaism in Israel that promotes these alternatives. It is not better or sufficient to advocate for less Jewishness in the mechanisms of the Jewish state; we need to foster more and better Jewishness that is equally credible to the tradition we have inherited, but creates better public policy alternatives to the realities we currently endure.

You say that Judaism was never about belief. This might be true, but it is also true that most Jews did believe, or at least behaved as if they believed for many generations. So - I’m not asking if Judaism should be about belief, I’m asking whether Judaism can survive without the commitment of the believers?

You know, I have no idea whether that assumption is true. We do the past and ourselves a disservice when we make it more holy and pious than ourselves, either in order to say that it holds no sway over us, or equally perversely to say that we can’t live up to its standards. I’ll give you an example: when Alana Newhouse exposed a few years ago that Roman Vishniac’s famous photos were arranged and edited to reflect a very different reality than what they plainly showed, many were distraught by the shredding of what was at the time an extremely useful myth for Jewish identity. Leon Wieseltier was quoted in the article as saying that he wished people would be relieved at this new discovery, and would exclaim “Good, they were blessedly like all of us?” It seems to me that you need the piety of the past to sustain the underlying question that you are asking: will a lack of piety in the present make us worse in the long term? will it give up the tool of Jewish survival that has gotten us here? To this I have two answers: No, because I’m not at all convinced that the creativity, commitment and continuity that defines the successful Jewish past was really ever rooted in and driven by faith in the Christian sense as we know tend to talk about; and No, because in so many ways the present, for Jews, is much, much better than the past – however pious! – ever was.
But let me also give a more positive answer: For those fortunate to believe in God, Torah, etc. as a feature of their Judaism – what a blessing! I certainly think these folks have the potential to use their belief as a means of improving Jewish life and contributing to the betterment of Judaism. But it doesn’t come easy to everyone, even serious Jews (myself included); and frankly, faith does not exonerate its possessors from studying Torah, feeding the hungry, keeping Shabbat… all the activities that ostensibly everyone can do. Without maligning the believers, I think our community is stronger when we create and support broader contexts for meaningful participation, rather than focusing on the fortunate few.

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