Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Jewish People

Peoplehood. That is something that seems to be missing these days from the Jewish narrative. An article by David Hazony in the Forward brought this point home to me. The Jewish people are indeed a people united by a common bond. We are all the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As Mr. Hazony points out we were a people long before we were a religion.

How far we have strayed from peoplehood. We now seem to be as divided as ever. Are we still one people? Let us examine some of the realities that put that premise into question.

Today we have the 3 major denominations of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism (and some additional smaller ones) that seems to have a built in unbridgeable gap.

The divide between politically liberal and conservative Jews is so strong that it seems to bring out the worst in both when confronting one another.

Our positions on the State of Israel have never been more divided than they are now. The extremes run from expelling the Arabs from the West Bank to giving the Arabs the West Bank and entire the old city of Jerusalem …or to even dismantling the entire State and giving it all to the Arabs (ala Neturei Karta).

And even within Orthodoxy there is no unity. To some segments the concept of ‘Unzera’ – ‘our people’ includes only people with virtually identical Hashkafos and lifestyles.

What about some of our more radical elements? Should we include those groups who are constantly involved in violence?...whether it is on the extreme right religiously or extreme right politically? Is the Edah HaCharedis and Toldos Ahraon Chasdim part of ‘our people’? What about those on the extreme religious right that advocate and in some cases actually commit violence against innocent Arabs? What about those Jews who embrace Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinjad? Are they part of our people?

I have never been reticent to criticize and even condemn the extremist elements. But should I consider them part of our people?

The answer is yes. I should because they are. Are we not all one people despite our differences – strong though they may be?

We are all Jews. No matter what denomination or political persuasion. No matter how much we disagree.

Reform Jews may reject the binding nature of Halacha, but they too are still my people. Conservative Jews may reject Torah MiSinai, but they are still my people. The people of Israel. The Jewish people.

Radical elements can call for the transfer of Arabs out of the West Bank. Satmar can hate the State of Israel and believe it should be dismantled. Although I abhor their thinking they are still my brothers.

We can reject their views. But we must accept them as our people. I only condemn what their views can lead and have led to - which is harmful to us as a people. But I do not reject any of them no matter what they do - or do not believe.

I would love to change the hearts and minds of those I disagree with. But even if I don’t they are still my people and I will still love them as Jews – as long as they do not try and force their views and their ways upon others. As long as they do not try and achieve their goals violently I have no issue with them.

So what is it that really makes us a people? From the perspective of history - and my perspective as an Orthodox Jew - I would have to say that it is Halacha. Whether one follows it or not. It was our beliefs and practices throughout the millennia that have enabled us to survive as an identifiable people. Without following Halacha as a people, we would have been absorbed by the majority and by now assimilated into oblivion. We would have become one with our neighbors in our host countries. There would be no Jewish people today.

Those movements that rejected Halacha or even tried to say it was something that it wasn’t are for the most part gone. Sadducees, Essenes, Kaarites, Sabbateans, Frankists, are virtually extinct or certainly of no consequence to us. Only those who were observant were able to perpetuate their Judaism into the future via their children who continued to observe the Mitzvos. Even though there were plenty of Jews who did not and left the fold, especially in the period immediately preceding the Holocaust – it does not diminish the fact that Judaism was perpetuated by observant Jews.

But the divisiveness that exists among observant Jewry themselves may be the most threatening of all. The rejection of one segment of the legitimacy of entire other segments of observant Jewry threatens our future as a people. It is the idea that only the narrowest definition of belief and observance is acceptable. And that believing and observant Jews outside of that narrow corridor of belief and observance are not. In recent years that narrow corridor has been becoming even narrower and more exclusive.

This is not the way of the Jewish people. No segment of the Jewish people should be narrowing its base. No segment of the Jewish people should be making its circle smaller and defining Jews out of it. Observant Jewry included. We should instead all be widening the tent of observant Judaism. And we should not only acknowledge the legitimacy of non Orthodox Jews as Jews but embracing them with open arms as our legitimate brothers and sisters instead of writing them off as casualties of assimilation.

I know it’s almost a cliché but we ought to be looking at what unites us as Jews rather than divides us. We are one people. The Jewish people. We are brothers. And one of our goals as a people is to keep it that way and perpetuate it into the future.

I am not in any way predicting the demise of the Jewish people. On the contrary observant Jewry is growing. Despite the best efforts by some at narrowing the circle there is a social dynamic in place that counters that. The vast majority of observant Jews are made up of people that are accepting of others.

I have called this new social construct the new Centrism. It is defined in social rather than the ideological terms. It consists of moderate Charedim and right wing Orthodox Jews living together in full social integration. That - as I have said many times - is the wave of the future.

But on the fringes there is still plenty of divisiveness that threatens to undermine us. And as is often the case it is the extreme elements who will fight hardest to get their way. It is up to us to reject extremism and embrace tolerance and love of all our fellow Jews without condition. And to repudiate once and for all those elements who preach the intolerance and hate that will destroy us as a people if we let them.