I am the religious conformist’s worst nightmare; I’m an opinionated Jew with an Internet connection. Everyone has an opinion; some just let theirs be known. Everyone has a point a view; some just can’t or won’t articulate them. The Internet is the great equalizer; sometimes the emperor has no clothes.
I find it ironic and not a little bit disingenuous that those who are quick to invoke the Holocaust as a motive for the need of a strict orthodoxy and tougher conversion standards are the first screaming to deny Jewishness to just those who qualified as Jewish under Nazi rule. The canard that assimilation and “watered down” Judaism will finish what the Holocaust did not, is a lie. Turning people away and denying their identity will sooner balkanize and diminish Jewry.
What has kept Judaism – the peoplehood and the religion, in tact over thousands of years is not what color table cloth we use on Shabbat or whether a married woman covers her hair or not. What has kept us together has been a self policed, individualized connection to a people, culture and heritage that has evolved, changed and reformed thousands of times in small to large ways over centuries and millennia. I would argue that not educating your children properly in math, science and language and not working at all so as to study Torah full time is a greater detriment to Jewish survival than allowing Conservative conversions. I am not alone, Rabbis Shemaya and Avtalyon, whom according to Bartenura were converts themselves, said in Ethics of the Fathers (Ch 1 – Mishna 10) “Love labor and hate the abuse of power.” I believe most commentaries take that to mean – go to work.
Orthodoxy has become a movement of conformity; vehement opposition, public humiliation and ridicule meet any voice for reasonable change or self-reflection. The Mikvagate scandal has brought out the best and worst Orthodoxy has to offer. In one view, a study of procedures and protections has been ordered to offer women and converts, two groups singled out multiple times in the bible for special attention, to feel comfortable in religious rites. On the other side stand the originalist’s, who likely think Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt in a black hat and white shirt, they think any review of religious procedure is a concession to – oh my God, feminists.
In Israel this past week the two chief rabbis both took positions that further diminished one of the already most mistrusted, corrupt and vilified institutions in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate. Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Lau declared that Israel should stop granting citizenship to non-Jews. He specifically refers to as non-Jews those with enough Jewish blood to have been qualified for a free ride to a concentration camp via cattle car in Nazi Germany and for whom the Law of Return was written. The Law of Return which haters of Israel used as the basis for the infamous “Zionism is racism” UN vote, in his eyes – is too inclusive. Sephardi chief rabbi Yosef declared that it is forbidden for a Jew to pray on the Temple Mount. Forget the other more learned opinions to the contrary, how can anyone let alone a chief rabbi tell Jews where they can and can’t pray, especially at one of our holiest and most treasured sites? And especially when he is aping the policy of Israel’s greatest haters who seek to start a religious war.
The push towards conformity does not stop at religion’s door. It has infected the pro Israel camp and has sidelined people of good intentions and beliefs who don’t follow the Nationalist narrative of events in the Middle East. As a disillusioned peacenik and avowed Zionist I find some people’s fundamentalist advocacy for Israel to be as narrow minded and short sighted as the far right religious zealots. As an example of just how far this has gone, someone “un-friended” me on Facebook because upon his death, I honored the memory of Nelson Mandela. According to this former friend, Mandela’s accomplishments and contributions to humanity are nullified by his friendship with Yasser Arafat. I’m guessing this friend does not attend any Yizchak Rabin memorials either. We have gone from the being the people of two guys three opinions, to being the people of my opinion or you’re a self-hating, assimilationist, heretic.
The hardest will be the upcoming young generation. They are growing up without the rallying cry of a Soviet Jewry movement. Israel, despite all the challenges she faces is nonetheless a world power. We might understand that anti Semitism, Jew hatred, religious bias and geo political bullying is motive enough to stand up and defend Israel. However, in a world where Jews are over represented on the Forbes lists of wealthiest and most powerful people, it’s hard to convince many people under the age of 25 that Jews are still victims. Unilateral rabbinic declarations and racist policies espoused by ultra nationalists will not warm them to our cause either. Thoughtful debate about religion, Zionism and the future of our people is necessary. Tolerance for differences and gradual reforms will not destroy us. I remind everyone that it was primarily secularists who built the Yishuv/Israel – which is the greatest impediment to another Holocaust, not religious stubbornness.