Monday, November 16, 2009

Hipsters and Shatnez

Pollsters are challenged when it comes to predicting the direction and future of the Jewish people. As I had commented in an earlier posting, History’s Lesson (October, 2009), Look Magazine addressed the future of the America Jew in their seminal cover story The Vanishing American Jew in the1960’s. There was a genuine concern that the American Jewish community wouldn’t be viable by the 21st century. As I posted then, we are not only here, but we’re alive and well looking ahead to the coming decades with vigor. The American Jewish community is prodigious and prolific in its Jewish institutional life, formal and informal educational projects with a proliferation of day schools, yeshivot and colleges of advanced studies. Israel is fecund in its flourishing, robust, multifaceted culture and indeed has laid the foundations for a promising future well into the 21st century and beyond. So much for predictions.

What the pollsters also couldn’t predict was the emergence of a new kind of Jew, a different breed of Jew that began surfacing during the past decade but only now coming to full term; a band of Jews in search of their Jewishness seeking their own unique formulation and imprimatur. An early 19th century rabbinic authority, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Rav of Pressburg [Bratislava] also known as the Chasam Sofer) penned the expression “chadash asur min hatorah” (innovative ideas are prohibited by the Torah) in response to encroachments of the enlightenment and developing nationalism (Zionism) and the reform movement. Was he ever off the mark. At the time, on the eve of the emancipation, Judaism was perceived in very parochial and religious terms: the faith of their fathers that hadn’t made concessions to “progressive” ideas. Men like Rabbi Sofer were intent on maintaining the status quo. Surprisingly, in a sense not all that much has changed in establishment, denominational Judaism. Each of the movements are ever watchful of their turf, protective not because of ideology as much as good politics, having carved out their spheres of influence.

A generation ago establishment Judaism encompassing all the recognized movements (Orthodox Reform and Conservative) sacrificed on the altar of expediency a generation of young people in search of their cultural/spiritual roots. Generations of Jews were lost because of the apparent vapid nature of institutional Judaism; stiff rabbis in sterile sanctuaries mimicking Protestant America. Rabbis interested more about serving and placating those that paid their inflated salaries than concern over the tentative Jews, the dangling souls, Jews on the move and in search.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach understood the shortsightedness of men like Rabbi Sofer and their successors, and understood that the alternative denominations were void of depth, sincerity and spiritual authenticity. He came to fill a void, created by a huge black hole sucking up the best and the brightest. Rabbi Shlomo was on the march, a pied piper in search of Jewish souls. To staunch the hemorrhaging of Jewish young souls he introduced a new spin to Judaism, opening up new portals by which lost Jews were able to find a place at the table. He rejected ideas like “chadash asur min hatorah” and created new rhythms, a new spirit, alternative approaches, a means by which the unaffiliated, disaffected and marginalized Jews could grasp on to something that resonated with spirit and meaning.

As the Passover hagadah alludes to, every generation has the responsibility of rediscovering Judaism. For every Jew not floundering there are at least one hundred young Jews in search of their identity. The proof is in the variety of organizations that have sprung up over the past two decades like Jumpstart, Punk Torah, Mechon Hadar and magazines like Zeek and Heeb. They are definitely “chadash”. I hardly recognize their Jewish character, but for the fact that like everything Jewish, they are seething with intellectual curiosity, experimentation and the intense desire to give Jewish meaning to their lives by finding their own portals into Judaism.

I find their intellectual energy contagious and seductive, and encourage them and others to explore, test, probe and push the envelope as far as they can as long as they remain within the acceptable boundaries of a Jewish value system. The Jewish value system will mean different things to different people; Judaism is organic, fluid and malleable and that is why it has survived throughout the generations. The basic guideline however is that we define Judaism not as a religion but as a culture, as peoplehood. Our behavior has to be such that it isn’t a threat to the survival of the group. Thus to undermine the credibility of its underpinnings could bring irreversible harm to the corpus of the Jewish people. Since Judaism ought to be seen as a culture, there ought to be room for experimentation, constant probing encouraging and promoting growth and expansion in directions that enriches the community.

The reverse should to be discouraged. For example, there are those who find body art the means by which they can express their Jewishness. To negate this as a valid Jewish expression because it is forbidden in the Torah is without merit. How many mainstream Jews observe the law of shatnez? Who other than a sliver of Orthodox Jews ever heard of shatnez, let alone fulfill the commandment. Both tattoos and shatnez are forbidden, yet we don’t hear much about shatnez! Tattoos are associated with blue collar America, the déclassé, stereotyped as the art form of bums and drunken sailors or stigmatized by many of us because of the holocaust. Tattoos make a bold statement it screams out at you. To have permanently inscribed on one’s forearm the word “emunah” is not only an attention getter but also an indelible lifetime statement. Tattoos appear to be challenging and threatening to the status quo, shatnez is innocuous.

Treating Judaism, as a large tent by which we are all invited to participate in ways that are meaningful to the individual ought to be encouraged but at the same time disallow behaviors that threatened the group. So for a small minority “at the table” to promulgate questionable programs of social justice such as Rabbis for Gaza or Richard Goldstone, (author of the scathing and flawed report indicting the IDF for war crimes) ought to be censured, in the parlance and jargon of the Jewish people. They have pushed the boundaries beyond the accepted limits, crossing the scrimmage line and endangering the integrity of the Jewish people. Allowing them to continue to “sit at the table” with impunity does more harm than those young Jewish hipsters in search of meaning. I’ll bet that when the Jewish demographers did their most recent studies they neglected to log into the equation the long-term damage those seekers of social justice will do to the viability of the Jewish people.