Not Your Father’s Catholic Church

“There has never been a Pope with as deep an understanding of Jews as Pope Francis” states Rabbi Rosen candidly. “Of course Pope John Paul II had a unique childhood experience of the Jewish community in Wadowice. But by the time he was a priest, there was little living community left to talk of, so his engagement was not as a developed adult.

Francis, on the other hand, has not only nurtured lifelong friendships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, with whom he has had “a vibrant interaction”, says Rabbi Rosen, but has co-authored a book with an Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka, “thus addressing issues face to face with Jewish self-understanding and experience. This profoundly shapes his sensitivity and his commitment to the Jewish-Christian relationship.”

Source: Pope Francis and the Jews: the first six months – AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy

The Jewish-Catholic relationship is still on the mend after well over a millennium of anti-Semitic dysfunction that ranged from the dismissive to the the implicit countenance of genocide. It’s a large wound.

That said, since the “Nostra Aetate” declaration at Vatican II, the progress has been measured, but consistent and meaningful, and that looks to continue apace under Pope Francis, who has now taken the unprecedented step of calling upon all Catholics to cease the effort to evangelize Jews. We would do well to recognize that this is a controversial move for the Pope among his own flock, and that it was made in the effort to provide a comfortable “space” for interfaith discussion.

There are certainly good reasons to draw the line in that discussion at interfaith dialogue on doctrine: our beliefs should never be the subject of negotiation. At the same time, we must recognize – as did Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L, the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that there are commercial, philanthropic, civil, and economic issues of mutual interest about which there must be open channels of communication. And that proscription against dialogue on doctrine should never constrain leaders from either faith from dispelling real and often slanderous misconceptions held by one group of the other.

There is still much to be discussed in an effort to find a way to live together in a world where all faiths find themselves navigating a world with deeper and deeper sees of relativism. It is good to do so during a time when the attitude about Jews and Judaism projected by  most Catholics, lay and clergy, to be far more enlightened than has historically been the case.

 

 

Should Jews Live Apart Again?

Hebrew Union College Campus

One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?

)And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)

We Are Used to Being Apart

Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.

Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.

There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.

But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.

This is Urgent in Europe

We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.

The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.

What about the U.S.?

In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.

We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”

And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.

And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.

At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.

History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.

Judaism and the Benedict Option

As described by conservative commentator Rod Dreher, who is both an expert in and advocate of the practice. the “Benedict Option” refers to the voluntary withdrawal by contemporary Christians from the wider society into segregated, or even cloistered communities, much in the way that Benedictine monks did during the more unsettled parts of the middle ages.

These modern Benedictines have, in Dreher’s words, “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

Dreher continues:

“Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who “accept [Alistair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

The public discussion among observant Christian communities around the Benedict Option reached a crescendo during the latter half of President Obama’s second term. At the time, it was possible to foresee America living for decade under a government that was unsympathetic to the concerns of Americans shaken by the speed and magnitude of change in public mores. It has since dropped off, but one gets the feeling that observant Christians are waiting to see how far Trump is – or is not – willing to go to reverse that trend, or even to slow the pace of change.

The logical question when reading about the Benedict Option is to ask whether there is a Jewish version. Are observant Jews in America as alienated by the changes in American society as are observant Christians? And are they ready to change the structures of their communities to address them?

Few who read this would disagree that they already are, and have been for centuries. Indeed, as Dreher and others have noted, the most relevant model for the Benedict Option in the context of a modern society is not the original Benedictine communities themselves, but observant Jewish communities. The place of worship becomes the center of the community. Communities establish religious schools offering different mixes of secular subjects and religious teachings as an alternative to public schooling. They build social institutions designed to support observant life. And they are serious about weekly communal activities.

Two questions emerge from this, then.

  1. How are we as Jews – as individuals and as a community – to respond to Christian communities taking the Benedict Option?
  2. Is it time for Jews of all denominations – Conservative, Reform, and Deconstructionist as well as Orthodox – to begin rethinking our physical assimilation into wider society?

I’ll address each in separate posts in the coming weeks.

The Avoidance of Gluttony

Kashrut, pursued with determination, prepares the soul to avoid gluttony. The strictures of Halal do the same. Both are frameworks that demand consideration before consumption.

For its part, Christianity identifies gluttony as a sin, but interestingly does not provide a practical path to dodge the temptation in a prosperous society to become a foodie. Observation only, not at all a criticism.

To my knowledge, there are evangelistic ministries that consider the question, but such discussions tend to hit a theological dead end with Paul’s original rejection of the corpus of Torah law.

This suggests another reason why it is incumbent upon us as Jews to interact with non-Jews to promote their knowledge of our laws and practice. We are not now, nor should we ever be, a proselytizing faith. But as others faiths evolve and they seek answers in our practice, we have no reason to hold back that knowledge. On the contrary, an argument can be made that we should encourage such study, provided it is not with the intention of undermining or destroying us.

The Yiddishe Interface

Judaism needs people within the faith who are capable of and disposed to interacting with ha goyim. We as a people cannot, either practically or (in the context of our assigned role on Earth) morally withdraw from the world around us.

We can certainly have groups or kehillim who can and should do so. Our strength, I believe, lies in our diversity, and such communities are part of our mantle; there will always be among us souls of profound tenderness who can only thrive in places of refuge from the conflicts within the world.

But to survive as a people, as an am, we will need men and women of great faith who can still serve as our interface to the other nations of the world on at least partially common ground. Others need not believe what we believe, but they must know the truth about our beliefs and why we hold to them, not the lies that others might manufacture in our absence.

Where Gandhi Went Wrong

Since his assassination in 1948, Mohandas K. Gandhi has become something of a secular saint, recognized almost universally as a “great soul” who not only did much to liberate his own people, but who also changed the dialogue around violence and repression.

Gandhi lived by high principles that served him and the peoples of Greater India in the effort to cast off British rule. But Gandhi’s belief that his principles could withstand application to peoples and/or situations far different than those in which he lived was in many cases and unsupported conceit, and in other cases produced some convoluted thinking.

He believed that non-violence would have served India in the face of a Japanese occupation. He believed that the proper response of the Jews of Europe to Hitler’s Final Solution was to throw themselves upon the butcher knives of the SS death squads. And he believed that a State of Israel must wait until the Jews were invited back to their homeland.

Against the latter, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber penned an eloquent criticism. There is a complete text here, along with a broader overview of Gandhi’s relationship with Jews. At best, Gandhi was playing to the home crowd. At worst, he spoke from a willful lack of understanding of the true facts on the ground. Whatever the reason, little does more to tarnish the verity of Gandhi’s ethos than his offhanded treatment of questions around the Jews.

Probing Gandhi’s words on the subject, and contemplating the context in which he wrote them, it is little wonder that India has failed to sustain a Jewish community of any size. It also underscores that the time has come for a critical re-examination of his core beliefs, their roots, and their logical extensions.

Amoral Logic

How does a utilitarian approach to morality lead to the Golden Rule?

Anyone who studies a little bit of game theory has to believe that “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is, at best, an occasional outcome.

In Judaism, our love of G-d, combined with belief that we are all created in G-d’s image (spiritually if not physically) provides that path. Do we always live by it? No. But the more we live in consistency with our values, the more we are driven to take care of each other.

Utilitarian morality, on the other hand, begins and ends with looking out for Number One. For me, that’s a recipe for dystopia.