Why are there are so many disconnected Jews in America and elsewhere, including Israel? I am not talking only of the number of unaffiliated Jews, which is disturbingly above the 50 percent range. Included, too, are many of the so-called affiliated – so-called because they are only nominally connected.
Keeping the faithThis is not simply a numbers game. The Jewish world is beset by problems, from the high cost of Jewish living generally, to the skyrocketing cost of Jewish education specifically, to a growing elderly population in need of services for which there is little money, to a diminution of Jewish identity, to a growing segment of the adult Jewish community that is ignorant of what being Jewish really is all about. These are not problems that can be resolved easily in the best of circumstances. They are impossible to resolve if well more than half of us do not relate to them in the first place.
There are, of course, a great many complicated reasons for this disconnectedness. To my mind, however, one reason overrides so many others: The sense out there that Jewish leadership, and specifically religious leadership, is characterized by hypocrisy. Judaism is what the rabbis say it is – and what they say it is perceived as being based either on political motivations or on financial ones, or both.
Sadly, there is much truth to this – too much truth, in fact.
In Israel, for example, Conservative and Reform rabbis stand shoulder to shoulder in opposing any attempt to narrow the definition of who is a Jew. On the other hand, Conservative rabbis generally do not automatically accept Reform conversions, which are considered “incomplete,” and under no circumstances accept patrilineality as valid for Jewish identity. In other words, they want the state to accept what they themselves cannot accept.
The issue is compounded by the divisions within the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Not only are Conservative and Reform conversions considered invalid, the non-Zionist wing of the Orthodox rabbinate considers the conversions of the Religious Zionists to be invalid. Is it because the Zionist rabbis do not know what the requirements are for conversion? No, it is because the Zionist rabbis are Zionists.
Thus, last year, a panel of three non-Zionist judges on the High Rabbinical Court threw out hundreds of conversions performed by Israel’s Conversion Authority between 1999 and 2003. Why? Said the three-judge panel, the Zionist rabbis “see in conversion a sacred commandment as part of their national responsibility…; conversion is a means of improving the spiritual situation of the entire Jewish nation living in Israel. It is a way of bringing Jews closer to their Judaism. [Yes, you are reading that correctly; bringing Jews closer to their Judaism apparently is not a good thing if the people doing it are Zionists.] But, in reality, for dozens of years now, the vast majority of converts via the Conversion Authority remain gentile in their behavior, except for the performance of rituals, which remain for these converts empty of spiritual content.”
(These issues will be discussed more fully in a future column or two.)
“Born” Jews living on the fringes of Jewish life see such things and roll their eyes in disgust. And well they should.
We are not free of such things here, either. Currently, we are being treated to two distinct and serious scandals – the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors meat processors mess and the alleged Bernard Madoff scam.
In the Agriprocessors case, the question is whether individual aspects of halacha can be independent of each other. If the letter of the law is followed in the slaughtering process, or in food preparation, does the violation of other aspects of Jewish law, such as those that set labor standards, invalidate the kashrut of the meat? Consider these two cases:
Case One: A restaurant serves kosher foods exclusively and these foods are certified by recognized authorities. The preparation is also done according to Jewish law. As part of the ambience of the restaurant, however, music is played in the background. It is music that people can dance to, although there is no room in the restaurant for anyone to do any dancing. Should that restaurant be certified as kosher?
No, say some kashrut authorities. The fact that the music has the potential to encourage dancing is sufficient to deny kashrut certification. The same is true if employees do not dress in a manner acceptable to these certifiers.
Case Two: Agriprocessors violated with abandon a variety of civil and criminal laws and halachic requirements. Among other things, it was accused of abusing animals, gross labor law violations, and bank fraud. Should Agriprocessors be denied kosher certification?
The same certifiers who would deny certification in places where music that might be danced to is played made clear that none of what Agriprocessors did affected the kashrut of its meat. Other rabbis concurred. Thus, “Lapses of business ethics, animal rights issues, worker rights matters – all of these have no effect whatsoever on the kosher value,” Agudath Israel’s Rabbi Avi Shafran recently told a Yeshiva University-sponsored conference.
Music you can dance to does help determine “the kosher value,” but forcing 16-year-old girls to work 20 hours a day does not.
Enter the Madoff scandal, in which a number of Jewish organizations and philanthropies were severely hurt, some fatally so.
According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, an associate professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an outstanding authority on Jewish law, “ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism.” As he recently told The New York Times, “it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings.”
Does this not apply equally to the Rubashkin/Agriprocessors case?
Conservative rabbis, meanwhile, present a mirror image to all this. On the one hand, they insist that Torah-based labor practices and ethical rules should apply to whether something is kosher, regardless of the potential economic impact. On the other, precisely because of the economic impact, it took more than two years for the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to issue a responsum requiring ethical labor standards in the workplace.
Rabbis of all stripes seek to have it both ways on issue after issue. Religion has less to do with it than politics, ideological advantage, or turf protection.
The disconnected are neither blind nor deaf. They see and they hear, and they want no part of it.
And their numbers grow each year – because the marginally connected are no less able to see and hear and feel abandoned.