The American Jewish Buffet

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“Secular Orthodox.”

That’s how Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, recently characterized many Israelis.  What he meant was that, while an Israeli may not be observant of halachah, or even affirm belief in Torah miSinai, he is likely to still recognize that there is only one mesorah, one Judaism, the one that has carried Klal Yisrael from that mountain to Eretz Yisrael, through galus Bavel and countless galuyos since, and that carries it still to this day.

If only American Jews were so perceptive.  Many criticisms can be cogently aimed at the movements to which so many American Jews claim fealty (or, at least, to whose congregations they send dues).  Were there only an Orthodox option, that of Torah-faithful belief and practice, there would likely be a greater degree of Jewish observance throughout the broader Jewish community; intermarriage would probably be more rare than it sadly is; Jewish unity would certainly be more evident, and more real.

But the most damaging legacy of the heterodox movements (and I write here of those movements qua movements – their theologies, not their members, most of whom don’t understand the basics of Yahadus) is their propagation of the notion that there are different “Judaisms,” that Jews stand before some spiritual smorgasbord from which they are free to choose whatever doctrinal hors d’oeuvres they find appetizing.

I had a neighbor in the out-of-town community where I once lived, a middle-aged man who had observed some mitzvos as a youth, but who had long since lapsed and become a member of a non-Orthodox congregation.

One Shabbos, on my way to shul, I heard a disembodied “Good Shabbos” come from beneath my neighbor’s parked car.  His head then appeared from under the vehicle, followed by his hands, one of them holding a wrench.  I returned the greeting along with a forced smile, and then, with some sheepishness, my neighbor added: “I gotta say, my Shabbos is sure different now that I’m a Conservative Jew!”

In my neighbor’s mind, he had undergone a metamorphosis; he’d become a “different kind of Jew” – a perfectly observant, rabbinically-endorsed, card-carrying “Conservative Jew.”  Changing the meaning of a Jewish life had become the equivalent of what he was doing, changing his oil.

Contrast my erstwhile neighbor’s attitude (that of most American Jews, unfortunately) with the insight of Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), a groundbreaking physicist. He told a biographer that “To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one.  If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to.   That’s the one I failed.  It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

He was, and knew he was, a Jew.  Far to one side of the observance spectrum, to be sure.  But observance is a continuum on which we all live, with perfection far from most of us.  Professor Rabi was perceptive and honest enough to recognize his failure instead of choosing to just invent a new entity, a “Judaism” where he could consider himself a success.

It is a tribute to the Israeli no-nonsense mentality that so many of the country’s less- or non-observant Jews haven’t bought into the American Jewish buffet model, and recognize what Professor Rabi did. Israelis tend to think and talk dugri – straightforwardly, even bluntly.  Hence, Mr. Bar-Yosef’s seemingly, but not really, oxymoronic phrase, “secular Orthodox.”

What evoked that characterization, as it happens, was his interview by the New York Times about the recent Israeli government decision to expand an area to the south of the current Kosel Maaravi plaza, for feminist and non-Orthodox services.  The Israeli was trying to explain why the American Jewish model of Jewish identity has not taken root in his country.  American Jews, he continued, have “a desire to bring into the tent everyone who feels Jewish,” whereas Israeli Jews, even secular ones, “live in a [Jewish] state and want a unified system.”

That “unified system” – halachah –  is, unfortunately, under attack by some American Jews, not only with regard to conduct at the Kosel but in even more important areas, like marriage and geirus.  We have to hope, against all the evidence, that our less observant brothers and sisters recognize the danger – to themselves above all – of promoting a “multi-winged” model of “Judaisms,” instead of recognizing the most trenchant truth: that ke’ish echad was possible only because our ancestors were neged hahar.

© 2016 Hamodia