Note: This is the little-awaited sequel to “Who Is That Masked Fundamentalist?,” which I posted on May 8 (and what a master of suspense am I!)
So who is that masked fundamentalist? Why, it’s the same fellow who unabashedly said this in full view of the Jewish Agency plenary:
There is nothing in all of Jewish history to suggest that a Jewish community anywhere, including in the Land of Israel, can sustain itself without G-d and Torah. Torah-free civilizations have no staying power. . . . There is no reason logically or historically to think that Israel could not find itself fifty years from now populated by Hebrew-speaking, once-Jewish goyim who are perfectly content to separate themselves from the Jewish people around the world.
But one moment, that quote was even more sharply fundamentalist than the first one, so that doesn’t help matters at all.
Well, how about this: He’s the same person who said the following, and at the very same JA meeting:
Judaism is also threatened by . . . those who immerse themselves in the minutiae of Jewish ritual while retreating behind ghetto walls — who are so focused on every jot and tittle of the law that they banish from their heart the living and breathing concerns of their people and of the Jewish state.
So now you know that he isn’t quite the fundamentalist. Yet, despite dumping here on “Jewish ritual” as the province of the morally insensitive, he has written elsewhere that
In the past, we rejected whole elements of our tradition. For example, we tended to accept what we saw as ethical and reject much of what we saw as ritual. More recently, we have come to understand that the distinction between ethical and ritual is spurious and that there is beauty and power in many aspects of ritual that we previously had put aside.
We can keep going back and forth like this, and eventually award the speaker the 2007 John F. Kerry Prize for Excellence in Vascillation and Sustained Inconsistency, but, for cryin’ out loud, who is he ??
Envelope, please: He’s Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and he’s apparently conflicted and frustrated.
On the one hand, he’s clearly well-intentioned, not only by Reform lights, but even from an Orthodox perspective. Yes, I know, what he means by “Torah” and “mitzvot” — much like “kollel” and “outreach” and other recently co-opted terms — ain’t what we mean by those terms. Nevertheless, he clearly wants what’s best for the Jewish people and has a sense that the way to achieve that is through the primacy of the spiritual over the material. Of course, good intentions must ultimately be coupled with good deeds, else they turn into excellent substitutes for asphalt and other road-paving materials.
But, judging from his remarks cited in my previous post, President Yoffie is also clearly frustrated at his movement’s inability to get young people to adopt truly Jewish role models and say “no, thanks” to the role models the surrounding culture offers them. But who can blame them? Consider his following remarks to the 2005 convention of NFTY, the Reform youth organization (call this post a veritable Yoffie-fest!):
And now my third and final challenge. I challenge you to believe in God. Not in God the way others define it, but in God the way Jews define it. I worry that too many of you do not believe in God, not because you are incapable of belief, or even unwilling to believe, but because you do not know what it means for a Jew to believe in God.
To find the answer, of course, you need only look in the Torah. In Deuteronomy 10:18 it states: “The Eternal your God upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”
There you have it. It couldn’t be simpler. For the Jew, to believe in God is to care about God’s special children: the poor, the homeless, the widow, the stranger.
So there, as President Yoffie put it, you have it. Indeed, he says, it couldn’t be simpler. But Yoffie has failed to abide by Albert Einstein’s trenchant admonition to the effect that “things should be made as simple as possible — but not simpler.” Yet the latter is precisely what he did in that speech.
Put aside the fact that he then segued into yet another liberal Democratic talking point, about how “[w]e live at a time when the gap between rich and poor has never been greater. We live at a time when 45 million Americans have no health insurance and no way to provide basic medical care to their children.” Yada, yada.
And put aside that from the rarified heights of “caring for G-d’s special children” he wasted no time ripping into “fundamentalists of all varieties (could that phrasing be coming l’rabos us Orthos? -EK), who claim to believe in God, [yet] spend all their time telling other people what they should or should not be doing in the privacy of their bedrooms, but don’t seem to care a whit about what happens to the poor in their midst.”
The biggest problem, however, with what he told those NFTY kids, and the reason why so few of them stick around to lead adult Jewish lives even by Reform standards is, that by reducing the G-d of Israel, of 613 mitzvos, of the Exodus and Sinai, from an infinitely complex and mighty Creator and intimately involved Father in Heaven to a concept called
“car[ing] about G-d’s special children” is to strip Judaism of its precious uniqueness.
Any intellectually honest kid in that NFTY audience had to have been thinking to him or herself: “You mean that’s it, that’s the entire message that Judaism has bequeathed to the world and the whole of its potential meaning for my life — as if the whole rest of humanity is incapable of and/or uninterested in caring for G-d’s special children? Is this Rabbi Yoffie some sort of bigot?
The same reaction, in other words, as a nice Jewish boy would have when, upon returning home from college with a gentile fiance on his arm, his parents — at least once upon a time, although, sadly, no longer –went ballistic, invoking the Patriarchs, Maimonides, kasha varnishkes and everything in between to fulminate about the shiksa: “But Mom and Dad, for as long as I can remember, you taught me how wonderful the whole world is and that we’re no different from anyone else; so is this just unvarnished racism on your part?”
But the NFTY teen, having perhaps been exposed to the tip of Judaism’s iceberg, might have further questions:”Has Judaism nothing to say about marriage, about parenting, about how to relate to those who don’t qualify as “G-d’s special children,” about business and medical ethics, about the relationship between the physical and spiritual in food, at work, in relationships, about the soul and the afterlife, about what fills countless thousands of pages of the Talmud and the myriad other works of Jewish genius?”
How surprising that the spokesman for a movement that prides itself on appreciating the complexities, the multivariegated nuances and textures of life, should opt for such one-dimensionality. Is Torah about caring for G-d’s special children? Without a doubt. But it’s also about the fact that they’re all his special children.
And it’s about the fact that platitudes and generalized prescriptions and society-wide panaceas (yes, even universal health insurance) won’t accomplish that goal; building ethical societies from the bottom up, one individual’s character, one life of 24/7/365 immersion in Judaism at a time, will. Judaism’s uniqueness inheres in teaching man how to actually create (if only we’d follow its directives) the ideal society that everyone else in history has left at the level of verbiage.
And, finally, it’s about there being something beyond doing good, and that’s becoming holy, transcending the this-worldy finitudes to become as close to angelic as man dares, by entering into relationship with the Divine.
In a word — one with which Eric Yoffie might agree — to be a Jew is to eschew the simplistic and the soundbite, to think and live deeply, to harness and extract meaning from every iota of the human experience, the better to serve G-d and his children. That’s what those kids needed to hear.