During the past several weeks there has been a robust discussion among those in the fringe Jewish community (read Heeb and Sh’ma) as to what Hillel meant when he said “do not separate yourself from the community”. (Avot 2:4) The concern and the reason for the discussion revolve around the fact that the 21st century has seen a broadening of a development which started towards the end of the 20th century. This community of peripheral Jews is an unaffiliated one, seeking Jewish expression and identity in a way which reflects their lifestyle. The number of unaffiliated Jews is growing daily; the disaffection within the denominational groups (conservative, reform, reconstructionist) is up as well as the inverse shrinking numbers of members from those movements. Definitions regarding sexual identity are changing; we no longer see the world as simply divided between male and female, married or single, but into gay and lesbian as well as the more tenuous, but nevertheless significant grouping of the transgender. Not too far in the future job and college applications will include a third category along with the two alternative boxes of male or female, that of transgender. There are many intermarried couples who either do not feel comfortable or aren’t made to feel welcome in the traditional movements and so they too have joined the fringe.
This rather large and growing group of Jews on the periphery of our community seeks acceptance as well as validation. Like all of us, they are Jews by choice, as is mostly everything else for this emerging group. “The greatest generation” is rapidly disappearing and the “baby boomers” are beginning to make room for generation “x” and “y”, but Jewish organizational life including the denominational structure hasn’t adjusted itself to this new reality or they are in denial. It’s as though they were living in a time warp. B’nei Brith men’s clubs, synagogue sisterhoods and dinners to honor second and third stringers are still alive and well. Mainline Judaism is still trying to figure out why synagogue attendance in all the movements (excluding orthodox) is dramatically down and is in a free fall. Organizations have been established to think through this problem and to come up with strategies to attract the younger generation to the decaying synagogues like Friday Night Live, or some other gimmicky programs. We are locked in this fourth dimension because there is no gutsy leadership out there in the Jewish community to administer an electric shock of reality. It’s not surprising therefore, that slowly but surely there is a growing group of disaffected, well meaning, sincere Jews who, because a place hasn’t been made at the table for them have decided to “make their own shabbes”.
Separation from the community is serious business and there have been many such occurrences in our long history but we have to ask ourselves this: If Hillel was concerned with the “peeloog”, what was happening in his community that prompted him to give it his attention? And which Hillel are we talking about: Hillel Hazaken (end of first century BC and beginning of first century CE), or Hillel, (3rd century CE), the grandson of Yehudah Hanasi? Many scholars believe that the saying in Avot sited above is really that of the latter Hillel, but attributed to Hillel Hazaken. It would make sense, because the second Hillel was concerned with the spread of Christianity and the defection within the Jewish community. Perhaps this was what prompted Hillel to pen his ruling which was directed not only at those Jews defecting, but to the normative Jewish community which wasn’t addressing the root cause of the problem.
There were many other instances of “peeloog” but one very interesting occurrence was about 150 years ago in Hungary. The “peeloog” took place between the orthodox community and the rest of the community which favored a more “enlightened” approach to governing the communities other than by the shulchan aruch. The majority did not want the shulchan aruch as the guide by which to govern their communities but a minority of the orthodox insisted on it. A vote was taken and the orthodox were in the minority: 126 “neologists” (liberals were referred to as such) verses 94 orthodox. The orthodox not being able to have their way were “poresh”, they separated themselves from the community. Ironically, (and take note) when it suited the orthodox establishment they found ways to ignore Hillel’s ruling!
The real question however, is what prompts a community of people to have to resort to separation? It would appear that the emphasis ought not be on the “perisha”, but why do people seek to separate from the main body in the first place. Once a community begins to assess the need to separate it would appear that it is probably too late to alter their course. When reflecting on the Jewish community as it is structured one would have to ask whether or not it is responding to the needs of the entire community or perhaps it is locked into its own ideology at the expense of others. This was a question that had to be asked when Hillel penned his rule, or when the Orthodox community in Hungary felt the need to separate itself. It is certainly no less important a question that needs to be addressed in 2008. In the case of Hillel it would appear that a great deal of wisdom was used in finding ways to be inclusive and minimize the loss of our people to other faiths or cults. We see that in many of the rulings and the spirit in which they were made. In the case of Hungary on the other hand, it is obvious that good will, intention and desire to maintain the community whole, wasn’t in play.
It would appear that the contemporary Jewish community has learned little from history. The various denominations, locked in to their narrow ideologies barely speak with one another (unless it is regarding civic issues), and even those within their own denominations are experiencing ideological fissures that are ever widening. So what about the fringe Jews, those on the periphery, marginalized and discounted because of circumstances, choices made or life styles adopted? They have separated because the mainstream community, in their myopic vision has chosen to disenfranchise them. Yes, they may be separate but they are not apart from the Jewish community.