Jewish Identity

I’m somewhat surprised by the schism in modern Judaism, although Freedman’s thesis is logical: without an enemy lumping Jews into one identity, schism is bound to erupt over all conceivable distinctions in doctrine and lifestyle.  I don’t think that this schism is fatal.  Every religion, belief system, or group of people has fractions and splinters, and Judaism will survive.  The strength of a particular doctrine may not, but being Jewish isn’t about living in a certain way or allowing only certain people to worship.  It’s about bearing witness to the Jewish community around the world and recognizing the message of the Torah.

I don’t believe that it’s fair to compare the political struggles preceding the destruction of the Second Temple with today’s divisions.  The events in the first century were driven by realpolitik political concerns as well as by doctrinal preference, and in the face of an external threat they led to disaster for the Jews of Jerusalem.  Today, there is no existential threat to Judaism.  Jews are welcome in America and in Israel (perhaps more so in America, given Israel’s conservative and exclusionary trend).  Threats do exist from anti-Semites across the globe, but Jews today are safer than they ever have been and are better represented (proportionally speaking) in the upper classes than many other groups.  Today’s divisions are not fundamentally different from past doctrinal conflicts but they are on a larger scale.  Judaism will be more stable if its political and religious leaders accept its many members and branches.  This includes allowing people to pray even if one disagrees with aspects of their prayer.  After all, religious concerns should dictate that it’s more important that people are praying than how they pray.  I do not think that it is too bold of me to say that of course women should be allowed to worship as they choose, and that it is to the detriment of Orthodoxy to disenfranchise them or those who respect their rights.  Religious fundamentalists are much more likely to find excuses to oppress women or anyone who deviates from strict guidelines that are unquestionable as the word of God.  Reform and Conservative Jews have bloomed by allowing their traditions to evolve along with the culture around them and have grown substantially in economic, political, and social stature.  Orthodox Jews and even more separatist groups limit themselves by refusing to assimilate and by refusing equal opportunities to all members of their groups.  A strong faith and tradition is not one that hides from the world; it is one that can coexist with myriad other faiths and traditions.  The schism among today’s Jews – just like all breaks between traditionalists and progressives – is over the faith in Judaism’s strength.

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