Radio Shack and the Jewish Problem

A few additional points following up on my last post:

1) Ms. Horowitz’ statement is by no means unique in today’s Jewish world. Come and hear, as they say, what Stephen Fried writes in the prologue to his recent, well-selling non-fiction work The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader (it was one of the Publisher’s Weekly Best Religion Books in 2002). But first, sit down, on a firm surface, not too far off the ground. Now, I quote: “While its different branches have slightly different theology and observance, Judaism does not dictate belief. Its timeless appeal is as a religion of questions, not answers.”

Are you still there?

Note, please, that he refers to all of Judaism’s “different branches” including, presumably, Orthodoxy. Horowitz, too, in her one-sentence precis of Jewish theology presumably is being inclusive of Orthodoxy (I don’t believe our marginalization is that advanced just yet). Even if we were to say that by their actions the heterodox movements have somehow led the utterly uninformed to believe that the former don’t regard faith as essential, can the same possibly be said of the Orthodox? And do Judaism’s “different branches” truly have only “slightly different theology and observance” from each other?

Now, Stephen Fried is a secularly sophisticated and seasoned journalist; from the looks of his back-flap picture, a nice guy; and from a read of his book, an earnest, well-meaning Jew. But he is also, Jewish-wise, a day-old babe, serving as an ostensibly reliable source of information about Judaism for tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews. That’s not intended as a value judgment about a fellow Jew, even if it is one; it’s meant to highlight the tragedy of our contemporary Jewish reality.

“A religion of questions, not answers.” If Judaism was a corporation with that mission statement — the Radio Shack of religion, but inverted, if you will — and I was its CEO, I’d file for bankruptcy immediately.

One last question, this one for observant Jews, including this writer: knowing what countless Jews out there are learning about Judaism from Horowitz, Fried, et al, why are we all not galvanized thereby to do something big, something bold, but above all, something right now? What does our complacency say about our emunah (faith in G-d), or our ahavas yisrael (love of our Jewish brethren), or both?

2) Thinking further about Ms. Horowitz’ essay, I’m not quite sure how her “Judaism without faith” response resolves the central question, to wit, why American Jews are so faith-less. After all, quite apart from the realm of belief, American Jewish commitment to practical Jewish living is also quite dismal; given that action without faith is a perfectly reasonable Judaic approach, how does Horowitz explain that one? Of course, one might suggest that American Jews are, indeed, religiously committed on the level of action if we accept the notion that, to paraphrase an old bon mot , “the way to say mitzvah in English is tikkun olam.”

3) One of the things I sought to imply in my letter, though it was not explicit, is that Jews affiliated with all of the Jewish religious “movements” might be able to agree with Ms. Horowitz that Judaism encompasses a spectrum of beliefs, that it privileges actions over beliefs and that “there’s no such thing as a lapsed Jew.” All of them, however, also agree that her assertion that belief is non-essential to Judaism, is bizarre beyond words. So it seemed to me as I was writing.

I now think I erred, however, in assuming that all these movements reject the possibility of a lapsed Jew. The Reform movement — those all-embracing, all-forgiving folks that always leave the light on for ya — likely accepts that possibility, since it bases Jewish identity on Jewish identification rather than lineage. By the way, query: under Reform’s standard’s, need one have any Jewish parent at all, and if so, why?

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8 Responses

  1. Sabba Hillel says:

    The problem is that even if individual sentences are somewhat true (though not fully accurate, when taken as a whole they are meaningless (or add up to a lie).

  2. David says:

    Note, please, that he refers to all of Judaism’s “different branches” including, presumably, Orthodoxy. Horowitz, too, in her one-sentence precis of Jewish theology presumably is being inclusive of Orthodoxy (I don’t believe our marginalization is that advanced just yet).

    No, we are that marginalized. Many books (particularly children’s books) about the synagogue show pictures of only egalitarian services, many bar/bat mitzvah guides and Jewish wedding guides reflect only a non-Orthodox point of view. The best you can hope for in these types of books is something like, “if you have Orthodox relatives or guests, try to get them kosher food.” Many books meant to explain bar/bat mitzvah ceromnies and Jewish weddings to non-Jews reflect only a non-O point of view. Most books on converstions do not deal with Orthodox conversions. Fictional rabbis shown on TV are almost always non-Orthodox. Ask most non-Orthodox Jews to tell what what synagogues there are in town and they will only mention the Reform and Conservative ones. For a lot of people, we are just slightly above Messianics on their radar.

  3. Neviah T. says:

    The question about marginalization is an interesting one. I have long noticed that (like a Star Trek plot) Orthodoxy and Liberal Judaism dwell in same spaces, but in different dimensions – Federations and independent Orthodox initiatives provide the same kind of social services (ie., vocational, disabled, youth, fitness, et al.) To tie it into news this week, the American Jewish Press Association announced its 2005 awards. Would one even know an independent Orthodox press existed from the lists? Well, I’m guessing that most (if not all) Orthodox-oriented papers aren’t even members, and getting a AJPA award is probably fairly meaningless to their readership. But it serves to further confirm the parallel universe theory of American Jewish life…

  4. Gershon Seif says:

    You suggest we do something big, bold and right now. Do you have any concrete suggestions?

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    It’s more accurate, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) to say that US Judaism is split into two similar, but distinct, religions: Orthodox Judaism and Conservo-Reform Judaism. The two groups share a common history and a few rituals, but they are distinct at the same level that Catholics and Protestants are distinct.

    Orthodox Jews do not consider non Orthodox Rabbis real Rabbis (a few weeks ago, there was a post here saying many of them count as captured infants – tinok she’nishba). Orthodox Jews do not consider all the people who are considered Jewish in Reform and Conservative Judaism to be real Jews.

    There are historical and halachic reasons for this, of course. However, if you consider the other movements to be outside the fold, you shouldn’t be surprised they see you in the same light. It makes perfect sense for Orthodoxy and Conservo-Reform Judaism to exist in “parallel universes”. It’s hard to co-operate with somebody who does not see your lifestyle as legitimate, and considers your religion a watered down abberation on the proper religion.

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rereading my post, I think I need to clarify one thing. I am not trying to imply that Orthodox Jews should accept the rest of us as equals. I come here and to to learn, not because I expect Orthodox Jews to validate choices which I know they consider unconscienable.

    I’m just saying that acceptance is not a one way street. It is very human to reject people who reject one’s actions and beliefs. Of course, on an individual level Orthodox Jews are very nice and welcoming, which I appreciate. It’s just that on the institute level there has to be a chasm, since a non Orthodox institute is unlikely to be considered legitimately Jewish from the Orthodox perspective.

  7. Toby Katz says:

    “why are we all not galvanized thereby to do something big, something bold, but above all, something right now?”

    Big and bold is often phony. Witness the PR success of the Kabbalah Centers.

    The only thing that works in winning people to Torah is slow but steady. We are winning people back to the Torah one person at a time. Over the last fifty years there has been a constant, steady increase in number of frum schools, shuls, families, and that upward curve continues.

    The single most effective kiruv tool is simple friendship. Personal warmth, Shabbos invitations, friendly conversations with neighbors and co-workers, caring about another person on a basic human level. This is not for kiruv professionals alone, but for all religious Jews who have non-Orthodox relatives, neighbors and acquaintances.

    Even a shopkeeper in New York has many kiruv opportunities, just by being nice and pleasant to people. He never knows which of his customers is actually a Jew from Alabama or Arizona, and who will take home an enduring image of a frum Jew based on one fleeting encounter. The same is true of an Orthodox passenger on an airplane. You are wearing a yarmulka. People are watching you. Be nice to everyone, every person to whom you are pleasant and polite may be another kiruv opportunity.

    There is no hope of winning a fair hearing from the secular media. The best thing we can do is operate under their radar, because when they notice us, they smear and attack with guns blazing.

  8. Yaakov Menken says:


    First of all, I agree entirely with your division into two groups. Although the Conservative movement claims fealty to Jewish Law while Reform does not, in practice the difference between Reform and Conservative is a few decades at most. It is telling, in this regard, that you do not point out that “Conservative Jews do not consider all the people who are considered Jewish in Reform Judaism to be real Jews” — although the standards for conversion, and especially patrilineal descent, are supposed to be entirely different.

    However, as a matter of history, you seem to have it backwards. The Reform movement was founded upon the rejection of the Mitzvos as “apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.” While they could not reject Orthodoxy as non-Jewish, they deemed it irrational and primitive.

    The movement also expected to totally dominate American Jewish life — until the 1990s, the Union for Reform Judaism was called the “Union of American Hebrew Congregations.” The use of an umbrella term encompassing all Jews in America was, in the late 1800s, not chutzpah but simple historical reality.

    When the situation changed — when Orthodoxy grew on these shores — is when they started to speak the language of pluralism. “We just think you’re primitive and ignorant, not to mention stupid; you think we’re not practicing Judaism!” Oh, the horrors. The early Reformers knew exactly what they were doing in the eyes of Torah, Talmud and Halacha; if, today, they want to talk the language of pluralism, they’re going to have to reap what they have sewn, knowing full well that the Orthodox cannot reciprocate by acknowledging the emphatic rejection of Torah and Mitzvos as “equally valid,” ch”v!

    With that said, Eytan’s point was that Horowitz and Fried were claiming to speak for all of American Jewry. The other commentors noted that in supposedly “pluralistic” circles, Orthodoxy is routinely ignored. Orthodoxy never rejected Reform — Reform defined itself as an extra-halachic movement. But the federation types cannot speak of pluralism while ignoring the Orthodox.

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