Communally incorrect

Communally incorrect

There is a Jewish community center in Wayne. It is called the YM-YWHA of North Jersey. Its mission statement informs us that it is "dedicated to serve people of all ages in an environment of Jewish values and traditions and to preserve the Jewish way of life." It purports, as well, "to be a common meeting ground for the network of agencies and organizations in the Jewish and general community."

According to its Website, "All food products brought into the Y must be kosher, including food purchased and eaten anywhere on Y property."

Perhaps its Website should be updated, however, as should its mission statement. For one thing, "As of last month, we’re no longer kosher," the manager of the Y’s Tel Aviv Caf? confirmed to me in a telephone call on Tuesday. It is now "kosher style," meaning that no obviously non-kosher foods are served there, but dairy and meat are both served in the caf? and there is no kashrut supervision. (A discussion about this has been initiated with the Y’s leadership.) For another, the Y is open on Shabbat afternoons and on Jewish holidays, albeit only after the area shuls have closed following morning services.

The YM-YWHA of North Jersey and all the other JCCs in our area compete with a proliferation of exercise spas and the like. This Y especially has an ever-growing number of non-Jewish members. Undoubtedly, it and all the others also have many Jewish members who joined for the health club and not the Yiddishkeit; these people want a facility that is open when they want it to be open. (This is ironic, since the justification for "Jewish" Ys was to bring people into the Jewish world, not just the steam room.)

The Wayne Y is not alone in violating communal standards. Other organizations do, too. One, for example, runs a kosher facility, but allows events to be held at non-kosher restaurants which offer such fare as Escargot Bourguignonne, Lump Crabmeat Strudel, Lobster Bisque with Armagnac, and Tournedos of Pork Tenderloin. There is something decidedly unkosher about a communal institution holding such an event in treife locations.

Staying open on Shabbat and maintaining "kosher style" facilities thus would seem to be valid business moves. If the mission is to foster "Jewish values and traditions and to preserve the Jewish way of life," however, turning an organizational back on those values and traditions and that way of life are not the way to go about it.

Communal institutions have an obligation to maintain communal standards.

Beginning with the Torah’s own legislation, it is clear that we Jews are all in the same boat. Regardless of what we believe as individuals, there are bottom-line standards of behavior — moral, ethical, and "religious" — that must reflect the community as a whole.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Torah contains no threat of individual punishment for violating ritual commandments. Except for the ambiguously defined punishment known as karet, in which God warns that an erring soul will be cut off from his or her people in some way known only to Him and according to His time schedule, the punishments are collective. Thus, in one of the most famous citations in the Torah (mainly because it is recited as part of the Sh’ma at least twice each day), we are told:

"If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…, [the Lord] will grant the rain for your land in season….You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — [and the Lord] will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle….Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…." (See Deuteronomy 11:13-17.)

To argue that there is an individual threat here is absurd. It would mean that, if you and I lived next door to each other and I was bad while you were good, your farm would get lots of rain while mine would experience a debilitating drought.

And, indeed, the collective nature of punishment is how many of the talmudic sages of blessed memory saw it. Certainly, this is the tenor of a discussion found in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Sanhedrin 43b. Under examination there is Deuteronomy ‘9:’8, which states, "Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching." While the Sages dispute whether God holds Israel responsible for the secret sins committed by individuals, all agree that He holds it responsible for known transgressions.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of this sense of collectiveness derives from Leviticus ‘6:37, which states, "they shall stumble over one another." This led the sages to declare that "all Israel [is] responsible for one another." (Song of Songs Rabbah 7:14).

This principle also buttresses the notion that communal prayer is more efficacious than individual prayer (see BT Avodah Zarah 4b-5a).

It follows that, if the community as a whole is held responsible for the sins of its members and if its collective merits can help an individual’s prayers to be accepted by God, then the institutions and individuals who represent the community itself must uphold certain basic standards.

The YM-YWHA of North Jersey, at least, will not allow absolute treife in its facility. There are Jewish organizations, however, that do — and proudly so. Some ignore Shabbat regulations when it comes to scheduling events — also proudly. They see themselves as "cultural," not "religious," while ignoring the fact that, to the outside world, they are "Jewish," period. They also make it abundantly clear that the rest of us — especially those for whom such things as kashrut and Shabbat are important parts of our identity as Jews — are simply not wanted. "Us vs. them" used to be synonymous with "Jew vs. non-Jew." Now, it is observant Jews of all stripes vs. those who would rub their noses in it.

Not maintaining communal standards reinforces the belief by so many Jews that ours is a religion based on individual choice, rather than a national unit based on a covenantal relationship with God; that the "old ways" have no further relevance in our lives. It also sends the wrong messages to the outside world (why should a non-Jewish employer accommodate a Sabbath-observer if Jewish organizations do not observe Shabbat?) and undermines the community’s ability to promote its agenda (such as the the passage of laws protecting the civil rights of Sabbath-observers, or the rights of kosher consumers not to be deceived by food purveyors, or maintaining kashrut standards for GIs in the field).

We may be in the same boat, but we are all rowing in different directions. Is it any wonder, then, that the boat is in danger of capsizing?