The Peril of Pluralism

The essay below appeared under a different title in Haaretz earlier this week. I share it here with that paper’s permission.

Those of us who believe that the Torah, both its written text and accompanying Oral Law, were bequeathed by G-d to our Jewish ancestors at Sinai, and that its commandments and prohibitions remain incumbent on Jews to this day, obviously hope that Jewish movements lacking those beliefs remain marginal forces in Israel.

But that’s a hope born of the perspective of a particular belief-system (albeit the conviction of all Jews’ ancestors until two centuries ago). Leaving such blatant subjectivity aside, though, would the growth of non-Orthodox Jewish theologies be a boon or a bane to Israeli society qua society?

The answer may lie in the example of the United States, where the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as less popular groups like Reconstructionism and Humanistic Judaism, had and have free rein to lay claim to Jewish authenticity. And here in the American diaspora, the results of the Jewish Pluralism experiment? Decidedly banal.

On the one hand, Jews who, for whatever reason, choose not to embrace the demands of a traditional (in this context, Orthodox) Jewish life have less demanding options for maintaining a Jewish identity. They have access to clergy who are not only sensitive and caring (as all clergy should be) but who don’t regard traditional Jewish observance as necessary for meaningful Jewish life, and who can guide them through times of personal challenges, happy occasions and, G-d forbid, sad ones.

The downside of the American “let a hundred Jewish flowers bloom” approach, though, is that there is no longer a single American Jewish community.

That is because the non-Orthodox Jewish movements, whether they are unconcerned with halacha (e.g. Reform, et al.) or view it as pliable (i.e. Conservative), have happily converted countless non-Jews and (less happily, to be sure, but readily all the same) issued countless divorces. (The Reform movement’s acceptance as Jews of children born to non-Jewish mothers but Jewish fathers has complicated matters even more.)

The problem is that Orthodox Jews, out of conviction, cannot recognize the validity of such status-changes that don’t meet the halachic bar. And so, there are thousands of American non-Jews who believe they are Jews, and unknown numbers of children born to women in second marriages whose first marriages have not, in the eyes of halacha, been dissolved, children who are severely limited in whom they may halachically marry.

As a result, whereas once upon a time (and it wasn’t long ago), an Orthodox young man or woman could see a similar-minded but different-backgrounded member of the opposite sex as a potential life-partner on the exclusive evidence of a claim of Jewish identity, that is no longer the case. A child or grandchild of non-Orthodox Jews may have the halachic status of a non-Jew or be the product of an illicit remarriage.

(I was personally involved, more than 30 years ago, in the case of a young observant Orthodox woman who discovered that her maternal grandmother had been a Reform convert, rendering the young woman halachically non-Jewish. She was able to undergo a halachic conversion. But countless others are not aware of their status and, even if they were, would not necessarily be willing to meet the necessary conversion requirements.)

And so, in America, not only must non-Orthodox Jews be regarded by Orthodox Jews as possibly (and, increasingly, likely) non-Jewish, but Reform converts (whose conversions do not meet Conservative standards) are similarly not Jewish in the Conservative casting of “halacha.” And as to the human repercussions of non-halachic divorces… well, imagine a young newly Orthodox man suddenly discovering that his beloved is halachically forbidden to him in marriage.

At present, the Israeli Jewish community suffers no such balkanization. There is, to be sure, much disagreement within the Israeli Jewish family; but the fights are all family fights. Anyone presenting as a Jew is regarded as a relative, no matter his or her perspective.

That is the result of what is often derided as the “Orthodox monopoly” over “personal status” issues like conversion and divorce. A less charged description, though, might be “single standard.”

No less a non-traditional Jew than David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, understood the need for such a standard. He wrote in 1947 that multiple definitions of “Jew” would court “G-d forbid, the splitting of the House of Israel into two.” The number may have changed, but not the validity of his concern. And the fact has now been borne out by the American experiment: multiple Jewish standards yield multiple “Jewish peoples.”

Standards may chafe, but they are part of every country’s life. Even here in the pluralistic West, we have “monopolies” like a Food and Drug Administration and a Federal Reserve Board. A Jewish state requires a Jewish standard for issues of defining Jewishness.

Until fairly recently, the “highest common denominator” standard has always been halacha – “Orthodoxy.” At present in Israel, it still is. But should the pluralism push there make inroads, what would result – even from a disinterested, strictly sociological perspective –would be nothing short of Jewish societal disaster.

© 2013 Haaretz

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