Vignettes from the Jewish wasteland
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 14, 1998
A leading figure in the ba'al teshuva movement was once giving a lecture in the US. At the end of the lecture, a woman rose to express her concerns about modern family life.
She proceeded to describe a new group formed in America to strengthen the family and listed some of its proposals.
The first was that families should spend a day together every week free of all outside intrusions - no TV, no telephones.
The other idea was one for strengthening the marital bond between husbands and wives. To maintain the passion and newness in marriage, the group advocated alternating periods of sexual separation and coming together.
When she had concluded, the woman turned to the rabbi and asked plaintively, 'Now, Rabbi, why couldn't Judaism have something like that?"
TWENTY YEARS ago, a recent college graduate found himself seated on a transcontinental flight next to an older gentile. Towards the end of the flight, the discussion turned towards religion, with the non-Jew asking the young man about Judaism.
The young man replied that he was very happy to be Jewish because Judaism teaches that 'you can believe whatever you want and do whatever you want."
Of Judaism's positive beliefs, this Yale Phi Beta Kappa could have named only one: denial of Jesus as the messiah. And he would have been shocked to hear Judaism described as a religion of Law.
As the flight ended, the older man, who, unlike my friend, had actually read the Hebrew Bible, told him, 'I'm afraid you don't know anything about your religion."
But for that non-Jew's parting comment, my friend might never have had his curiosity pricked enough to find out what Jews actually believe and do.
FOR THOSE not raised in religious homes, visits back to America after many years are the equivalent of the final dinner party in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past: One is suddenly forced to confront how much one has changed over the years.
In the course of one such visit, my wife made a condolence call to an acquaintance whose husband had died. The traditional seven days of shiva had been replaced by three days of 'visitation" - two hours for two nights and a third day at the club.
Like most American Jews, the unfortunate widow had no familiarity with traditional Jewish mourning nor anyone to guide her. The visitation resembled a cross between a cocktail party and an Irish wake more than a Jewish house of mourning.
The bereaved widow felt compelled to act as a hostess, greeting her 'guests" as they arrived and directing them to the buffet laden with food and drink. All mention of the deceased was studiously avoided, as if the purpose of the whole affair was to
distract the widow from her loss.
The pity here is not the failure to observe religious rituals. It is the substitution of something ersatz for customs perfectly suited to the emotional needs of those in grief.
Rather than trying to forget or hide their grief, Jewish mourners proclaim it: by the low uncomfortable stools on which they sit, by their unkempt appearance, and by their torn garments.
No one addresses the mourner until he or she addresses them - a rule that protects those who have come to comfort them from uttering all manner of stupidities and spares the mourner from having to listen to them. It is the mourners' needs that
govern; they are not expected to entertain.
The focus of the conversation is the deceased. The mourner speaks as much or as little as he wishes and others share their memories. At the end of the shiva, a mourner does not find him or herself suddenly alone without having had the chance to give vent to his or her loss.
SUCH VIGNETTES of Jewish ignorance could be multiplied endlessly, for such ignorance characterizes today's Jewish life: ignorance of the most fundamental Jewish practices, like Shabbat or the rules of family life; ignorance of basic Jewish beliefs -
for instance, the centrality of the afterlife in Jewish thought; and ignorance of the rhythms of Jewish life, of any exposure to how Jews celebrate and mourn.
As Reform leader Eric Yoffie candidly admits, 'Our is a uniquely ignorant generation, a generation uniquely without precedent in all of Jewish history." Not just ignorant, but dead to 'any vision of the sacred."
Modern Jews cannot explain why they don't observe Shabbat, for instance, because for so long they have been denied the tools to see why anyone would.
The education provided in Sunday and Hebrew schools frequently does more
harm than good. Students in these schools are like students of astronomy exposed only to the Ptolemaic theory of the heavenly spheres. The illusion of knowledge prevents them from discovering Copernicus.
From the little gleaned in Sunday school all that remains is the certainty that nothing in Judaism speaks to the deepest needs of the soul. So when young Jews search for meaning and purpose in their lives, the one place they don't even bother to look is their own religion.
Never having opened a Talmud, or studied a Rashi, or even talked to a Jew for whom the Torah is the living word of God, tens of thousands turn to Zen Buddhism, Christianity, TM, Hare Krishna or other cults.
The tragedy of Jewish illiteracy is not the absence of some arcane body of knowledge, but the souls cut off from their own richest resources. For even today, Jews respond powerfully when exposed for the first time to the 'something like that' of Judaism.
Related Topics: Pluralism
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