The Wondering Jew (title credit goes to Rita Pochter-Lowe — thank you!)
I am a Jew, my partner is not. Now what? Who is a Jew? Says who?
You might think those line were inspired by Senator Cruz. Or maybe the original author of catchy, rhyming children’s literature, Dr. Seuss, who would probably have been horrified at Cruz’s recent use of his work. Actually, it was neither. What motivated me to write this message was the recent spate of news items dealing with Jewish identity. So far, I haven’t seen anything new. No surprises. We’ve known very well, for some time now, that the majority of the American Jewish population is secular. It is logical, therefore, that Reform Judaism should enjoy the largest membership. Our interpretation of Judaism is, after all, the first religious response to the modern appearance of something that could be called secular society in the late 18th century. Reform Judaism offered modern Jews a way to participate in secular society as individuals while still remaining fully Jewish.
Some of the authors of recent articles and blogs blame Reform Judaism for opening the floodgates of intermarriage and thus threatening the future of our people. I wonder if they have also given any thought to the battles Reform Jews have fought to open the floodgates to Jews who want to practice their religion freely; or the institutions American Reform Jews helped found and establish to assist people in need — Jews among them of course. People are pointing their fingers at us as though we are responsible for the secularization of Jews in America, and bemoaning the lack of religious commitment in the Jewish population. I think they are asking the wrong questions.
We paved the paths that enabled the 10% of our population who identify as orthodox to do so freely — in fact, to be orthodox in America so successfully that they can raise millions of dollars for their own institutions (often from guilt-ridden non-orthodox Jews as well as their own wealthy members). Please don’t get me started! The conversations out there today make me sad, angry, frustrated, but more than ever convinced that the Judaism I have fought to pass on to the next generation is the only kind of Judaism that is worth preserving. What good are religious rituals if they transmit no positive human values?
I go back, again and again, to the conversation I had with our 4th and 5th graders about what it means to be a religious Jew. The bottom line was that every human being is equally sacred, and we are religious Jews because we think it’s important to defend the people who aren’t enjoying equal rights, equal respect, equal opportunity, and equal dignity. I’ll bet if you asked those Jews who told the poll-takers they were secular whether they believe that all people deserve that equality, a huge majority would agree. But who’s setting the standards of what it means to be a Jew? Is it the chief rabbinate in Israel who think it’s ok for a young immigrant to sacrifice his life to defend the state because he thinks of himself as Jewish, but isn’t Jewish enough to be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Is it the Reform rabbi who drives on Shabbat, and maybe even eats milk and meat together, but has decided to “draw the line” at officiating at a ceremony between a Jew and an “un-churched” gentile who would like nothing better than to create a Jewish family?
As you may be able to tell, all these recent articles and polls have gotten to me. Please, talk to me. We need to support each other, explore the real issues behind all the news chatter, and most of all, we need to do the work that’s going to provide a healthy, noble Judaism to pass on to the next generation.
Drop me a note, please. Note the comment section where you can respond below my commentary.. Or post a response in our Virtual Water Cooler in the community section of the website and lets have people discuss this issue. We need to keep this conversation going (and I need to know that there are Jews out there who care about the Judaism that keeps me going).