Jerusalem and Babylon

Jerusalem and Babylon

U.S.-born Israeli scholar examines Jewish connections across denominational divides

Dr. Adam Ferziger
Dr. Adam Ferziger

There’s something about seeing things from more than one angle at the same time that can lead to both insight and discomfort.

Insight, because truth is almost always more complicated than an either/or assumption can allow; discomfort, because it is almost always the case that truth would be more palatable if it were just less, well, complicated.

But sometimes insight and discomfort can combine to produce hope. And that kind of complicated alchemy is what Dr. Adam Ferziger does; next weekend, he’ll be scholar-in-residence at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, he’ll examine the relationships between Orthodox and liberal Jews, and American and Israeli Jews, and he’ll manage to find some way to thread through the minefields. (See box for details.)

Dr. Ferziger, who grew up in Riverdale and went to SAR and Ramaz and then to Yeshiva University, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as rabbinic ordination, moved to Israel 31 years ago. He now holds the Samson Raphael Hirsch Chair at Bar Ilan’s Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry and is the founding director of the new Center for the Study of Judaism in Israel and North America. “I label myself an insider and an outsider,” he said. Even after more than three decades as an Israeli, “I’m still an immigrant, not a sabra.” He is an Orthodox Jew, but “as an academic, I am trying to observe and provide insight.”

On Friday night, Dr. Ferziger will talk about Orthodox feminism and the response it has evoked from the Orthodox establishment. The discussions that center around the issue unsurprisingly tend to be tense, as comfortable longtime understandings about what halacha will and will not permit butt up against assumptions that have filtered into the community from the outside world in which its members very much live. “I will focus on a major rabbinic decision the Orthodox Union adopted in 2017 that forbids female Orthodoxy clergy,” Dr. Ferziger said. “I will be looking at how, when you analyze the text, you can see that in responding negatively to the desire for innovation they are innovating themselves.” In the process of responding to a desire for innovation “they are redefining or reconceptualizing what are the core characteristics of the Orthodox rabbinate.”

On Shabbat morning, he will take on the often-barbed subject of the way American and Israeli Jews see themselves and each other. After a long period when Israelis just assumed that Americans supported them no matter what, “the last few years have been eye-opening on all sides,” Dr. Ferziger said. “A lot of Americans have been very clear about their feeling alienated from Israel in many ways, and Israelis are starting to come around to the idea that they have to think more creatively and with greater respect about the nature of this relationship.”

This has been a tumultuous year for American Jews, capped by the murders in Pittsburgh and the differences in the American and Israeli reaction to it, he said. This year, Natan Sharansky left his position as the head of the Jewish Agency; when he did, “the Western Wall plaza issue exploded again.” (The issues are the questions surrounding the men’s, women’s, and mixed-gender areas of the Kotel — the mixed-gender ones that are far away, and the women’s section where women are not allowed to bring Torah scrolls or tallitot — and the agreements that had been signed about them and then ignored.)

Does this have anything to do with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, about whom Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews tend to disagree? “Some of this relates to Trump, but there have been divisions in the American Jewish community in respect to Israel, whether between AIPAC and J Street or regarding the BDS movement that have existed for a long time,” Dr. Ferziger said.

“When it comes to political issues, it is clear that there were divides, and the idea that all America Jews will support a specific Israeli government — that never was the case, whether the government was Labor or Likud or whatever. But on religious issues, the sense of alienation regarding acknowledgement of Jewishness” — whether, for example, someone whose father is a Jew but whose mother is not, and who is raised as a Jew, is Jewish, as the Reform movement says, or is not Jewish, as the Conservative and Orthodox establishments say — “and gender issues. These are things that have become more up front and more bothersome.

“There is some irony in this,” he continued. “In the past, there was a tremendous conflict between Orthodoxy and the other denominations in the United States. Now, in the United States, we have entered an increasingly post-denominational period, and a decline in fierce competition.”

Basically, he suggests, the local religious environment is characterized by calm. “That said, some of the alienation and animosity between denominations has manifested itself through non-Orthodox alienation from Israel, because Israel is viewed as the more aggressively Orthodox framework,” he said.

The relative calm is a change. “There were huge tensions in the 1980s, when the patrilineal descent decision came out, and Reuven Bulka wrote ‘The Coming Cataclysm.’ No one talks that way anymore.”

That change was evident in the response to Pittsburgh. “The spirit was quite remarkable,” Dr. Ferziger said. “What happened was tragic, but it bred a great deal of warmth and caring.

“I know that in the Riverdale Jewish Center” — the Orthodox synagogue where he grew up — “they put out 11 empty chairs next to the bimah, with open siddurs.” That despite the fact that the murders were in a Conservative synagogue. That didn’t matter at all. “Jewish people were killed as they were praying to God. No one was denying that, even if they didn’t agree with them theologically.”

On the other hand, non-Orthodox American Jews’ willingness to believe the worst of the Israeli rabbinate made many of them quick to accept that when the country’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, seemed unwilling to call Tree of Life, where the massacre took place, a synagogue, it was bias, not an unwieldly translation of someone genuinely trying to express not only sympathy but also solidarity. “That was really fascinating to see,” Dr. Ferziger said. “It unfortunately is an example of how the animosity of denominationalism is focused on Israel.”

The modern Orthodox world in which the 54-year-old Dr. Ferziger grew up was less insular than it is now, he said. “It used to be that YU did outreach to the broader Jewish population and the charedim focused on their own.” Now that seems to have changed; “not just Chabad but Lakewood and Chofetz Chayim types are more likely to engage with the world; they’re more self-confident, and also they need the funds.” On the other hand, “the YU world has become more insular socially, and so have places like Teaneck, Englewood, Riverdale, and the Five Towns. Everyone living there is working, they have good educations and good jobs, but rarely do they have close social connections with Jews who aren’t Orthodox.

“I went to Orthodox schools that were more heterogeneous; in modern Orthodox settings there was more diversity, more overlapping with Conservative kids.”

Despite the growing lack of outreach, Dr. Ferziger finds hope in the response to Pittsburgh, which he thinks is more than just symbolic. In his Shabbat morning talks, “I will propose a new model, predicated on Jerusalem and Babylon.

“Even though Jerusalem had its particular elevation and holiness and pre-eminence, there was a recognition that there were other very culturally powerful and rich communities.” Those places, particularly the profound and powerful diaspora community of Babylon, “had to be appreciated.”

How does that work for us today? “Israelis often look at America, they look at all the challenges of being a Jew in America, and they are so perplexed,” he said. “It doesn’t fit in their model of what it means to be a Jew, about what a synagogue means, and what it means to create a Jewish family.” American Jews similarly don’t understand what it means to live in a mainly Jewish country. That lack of understanding “isn’t a cognitive thing,” he added quickly. “People are very smart. They understand this cognitively. But they don’t make the jump from the cognitive to appreciating how this manifests itself in such huge gaps in how Judaism has evolved on the ground.”

When he takes on this large, unwieldy subject, “I will talk about the alienation, and about the move toward a more mutually beneficial dynamic that the Center is trying to identify and work out, using the finest faculty of Jewish studies in the world to focus on it, in a laboratory-type environment.”

For his third talk, Dr. Ferziger will focus on text — specifically about how Jews look at cremation. “It deals with a major number of halachic issues, but there are huge social implications,” he said.

“Cremation is an issue that was debated at the turn of the 20th century and then took an unbelievably tragic turn after Auschwitz,” when the Nazis and their collaborators gassed and then burned the bodies of millions of Jews. “One of my areas of research is contemporary Jewish law. There are huge debates in Orthodoxy about what to do with someone who decides to be cremated. Can you bury their ashes in a Jewish cemetery?

“These issues begin with a technical question, but when you read the different approaches of the decisors more closely you see they perceive the question in terms of whether people who are cremated, or who act in a certain deviant manner, have in some way abdicated their Jewish identity. In the case we will focus on, it turns out that looking at the debate has tremendous implications for how Orthodox rabbis perceive other issues such as marriages done by Reform rabbis.

“I will look at some sources that talk about the burial of Reform Jews who ask to be cremated, and the marital status of Reform Jews who were married by a Reform rabbi.

“The reason these questions interest me is not simply to note the divisions, but to see that some of these authorities of previous generations demonstrated a great deal of thought and effort in trying to appreciate the positive lessons of religious behaviors that in principle they found to be theologically problematic.

“So it is not coming from a place of judgement or exclusion. Instead, I discovered some inclusionary tropes that were illuminating to me.

“My work in general is focused on modern and contemporary Judaism,” Dr. Ferziger summed up. “Much of it has been looking at diversity on the one side, and at the same time at the adjustments that have been made in a wide variety of denominations, even among the traditionalists.

“That is surprising to people, but they did it in order to facilitate ongoing positive contact” with other Jews.

“I am a scholar, and I will not whitewash,” he continued. “The world is complicated.” In his first book, “Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity,” published by the University of Pennsylvania in 2005, which “was about the attitudes of Orthodox Jews toward non-Orthodox Jews” in 19th and early 20th century Europe, “I saw that except for very fringe groups, there were a lot of adjustments made in order not to undermine the fundamental connections between people, without trying to erase the disagreements and the distinctions between them.”

Those adjustments can be very difficult to make on both sides, and they are even harder to make when religious obligations complicate them, but “although sometimes the tensions are very tragic, I have seen throughout much of my study of European and American and Israeli history that in many ways these tensions also can be unbelievably productive and lead to unbelievably creative solutions.

“Sometimes there are periods of strong divisions before people put their heads together to come up with workable solutions,” he conceded. But “although every situation has its particularities, nonetheless, if you get creative, smart, thoughtful, knowledgeable people together, then you can propose ways of addressing situations that can be possible, and even positive and growth-oriented.”

“This is not a utopian vision,” he said. “It is a very hard-core look at the real issues, but bringing to the table a certain perspective that hasn’t come to fruition to date.” The perspective? That with flexibility and hope and wisdom and knowledge, the Jewish people can continue in at least some ways to be one people.

Who: Dr. Adam Ferziger

What: Will be scholar-in-residence at Congregation Rinat Yisrael

When: The Shabbat that starts on Friday, December 21. At the oneg, at 7:30, he’ll talk about “Female Clergy and Male Space: The Ritualization of the Orthodox Rabbi.” At the minyanim that begin at 8:30 and at 9 on Shabbat morning, he’ll take on “Jerusalem and Babylon in the 21st Century.” And later that day, after Mincha, he’ll tackle “Love and Death: Reform Marriage and Reform Burial in Contemporary Halacha.”

Where: Rinat is at 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

For more information: Go to or call (201) 837-2795

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