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In this week’s episode: Numbers 12-15. Tema Smith, Toronto Discussion Group Coordinator for Be’chol Lashon, considers the strange cocktail of anecdotes which is this week’s portion and why Moshe is the poster boy (and this edition the “poster edition”) for Jewish diversity and interfaith outreach.
I suppose Previous Jews will keep writing about intermarriage for the same reason that the Rolling Stones keep touring and releasing albums – because they still physically can and folks are still willing to pay attention to them.
So here goes. With sighs and facepalms at the ready, I had a bit of a peruse of this piece over at Tablet which, coincidentally, is the subject of the next edition of TanakhCast: Did Moses intermarry?
The piece begins with an accurate albeit snide summary of recent efforts (and “strained arguments”) on the part of the Reform movement and various Jewish outreach organizations to recast Moshe and Tzipporah’s union as the first successful “intermarriage”. (That the authors put intermarriage in quotes … oi.) This agenda-driven recap builds to the inevitable argument Previous Jews persist in making about one of Next Judaism’s norms: You young whippersnappers elevate intermarriage from an ever-present reality to a desirable ideal! (And the Pew Study has the data to prove it!!)
Really? Is that what we’re doing? Feel free to sigh heavily and facepalm at this point…
By acknowledging the choice that more Jews are making about whom they will marry (a choice which the authors clearly disapprove of), we are elevating a choice to an ideal? I thought we were just accepting reality… but I digress.
Cohen and Morris continue to assert that context matters (that is, Moses’ was different than ours, duh) and then move on to argue that parents, like religious leaders, try to teach the difference between right and wrong, but Reform rabbis are confused about whether it is right for Jews to marry Jews. Really? Well, I guess the consensus on this has shifted much like the consensus has shifted on many other things… like LGBT Jews marrying or women wearing a tallit at the Kotel. Sorry, digressing…
And in subsequent paragraphs, which evoked much sighing and facepalming, the authors proceed to do what pieces authored by Previous Jews can be counted on to do: yearn for the good ol’ days of certainty, clarity and old timey values and religion. Buried within the prose and analysis is the trenchant wish that if we could only roll back the odometer to a more Jew-identified time, we would all be better off. If we could only revive the consensus of, say, the 1950s, or even better, the shared values of right and wrong from the 1850s, somehow, all the vexing problems facing the Jewish community, especially intermarriage, would magically disappear. We could be a people again!
As Cohen and Morris pointed out, context matters. However, it seems that our authors, like many Previous Jews, persist on clinging to and focusing on the wrong one.
Their concluding paragraph delimits their myopia perfectly:
Following the publication of Pew’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we can well imagine that some Jewish parents are sitting down with their children to assure that their kids understand that when the time comes, they are to marry within the faith. Do we really want these children to answer: “But our rabbi teaches that intermarriage is a personal choice just as good as marrying a Jew. After all, Moses married a non-Jew and he became the leader of our people”?
Do we really want my child to answer in this manner? DO WE?
In a word: HELL YES I DO!
First, this Next Jewish child (about whom our Previous Jewish authors concern-troll so lengthily) quotes her rabbi! And she can cite her rabbi because, it seems, she has a relationship with her rabbi, one which she values. It also seems that this relationship is open and trusting enough that personal questions of great import can be asked and answered. Was this question asked after a Shabbat service or before a youth program or did the Rabbi visit her summer camp? Who knows? I guess it doesn’t matter… (Let the geshrying continue!)
Second, this Next Jewish child is also familiar with the relevant sections of Exodus and Numbers in which the story of Moses’ family is recounted as well as the importance of Moses in the history of the Jewish people. Not too shabby.
And, third, and most important, she sees herself as part of the Jewish people.
Yes, our authors might answer, yes… but which Jewish people? I don’t recognize them at all.
I suppose that is precisely the point.
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In this week’s episode: Leviticus 8-11. We begin puzzling out the vagaries of kashrut law and Jewish eating and end up with Chabad and Aish HaTorah trying to justify why we should marry only Jews when, technically, all of the patriarchs, Joseph, Moses, Boaz, David and Solomon and even the founders of Ashkenazi Jewry didn’t… And yet, despite the notorious Pew Report, the Jewish people keep on keeping on… or do they?
And ICYMI, the paper in Nature about how European women and NOT women from the Near East were the principal female founders of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Europe. You’ll want to read this with a cup of hot cocoa.
I am bit behind in my podcasts.
I only got to last week’s This American Life this week. Forgive me.
I would imagine that listening to the opener of Episode #491 entitied “Tribes” might have given all the bubbes and zeides and folks at Federations everywhere some pause and need for an antacid.
In the introductory segment, Ira Glass describes how David, a Chicago friend, who is concerned that Jews are increasingly less inclined to join Jewish organizations, tried to get him involved/lend his star power to a local effort to engage disengaged Jews.
When Ira explained that such an endeavour was not his thing, further citing his marriage to a non-Jew and culinary choices during Passover as examples of his disaffiliation, his interlocutor retorted that despite all of this, Ira was a Jew! It’s in his DNA!! And, in fact, This American Life was “profoundly Jewish” because of its tendency to tell meaningful stories! [Press “play” here for Klezmer track… ]
You can listen to the podcast over at This American Life, or download the episode here and have a listen. I’ll wait…
What struck me about this interlude was NOT Ira’s professed lack of connection to Judaism – there are countless thousands of Jews who would not blanche at his self-identification (or lack thereof). NOR the clichéd klezmer bit…
What gave me pause was the line of reasoning Ira’s friend David used to try and convince him to get involved… and one does not have to be a self-professed “bad Jew” like Ira Glass to raise an eyebrow (or enlist Jared Diamond) in challenge to his friend’s essentialist plea.
Really? A Jew in his DNA? If you buy into that, I have a bridge in Nuremberg I’d like to sell you.
Seriously? Part of his DNA? And what about the individual who chooses to embrace Judaism as an adult? Was her Jew-gene buried and suppressed by a pack of gentile-genes somewhere on the 23rd strand until its fateful liberation and expression during a screening of “Yentl”? Do tell. I am all ears.
This extremely convincing (and when I say “extremely convincing” I mean the exact opposite) form of gene-based Jewish identification is one of the big guns in the “engagement” arsenal, often deployed with “Assimilation BAD!” and “Intermarriage BAD!” … as if haranguing Jews “on the margins” will motivate them to be less marginal. This piece from the New York Times excoriating mixed marriages is yet another iteration of this failed cri-de-coeur. …But it is so well-written!
If one deploys a traditional model for engagement, whereby you are either “in” or “out” of Judaism (and by “in” you employ a pretty limited set of criteria to determine “in” including parentage, ritual observance, AFFILIATION WITH JEWISH INSTITUTIONS etc etc – or be prepared for a fight with the folks over at the American Jewish Yearbook…), then Ira’s friend probably chalked up the encounter with Ira as one for the loss column. One could imagine him hanging up the phone and sighing heavily as he intoned “Ira is lost to us.”
Had the pitch been framed differently or had the whole nature of the endeavour for which Ira Glass’ presence would have added value and attractiveness been conceived in a different manner – Ira might have said YES.
What I mean is this:
Identifying as a Jew and affiliating with a Jewish organization who values membership in the organization are not the same thing.
More importantly, lacking a desire to affiliate does not imply or guarantee a lack of desire to identify.
For those that think identification and affiliation are the same thing, this is an age of crisis and disaster. It is the end of the Jews – and Ira Glass is one of its hasteners.
But for those that understand identification differently, it is not a win or lose, with-us-or-against-us proposition. Who a Jew is and what a Jew does is a lot more complicated. Like the stories on This American Life, it takes time to unfold, understand and appreciate.
I guess figuring out precisely how many Jews there are in the USA serves an important purpose for funding organizations, bakers of hamantaschen and antisemites… but as important as determining that final number is the fighting that ensues around whether that final number is correct.
The JFNA gracefully dropped out of the
internecine fighting bean counting business in November, 2011 … and now, as J.J. Goldberg reports, the American Jewish Yearbook is having a go at it.
Not for use with Cholent.
His piece is VERY worth reading for the detailed analysis of the numbers and the meanings derived (and mis-derived) from them. Such as…
… Nearly 4% of respondents deny their semitic origins when asked directly by strangers. As Goldberg reports, a simple reordering of questions (leaving, say, “Hey, are you a Jew?” toward the middle) results in higher population numbers!
… Or children of intermarried families identifying increasingly as Jewish because of the perception in Washington DC and Hollywood that Jews are perceived as hip!
… Or Jews who do not identify as believers (and are thus discounted, or should I say “miscounted”?) but do identify themselves as secular or cultural Jews.
Goldberg also capably identifies what is at stake for Previous Jews who not only determine funding priorities but also need to demonstrate that intermarriage threatens the Jewish future. And then there are the Old School Zionists need to demonstrate that more Jews live in Israel as fulfillment of the Zionist vision.
What does this mean for Next Jews?
As I have written here at The Next Jew (and in End Of The Jews and yadda yadda yadda), new, discrete research tools need to be developed to measure identification as opposed to identity. How many candles get lit in my house each Erev Shabbat (FYI, 5!) tells me much less than how much I want to take part in the future of the Jewish people. (Which, incidentally, is also a 5.) It might take a little bit longer to compile data and might require (Previous) Jewish researchers and their personal notions of what a Jew is and does to set those biases aside and be open to the differing and diverse facets of Next Judaism.
The bigger question is: How many more of these
kerfuffles arguments disputes disagreements conversations will establishment Previous Jews have about counting before all the folks that are supposed to be counted (read: Next Jews) run out of patience, move on and go off the grid? For many Next Jews, these conversations are symptomatic of much of what is wrong with establishment Previous Judaism – its tendentiousness, top-down decision making and judgmental finger-wagging. And besides, census-taking has never been prominent in the Jewish wheelhouse. In fact, counting (as was the case in 2 Samuel 24) has been a downright disaster…