November 11, 2013
Headline Judaism and Historic Revisionism
I often gave my opinion on the past as to the goings-on of various rabbinic communal conundrums. However, now that these very same issues that are in the Jewish headlines are confronting me in my capacity as a Chief Rabbi, I can’t be so quick to give an opinion. It requires much more research, analysis, deliberation and thought.
While the Aguna (women who are “chained” to a failed marriage by their husband’s refusal to grant a religious divorce) issue has been around for decades, in the last several days it has heated up with the assistance of Facebook and social media.
Another hot current topic while not new, has some fresh faces, is regarding the correct and acceptable boundaries between various streams and adherents of Judaism.
I have to admit that I am benefiting immensely from these controversies as they are topics that are now on my plate and the public and heated debate is giving me significant material for study and analysis.
I was impressed by one particular author’s take regarding the history of streams of Judaism and actually contacted him. He is one of the most highly regarded Jewish historians around. He answered me immediately and we scheduled a phone discussion for the following day.
He proceeded to give me wonderful background and historical accounts of the development of some of the organizations in the headlines today. It was riveting, insightful and revealing. I now have an improved understanding of how we got to where we are and many of the ironies, surprises and disappointments of our current situation.
It gives me strength and clarity to make some of the difficult and perhaps even risky decisions that lay ahead. (You’ll just have to stay tuned to see what they are – but not for too long).
I’ll just share one story from the historian that may be helpful to others struggling with our version of these questions.
There was a college campus decades ago that had a Kosher meal plan for its Jewish students. The Kosher food was served in the main dining hall where Jews and non-Jews ate together, each with the food of their choice. A group of students suggested and lobbied for the creation of a separate Kosher dining hall. This historian was asked to bring the question to one of the leading Chasidic Rebbes of his day.
The Rebbe asked one simple question: “In which arrangement will more Jews keep Kosher?” The historian answered that it was clear that in the current arrangement of the mixed dining room, many more Jews would keep Kosher. In a separate Kosher dining hall, a very small group would elect to remain Kosher. The Rebbe answered then that there was no question but to keep the dining hall mixed, despite the pleas of the separatist group.
I think in many of these debates and discussions, we need to return to basic questions of Halacha, of Jewish law. Which of our choices, which of our decisions will have a greater direct and positive effect on the Jewish population? We should worry less about “what if’s”. We should have less fear of unknown possibilities. We should have more confidence in clear and obvious consequences. We should have greater respect for all those we disagree with no matter how wrong we are sure they are.
There is much rumbling in the Jewish rabbinic world. There is a tempest that is not new, but has great sound and fury. Waves are crashing on the surface spraying water in many directions. The question is what are the undercurrents below the stormy sea? Where are we really headed? What will the Jewish world look like in the future, despite surveys, heated theological battles and major communal upheavals? Is it more of the same? Will demography rule the day? Will major groups grow or disintegrate and lose form as they lose meaning and relevance? What new streams, interpretations and directions will evolve, just as where we are today is an unexpected evolution from decades and centuries past?
I don’t know. And being given the helm of a small boat on such a tempestuous sea sometimes gives me dread. The closest or biggest harbor may not be the right one. One may need to ride through dangerous obstacles, through uncharted waters, to reach safe haven. And all the time you are never sure – should I have taken the easy road?