Monday, August 31, 2015

Assuring the Continuity of the Jewish People

Progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner
There are 3 articles in the Forward that deal with the rising power of Orthodox Jews, their adherence to traditional values and their similarities to Evangelical Christians.

The first article points out Orthodox similarities to Evangelicals in the sense that both our values are based on biblical values. We are in fact a lot closer to them ideologically than we are to our non Orthodox brethern. Our respective religions honor the same things and hold disdain for others. Although not exact, our values with respect to morality are similar. We both for example see a deterioration of sexual mores in this country. And we both see homosexual sex as sinful and therefore to be avoided.  Non Orthodox progressive or liberal Jews tend to see the biblical views on these subjects as archaic and not in concert with modern concepts of equality and justice.

Both groups tend to see Israel as a biblical right granted by God to the Jews - rather than the progressive or liberal view that it is some sort of modern day miracle whose existence was created for refugees of the Holocaust.

Many Orthodox Jews tend to vote Republican seeing their conservative values more in line with religious values. There are more similarities but I think this illustrates the point.

None of this is news to me. I have long ago noticed these similarities. It is one reason (among others) that Evangelical Christians have had such an affinity for us. We are natural allies in battling societal changes that conflict with the bible.

That said, clearly the biggest difference is theological. They believe in the divinity of Jesus. We don’t. But as one of the articles points out - the common values we share in the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people overshadow that very significant difference. We both battle a common enemy: the trend in western culture to no longer see biblical values as relevant.

In a subsequent editorial on the subject, Forward editor Jane Eisner laments the fact that the progressive Judaism of which she is an adherent  is in danger. Here is how she puts it:
(S)heer demographics should awaken us to the likelihood that fundamentalist Judaism will assume a larger share of the American community, as it has in Israel. Orthodox Jews marry earlier, have more children, raise their children Jewishly and keep them in the fold, and are more connected to their faith than their non-Orthodox counterparts are. These behaviors are amplified among the Haredim; even their more qualified attachment to Israel is still stronger than that among Jews in liberal denominations...
From the time it was published nearly two years ago, Pew’s research has highlighted the difficult challenge facing those who believe in a tolerant, egalitarian, vibrant and sustainable Jewish future.
It is unfortunate the fundamentalism has taken on such negative overtones. I suppose that’s because of Fundamentalist Islam whose ideology leads them to terrorism in various forms. It is also extremism in our own ranks (like trying to erase women from the public square) which has given fundamental beliefs a bad name.

But I would suggest that at its core fundamentalism is the belief that what the bible tells us is true. That its truths are eternal and are not to be tampered with. Even to fit the times.  In that sense I too am a fundamentalist – even while I rail against those who abuse fundamental beliefs as an excuse for extremism.

This is where Mordechai Lightstone comes in.  He puts  it all into proper perspective - rightly castigating Ms. Eisner for lamenting the fact that religious Jews are a danger to progressive Judaism. Here is how he puts it:

I struggle, earnestly, to see the problem with these findings, how the idea that a religious person would find religion important in his or her life and attend religious services, could somehow represent a schism in American Jewry.
If anything, the surprise and the danger here is that all Jews didn’t find these things more important. Shouldn’t we see a connection to our heritage as a positive thing? Wouldn’t we want Jews of any background or level of affiliation to also value our rich heritage and to consider Judaism as something central to his or her life?  …We shouldn’t rue signs of commitment to Judaism as an alliance with evangelical Christians, rather work to encourage all Jews to stake their claim in the heritage of Israel.

He is right of course on so many levels. When one’s Judaism is based mostly on the ideals of liberalism it weakens the connection to their heritage. Judaism is not liberal or progressive... or even conservative. Judaism is about the Torah and its values.

It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with being a political progressive, a liberal, or a conservative. One can debate the merits of each. It is about knowing what the Torah wants and putting that first. When the values of the Torah are seen as archaic and irrelevant -and a Jew replaces Torah values with political or societal values, their Judaism is lost.

What about the insularity of religious Jews? It seems the more religious a Jew is the more insular he is. Is that a positive value? Some would say yes - based on the fact that the more insular one is, the less likely they will be to be corrupted by external values – many of which are the antithesis of Torah values.

But as I have said many times - on a societal level, such insularity is harmful as it tends to create an elitism which ends up looking down at the people on the outside and their culture.  That ‘outside’ might even include other Orthodox Jews. And that can and sometimes does gives rise to a false sense of entitlement and even superiority with which they sometimes justify fraudulent activity.  

This is one reason I am a Centrist. Centrists are not insular. We participate in the culture. We have a far more positive view of our fellow non Jewish citizens. Nor are we monolithic politically. Although there are an increasing number of Orthodox Jews that vote Republican, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews that hold liberal values dear. Most of them can be found in the Modern Orthodox camp (although decreasingly so).

I for one am neither a liberal or conservative. I tend to judge every issue independently to see which side of the political aisle my religious views takes me. I may be liberal in some areas (I am pro choice) and conservative in others (I am opposed to gay marriage).

One thing is certain. Defining ones Judaism based strictly on progressive or liberal values is a sure prescription for failure.  If anything has proven just how much of a failure that is, it is the demise of the Conservative Movement that primarily preaches progressive values even as it practically ignores any semblance of religious practice (while nonetheless claiming to be Halachic).

It is our biblically defined religious values that define us as Jews.  If we happen to share many of those values with Evangelical Christians – it is because they too define themselves by the religious values of the bible.  That should be no surprise. As Mordechai Lightstone notes, religious belief and practice are positive things that all Jews should seek. They are probably the only things that can assure the continuity of the Jewish people. Just as they have till now.