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Parts of the Whole

In the reflective period of the High Holidays, Tablet Magazine—together with rabbis and writers—considers the debate over Jewish identity and makes an argument for inclusiveness

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(Tablet Magazine)

The High Holidays are, almost reflexively, a time of introspection. But the soul-searching need not be limited to our private selves; as the rabbis teach, it’s not just our own ledger that needs to be checked but our communal one as well. This communal accounting assumed special urgency this year, after a proposed bill in Israel’s Knesset—one that would have changed rabbinical authority over conversions—inspired a combative but perhaps ultimately healthy discussion about the essential questions of Jewish identity. As both supporters and detractors of the bill would agree, what was at issue, at least in part, was the question of where the boundaries of our community lie: Who is a Jew? Or, put another way: What is Judaism?

Those questions may appear nebulous, simultaneously too elusive and too deep for anyone to attempt to answer seriously. But look at the landscape of Jewish life and two broad currents suggest themselves, two divergent agendas that address much more than the question of conversion alone. On the one hand, those who imagine Judaism as an exclusive enterprise advocate that the religion and its followers alike should move in ever-diminishing circles, orbiting around a small nucleus of rabbis entrusted with parsing the halachic laws. This approach is not without its merits; trying to make sense of an ancient faith in a modern world is a mighty and baffling task, and the drive inward, toward purity and certainty, is both instinctive and immensely reassuring.

But those of us who believe that Judaism’s survival also depends on its ability to adapt to the spiritual and practical challenges imposed by modernity must reject the urge to narrow our common horizons. Instead, we must examine our boundaries and beliefs and work to welcome new people, new traditions, and new ideas into the fold. To some, such talk may have the airy, hollow ring of universalist New Age spirituality. But that is not the case—as we think will be clear from the collection of essays by rabbis and writers, scholars and cooks, comedians and community leaders in Tablet Magazine’s High Holiday package. Some of these articles and essays are personal, others historical. In them, we hope each reader will find his or her own path toward answering Judaism’s essential questions, impossible and beautiful and all-encompassing—the only questions worth asking.

Judaism’s greatest sages have always plunged into the depths of doubt in an effort to find morsels of wisdom. This holiday season, two of our contributors evoke the memories of such men: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in an essay coming tomorrow, writes about Hillel the Elder, who defined Jewish peoplehood in radically inclusive terms, and Rodger Kamenetz recalls his journey to commune with the spirit of the late Nachman of Bratslav, a 19th-century rabbi who made his home among the non-believers in the hope of showing them the merits of faith.

These rabbis—and other, less illustrious but no less righteous men and women throughout history—embody Judaism’s finest qualities. As their respective communities sought solace and comfort in closed doors and closed minds, they ventured out and struggled to expand the boundaries of peoplehood, occasionally disregarding the letter in service of the spirit. It is doubt, they realized, that makes the believer’s faith more meaningful, and it is compassion for others that makes one’s understanding of oneself more complete. Armed with these convictions, they engaged with the world; more than any enforcer of strict rules or arbiter of stern edicts, they taught us what it means to be Jewish.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we would do well to abandon the pointless fights that have embroiled so many of us for so long, and to insist instead that there are other, better, more urgent questions for us to be asking. We must ask how we can invite as many newcomers to partake in Judaism—as those interviewed by Joan Nathan for her food column have done—without eroding the religion’s core tenets. We must ask what forms of innovative communal structures we might erect to serve the needs of those whom consequences placed just outside the reach of tradition’s grasp, as Rabbi Andy Bachman does in a Vox Tablet podcast about, of all things, burial customs.

Most important, we must ask which of our beliefs guide us forward and which are merely vantage points to the past. And we must do so without turning denominational divides into weapons of divisiveness. In the course of recent American Jewish history, Reform and Conservative rabbis have sometimes preferred strict interpretations of Jewish law, while Orthodox rabbis have allowed room for ambiguity. Indeed, it is the Orthodox rabbi Avi Shafran who here reminds us of the inherent dangers of generalizations and collective judgments, a shortcoming from which Jews of all stripes are not immune.

Unlike Passover or Purim, Rosh Hashanah has no haggadah or megillah, no seminal text that invites us to ponder the meaning of the holiday. It is up to us to stir up debate, to ask what traditions still matter and what should be reconsidered. We hope you’ll find kindling for conversation in the articles and other content we’re publishing this week. And even if not, at the very least try the pomegranate martini.

Shanah tova, from everyone at Tablet Magazine.

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Reuvain says:

It was Alana Newhouse who raised the tumult against the “ultra Orthodox” takeover of conversion in Israel in the NY Times. She portrayed a takeover by the “Ultras” using the polemics of fear that were no better than yelling fire in a theater. In truth the Rotem Bill only formalized conversion process and left control in the hands of more moderate rabbis of like Shlomo Amar looking for solutions for problems of Jewish identity in the framework of Halacha.

There are real differences in the Jewish world. The facts are the division is caused not by those who follow traditions that reach back millennia to Mount Sinai but those who make unilateral changes in Judaism and attempt to impose them on the rest of the Jewish people.
The American Reform and Conservative movements, while influential in the US, are tiny around the world. Just as they have failed to garner much support in Israel, so to in most other countries. The majority of Jewish congregations around the world are Orthodox. Their members may not be fully observant but they choose these congregations as an expression of their Jewish identity.

With unparalleled Chutzpa they claim they are the leaders of “Diaspora Jewry”, when they represent just some US Jews. There true agenda is an imposition of their dramatic changes in Jewish belief and ideals by using the overly secular Israeli Supreme Court as their avenue to Israeli society.

Newhouse inflamed the situation with her portrayal, bordering on fantasy, of overly zealous rabbis with ideas of spiritual domination. Hopefully she will reflect on the harshness of her words and their veracity. As for those on liberal rabbis they too need some self reflection and the courage to admit their rejection of historic norms of identity, belief and theology are the foundations of the split in the modern Jewish world.

sharon rosen teig says:

what a lovely article…though I am a jew who seldom celebrates even the high holidays..i was taken by the idea that compassion towards the world leads to understanding of others and of self..
I am moved to share apples and honey with my non-jewish neighbors to symbolize the sweetness of life that comes with this very compassion .

‘As for those on liberal rabbis they too need some self reflection and the courage to admit their rejection of historic norms of identity, belief and theology are the foundations of the split in the modern Jewish world.”

yes – but shouldn’t orthodox rabbis also be asked to consider their rejections of jewish identity in the modern world? conversions, the get and other such matters?

A wider horizon is ideal for the Jewish community – and I like the Pomegranate Martini.

Here’s to us all. L’Chiam

In order to define Jewish identity we need, first of all, to separate the notions of “Jew” and “Judaism” because they are not identical. Many Jews do not practice Judaism and many non-Jews are practicing it in one form or another.
Let make it clear: attending service in temple, eating kosher food or believing in the truthfulness of Torah doesn’t make anybody a Jew. On the other hand many so called “secular Jews”, who believe in nothing, who never attended any service and look with disdain on those who do are still unfortunately Jews.
In Judaism, unlike it is in Christianity, the notion of faith is absolutely irrelevant in defining who is a Jew, since the person is a Jew if his/her mother is Jewish and it does not matter if he or she believes in it or not. As to converts we should also remember Torah’s demand to treat them as if they were “naturally born” Jews and such demand requires us to see their faith as irrelevant in defining their identity as well.
To make “long story short” you will never define who is a Jew unless you realize that Jew and Judaism are not the same.
Shana Tova to everybody, Jews and non-Jews.

Alana Newhouse did a fine short piece and one I shall reflect on some. In religious school, when I was quite young, I used to get into arguments with our rabbi (Reform) about conversion. “There are so few of us,” I would say, “Why don’t we welcome more?” The response was usually something like, “We have our hands full converting the ones who already are Jews.” We have even had our periods where we forced conversion – the Edomites, descendants of Esau are at least one example. I like Gene’s comments above. Let’s be welcoming. Remember, we were strangers . . . .

Usually I do not learn post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, quite great post.


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Parts of the Whole

In the reflective period of the High Holidays, Tablet Magazine—together with rabbis and writers—considers the debate over Jewish identity and makes an argument for inclusiveness

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