Thursday, June 12, 2008

True Jewish Diversity

Lately, I've been meeting lots of people in the non-Orthodox Jewish world who know next to no Hebrew (they can, with difficulty, pronounce the letters), don't celebrate the Jewish holidays, and of course, don't practice halachah in any way, and have no Torah education. Moreover, these people are often not halachically Jewish either. So why do they insist on claiming Jewish identity?

I'm not talking from the perspective of a right-wing yeshivish chnyuk who doesn't recognize the conversions of sincere gerim when they did it through the wrong rabbis. I'm talking about no conversion, no Jewish mother, and in the case of many adoptees, no Jewish descent or conversion of any kind. But nevertheless, these people claim their Jewish identity and get horribly offended when told that they're not Jewish. Or when Ashkenazi, but 100% secular and Jewishly uneducated parents, adopt African-American, latino, or Asian kids, but get offended at the idea that for their kids (who will be raised without a real Jewish education or Jewishly active home) need a conversion to be Jewish, I get really frustrated about the state of affairs in the Jewish people.

I've got no problem at all with sincere (key word, sincere) Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative, or post-denominational Jews. I've got no problem with secular cultural Jews, either. Everyone was created with their own individual soul, their own perspective that is blessed by God with total uniqueness, and everyone must be true to their natures and their consciences. And as a traditionally observant Jew who goes to an Orthodox yeshiva, I'd love to be able to celebrate the diversity of Am Yisrael, and engage in loving and respectful machlokot leshem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). But when the bulk of the non-Orthodox Jews are Jewishly uneducated, not acculturated as Jews, and half the time not even Jewish by heritage, that becomes very difficult.

Okay, fine. You don't believe that the Torah was literally dictated to Moshe at Sinai. You don't believe that the halachah has Divine authority. I can respect that. You have ethical objections to a lot of what Torah literature says. Great. So do I. As long as you know Hebrew (or some other Jewish language) and have studied Torah and claimed it as your heritage, and Judaism doesn't just mean matzah ball soup a couple times a year (I eat homemade tofu and kimchi in my home, all kosher), I can respect your claim to a place in the Jewish people.

Laying false claim to a Jewish identity hurts the struggle for recognition among genuine converts or other non-Ashkenazi Jews. Openly proclaiming the values of some non-Orthodox Jewish philosophy without actually taking the time to learn and live Torah in any depth according to that particular philosophy undermines the claim to legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements, and turns the serious few in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist circles into minorities who champion a cause not taken up by their supposed supporters.

When non-Orthodox Jews neglect to make day schools and yeshivot for their denominations a priority, the only ones left doing Torah education in the lay communities are the Orthodox; especially the ultra-Orthodox. When modern Jews neglect to make yeshiva learning a priority, they concede the whole of the Torah to the fundamentalists.

When English is the only spoken language among American Jews, then there is no cultural Jewish community; only a religious one that some people are more a part of than others.

When parents of adopted children do not convert them as infants, and don't raise in an actively Jewish home, but still instill in them the idea that they're Jews, they're setting those kids up for rejection, confusion, and unnecessary identity crisis.