Thursday, October 29, 2009

Have You Seen This Missing Jew?

MASA is a campaign designed to fight assimilation among American Jews. Sponsored by the Israel based Jewish Agency, MASA’s latest Israeli television ad sought to raise funds for its programs by placing photos of young American Jews on missing-person posters with the tag line, “over 50% of Jews abroad are assimilating.” The 50% of Jews abroad who had not assimilated complained and the ad was pulled.

Obviously assimilation of Jews into the broader culture is still a sensitive issue. But pulling ads that highlight it doesn’t really do much to stop it. In fact nothing really does much to stop assimilation.

What does it mean to assimilate, anyway? Am I assimilated?

I try not to be. I have a beard, that’s Jewish. I wear Levi’s, their Jewish. I make a point of being able to pronounce the “ch” sound in Hebrew and Yiddish, and make fun of those Gentiles who can’t. I can spread my fingers in such a way as to offer the Priestly Blessing or say hello to Mr. Spock and wish him a “Live long and prosper.” And I get Jon Stewart’s Jewish jokes on the Daily Show. Is this good enough? How Jewish do I have to be?

On the other hand, I just bought the remastered Beatles collection, I read the latest Dan Brown novel (being a newly minted Master Mason myself, I wanted to see how we secretly rule the world), I like country and bluegrass music, and own a pair of cowboy boots. How goyish do I have to be?

I really don’t care about assimilation. If Jews want to be something else, that’s their right. Nor do I think that MASA’s program of schlepping young Jews to Israel to show them the Walls that define us (the Western Wall and the Separation Wall) is actually going to stem the tide of assimilation. If you want people to be Jewish, you have to make being Jewish matter.

Orthodox Judaism, for example, matters. It matters because it takes itself seriously, it believes what it says, it makes demands of its members. Unfortunately this is also why most Jews who are not Orthodox don’t choose to become Orthodox. To many Jews, Orthodox Judaism is a bit too Amish. I don’t want a Judaism that is afraid of zippers, or that makes a fetish of Canaan.

How can we liberal Jews make Judaism matter? By reclaiming its roots as a radical counter-culture. By promoting Shabbat as a global play day, free from work and consumerism. By promoting kashrut (kosher) as a way of uplifting our consuming to the highest ethical and environmental standards; forget about separating milk and meat, and promote vegetarianism instead. By promoting tzedakah as right livelihood: the just earning and use of finances. By excommunicating Jack Abramoff and Bernie Madoff.

Judaism at its best, at its coolest, is in fact unassimilatable. It is counter-culture. It is all about argument, doubt, and imagination. It is about everything that our conformist, consumerist society is not. Why not sell that to the kids?

Why not? Because most of the so-called unassimilated are really assimilated! Sure they refer to themselves as Jews, and maybe even attend synagogue once in a while, but they share the same values as the majority of Americans.

Assimilation is a nonissue. It is like dealing with a leaking bucket by adding more water rather than plugging the leak. The real challenge is imagining and then teaching a Judaism that challenges people to be something other than the middlebrow, middle-class, middle-mind self-satisfied liberals who think watching MSNBC makes them superior to those who watch FOX News. I know these people. I am these people. Come on, MASA, don’t put my picture on a milk-carton, offer me a Judaism that matters.

6 comments:

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav and All,

The further removed in time a non Orthodox Jew in America is from her/his ancestor's immigrant experience, the less meaningful ethnic/peoplehood definitions of Judaism will be in her/his daily life. And the waning importance of the State of Israel to most of those Jews is but one spoke in the wheel of ethnic/cultural/peoplehood Jewishness/Judaism. All that’s left of “Judaism” for most who identify as Jews in America is the trivial to nearly meaningless “Jewishness,” that manifests as lifecycle “fixes” (b’not/b’nei mitzva births weddings and funerals), the occasional perceived need for a worship service e.g., high holidays (yet another “guilt fix” for ever fewer Jews), the Holocaust/anti semitism, and let’s not forget an occasional trip to the Jewish deli/restaurant. This residual Jewishness will go the way of borscht belt humor and the Catskills. As the older generations pass, nostalgia will have less and less of a pull. It (nostalgia) already holds little or no sway with my two sons, one a Gen X’er and one a Gen Y’er, And the same can be said of their Jewish peers.

People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. Most Orthodox and a small minority of non orthodox Jews are in the “have to” category: ” ‘ol malchut shamayim,” (yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven) is a real and abiding obligation. Some are in the “want to” category. Judaism for most who self identify as Jews is neither a “have to” nor a “want to.” What’s left is the great opportunity to persuade those marginalized and disenfranchised Jews to ‘convert’ to the ‘want to’ group. This is the ever growing pool of “just Jews” about whom the vast majority of congregational Rabbis as well as the Jewish movements, academics and “leadership” are clueless as to how to reach with measurable success. Indeed, it appears that these “experts” have abandoned the vast majority of these “just Jews.”

In contradistinction, the ten word mission statement of Willow Creek Community Church (a megachurch in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago) is “to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus.” Yes it’s evangelistic and so is Habad. Willow and Habad not only understand that opportunity, they both have kishke (gut) level convictions about their obligations “lo l’hibatel” (not to desist) from seizing that opportunity. Quite simply there can be no renewal of non orthodox Judaism or its synagogue without an antecedent non Orthodox analog/equivalent to kishke level convictions, about, as Rabbi Rami wrote, a non Orthodox Judaism that matters.

Biv’racha,
Jordan

Rabbi Rami said...

I suspect that Jordan is right. But only if we assume Judaism will remain with the rabbinic model. Within that model Jordan's two reasons for being Jewish are spot on. The challenge to nonOrthodox Jews is this: Can you shift someone from "I don't have to" (the deeper meaning of "I want to") to "I have to?" I don't think most people will make this shift. I know I can't.

I do not believe God commands me to live an Orthodox lifestyle. I believe rabbis invented this way of life, not God. So the only motivation for me regarding kashrut, for example, is that I want to keep kosher. Then I have to ask myself "How shall I keep kosher?" Since I don't have to keep it, I am free to keep it my way. Which is vegetarianism. But I know I don't have to be a vegetarian, and could give it up if I wanted to.

This is a Judaism of the sovereign self. The self trumps everything else. Orthodoxy sublimates the self to community and community to God and Torah. This is something that the sovereign self cannot abide.

So liberal rabbinic Judaism may be dying. Perhaps something new will emerge. One can only hope.

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav and All,

Rabbi Rami wrote:

"I suspect that Jordan is right. But only if we assume Judaism will remain with the rabbinic model."

Actually the statement "people do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to," works for everything. Of course this includes to intentionally affiliate/believe etc. Rabbi Rami continued:

"Within that model Jordan's two reasons for being Jewish are spot on. The challenge to nonOrthodox Jews is this: Can you shift someone from 'I don't have to' (the deeper meaning of 'I want to') to 'I have to?' I don't think most people will make this shift. I know I can't."

If you reread my response above you'll see that I wrote, "Judaism for most who self identify as Jews is neither a “have to” nor a “want to.” I'm not looking for nor expecting a conversion to "have to." I agree with you that "have to" is not in the cards for most including me as well. Even if one chooses to try to find the road to Damascus, its successful navigation remains very difficult and is not guaranteed.

Conversion from nothing to "want to" is achievable, as we've all witnessed this phenomenon in our own lives as well as those of others countless times. The common denominator of "want to" conversions is perceived value. Rabbi Rami continued:

"I do not believe God commands me to live an Orthodox lifestyle. I believe rabbis invented this way of life, not God."

Agreed. You continued:

"So the only motivation for me regarding kashrut, for example, is that I want to keep kosher."

Because you perceive value in doing so! Me? I value chazershe BBQ'd ribs as well as what Jesus said about what comes out of one's mouth being more important than what goes in. You continued:

"Then I have to ask myself "How shall I keep kosher?" Since I don't have to keep it, I am free to keep it my way. Which is vegetarianism. But I know I don't have to be a vegetarian, and could give it up if I wanted to."

If/when you stop perceiving value in this practice you may choose to leave this particular fold of "want to's" You continued:

"This is a Judaism of the sovereign self. The self trumps everything else. "

And how does humility (one of the big three in Michah 6:8) factor in here? You continued:

"Orthodoxy sublimates the self to community and community to God and Torah. This is something that the sovereign self cannot abide."

In your case, a sovereign self with a life long journey of intent to create a meaningful contemporary Judaism; a Judaism that matters not only for yourself but for others as well. What about those "just Jews" who like the fourth son in the Pesah haggadah, don't even know the questions? Who's around to "open their mouths" as the haggadah teaches? This is why I challenged you a while ago to join me in leaving the grandstands and getting back in the game. You continued:

You continued:

"So liberal rabbinic Judaism may be dying."

Perhaps with it's demise humility can once again
become the pillar it ought to be. You continued:

"Perhaps something new will emerge."

Remember that Colonel Sanders emerged out of the grandstands at age 65. You continued:

"One can only hope."

Hope alone is insufficient. If hope doesn't catalyze new action it will be as Dr. Laura once put it, "disappointment delayed."

Thanks for engaging with me on this. There is a non orthodox Judaism that matters that can capture the hearts and minds of the vast majority of disenchanted and disenfranchised "just Jews;" a Judaism that will inspire kishke level convictions.
Help me rediscover it for ourselves and others Rabbi Rami.

Biv'racha,
Jordan

Steven Maimes said...

Great discussion. Thanks Jordan for your detailed insights.

Jordan said...

Shalom Steve,

You're welcome. And thanks for your kind words.

Biv'racha,
Jordan

. said...

Shalom Kulam

Firstly Bravo, heydad, etc etc to the RavRam, who has articulated so well an aspect of the current situation...

secondly Jordan I disagree with your statement "People do things for two reasons: because they want to or because they have to. Most Orthodox and a small minority of non orthodox Jews are in the “have to” category: ” ‘ol malchut shamayim,” (yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven) is a real and abiding obligation."

You have misunderstood the psychology of many charedi Jews, and I was one myself....its not just that they have to, its that they WANT to HAVE to..hence they choose a framework which insists that there are absolutes to which the self must mold itself....

as far as solutions go (and who is problematising?)
from the point of view of non-Jewlism nothing needs to be done, the cure is the disease and everything that needs to assert itself will

check out my latest (relative posts, i.e. not written from the POV of the Absolute) on

http://manofestoyomi.blogspot.com/