Ever since reading about Noah Feldman’s monumental choice I’ve been vexed by the finality of his decision and the inevitable consequences. Truth be told, Noah Feldman is of little interest to me. Rather it is what he symbolizes that is of deep and abiding concern. He represents a growing number of informed and Jewishly educated Jews, who because they are “Jews of Choice” understand their decisions and implications in a very different perspective than orthodox Jews.
There was a time when one’s Jewish identity was uncomplicated and unilateral. Defining oneself as a Jew didn’t require qualifiers such as reform, conservative, reconstructionist, renewal, modern orthodox, mainline orthodox, ultra orthodox, charedi or hassidic. A Jew was a Jew and when he intermarried, he married out. There were no options other than to suffer the castigation and ignominious exit from his community.
Only fifty years ago, while there was a mild amount of intermarriage, it still wasn’t the normative behavior of young Jews. But then again, that was before Jews understood themselves as a “Jews by Choice”. It was before the reform movement ruled on patrimonial descent. It was before Jews were seen as part of mainstream America and accepted unconditionally within the social fabric of America.
The rules of the game have changed. Being a Jew today doesn’t require the unconditional abdication of one’s personal choices for the greater good of the community. Today, we have multiple types of communities, and if one is no longer accepted or comfortable in one he can easily shift to a more accepting, more embracing community. In today’s world, where Jews are “Jews by Choice” they can opt to be practicing Jews of one denomination while their spouse may choose to practice Judaism according to the tenets and principles of another denomination.
There are a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century, who, although not intermarried, light the chanukia but also adorn a winter tree in their home. There are a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century married to non-Jewish spouses, raising their children with a Jewish identity and seeking confirmation and acceptance within the Jewish community. There is a rising number of Jew of the twenty first century, the products of intermarriage seeking acceptance, because of the opportunity afforded them through the reform ruling of patrilineal descent. There is a growing number of Jews of the twenty first century who wish not to marry, but to live together with or without raising a family, and seek acceptance within the Jewish community. There are growing numbers of Jews of the twenty first century who are choosing mates of the same sex, while seeking out a Jewish community in order to satisfy their justifiable and genuine spiritual needs. Jews of the twenty first century are “Jews by Choice”.
The rules of the game have changed, and where there was once a semblance of uniform and shared values, in the twenty first century there is a panoply of choices that in essence have redefined what it means to be a Jew today. A Jew today defines himself with many hyphenated qualifiers. He can split his identity into as many units as is necessary in order to navigate successfully through the labyrinth of choices open to him. Applying the old rules to the new game is counterproductive and ought to be counterintuitive. Orthodoxy Jews tend to be comfortable in the halachic rubric ruling and guiding their existence. And while this system is essential for our existence as orthodox Jews it does not address the needs of those Jews who define themselves independently of the halachic community.
Clearly the Jewish people have bifurcated into two competing communities. Those who define themselves by orthodox interpretation of halacha and “Jews by Choice”. It would appear that these two galactic poles are in confrontation with each other reminding one of the confrontational relationships between competing groups in the past. The manner in which we choose to respond to these new challenges, shifting mores and competing groups will determine the future of our community for generations to come.
The relationship doesn’t have to be confrontational. It has become that way because leadership within the orthodox community tends to be judgmental thus effecting confrontation. We have seen this in the past as with the confrontation between misnagdim and hassidim in the eighteenth century. Ironically “Jews by Choice” have no other choice but to personify who and what they are. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand have a choice. They don’t have to compromise their values nor renege on any halachic standards. What they have to do is practice their own teachings. To love and to embrace their co religionists would be the first step to fusing these two continental plates into one muscular and powerful unit.