The limits of family
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 19, 1997
If the Jewish people are best described as a family, as David Hartman and others argue, then it is surely a highly dysfunctional one, whose members cannot keep from torturing one another like the characters in O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Calling one another 'brother" and 'sister" does not appear likely to turn us into one big, happy family anytime in the near future.
That impoverished sense of family is nevertheless enough, in Hartman's view, to require the scrapping of the religious status quo in Israel and the importation of American religious pluralism. The Jewish family, he argues, can only be preserved if the Jewish state adopts the position that 'Jewish" is a term incapable of definition and confers equal legitimacy on the views of everyone born of a Jewish mother (or Jewish father for that matter.) Tolerance is once again elevated to the status of the highest, if not only, religious value. But even on its own terms, Hartman's family metaphor is an argument for preservation of the status quo.
Imagine that an eccentric, but very rich, maiden aunt decided to adopt her household staff. Would her blood relatives recognize her new 'children" as part of their family? The Reform movement, with its increasingly eccentric standards for conversion, is the national counterpart of the maiden aunt. Family cannot serve as a common bond when there are not even any agreed upon standards for determining membership.
It is precisely Hartman's view that 'family" trumps all other values that underlies the disappearance of world Jewry. Once Jewish parents treated intermarriage as a calamity, and the intermarriage rate was low: 8% for American Jews in 1965, as opposed to a present rate soaring towards 60%.
Today, far from treating intermarriage as a tragedy, Jewish parents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins celebrate the nuptials - 'for the sake of family." At most, an attempt is made to sprinkle some face-saving baptismal waters on the non-Jewish spouse, whose level of Jewish identity will not be appreciably less, and often greater, than that of the Jewish partner.
Rabbi Everett Gendler of North Andover, Massachusetts is not embarrassed to announce in the New York Times that he co-officiated at his daughter's wedding along with the groom's father, a Baptist minister. Should these bright young graduates of Harvard Law School be denied their moment in the Times? The nation is dying but the family is preserved.
THE precise nature of the Jewish familial bond, for Hartman, boils down to nothing more than a shared history of suffering. What Salo Baron once termed the 'lachrymose view of Jewish history" is thus wedded to minimalist religion. Nor is the connection accidental. As American Jews grow increasingly unable to distinguish their own religious beliefs from a vague ethical monotheism, the Holocaust becomes their primary claim to distinction - Jew as history's champion victim.
A long history of persecution, however, has proven a weak glue with which to hold together a fractious people. For one thing, the historical memory of today's TV generation is very short - measured in half-hour segments not millennia.
'For my children, the Holocaust is ancient history,' says Jewish multi-millionaire Michael Steinhardt, as he announces a new initiative for Jewish education. A few years ago, I saw for myself the truth of Steinhardt's observation. I took my children to Yad Vashem on Tisha Be'av, where we shared the museum with a group of American teenagers. As they hurried through the record of demonic fury poured out on European Jewry, the question most on their minds was: 'Where was Jennifer last night? Did you see who she was with?" They had long preceded us by the time we exited the hall and were out on the grass having a picnic.
I briefly considered mentioning to them that Jews have fasted on this day for nearly two thousand years as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple. But I realized that if the Holocaust moved them so little, the loss of a Temple about which they know nothing, and in which - they would have been appalled to learn - animal sacrifices were offered, was certainly far beyond their emotional grasp.
The second problem with the emphasis on Jewish suffering is that it is fundamentally illogical. What follows from our championship in persecution?
Does any sane person seek for himself to become one more link in the chain of suffering?
The reliance on Jewish suffering as if it argued for a particular course of action is more often than not dishonest, as well as illogical. More than twenty years ago, I was weeding avocados under a blistering sun with a young kibbutznik about my age. He wanted to know whether I intended to live in Israel. When I asked him why I should, his only answer was Jews had suffered greatly throughout history and should therefore live in a Jewish state.
Even at the time, our history of suffering seemed a strange starting point for the atheist kibbutznik. Until very recent times, Jews were slaughtered primarily because of their stubborn refusal to betray their God. By their sacrifice, they gave concrete expression to the view that a life without Torah is not worth living. How, I wondered, can a modern Jew, who denies God's very existence and rejects any sacrifice in the name of the Torah, bootstrap his cause by reference to the martyrdom of our ancestors. For him, their choice of death was at best an admirable farce, totally beyond his comprehension.
Of course, awareness of our history is for some the impetus for a deeper investigation of their Judaism. They read the litany of pogroms, mass suicides, and forced exile in the Book of Fire at the Diaspora Museum, and ask themselves: How could my ancestors have chosen, in generation after generation, the near certainty of exile or pogrom for themselves and their children? What was the source of their power?
But unless they can move beyond history and tap into that power themselves, the momentary arousal will dissipate. 'Don't tell your children, 'It's shver (difficult) to be a Yid," Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used to counsel parents. Teach them instead that it is the greatest privilege to be part of the sliver of humanity chosen to bear God's most precious gift to the world.
Only those who experience themselves as having been chosen for something other than suffering can transmit their Judaism to yet another generation.
History records that which is long gone and incapable of being retrieved. Where museums - the resting places of mummies - adorn temple and synagogue, one can be sure that Judaism has died inside.
For those, however, who view Sinai as the climactic moment in world history, there is no history as such, only an eternal present, a voice that continues to go out from Sinai every day. They live in communion with all generations of Jews, in ongoing conversation with Abaye and Rava, Rashi and Maimonides. Were those giants to be reborn today, they could instantly join the debate in any study hall.
Only that living Judaism, not some vague memory of past suffering, can preserve our people.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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