Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Intermarriage and Reform Judaism

The application of the concept of “a child that was captured by goyim” in judging the status of Conservative and Reform Jewry is important to Orthodox Jews. (See yesterday’s blog) There is the halachic consideration that if they are so conceived there is no question of heresy or related categories, with all that such categories would imply in Jewish law. Even if it sounds condescending, its aim is constructive. I have no problem with using such a concept as a legal construct within the halachic system.

A second reason for its centrality in Orthodox thinking is primarily defensive. It enables Orthodox Jews to say that even though 12.5 million Jews are not accepting of their way of life, it is only because they don’t know any better; they were raised that way. Had they been raised Orthodox, they would have a different opinion. If Orthodox people would only explain how Hashem gave the Torah, etc. they could turn these uninformed, Jewishly unsophisticated Reform innocents. Nu …takeh, as we say in Yiddish… why don’t they? It reminds me of a Jerry Fodor joke. What is the difference between philosophy in Boston and philosophy in NY? Two philosophers meet on a street in Boston. They have a philosophical disagreement. They stand and fight until one of them dies. Two philosophers meet in New York. After an hour one says ‘’ I would love to talk some more and try to get clear on the problem, but I have opera tickets, and you know the price of opera tickets these days.’’ When it comes to explaining the truth of Torah to these ‘’captive Reform children’’ Orthodox Jews always have ‘’opera tickets’’. Somehow the hypothesis of tinok shenishbah never gets tested.

In the Middle Ages, when a person discovered that he had been kidnapped by gentiles, if he could and if he was interested, he would return to the Jewish community which was monolithic in its outlook. Most liberal and secular Jews will not become Orthodox, even if they understood the entire Torah with all its commentaries. In fact, most Jews understand perfectly well what is being claimed by Orthodoxy, and they reject the doctrine straight out. The Orthodox idea is that if only we could invite non-religious people for a shabbus meal and take the time to talk to them in a gentle way, over time they would all recognize their errors and come home. The idea is terribly naive. I don’t know a gentle way to break the news, but it just isn't true as the world stands right now.

It might be argued in the style of Rav Kook that as messianic times approach there will be this outpouring of supernal consciousness so that ordinary Jews will begin to see the divine light of Torah. Such ideas are inspiring and may become more obvious in time. As of now I would say that a reliance on such a vision is an example of counting on a miracle, a strategy the Talmud warns against, certainly when the stakes are the future well being of the Jewish people.

The implications of this doctrine for intermarriage is as follows: if one believes it is possible to bring people around to Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy would cure the problem of intermarriage, it is natural to think of the problem of intermarriage as simply a corollary of the larger issue of how to get people to repent. Intermarriage on this view is simply a consequence of liberal and secular Judaism. Once intermarriage is seen as a corollary of being not religious, progress on the intermarriage front is dependent on progress on turning the 12 + million liberal Jews into repentant baal teshuvahs. Each year some Jews become repentant, some Orthodox lose their faith, netting out a small inflow in favor of Orthodoxy. Meanwhile intermarriage proceeds apace. Progress on the intermarriage front requires unhooking the intermarriage problem from the baal teshuvah problem.

When one turns to the Conservative and Reform rabbinate a similar mistake is prevalent. A pulpit rabbi tends to think of all problems in terms of his congregation. He’s inclined to believe that if only more people would come to services, if only more children were enrolled in Sunday or after hours Hebrew school all would be well. In fact, just the other week, the rabbi delivered such a wonderful sermon, such that if these people who are intermarrying would only have heard what he had to say, they would have seen the error in their ways. It’s the liberal version of a child that was captured by goyim.

It’s difficult to explain to liberal clergy how many times a temple has a negative effect, even if for some it is a path to a meaningful Jewish life. And even if it was true that following the practises of Conservative and Reform Judaism would prevent most intermarriage, so what? Being a Satmar chasid, wearing a beard and peyot, learning in kolel…there are no shortages of practices that prevent intermarriages. Active membership in a Reform community is only relevant if there is a feasible plan to get the the Reform constituency to become active in their Reform temples, the key word being active. Here is the rub. It is frequently as difficult to get Jews to engage in the appropriate Reform behavior as it is to turn them Orthodox. Reform Rabbis are not shy. Nobody listens to them, certainly not young people.

My conclusion is that if you want to deal with the problem of intermarriage, you can not appeal to any religious considerations. You can’t ask people to be more religious. The truth is this… if you go to someone and say either keep kosher and shabbus or your child will marry a goy, most everyone who is not religious would say ''If these are my only two choices, I’ll take my chances.'' And they would be willing to take this chance, even if the probability would be very high their children would leave the fold. As much as they would love their children married to Jews, they love their lifestyle even more. You can ask people to make some small sacrifice. You can’t ask people to change their way of life. There has to be a different approach that takes these considerations into account.

Stay tuned.


At 10:40 AM, Anonymous curious said...

EJ: What branch of Judaism do you feel that you fit in?

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham said...

I'm still having a problem with this issue. What could possibly be meaningful in a "Jewish People" empty of Jewish belief, Jewish custom and Jewish practice.

If your entire "Jewishness" adds up to the so-called "universal values" found in Jewish tradition, as a French Canadian (who eventually converted to Torah observant Judaism) I see no reason why you have to be Jewish to espouse or celebrate such "parve" values.

Can anyone enlighten me?

At 11:00 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I never spoke of universal values but of Jews having different values. See my blog on Geek Jews . Secular ADL Jews believe in anti anti-Semitism. Labor Zionists, Likud and Meretz each have distinct but secular visions of Israel. Jewish culture, science, and money are other popular ideals. Many Jews many different values. Together they make up the Jewish people together with the religious and more traditional Jews who bring their own values. As one people, as in a family we care about each other and want everyone to flourish according to their individual conception of 'the good'.What’s so difficult? The French Canadian Charles Taylor is excellent in his discussion of how society prospers because of, not despite, the multiple visions of its citizens. Don’t start with a theory. Look at your fellow Israelis, each a unique individual, many who care little about traditional customs and practice. Are they not part of the same people? Do they not count? Many just risked their lives so you can pursue the traditional customs and practices you so value. What is meaningful is each Jew treated as a person free to pursue his own autonomously chosen path in life, including any and every Orthodox variation including the Neturei Karta and the Kahanists.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Curious- I've been asked this question a number of times. I believe it's best to read my blog on the assumption that I am secular. As I approach the end of my blog (I don't plan on doing this forever), I'll have a little more to say about my method and where I fit in.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I believe it's best to read my blog on the assumption that I am secular.

WOW! I figured you're at least RW MO based on your general writing style. As a fellow Evanstonian, I was going to ask if you go to my shul...


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