Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Jews by Choice

During the three weeks prior to Tisha B’av there was a plethora of articles and e-mails regarding the spiritual holocaust of the Jewish people resulting from the rapid assimilation of American Jews. In one particular article Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s film “From Out of the Ashes” is referenced. Apparently, Weinberg, concerned with the rapid assimilation of North American Jews, decided to take a group of Rabbis to Auschwitz in order to make the point that we are facing a spiritual holocaust today, and we need to wake up. Weinberg’s intentions are good, but to equate it with the European holocaust in order to shock the Jewish leadership out of their lethargy is mistaken.

There are significant substantive and critical core differences between the holocaust and assimilation and drawing any parallels is disingenuous at best and diminishes the meaning of the holocaust and the memory of the kedoshim. Let us not forget that from 1933-1945 six million Jews were slaughtered, tortured, burned, starved, dehumanized, gassed and eradicated. Today those who assimilate do so by choice. No one is pointing a gun at their head. One could hardly refer to this as a holocaust. One could even argue that whereas the six million martyred dead was final without reprieve, those who are in the transitional state of assimilation may find their way back to their Jewish roots circuitously. Just because one doesn’t identify religiously as a Jew doesn’t remove him from the Jewish corpus. Appreciating ones Jewishness through a cultural or humanistic value system has validity, and shouldn’t be dismissed.

There is another glaring error in some of these presentations comparing the holocaust to assimilation. Jonathan Rosenblum has the temerity to write in his article A Powerful Metaphor, that the “spiritual alienation from Hashem is a form of death, and even more horrible than physical death”. Really! Tell that to a survivor who lost his entire family, parents spouse and children by the fire and violence of the nazis. He then goes on to write “…if so how much more so should we expect that Hashem will give us what we need in order to save his children from spiritual oblivion…”Let us not also forget that it was God who distanced himself from us at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the Shoa. Our prophets cried out “eli, eli lamah azavtani…” Our twentieth century theologians have struggled with the problematic phenomenon of God’s eclipse during the holocaust. So why would J. R. consider God’s concern. Furthermore he objectifies God in the Christian tradition by assuming and expecting that God will provide us with “what we need” in order to avoid spiritual oblivion. If you are so convinced that by objectifying God in this manner you can expect receiving from God, than why the concern and worry about assimilation. God will respond and save his chosen from extinction!

The truth of the matter is that no one can second guess God. But I would assume that God has a deep and abiding concern for his suffering children regardless of their faith or belief system. That is why it is so puzzling that with all the mail I received during this three week period leading up to Tisha B’av, referencing the holocaust, assimilation and even the dismantling of the yeshuvim in Gush Katif. Not one of our spiritually religious sensitive gadflies’ referenced the ongoing physical holocaust at Darfur. Why is there no concern from the “Torah Jews” on behalf of the daily wholesale butchering of innocent men women and children? Why isn’t Rabbi Weinberg not physically moved and upset about this human tragedy, while not on the scale of our holocaust is nevertheless outrageous and heartbreaking. Is it his parochial and myopic vision that prevents him from having any compassion?

The silence and lack of palpable compassion on the part of the “Torah Jews” demonstrates fault in their world view and perhaps some deficiency in the Jewish role that ought to be assumed, pointing to lack of moral clarity amongst our orthodox clergy and spiritual/communal leaders. Perhaps this is a clue as to why there is so much assimilation among the Jews by Choice.

The freedoms we experience in our democratic system have recast Jews from Jews without Choice to Jews by Choice. As democracy carries with it responsibility of the individual, so does our role as Jews by Choice carry with it responsibility which connotes an upside as well as a downside. Those Jews who recognize their responsibility become fuller and more textured Jews versus those who shrug off their responsibility diminish their quality, become monochromatic and ultimately atrophy.

Being a ritually observant Jew doesn’t necessarily imply that one is a fuller more textured Jew. He can be as monochromatic as the Jew who has shirked his responsibility. The secular Jew with the ponytail may be a fuller, more textured Jew with a robust understanding of who he is and his mission on this earth, than the yeshiva bachur who puts on Tefilin shel Rabeinu Tam. The real issue isn’t the fulfillment of ritual, because ultimately that is really only a “means to an end”. If one has arrived at the desired “end” via short circuiting a particular ritual – so be it. The ponytailed secular Israeli, referred to, unfortunately in such a judgmental manner may be the future hope and paradigm for so many humanistic Jews searching for alternatives to a myopic view of Judaism.

More on this theme, when I return from Israel and Italy in a few weeks.