I must say that I have never been particularly interested in the British royal family. While my wife devoured two seasons of “The Crown,” it would always put me pretty much right to sleep.
However, I was captivated by the recent royal wedding. Not the pageantry and fancy hats, mind you, but the powerful statement of change that it presented. In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to the public outcry over his intent to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Meghan Markle is an American, a divorcee, and bi-racial. Was there any opposition to Prince Harry’s marrying her? If there was, I did not hear it. (Maybe someday it will appear in Season 38 of “The Crown.”)
Just think about that for a moment. How many institutions in the world are as committed to tradition as the British monarchy? Even a few decades ago, this marriage would have been impossible.
But all sorts of barriers are breaking down in Western society. And this has tremendous implications for the Jews.
And I am going to propose something here: this struggle, the challenge of Jewish identity in a world without social borders, is the greatest challenge we face today. And it is, in the language of the Talmud, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven. Here is a brief reminder of what we find in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers,” the 2nd-century collection of rabbinic wisdom):
כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקיים
ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקיים
איזו היא מחלוקת שהוא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי
ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו
Every argument that is for the sake of heaven, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for the sake of heaven, it is not destined to endure. What is an example of an argument for the sake of heaven? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of an argument not for the sake of heaven? The argument of Qorah and all of his group.
Qorah’s struggle against Moshe and Aharon is effectively one of self-aggrandizement: he and his band of complainants feel that they have been cheated of leadership opportunity, and seek to better themselves by challenging the authority of Aharon and Moshe. Their struggle is selfish; it is not leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, but rather only for the sake of their own egos.
But let me paint a picture, for a moment, of the current state of Jewish America. What we have seen for some time is a hardening on the right, that is, greater zeal for fulfilling every jot and tittle of halakhah / Jewish law and a robust range of occasionally-obscure minhagim / customs, coupled with greater isolation from modernity in the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although this is something of a misnomer) world, along with increased rightward movement in the rest of Orthodoxy for some time. That accounts for only about 10% of American Jewry, although of course they are growing dramatically due to the fact that these families have many children.
For the remaining 90% of American Jews, who are not Haredi or Orthodox, we have seen a gradual move away from traditional practice – particularly from tefillah / prayer, but also from kashrut, Shabbat observances, and even some lifecycle rituals.
There are many factors that have brought us to where we are, but the most essential driving force in our assimilation is that American society has welcomed us as equals. We are fully integrated into American life. The quotas of decades past, the exclusive clubs, the Gentleman’s Agreement of the 20th century, these things are all mostly gone. I’ll be performing a wedding between two Jews at the Fox Chapel Golf Club in a few weeks (I’m told it used to exclude Jews). All doors are open, including, most notably, the exit from Jewish life entirely without the historically-requisite conversion to Christianity.
And we, the faithful who are also committed to living fully integrated lives, we have largely failed. We have failed to make an adequate case for why we should continue to highlight Jewish education, say, over soccer; we have failed to give our adult adherents the appropriate language to express why they are Jewishly committed; we have failed to make the positive case for Shabbat, kashrut, holidays, lifecycle observances, and so forth. One staggering statistic in the Federation’s recent study of Pittsburgh Jewry is that only about half of Jewish children in Pittsburgh are receiving ANY kind of organized Jewish education. What does that tell you about the future, ladies and gentlemen?
And yet, I am happy to crow about the fact that in my three short years here, I have brought about thirty new Jews into the covenant of Abraham and Sarah through conversion, including several already-married women and their children. Our tradition still has the power to draw people in. At our Shababababa / Shabbat Haverim services, once a month on a Friday night, we attract a mixed crowd of 120-150 people: Jewish families with two Jewish parents, interfaith couples, even families that are entirely not Jewish. And everybody is singing along, schmoozing, and enjoying Shabbat dinner together.
What is our goal, ladies and gentlemen? Is it to produce Jewish children and grandchildren, who are active and willing members of that ancient covenant? Or is it to bring our wisdom and values to the world, to re-emphasize our commitment to ancient Jewish text and the wisdom therein, and continue to apply and teach and learn regardless of the halakhic implications (that is, with respect to Jewish law) of the contemporary Jewish family?
This is the essence of the mahloqet leshem shamayim: are we focused primarily on covenant and halakhic boundaries at any cost? Or do we instead highlight the moral content of Judaism without regard to the ritual and the laws, allowing the Jewish people to move forward as a civilization (to use Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s term), assimilated and intermingled with the non-Jewish population?
Perhaps you are aware of the discussions going on in the wider Jewish world, mostly as a response to the intermarriage rate of 70% (or so), regarding how we move forward. While the Reform movement sidestepped the halakhic challenge by embracing patrilineal descent (that is, recognizing that the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is Jewish, provided that the child is raised Jewish) in the 1980s, the Conservative world continues to argue with itself. On the one hand, we want to keep our Jewish children and grandchildren, regardless of who they marry. On the other, we have our halakhic standards, standards which seem to become increasingly more difficult to maintain.
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, scion of a prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbinic family, was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary a few years back. He now runs a synagogue in New York called Lab/Shul, and last year issued a statement that justified his performing intermarriages based on the rabbinic concept of the “ger toshav,” the resident alien who lives among Jews, who has forsworn idolatry and committed to certain aspects of Jewish tradition, albeit without formal conversion. Without digging too deeply into the halakhic principles in play, Rabbi Lau-Lavie found halakhic cover for marrying Jews and non-Jews together. As you can imagine, not everybody has jumped on Rabbi Lau-Lavie’s bandwagon.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Hadar, also in New York, recently put together a stellar analysis of the halakhic sources surrounding intermarriage, with an eye to the practical. (You can listen to it and read his collected info here.) His conclusion is that we have no choice but to stand for the covenantal aspects of Judaism, to reinforce the traditional boundaries.
Covenantalism is where my training and our heritage wants us to be. But the reality is that the vast majority of us have already accepted the civilization model. And I do not think that we can deny that.
What I would like to propose is a kind of mixed model. Yes, we have to continue to acknowledge the traditional halakhic understanding of who is a Jew, and retain our commitment to the boundaries in Jewish law that we have inherited. (e.g. not performing intermarriages, counting only halakhic Jews in a minyan / quorum of 10 adults for services, etc.)
At the same time, we need to highlight some of the civilizational aspects of who we are as Jews, and promote them as a way into Jewish life. The Torah was given not only to the Jews, folks, but to the world, and it is up to us to teach it to whoever wants to learn. And implicit within that is to welcome all who want to come in, regardless of their religious background, or to whom they are married.
As a final note, it is worth pointing out that this is a healthy struggle. What has kept us together as a people for nearly two millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE is not rabbinic control, or commitment to halakhah, or living in ghettos. Rather, it is the willingness to keep studying, to keep asking questions, to continue to revisit who we are, what we believe, and how we tackle each challenge that our journey has brought us. That is why this is a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, and that is why it, and we, will endure.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/16/2018.)