Friday, December 2, 2011

A Liberal Jew - and proud of it

I just came across a bunch of articles which I had put aside to blog about, but never got to. They're old, but still relevant, so now I've got some excuses to do some more blogging…

Here's the first one—it's an article by Alex Sinclair, about Liberal Judaism (which, for those who don't know, can more or less be defined as non-Orthodox Judaism), and it's one of those articles that says something that I've been trying to say for years: not only do liberal Jews need to be more comfortable with, and proud of our version of Judaism, but we have to be clear about some fundamental facts, as we see them:

Liberal Judaism makes a powerful claim, and the claim is that Orthodox Judaism is, at its core, wrong. Orthodox Judaism is built around a narrative that contains a foundational error: “The Torah was written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai”. This statement, and the orthodox religious narrative that emerges from it, has been disproven by generations of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, sociologists of religion, and historians. These scholars have demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ words, that the traditional, orthodox understanding of Jewish history is false. The origins of Judaism are much more complicated than that.

Liberal Judaism is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many (all?) leaders of Liberal Judaism, correct. True.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but all of us who are liberal religionists need to make it clear that we are at least as sure in our beliefs as our more conservative (not to be confused with “Conservative Jews,” who are, ironically, liberal jews) brethren. I am not a Reform Jew because I don't have the commitment, or energy, or knowledge to be an Orthodox Jew. I am a Reform Jew because I believe that Reform Judaism comes closest to the Truth.

Sinclair argues that there are three reasons that Liberal Jews are not more vocal about this: first of all, we fool ourselves about how dangerous it is to let the Orthodox control the conversation. I'd say that this is more true in Israel (where Sinclair is writing) because of the overlap of the religious and political worlds, but it's true here, as well. First of all, we all know that our religious and political world aren't actually so separate in America these days (or, I guess, ever). But there's also a religious danger to this—it leaves many Liberal Jews feeling as if they are “less Jewish” than Orthodox Jews. It drives many people who would benefit greatly from a modern, open, rational Judaism towards a less fulfilling (for them) version of Judaism, because they believe it to be "more authentic." It's not, ulitmately, as pressing as questions of settlements in disputed territories or ceding control of marriage to religious extremists, but it's still real.

The second reason that Sinclair gives for our meekness is our desire for Jewish unity:

A second reason that we allow the orthodox narrative to hold center stage is our own fear of Jewish disunity. We tread on eggshells for fear of saying that others’ opinions might be “wrong” or “false”. We nod our heads when we hear absurd and historically ridiculous statements spouted by orthodox friends, because we believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, and because we want to be nice. We think it’s important to be united as a people, so we swallow our pride and allow the orthodox narrative to become the default Jewish position.

He makes an interesting point, but I'm not really sure how much that still a relevant motivator. Sure, we may shy away from confrontation in social settings, but I'm not sure that it's a big deal when we're talking more seriously. Or, maybe it is, and I'm in the minority on this one.

His third reason is, to me, the most interesting, and troubling. He says that we fear that, even though we believe in Liberal Judaism in principle, it might lead to assimilation and the loss of Judaism:

The third reason we tolerate the orthodox narrative as default is because we are concerned about assimilation, and deep down we wonder if the narrative, even if it’s false, might help stem the tide of Jews leaving the Jewish people.

I've touched on this before, because I really do find it troubling: it is not unreasonable to believe that orthodox religion has more staying power than liberal religion. That orthodoxy, of any sort, might be more effective, by many measures. I wouldn't say that it's a closed argument, but there is a lot of research which seems to say that more extreme groups are more and more successful, while more liberal, open groups will tend to dissipate and fade away.

I'm not going to give up on my convictions and become Orthodox just because it's a good “business plan” or anything like that. But, it's an issue that we can't ignore: what if Liberal Judaism, as powerful as many of us find it, isn't sustainable?

In the end, it's probably a question which has to be ignored, on some practical level. All I can do is live the most sincere Jewish life that I can, and try to express to others why I find this version of Judaism so powerful, so sacred, and so true. I may be a practicing a kind of “boutique Judaism” that will never have mass appeal, or that will eventually be put out of business by “big-box Judaism.” But, I really don't believe in their product, so I guess I'd better keep selling mine.

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