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Posted: September 02, 2007

Rosner's Guest: Gil Mann
Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent

Mann is the author of 2 books: Sex, God, Christmas & Jews, Intimate Emails About Faith and Life Challenges, a finalist of the Koret International Jewish Book Award, and How to Get More Out of Being Jewish Even if:A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew School or E. All of the above!

Mann is also the author of Jewish E-Mail, a column syndicated to Jewish websites and newspapers in the U.S. and Canada and the producer of beingjewish.org (More bio here).

He speaks and writes about Jewish identity, continuity, intermarriage and assimilation. These will be our topics of discussion. 

Dear Gil,

Here's a soft-ball: give us the shortened 500 words explanation of your concept of "Freedom Judaism".

Best

Rosner

 

Dear Shmuel:

When the temple was destroyed 2000 years ago, Judaism was forced to reinvent itself. Over time, our leaders brilliantly came up with a way to perpetuate Judaism that was not centered on the temple. They invented Rabbinic Judaism or what some call Halachic Judaism.

Today, perhaps as many as 90% of the Jews on the planet no longer lead a life governed by Halacha. (Orthodox Jews and a small number of others make up the remaining roughly 10%). Yet Jews and Judaism still exist. If we do not live in era of the Temple or Rabbinic Judaism, what is this era? I believe we are reinventing ourselves as radically as when the temple was destroyed.

I call this third new era Freedom Judaism. It began when Jews were first emancipated in Europe. In the last 100 years or so, Freedom Judaism has become a radical new reality for Jews because of 7 phenomenon:

1. Mobility: Almost all Jews alive today live in a country other than the country of their great grandparents. This modern exodus is many times greater than the Biblical exodus from Egypt. In addition, the way people regularly move from city to city today is a smaller ongoing exodus.

2. The Holocaust: The post-traumatic shock of losing a third of the Jewish people deeply affects Jewish and non-Jewish thinking, especially in matters of spirituality (attitudes toward God) and Jewish Peoplehood.

3. Establishment of Israel: What should a free Jewish state be? This historic work in progress poses endless challenges, among them: Who is a Jew? How do democracy and theocracy coexist? How does a people that has been powerless for 2,000 years, ethically use its newfound power? What does a Jewish homeland mean to the Diaspora? How does realization of the dream of a Jewish state impact Jewish theology, messianic thinking, prayers, holidays, etc?

4. The shrinking of the globe: Today, knowledge and travel are quickly accessible to an unparalleled percentage of the Earth's population.

5. The empowerment of women: Women in the West have unprecedented rights, education, and opportunities. As a subset, Jewish women are perhaps the most educated and influential women in the world today - for that matter, in all of human history! Today, Jewish women routinely are esteemed professors, doctors, lawyers, rabbis, judges, legislators, businesspeople, members of a myriad of other professions, and volunteer leaders. Some of the most successful innovations in the Jewish world today come from Jewish women: prolific writings, new and inspiring Jewish liturgy and music, new programs, and institutions such as the Jewish Healing Centers. Unleashing the talents of 50 percent of the Jewish people bodes well for a Jewish future.

6. The liberation of the Jews: Jews today can more freely choose where to live, work, attend universities, participate in government, and join organizations than at any time in history, (though anti-Semitism, especially outside of North America, is active and dangerous.) Jews also have great freedom of choice in deciding how, or even whether, to practice Judaism, another religion, or no religion. 6a: Intermarriage: A significant aspect of Jewish freedom that deserves special mention is the loving embrace (literally) of non-Jews, such that intermarriage today is commonplace. The long-term effect of these marriages is not known, but there is little question that they will impact the future of Judaism.

7. The Western ideal of individual Freedom. Jews live in societies today that embrace the idea that we each choose what we want in our lives. Nobody has the right to impose anything upon on us (we protest when the government wants to tax us or even tell us to wear seatbelts). This is the notion of the sovereign self. Each of us is a king or queen in charge of our own lives.

I am not suggesting that Freedom Judaism is preferable or better than Halachic Judaism. What I am saying is that this is reality today. And we need to face this reality honestly, fearlessly and creatively.

Gil

Dear Gil,

Do you see Halachic Judaism adjusting to the new circumstances the way people like Samson Raphael Hirsch adjusted to emancipation, or do you see 'Freedom Judaism' replacing Halachic Judaism? Halachic Judaism is doing well in terms of birth rate, while Freedom Judaism is suffering from assimilation, intermarriage and low birth rate.

Joe Feld

Dear Joe:

I believe Freedom Judaism has already replaced Halachic Judaism for all but Orthodox Jews and a few others. As I noted in the earlier response, perhaps as much as 90% of the Jewish world today does not lead a life governed by Halacha. For that matter, most Jews today have very little knowledge of Halacha!

In the emails I've received over the years, I have found that many Jews are interested to hear what Jewish law has to say about an issue. However, when faced with a decision like: Should I get a tattoo? Jewish law is but one of many "voices" they will consider as they ponder options. They might be influenced by Jewish law and tradition, but they certainly do feel or act bound by Halacha. A much more widespread example is not keeping kosher.

As for the issue of birth rate, I agree, those who observe Halacha have more babies and this is one reason there will always be a part of the Jewish world that observes Jewish law. I would not say however, that birth rate is a barometer of the health of Halachic Judaism.

Only a few centuries ago, most Jews lived Halachic lives, yet most Jews today do not. How many times have you heard a non-Orthodox Jew say, "My grandparents, or great grand parents were Orthodox?" Birth rate is not able to sustain widespread observance of Halachic Judaism. I listed 7 (mostly wonderful) changes in our world in response to an earlier question that partially explain the decline in Halachic Judaism. In a word, I sum them up as: freedom. This is why I say we are now in the third Jewish era that I call Freedom Judaism.

The issues of assimilation, intermarriage, low birth rates etc are significant challenges for Judaism. Many Jews are upset that these phenomena will mean the end of Judaism. I believe they will end Judaism as we know it... but not end Judaism. They will change Judaism.

The evolution from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic / Halachic Judaism took several centuries as the oral Torah was codified and written and as new institutions replaced the Temple. I believe we will evolve much faster this time. The next 50 years will be pivotal. Some consider these changes frightening and disturbing. Judaism is changing... as radically as when the Temple was destroyed. I do not know what we will look like, but I think this era of Freedom Judaism is perhaps the most exciting time in our people's history to be a Jew.

Gil

Dear Gil

I understand all of your points about Freedom Judaism; it make a lot of sense. The only thing that I would disagree with you about is your overall sense of optimism. I am pretty pessimistic about the future of Judaism because I sort of imagine Freedom Judaism ending with a bunch of half-Jews who feel culturally Jewish to varying degrees. This wouldn't be too bad, because I think such people will lead moral and ethical lives, but it does sadden me that there will be very little distinctively Jewish about their lives.

I agree that the next 50 years are pivotal, and in that regard, they will be exciting to live through. But I find myself getting more and more depressed with the state of Judaism every time the holidays come around. Take last year for example. I live in a Jewish fraternity house which means I am surrounded by Jews who are OK identifying as Jews. Yet, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my hall mates are opting out of shul in favor of watching football, doing homework, going out to dinner, etc.

What I am trying to say is that I don't see Freedom Judaism yielding particularly Jewish results. It may produce ethical people that get Bar Mitzvahed, but if that is all the Jewishness new age Jews possess, the future might not be so bright for Judaism.

A

Dear A:

I share some of your fears. I should clarify one point. I am not suggesting that Judaism be a free for all. I am saying that in this era of Freedom Judaism anyone can and does choose whatever they want. If Judaism is to be chosen and continue, we will need to reinvent ourselves in ways that make Judaism and our institutions relevant, compelling and sustainable. We can not impose Halacha, Judaism or anything else on Jews in an era of freedom.

I'll put things a different way: I once gave a lecture and an 80 year old man stood up at the end of the lecture and asked: "These issues of intermarriage and assimilation you describe did not exist when I was younger. Don't you think anti-Semitism in a way was a blessing?"

My reply was, "I would not call anti-Semitism a blessing. It is true, that as a result, the Jewish people learned many positive things and we were kept together....but I would not want to trade places Jewishly with my great grandfather!"

So yes, I am optimistic. As I wrote earlier, I do not believe Judaism will end...Judaism as we know it will. But we have always evolved. Over thousands of years the Jews and Judaism have changed a lot.

Further as I noted in the first answer, Jewish woman today are perhaps the most educated women in the history of humanity. They are at the fore front of some of most impactful and positive innovations in Jewish life from new Jewish Music and liturgy to Jewish Healing Centers and special needs inclusion efforts etc. We are unleashing 50% of our people! This potential is most exciting for our future.

So put on your seatbelt and keep your hands on the wheel, be prepared for forks in the road and new unusual destinations. I am not sure where we are going, but I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be part of this journey, to play a tiny role and live in this era.

I embrace and love the uniqueness of Jewish spirituality, ethics and peoplehood. But who knows? Perhaps over time (decades or centuries from now) Jews and gentile will believe similarly in such a way as described in the Aleinu prayer when all people will know a single God and the world will be perfected.

Gil

Dear Gil,

The role a rabbi should play in the community occupies some space in your book. "So many Jews now have expectations of a rabbi that are virtually impossible for one person to achieve".

But was is the role of the rabbi in this age of post-Halachic Judaism you've described?

Best

Rosner

Shalom Shmuel

If you examine your life, you spend almost all of your waking hours engaged in:

1. Work (broadly defined)

2. Relationships,

3. Health or

4. Recreation.

When is the last time you had a question in one of these realms where you thought: "I think I will consult with a rabbi or Halacha to find an answer?"

For example: How should I respond to a customer? How much should I go into my credit card line to pay my bills at home? How should I respond to my daughter's desire to drive the car with 3 other teens, Should I lose some weight? or I wonder what movie I'll watch this week?

These are pretty standard day to day questions. Would you think to ask a rabbi or have your answer driven by Halacha?

Most non-Orthodox Jews today would say no. So what is the role of a rabbi today for non-Orthodox Jews? I believe to become teachers of how Judaism is relevant for day to day modern life. Said differently, to teach how Judaism's wisdom can help answer questions like those above and countless others.

The information must be relevant because in this era of Freedom Judaism and the sovereign self, Jews freely choose the answers that resonate and discard the others. The reality is that Judaism is just one source of knowledge they consider. Granted this is a challenge for rabbis, especially since Judaism is a tradition of commitment, seriousness and obligation. But Judaism is also a tradition of great benefit to individuals, community and all humanity. In their roles as teachers, rabbis must be marketers of these compelling benefits.

And in spite of living in this post Halachic era of Freedom Judaism, I believe rabbis have many opportunities to teach. Most Jews today will not bind themselves by Halacha but are interested to know what Judaism has to say about many issues. I say this based on the thousands of emails I have received (to see some go here).

One other important role for the rabbi relates to major life events. Jews still look to the rabbi when a family member has a bris, a bar/bat mitzvah, wedding, a crisis, divorce or funeral. However, as you can see from this chapter in my book, "I Will Not Circumcise My Son!" , most Jews today will perhaps give the rabbi/Halacha a vote in how they will run their lives, but not a veto.

Finally, rabbis continue to play a role as community representatives and leaders.

Gil

 

Dear Gil,

Here's a question I compiled following some readers' remarks:

Is it time for rabbis to accept reality and officiate ceremonies for mixed couples?

Best

Rosner

Shalom again Shmuel:

My answer is yes with an asterisk. Marriage according to Jewish law is not possible. A wedding with a rabbi that integrates Jewish traditions is possible.

I believe we need to find every possible way to welcome intermarried couples and show them the beauty of Judaism. To increase the chances that this couple will want Judaism for themselves and especially for their children, rabbis and our institutions need to show warmth. To do the opposite will not make the couple "fall out of love," but does run the risk of alienating them with the impression that Judaism is a non-loving intolerant religion.

I've heard from couples who told me their rabbi said "No, I won't perform the wedding, but I would be willing to come to the dinner afterwards." I understand why a rabbi would have this position. But the couple viewed this as a huge insult that made them want nothing to do with Judaism. I understand their position as well.

Again, I acknowledge that asking a rabbi to marry a couple with the traditional Jewish vow that the couple is being married "according to the religion of Moses and the people Israel." is simply not accurate or appropriate.

What to do instead? When a couple is "rabbi shopping," calling synagogues till they find a rabbi who says "Yes, I perform intermarriages." I think the response should be: "Yes, the rabbi will 'officiate' but always needs to meet with the couple in advance."

Meeting the couple and discussing the issues and challenges of intermarriage is critical. The rabbi should respectfully and gently pose questions about their individual faith, how they plan to reconcile differences and most importantly how they plan to religiously raise their children.

(As an aside, many young couples think "love conquers all" and that they will just work things out when the time comes. This plan is often naive. I say this based on emails I've received from unhappy or confused children and parents of such marriages. Hopefully the conversation could lead to many more with the rabbi as well as connection to resources available such as Interfaithfamily.com and JOI.org.)

Having said all that, in my mind "officiate" can be flexibly defined. I think rabbis should find ways to be a part of the ceremony with a judge doing the legalities. I'm not sure about co-officiating with a clergy of another religion ...that could be an especially difficult situation for a rabbi. I also can see a problem if the couple flat out says they plan to raise the children in a religion other than Judaism.

Every case is unique, but In general, in addition to a rabbi participating, as far as I am concerned (and I know some would disagree), the ceremony could include many Jewish traditions from a chuppah to Jewish blessings/music and breaking the glass. Personally I would be comfortable with the synagogue being the venue.

The bottom line for me is I love Judaism and intermarriage is a big reality today. To reconcile both, I think we need to find every possible way to have intermarried couples embrace Judaism and Judaism embrace them...including having a rabbi somehow be a part of the actual wedding ceremony (and not just at the dinner afterwards.)

Gil

Dear Gil,

A new study shows that young American Jews are more and more alienated from Israel. One quote: "Every measure indicates a decline of attachment"

Why? What should be done as to reverse this trend?

Rosner

Dear Shmuel

During the Yom Kippur war in 1973, I brought a transistor radio to my largely non-Jewish high school to hear the hourly newscasts. I quickly realized that I was one of the few people (Jewish or non-Jewish) who was this concerned about what was happening during the war.

Since that time I have always observed lesser concern for Israel all the way to alienation with sadness...but understanding.

Unlike most American Jews especially younger Jews, I had a strong personal connection to Israel. I had uncles and cousins who were fighting during this war. I had been to Israel many times. In addition, I deeply valued the importance of Israel, as many members of both of my parents' families had perished in the Holocaust.

Most American Jews don't have these personal connections. And there are three additional reasons that many young Americans feelings for Israel are at best apathy at worst alienation.

One is that the average young American Jew has experienced little or no anti-Semitism. Unlike their parents and grandparents (and me), the current generation of Jews did not feel the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Six Day War or the Yom Kippur War. To those who lived through the events, these were serious survival threats that were tangible examples of the existence of anti-Semitism.

In contrast, young Jews today have grown up seeing a strong and secure American Jewish community, a mighty Israel and loving and accepting non-Jewish neighbors. For them the notion of Jewish peoplehood and the necessity of an Israel is not as compelling as it was for earlier generations "who knew Pharaoh."

A second reason many young Americans feel negatively or apathetic towards Israel is misconceptions or ignorance of Israel. Most American Jews have never been to Israel. Their understanding of the Middle East is largely a result of what they see in the media. Israel is often portrayed as an oppressive occupier, an evil apartheid state.

If you are young, see and hear awful things about what Israel does to the Palestinians, don't know the history of Israel, and you don't feel a strong gut feeling for the need for a Jewish homeland as a safe haven from anti-Semitism, the result can be alienation.

There is a third reason for alienation. When famous Israeli authors, or the Israeli government, or say the former President of Israel (Katzav) insult American Jewry or the Conservative or Reform Movements, this can and does repel American Jews.

What to do you ask? Education. American and Israeli Jews have many misconceptions about each other. American Jews do not adequately understand the existential and anti-Semitic threats faced by Israel and other Jews. Israelis don't adequately understand American Jewish life.

Fortunately many fine educational efforts are happening. Birthright Israel (getting Jews to Israel) and The Israel Project (getting accurate and fair media coverage) are two great example. These efforts should grow. Having Israelis participate and interface with American Jews in these efforts is a win-win. Programs like Wexner that bring American and Jewish leaders together are part of the solution. I'll throw out another idea, there should be a huge high school exchange program for American and Israeli youth to live in each others homes for a quarter or semester.

Understanding will result and rather than alienation, Jews in Israel and America will have the blessing of connection.

Gil

 


 

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