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Unity
by Dr. Elliott I. Rabin


We live in a time perhaps unprecedented in the history of Judaism. It's a time of birth pangs and death pangs, of growth and contraction, of searching, discarding, and rediscovery. The atmosphere of crisis pervading the Jewish community is reminiscent of nothing so much as the fearful battle of Gog and Magog that apocalyptics said awaited the world at the end of days, before the Messiah would come.

Yet the causes of our current Sturm und Drang are considerably more mundane. We are a community struggling with the consequences of our own success, trying to find a balance between integration in the larger society around us and preservation of our collective identity. Our struggle did not begin yesterday, or in the 1970s when the intermarriage rate started climbing out of control. Ever since the Enlightenment, when the first Jews found their way out of the ghetto or the non-Jewish rulers opened the gate for them, Jews have been seeking (with little success) to strike upon the right formula to balance the demands of modern life, whether defined economically, intellectually, or politically, and the urge for Jewish continuity. Only in recent times has that balance become more urgent and more elusive for Diaspora Jews, as the old ties of family and neighborhood started to snap under the perils of modern freedoms and prosperity.

These pressures have, over many generations, created rift upon rift within the fabric of the Jewish community--which, even in more traditional ages, was always prone to bitter self-division. Yet the biggest rift today is not between Reform and Orthodox, between black-robed jewelers and power-suited attorneys, but between a small and slowly growing remnant of committed Jews and the vast majority who are content to let the wheels of assimilation run their course. The first group realizes what the second group may or may not know or care about: now more than ever, one cannot simply "be" a Jew. A passive Judaism cannot survive. To be a Jew requires a state of longing, an unquenchable pursuit of renewal, learning, sparks of significance wherever they may be found.

That group of seekers--whether they were always actively involved or, as is often the case, they have "retumed" out of a sense of absence or loss--have been recreating Judaism in their own diverse images. They have sought out the half-forgotten aspects of Judaism that tapped into their own creative energies, be it klezmer music or Ladino song, Yiddish poetry or kabbalistic meditation. Others have approached the religious tradition in a more direct and systematic fashion, plunging into ritual practice and/or Torah study in order to gain access to the mystery and power that has shaped Jewish experience since Sinai. They, too, have brought with them the perspectives of contemporary thought and the experiences of the larger society, which have shaped and enriched their vision of a Judaism renewed.

In many ways, the three official "movements" that have been duking it out over the question of Jewish legitimacy are peripheral to these wider, hopeful trends. They resemble sad old boxers who stay in the ring long past their prime, desiring continued fame and glory but more often tarnishing their former splendor. The increasing vituperation makes abundantly clear that their initial separation, however necessary it may have been from the perspective of history, fractured a more healthy and organic form of Judaism into competing ideological camps. Each camp has kept one vital feature of Judaism alive as its own preserve, as it were, at the cost of a more complete, harmonious vision of the Jewish heritage.

Today, some members in each camp are trying to look beyond the fenceposts that their predecessors erected and to integrate their particular group back into a larger whole. Humpty Dumpty can't be put back as his old self, but a new egg, patches and all, is needed if the movements are to continue to have any relevance in coming generations.
Without detailing the shortcomings--all too evident to any observer not bent on apologetics--here's my suggestion for what remains valuable in each movement at its best, what might serve, perhaps, as building blocks for a new conception of Jewish unity.

1) Orthodoxy--passion for tradition and love of detail. The Orthodox have managed to preserve the energy and vitality of the tradition, without which Judaism can seem like a collection of dusty tomes and outdated practices. And they've managed this feat precisely by being the most diligent students of those tomes, the most careful observers of those practices, finding the spirit within the letter. Judaism serves as a warm, self-sustaining fire in Orthodox shuls, study halls, and homes, as it has for two thousand years of exile.

2) Reform--prophetic concern for justice and love of humanity. The Reform movement reminds us that Judaism, even though it stopped missionary activity long ago, has always conceived of itself as a religion with a universal message. The love of God serves not merely to sustain our own institutions but to give us the principles to work with others and improve the world. Our message is not a simple one of forgiveness and salvation but the complicated, never-ending challenge of bringing justice to all, the "widow and orphan" as well as the rich and the mighty, comfort to the oppressed and punishment to the wicked.

3) Conservative--desire for moderation, balance, and love of fellow Jews. The message of the Conservative movement is that we need to follow those customs that sustain us, keep us unique, and ensure our continuity with the past while confronting those elements of the world that challenge our faith. For the Jewish faith to remain strong and not lose its relevance, it must be able to speak to our lives and experiences today, and not transport us to an artificial utopia, past or future, based on the manipulation of nostalgic sentiments. This process of engagement must be conducted in an atmosphere of reason and study, informed by a deep love of the tradition and appreciation of its wisdom.
Of course, one can appeal to other movements that have captured one essential feature of Jewish spirituality to the exclusion of others equally valid. The split between hasidim and mitnagdim, for example, for all of the valuable fruits that each group produced, came at the expense of an artificial division between scholarship and emotion. The Reconstructionist movement as well, along with many other smaller trends and streams, has sought to develop its own authentic angle on Jewish identity.
But the reflex for spiritual mitosis that characterizes modern Judaism comes at high costs. The divisive bickering in Israel over "Who is a Jew?" and its repercussions in America are merely the most visible and embarrassing token of those costs. More tragically, the divisions cause an inevitable ossification within the movements, as they overemphasize one part of Judaism at the expense of the larger, vital, and more amorphous organism. Over time, the younger generation sees the limitations of the Judaism it learned and grows disenchanted, often turning elsewhere for spiritual sustenance. It remains for those who've stayed within the tribe to break down the fences, to learn from each other, and to search for a way to unify the fragments.




Copyright 1998 Elliott I. Rabin


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