Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Revolving Door Judaism

Twentieth century American Judaism has created the inevitable and perhaps desirable revolving door Judaism. People coming in and people going out-Jews entering at certain entry points and others leaving at different points of egress. That is what living in a democracy is all about - choices and the freedom to choose. Not only is the twenty first century Jew a Jew by choice, but he can also decide what type of observance and intensity he wishes.

The phenomenon of chozrim be’sheela (lapsed religious Jew) is not anything new. It’s been going on since the “emancipation”, and perhaps personified by such great thinkers as Moses Mendelssohn and Solomon Maimon. Judging from the Jewish news media and blogoshere one would think that it’s a new phenomenon, revolutionizing the Jewish world and wreaking havoc on the orthodox religious establishment. For years now the reverse movement of the baale teshuva (newly religious) has been scrutinized with little negative press, and rarely criticized by the secular media. Israeli stars like Uri Zohar, dropped out of secular Israeli society only to re-emerge as a haredi (ultra orthodox) rabbi accorded the respect even by the secularists as a man who chose to embrace his religion as a choice. The same logic ought to be used for those opting for a point of egress from religious life.

What is particularly disturbing in the latest round of discussion over the issue of chozrim b’sheela is the tone by which the issue has been addressed. The tone of the discussion is very much rooted in the communities they represent. Baalei teshuva are generally favorably accepted into their newly adopted communities. They are able to do so because the adoptive communities feel vindicated and justified for their life style. They also have a sense of empowerment: a secular Jew has rejected his secular life style in favor of a religious one. In the language of the Bible and daily prayers they see the application of the victory of the righteous over the secular humanists. A religious Jew leaving his community is treated as a pariah, an outcast to be chided.

When a secular Jew chooses to join a religious community the reaction is not nearly as severe as the reaction of the religious community in experiencing the loss of one of theirs to the secular community. When a member of a haredi family opts out of religious observance he is regarded virtually as an apostate, and shunned. Not so when a secular Jew chooses to become religious. There may be some awkward moments, but he certainly is not shunned. Whereas the religious community welcomes the baal teshuva into its ranks as a sign of victory of right over wrong, light over dark, the secular see the baal teshuva as someone in search of meaning making a choice that will hopefully answer his spiritual needs.

The distinction being made may be subtle, but not negligible. Haredim view the world in the familiar contrast of back and white, good and evil, right and wrong, frum and non frum, Jew and gentile. Relativism is not part of their language and they cannot discern between subtle differences and circumstances that might mitigate a decision made counter to the prevailing mores and norms of their community. (Perhaps that is why they favor the color black, because it has few if any variant color shades to it). The secular Jew, the humanist, sees the world in which he lives as a complex set of choices and opportunities. Making one choice over another does not necessarily imply a negation over the other options. There is an implied respect for all legitimate lifestyles, keeping judgment in check without the need to negate or deligitimize one choice in favor of another.

Interestingly enough, the Jerusalem Post article of March 8, “God Forbid” and a posting in Cross Currents of March 12, “The wonders of Leaving Observance” reflects this difference between the two communities. Whereas the Jerusalem Post article reported on the work of the organization Hillel and its volunteer staff in aiding chozrim b’sheela in a non judgmental and benign manner, the essay appearing in Cross Currents was pernicious, acerbic and judgmental.

Yaakov Menkin who authored the essay in Cross Currents sets the tone in his article by referring to the Jerusalem Post as a “puff piece”. This is the classic and predictable tactic of the haredim. Attack, attack, attack, because we’re under attack! Attack and delegitimize the enemy. Menkin, to make his point has to invent and misinform his readership by explaining that humanists believe that “observance is inherently abusive” because it is the unanimous opinion of psychologists that reconciliation is best in anything but an abusive relationship. He concludes therefore that humanists consider observance inherently abusive. Menkin’s tactic is an old but transparent technique of setting up a paper tiger and then tearing it down. How disengenious!

More disturbing than his perverse understanding of humanism is his systematic character assassination of Yaron Yadan, whom he sees as a tragic and “pathetic individual who abandoned his wife and children”. Rather than address the issues pertaining to chozrim b’sheela he focuses on personal attack. To make sure he makes his point he continues insinuating that such tragic figures are not in short supply. So, Menkin inadvertently admits to the fact that there are plenty of haredim who have dropped out. In his mind, however they are all tragic and pathetic people.

I’m not at the least surprised that Menkin did not take note of the issues prompting the phenomenon of chozrim b’sheela. I’m not surprised that he only related to Hillel, an Israeli organization, but failed to address the fact that in New York the organization “Footsteps” is alive and well doing a brisk business of integrating lapsed haredim into society. Menkin, like so many other haredim are in denial that the number of defectors in their community is growing as more and more of this community look for choices. Just a cursory surfing of the net will attest to the growing multitude of blogs initiated by the disaffected haredim in the U.S. and Israel.

It seems that Menkin gets a perverse pleasure in knowing that a chozer b’sheela returned to the fold when he points out that the founder of the Irgun L’chozrim B’sheela became a chozer b’teshuva. All this does is buttress my position that we are fast becoming a revolving door Judaism, with many entry and exits points. Who knows, maybe Menkin’s model baal teshuva will become a chozer b’sheela again!