Friday, November 16, 2007

A response to The Dead End of Jewish Culture

As this little snippet shows, Christianity is not the only place when men of the religion are looking out their doors wondering where the congregation went.

American Jews have been occupied for four decades in a desperate attempt to stay the tide of assimilation and intermarriage (not to even speak of their more hideous confrere: conversion). I remember as a teenager in the early 1960s sitting through sermons where our rabbi pontificated on the various solutions to The Problem. Yet exactly what is the Jewish leadership trying to perpetuate? Jewish genes? Jewish culture? A fondness for kreplach and klezmer and Isaac Bashevis Singer?

If so, no wonder the Catholics are winning. They don't strive to inculcate in their children a love for Catholic culture. They don't try to whip up enthusiasm for the celebration of St. Patrick's Day nor spend millions to make sure that every Catholic child decorates an Easter egg. They are propagating a religion, complete with God and soul and afterlife. We are pushing a culture, complete with Sholem Aleichem and dreidels and lithographs of the Western Wall. But for a culture, no matter how engaging, no one is ready to sacrifice one's life -- nor the love of one's life. Against Christianity we have pitted not Judaism, but Judaica.

Fear not that the answer lies beyond your reach but fear that human nature makes it very unlikely you will want to go there.

The reason is the same as mine for leaving Catholic Christianity for Conservative Judaism: fear replacing love, even the most cherished rituals of the faith being reduced to cultural affectations without meaning to the soul of the congregant, and a stunning lack of personality and chutzpah from the man at the podium.

I spoke no lie before... the answer is not going to be what you wanted to hear.

First, there is structural damage in the form of fear replacing love. This is perhaps easier to see in Christianity's history than in Judaism's but make no mistake there is far less relating of reasons to see G-d's love in the rituals as opposed to grave warnings of transgressing. No Jew has ever been struck down for having a pork chop. So the warnings of divine retribution over breaking His rules are made to look silly and hollow. The average Jew isn't stupid enough to fail to notice any more than the average Christian. Read the frum orthodox bloggers and see how many are buck and chafing at the yoke now. Check out Rabbi Lazar Brody's upset candor in this article for an example of the mistakes of some rabbis in being strict for the sake of G-d to the point they trample on Him.

Second, when there is not only no love but not even fear the rituals become like a kid who eats his sandwiches just so, someone who makes sure never to walk on the cracks on the sidewalk, etc. No better than superstition and you might remember Maimonides warning us on that. Worse yet, they go from that to subconscious "we've always done that" acts. Judaism is being reduced to Judaica.

Third, sorry to say rabbonim but you're looking pretty darn shabby. You need to work on the delivery. You and the Catholic priests, the Protestant priests, etc. For many congregants, your presentation isn't a lot different than Eddie Izzard's take on the Church of England and Christianity in general.

Why have so many Catholics gone over to Evangelical Born-Again Christianity? Pumping grace. Hands in the air, singing to the Lord, passion. Catholicism lacked this passion for them. So did the old-guard Protestant denominations. It is NOT for no reason that there are more and more Evangelical and Pentacostal Hispanic churches ever day. Imagine if every third minyan broke off and became not only their own synagogue, but their own movement.

At this point the core of Christianity is a giant hunk of Alka-Seltzer, the edges frittering and devolving away into ephemeral memory. THAT is what is happening to Judaism. The major difference being that Jesus' example of rebellion in the name of conscience is not so well understood on the conscience end as the rebellion end. Judaism doesn't have a strong example of devolving to further movements and new ones are momentous happenings. Should that change, expect a legion of Reb Carlebachs* of various qualities to pop up whose ability to read the Hebrew in the Tanach and Talmud is perfectly wonderful, but whose schooling and scholarship is lacking, so they make up for it in joyous noise that engages the congregation. Much light without heat, much noise without meaning. After a while, that too will go out as it is going out among so many devolved Christians.

Some might preach what is right for the right reasons, some might preach the wrong thing for the right reasons, others will preach the wrong thing for the wrong reason and human nature being what it is, this is the most seductive. Where do you think Jim and Tammy Baker came from? Christianity is already way ahead of you.

Rabbonim, before you reject what I say, will you not ask is there nothing in what you believe and hold dear that is not capable of being the fuel for faithful fire that engages the congregation just as much? Is the way of the mitnagdim so much more seductive to you than the first chasidim? Are you so worried and so full of doubt that you can no longer express love and hope and happiness to the Jew in the street as well as that?

I am confident you can.

While some may argue Judaism is a faith born of hardship and only hardship and strictness can make it stay relevant to us, I do not believe that at all.

I have faith in you rabbonim. If you only have faith in yourselves, you can throw aside your fears of facing your own shortcomings, facing the questions of Torah literal versus implied reading, the scary possibilities of titanic shifts in canon, as easily as you toss aside a napkin.

Remember, if you have to choose between love and fear, love is the better to choose. Never forget that when you teach why kashrut is what it is. Not that those who violate it are courting gehinom.

*I mean as in singing rabbis, not that Reb Carlebach was without substance. If you photocopied him and photocopied the photocopies each in turn nine hundred times, what would you have? Not Carlebach, that's for sure.

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