Judaism and Reform




My discussion on Judaism and Reform Judaism, with Rabbi Barbara Block, of Temple Israel, Springfield, MO.  Originally aired on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network, January 11, 2016.

*Featured Image:  Victoria Kaufman chanting Torah, during her Bat-Mitzvah, with her grandfather, Alexander Kaufman, her grandmother, Suzanne Kaufman, and Rabbi Barbara Block, looking on.  (April, 2015)







49 responses to “Judaism and Reform”

  1. Dan,

    Well, I’ll admit that, as a secular Buddhist and an atheist, I found myself drifting in and out while listening to the conversation – the closer it got to issues actually triggering questions of faith, the less interested I was.

    Having admitted that, however, I also admit that I found much of the conversation highly informative. The distinctions between the differing ‘movements’ – and their histories – are quite interesting. And the talk led me to research Mordecai Kaplan, who I think now i should read at some point soon. (But right now, a couple recent posts have led me to re-read Wittgenstein’s “Investigations” first!)

    (BTW, do you have a Kaplan text that you might recommend?)

  2. Hmm, I would have thought this was about the most secular religious conversation one could have, but to each his own.

    Re: Mordecai Kaplan, the man was the greatest Jewish thinker of the 20th century, in my view, with the exception, perhaps, of Leo Baeck. I would recommend all of Kaplan’s work, but two books in particular: Judaism as a Civilization (1934) and Judaism without Supernaturalism (1958).

  3. Mara Cohen Ioannides

    I found this to be a nice overview of the topics you chose to discuss. Nice selection! I must however update you on the statistics about intermarriage. The reason intermarriage in the past was such a suck on the Jewish population was because the children were rejected as were the Gentile spouses. With the adoption of partalinea and acceptance of Gentile partners. The Reform movement has seen a resurgence of children of intermarriage staying in Judaism.

  4. I greatly appreciate the information. Do you have a link or a source that people could check out?

  5. mpboyle56

    Great discussion with lots of good information. Also, gives a perspective on religion very different from the usual discussions one hears. Well done!

  6. This interview answered so many questions I have had for a long time. I was very impressed with the wonderful open mindedness of Rabbi Block, and how generously she spoke of the various movements within Judaism itself, as well as the beliefs of other faiths. The statement Rabbi Block was paraphrasing (perhaps quoting directly?) at 35:00, sounded quite close to Catholic teaching as I undertand it as a practicing Catholic; to live one’s faith first and foremost through immitation of Christ: example and action, and that mere talk is, well, “…lip service.” I might have not gotten his meaning correctly, but it seems that shortly after this beautiful statement, Dr. Kaufman made a distinction between between Jews and Christians, that being that whereas Christians encounter God personally, Jews that believe in Him encounter him in other people. Though he did not state this as a fact or doctirne from any movement within Judaism, I would like to state that the Catholic faith has always taught that we experience God internally, or personally, and He is just a present in every human being He has created, His love being for all His creation. Somewhat like where the Reform Jews exercise the option of placing certain emphasis in places of their heartfelt choice, so do Catholics in this regard. I greatly appreciate this segment, and look forward to the next. Dr. Kaufman has a penchamt for selecting topics of great value and interest; at least in my opinion. PS I really wish the Temple would move downtown where it would be seen by more people as part of our community. PPS As Saint Pope John Paul II, a man who barely survived the horrors of WWII in Poland, said, “The Jews are our elder brothers.”

  7. Mara Cohen Ioannides

    Dan: As per your request, I strongly suggest this article: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/11/12/what-happens-when-jews-intermarry/.

  8. Savanaroller: Actually, the Jewish view is that our relationship to God is fundamentally through the Torah. It is not a personal relationship as is conceived in Christianity. In part, this is due to the fact that for Jews, God never became (and never would become) incarnate, something Rabbi Block discussed.

    Re: the synagogue, it used to be right next to Rountree school, but the space was far too small, so the built the current building in Rogersville.

  9. Hi Dan, this was an interesting talk, particularly the history, and I hope it is not so personal a subject that you will feel insulted if I raise questions/criticisms regarding some of her responses (she seemed very nice and smart so I am not criticizing her).

    First though, I am curious to hear more about Reconstructionist Judaism. It was not discussed as much as Orthodox and Reform and so I am not as clear what it is about. And I am also curious why you would be in Reform Judaism rather than Reconstructionist. The main difference cited was its rejection of supernaturalism which would seem closer to your philosophical position than that described by Rabbi Block.

    Ok, so I ended up feeling a bit empty by her description of “God”. It was interesting to hear the historical changes in how God is conceived, but I still don’t quite get what it is now. I understand that Reform judaism is trying to be broad, but clearly not as broad as say Unitarian views of God/Jesus. For example, Rabbi Block said it cannot be viewing the natural universe as God. There must be something more. But what, and why?

    Perhaps it would be useful if you explained what you take to be “more”?

    I was also left unmoved by her answer to your (excellent) question why someone today can’t just live with literature and other intellectual/social pursuits. Her answer sounded much like what I have heard from other theists, about somehow having a better community to support one’s ethical life. The immediate question would be why is one faced with a choice of either being alone with ethical theory or involved with a religious community? Why can’t there be an ethical, nonreligious community which provides the same support (we can also tell stories)? And why Judaism over other religions (if religious communities are necessary)?

    I would think the most direct answer is (much like your idea regarding liberal education) that it is not necessary at all. People can do just fine living a modern life, without having to join a religious* community. However, if one is interested in that particular line of history, and the traditions and stories speak to you, then it can be a rewarding way of living.

    *Sadly, I still didn’t get what Judaism (that is to count as being Jewish) actually is… what does it mean? I understood the basic formula to “get in”, but not the reasoning. Why would modern concepts continue birthright as a way in? And does that mean there is no way for a person (born in) to leave Judaism? If it is possible, what would that take?

  10. dbholmes:

    If there was a Reconstructionist synagogue in town, we would belong to it. The Reform synagogue is the only synagogue in Springfield or anywhere near it.

    Reform seems to have essentially taken the position that while God exists, the movement will not prescribe a particular conception of it, though there are notions that it definitely rejects, such as any incarnate notion of God or animism.

    It really doesn’t matter, though, as Judaism is overwhelmingly concerned with practice, not with belief in God. Someone related to me an anecdote in which an Orthodox Jewish man told his Rabbi he was having a crisis of faith and the Rabbi told him to put on his yarmulke and not worry about it. That you “feel empty” about it indicates that your instinctive conception of religiosity is infused by Christianity. Judaism thinks entirely differently about these things.

    I thought her answer to my question was excellent. There’s a reason why things like the society for ethical culture and the unitarian universalists are such flops. They try to create community artificially and ex nihilo, on purely rationalistic grounds, when compelling communities can only arise organically and one’s investment in them must not be entirely intellectual in nature.

    As for being Jewish, the peoplehood sense is the strongest in my view. The way I feel about being Jewish is the way a proud Irishman or Frenchman feels about being Irish or French.

  11. s. wallerstein

    dbholmes, you ask if Jews can leave Judaism. I guess that you refer to leaving one’s Jewish identity, since it is easy to leave the religion. I’m Jewish, but I haven’t set foot in a synagogue in about 50 years. Sartre has a interesting little book called “On the Jewish Question” (I’m not sure about the exact title in translation) and Sartre basically says that even if a Jew wants to stop being Jewish, they can’t because of anti-semitism unless they lie to themselves or live in bad faith, to use Sartre’s phrase. We live in a world with a fair amount of anti-semitism and the Jew, who tells themself that they are just like “everyone else”, sooner or later, runs into the fact that society does not treat them as being like “everyone” else. Of course, the Jew can change their name, have nose surgery and lie about who their parents are and may pass for non-Jewish, but that’s not living authentically, that’s not assuming one’s situation, to use Sartre’s phrase once again. So, like it or not, the Jew, if they want to live an authentic life, is “condemned” to be Jewish.

    In any case, like Dan K., I’m proud of being Jewish, proud of coming from the same “people” as Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Rosa Luxemberg, Kafka, Allan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Noam Chomsky, etc. I’m not so proud of Israel, but we’ll not get into that.

  12. dbholmes states: The immediate question would be why is one faced with a choice of either being alone with ethical theory or involved with a religious community? Why can’t there be an ethical, nonreligious community which provides the same support (we can also tell stories)? My question is, who assumes the authority to decide which are the foundational ethics (The Ten Commandments, for example) by which the community will be guided? A concensus between two people can be difficult to reach. I have always seen the people who have the vital responsibility of teacher or leader in a faith as being charged with (or chosen/called, if preferred) to interpret and uphold what the community believes to be given from outside of the human sphere of existence, namely that of a divine authority, creator, etc.

  13. @dbholmes
    ” The immediate question would be why is one faced with a choice of either being alone with ethical theory or involved with a religious community? Why can’t there be an ethical, nonreligious community which provides the same support (we can also tell stories)? And why Judaism over other religions (if religious communities are necessary)?”

    I am sure there are all sorts of non-religious ethical communities. But maybe the answer is that for a person who is Jewish, that community is naturally the Jewish community. I cannot speak for them, but I have had a strong involvement with the Jewish community in Sydney and have at times received excellent help from them in a time of need. All I can say is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Jewish idea of ethical community and the way they put this into practice has great value. That is not to say that other communities do not.

  14. Mara Cohen Ioannides

    The key is to remember that Judaism so about law, not faith. So the community chooses to live ethically, and those who need a God may do so. I have explained to people that prayer is a form of meditation and God is the focus, like the flame. The 10 Commandements are fairly universal, so it seems they are a human standard.

  15. Jewish view is that our relationship to God is fundamentally through the Torah. It is not a personal relationship as is conceived in Christianity. In part, this is due to the fact that for Jews, God never became (and never would become) incarnate,

    Dan, pertaining to your above statement, could you refer me to where it is written/concluded that God never would become incarnate. To say that my theology is lacking would be giving myself too much credit. I would like to know for my own information. And thank you for this opportunity to learn in this area. PS I related well to what you said about taking pride in your people. I can remember when I was a kid in New York, how proud I would be of famous Italians in sports, movies, etc. How rich is this world with all the wonderful gifts its different peoples bring to life!

  16. I have no idea. I simply know that this is anathema to Jews and is one of the primary reasons why the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community rejected any divine claims made about Jesus. The Rabbi mentioned this in the discussion.

  17. Savanaroller

    I need to listen more closely to Rabbi Block’s comments. I understand the leaders of the Jewish people in Jerusalem overwhelmingly rejected the claims made by Jesus (though enough certainly felt otherwise, (if primarily apostles and deciples; hence the seminal organization and promotion of Christianity by Jews) but other than a concensus prior to and at the time of Jesus, I would think that there is a scriptural foundation for so vehement a belief, most likely in the books of the “Old Testament”, perhaps one of the prophets?

  18. Probably. Like I said, I really don’t know.

    In terms of numbers, however, I do know that the overwhelming majority of Jews rejected the idea. Those who accepted it were a tiny minority. The religion’s growth was almost entirely among the gentiles.

  19. Savanah

    I know generally the God of the Torah is considered quite distinctive (among ancient religions) in his radically transcending nature. Becoming part of nature would be deeply at odds with this conception.

    Yale has a great free lecture series on this. You might find this lecture particularly helpful:

  20. Hi Dan, ok that makes sense about going to the nearest synagogue. Do synagogues ever share space between different forms of Judaism, or are they always restricted to one? Also, since it sounds like you were on an approving committee, were you also able to select/suggest Reconstructionist Rabbis?

    That you “feel empty” about it indicates that your instinctive conception of religiosity is infused by Christianity.

    That certainly was bad word choice on my part, and I totally get why you understood it that way. But my “instinctive conception” of religiosity is not infused by Christianity. I am equally unsatisfied with Christian accounts. I am ok with a statement that the specifics (or belief in the specifics) do not matter that much. But then what is the point of setting conditions? Since Rabbi Block set out conditions, I responded that I was unsatisfied with them.

    There’s a reason why things like the society for ethical culture and the unitarian universalists are such flops. They try to create community artificially and ex nihilo, on purely rationalistic grounds, when compelling communities can only arise organically and one’s investment in them must not be entirely intellectual in nature.

    That is a great point (and I liked the Rabbi’s commentary on the strength of stories over theory). However, that mainly argues why a person may not want to leave Judaism if it is working for them. For someone who isn’t already a part of it, I don’t see the argument holding one should join because it will be difficult to find a community outside Judaism that can fulfill what it delivers. That one will miss out on something otherwise. Yes it will be hard to find an organized community, but that just raises the question why I need an organized community instead of a community (arguably smaller) that is growing organically around similar interests?

    Why wouldn’t there be something special about being part of a community that can grow with time into it’s own “civilization”? After all Judaism, by its own account, started at some point (and “flopped” many times).

    As for being Jewish, the peoplehood sense is the strongest in my view. The way I feel about being Jewish is the way a proud Irishman or Frenchman feels about being Irish or French.

    This makes sense to me. But it does raise the question if you feel the same camaraderie with someone who converted into the faith, rather than someone who was born into it? If that’s too personal you don’t have to answer.

  21. Yes, different congregations will sometimes share a building. Our single congregation used to be two — an Orthodox and a Reform — until they merged.

    I was for switching from being a Reform congregation to a Reconstructionist one, but the majority of our congregants wanted to remain with the URJ.

    The conditions set out strike me as minimal enough to be effectively none. I don’t think that saying that God can’t be a rock or the jerk next door constitutes very much by way of conditions.

    There is no argument here for becoming Jewish. Judaism is a non-proselytizing religion and does not seek out converts.

    I don’t see how Judaism has ever “flopped.” If anything, it’s survival through millennia of persecution and outright extermination efforts suggests how strong it is, unlike the other artificially constructed communities I mentioned.

    I should also say that I treat communities based around “shared interests” also as being largely “intellectual” in the relevant sense. I think that one of the things that is essential to real, living and breathing communities is that their origins and development are organic in nature.

    Finally, while I am *supposed* to feel no differently about gentile converts to Judaism and those who are Jewish by background, the fact is that I do, and I suspect most do. This does not mean that I *reject* converts in any sort of explicit, overt way, but they certainly feel “alien” to me, in a way that “natural born” Jews do not.

  22. s. wallerstein

    dbholmes, Judaism really isn’t a faith in the sense that Christianity is a faith, so your question to Daniel K about how he feels about converts to the “faith” does not make much sense. Most people who convert to Judaism do it because they marry a Jew and want to share the religious practices of their spouse. If you go to a Rabbi and tell them that you want to convert to Judaism, they’ll give you a hard time and may even refuse to convert you. I have a gentile friend, who, as a young man, was so pro-Jewish that he went to a Rabbi and told him that he wanted to convert and the Rabbi smiled and sent him on his way. Now there is nothing “wrong” with my friend: he’s a highly intelligent, articulate and decent fellow, a dentist with a doctorate in oral pathology, so most religions would have welcomed him.

  23. Hi SW, you of course make a good point on the “forced” identification coming from others. But I’m not sure if that is totally true now (in all places), or will always be true in the future. And it still leaves out people being able to reject what others say, and living according to their own identity.

    The idea that I am not being authentic because I refuse to be labelled and stereotyped by others falls flat to me. After all these bigots would also say Jews do certain things because they are Jews, would one be less authentic for not doing the things they expect/claim? Plus, this argument seems somewhat ironic for Sartre (didn’t existence precede essence?).

    No doubt there are a lot of talented people that are Jewish. And I understand enjoying the culture. However, I am a bit sketchy on feeling “proud of coming from the same “people” as…”. I’m somewhat of an individualist and get suspicious of such feelings (in myself). Whenever I have such a thought I remember the last part of Doug Stanhope’s take on nationalism (but it applies to any general group identity): “Nationalism does nothing but teach you to hate people you never met, and to take pride in accomplishments you had no part in.” 🙂

    Hi Savanaroller, well I would agree with Dan that any foundational ethics would have to emerge as a consensus organically. And I think he might disagree with your concept: “I have always seen the people who have the vital responsibility of teacher or leader in a faith as being charged with (or chosen/called, if preferred) to interpret and uphold what the community believes to be given from outside of the human sphere of existence, namely that of a divine authority, creator, etc.

    Hi Robin, I take your point: “But maybe the answer is that for a person who is Jewish, that community is naturally the Jewish community.” I may have mistaken Dan’s question as having broader implications, including why a person who is not currently Jewish would somehow miss out (or how they would miss out). On your end point, for all that I am not a monotheist, and often find fault with Abrahamic religions, all three certainly do help others out as communities more than generic “communities” do.

  24. Savanaroller

    s. Wallerstein Forgive my asking, but are you suggesting that “most religions” have a set of requirements involving accomplishment and accolades as criteria for acceptance? Sounds more like a private clubs for blue bloods. Plenty of those on the East Coast I have heard.

  25. Hi Dan, since every community in existence had to start somewhere, I guess I am confused how Judaism managed to defy the criteria you are using to shoot down the possible growth of other communities in the present. I am in full agreement any community’s growth has to be organic. You seem to be reading something into “shared interests” that I did not mean.

    As far as flopping… the unitarians still exist. I thought you meant currently have a hard time of it. Or facing major setbacks? The Jewish history is filled with major setbacks and losses, almost endings (including internal disputes). If in time the unitarians make adjustments, as the Jews did, and survive to some future millennia then they can also look back and talk of the resilience they have had (though hopefully no attempted exterminations). I didn’t say Judaism failed, but that it has flopped, meaning have gone through severe setbacks (including internal divisions), several times.

    Hi SW, that he successfully answered the question means it made sense. That I have known people who converted to Judaism without marrying anyone sort of undercuts your anecdote. Maybe most only do so out of marriage and most Rabbi’s turn away people who are genuinely interested, because they aren’t… what? Frankly, that anecdote left me feeling sort of queazy, smacking of a condescending exclusionary nature toward your friend. If it is a civilization, rather than a faith, why wouldn’t it take such a talented individual?

  26. dbholmes:

    A few things, here and there.

    Re: “flopped.” Judaism is tiny because (a) it doesn’t proselytize and (b) because of concerted efforts on the part of Christendom to exterminate the Jewish people — from the Middle Ages through the last century. It’s not tiny because it failed to be compelling to sufficient number of people.

    This is not true for the Society for Ethical Culture or the U.U.’s (the latter of whom bear virtually no relationship to the old-school, Christian Unitarians). These represented efforts to create a liberal, secular stand-in for religion and have only managed to attract a tiny number of adherents. My points re: organicism, intellectualism, and real history were intended to speak to this. Modern Stoicism strikes me as something similar — though Massimo and other adherents deny it — and I suspect that it will have similarly meager success for the same reasons. (I’m actually filming a dialogue for BHTV with him and another modern Stoic tomorrow.)

    Your reply to S. Wallerstein really only resonates when one considers it completely in a vacuum — that is, in the abstract. The hard, brutal, historical reality is that the Jews who tried to assimilate were always the first ones into the ovens, in good part, because they were the last to believe that the gentiles could ever do such things to the Jews. This was true, in particular, of my mother’s family — a highly assimilated, “juiced-in”, wealthy Hungarian family, filled to the brim with WWI heroes from the Austro-Hungarian side — virtually all of whom perished in Auschwitz.

    So, yes, in the abstract, your cry for independent identification and rejection of labels sounds terrific. The Jewish people, unfortunately, have learned that in the actual, historical, world, it is largely nonsense. Reject the label all you want — shave off your beard — make your services look as much like church services as possible — but at the end of the day, they will still hunt you down and kill you for being Jewish. A grim view, but it will take at least several centuries of quiet, on this front, before any Jew could — in my view — reasonably think otherwise.

    I find the Stanhope quote clever, in a cute sort of way, but substantively untrue. It’s the sort of glib, backhanded slap in lieu of a substantial argument that I find quite irritating in fact. Nationalism and kinship, like everything else human, can be both good and bad.

  27. s. wallerstein

    dbholmes, First of all, I agree with Daniel K. that after the Holocaust, independent identification and rejection of labels for Jews means little. Sartre wrote his book (Reflections on the Jewish Question) in the late 1940’s immediately after World War 2 and reflects what happened to assimilated French Jews: they were deported and gassed. Read French Suite by Irene Nemirovsky.

    Sartre does not believe that being Jewish is an essence (existence precedes essences, as you point out): one is not a Jew as a rock is a rock (I’m trying to explain Sartre, by the way, although I basically agree with him), just as one is not a Frenchman as a rock is a rock or a triangle has three angles. One choses who one is in what Sartre calls “situation”. “Situation” refers to one’s social class, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, etc. “Situation” is what society makes of you or what society considers you to be or how society labels you. You can chose to accept that, to rebel against that, to try to change that, to try to revolutionize society, but without lying to yourself, you cannot deny your situation. For Sartre “lying to yourself” is “living in bad faith”, which is the chief sin in the ethics (although Sartre never wrote his treatise on ethics) of the work of the early Sartre.

    To give another example, Sartre wrote a long study of the gay writer Jean Genet. There he says explicitly that society
    made Genet a thief (Genet was a petty criminal) and a homosexual, but that Genet chose to become a writer. That is, given his situation (thief and homosexual), product of his upbringing as a orphan, stigmatized by society, Genet chose to live that situation as a writer.

    I would also add that given the presence of anti-semitism, it seems cowardly for a Jew to deny that they are a Jew.

  28. Hi Dan, I’m not denying the non-proselytizing nature of Judaism, nor the extended (and extensive) persecution of Jews. I feel you are ignoring the point I am trying to make that it started somewhere (at some point it had no history) and it had problems getting started and staying together (by its own accounts). This is similar (to my mind) to the problems you have used to downplay the potential success of others today.

    I am raising the question, outside of religion on what basis did Judaism start, that makes it impossible for a non-religious society to form today along the same lines? Or is religion crucial?

    Your assessment regarding stoicism as a larger movement is likely true, and frankly any attempts to create a “stand-in” for religion will fail. That is artificial. I am not talking about a religion, but a community. There will have to be more than stoic outlook as a basis for a community. And one can’t really force a community into being by force of will. One can gather people, but it will take time and shared experience to cement a bond that creates a community. I think one can form with a liberal, secular underpinning. And I would hope it would be non-proselytizing in nature.

    A grim view, but it will take at least several centuries of quiet, on this front, before any Jew could — in my view — reasonably think otherwise.

    Well, that doesn’t negate what I said. That a bigot might identify you or stereotype you does not mean you have to accept their criteria or stereotype. All your experience says is that people will do this kind of thing, (it is foolish to think otherwise) and so you really have to watch out for people that do that sort of thing, and fight it.

    Did your family “try to assimilate” or did they in fact assimilate, and some jackasses decided to push some arbitrary, meaningless divide to gain power at their expense? To destroy them for not being Hungarian, though they were?

    In any case I am very sorry that this is the state of affairs. Particularly as I am not Jewish and so I am by default thrown into the “they” you just claimed “will” hunt you down, etc. I can tell you it won’t happen from me. It makes me feel bad (regardless how reasonable that might be) you wouldn’t believe it.

    It’s the sort of glib, backhanded slap in lieu of a substantial argument…

    It was a joke, not an argument. And a reminder I have to myself when I start feeling proud based on the actions of others just because we fall within some generic grouping. Yeah I agree nationalism and kinship can be both good and bad. It was just a joke!

    You don’t like Stanhope? Man I like that guy.

  29. Dan and others

    A very interesting discussion. Though I am sympathetic to dbholmes’s basic points, I thought Dan’s replies were good.

    One possible criticism I do have, however, of Dan’s approach is that he tends to characterize Christianity in somewhat monolithic terms. Jesus as God, for instance: this claim (though part of official creeds, ‘incarnation’, ‘Trinity’ etc.) was/is not accepted by many strands of the broader Christian tradition (early Christians, for example, or those (like Jehovah’s Witnesses?) who go back to the early texts. Many mainstream, liberal Christians also reject this idea.

    My point is that the origins of Christianity were essentially (first-century) Jewish, and these Jewish elements are there. Over the centuries some individual Christians and groups have been particularly attracted to these elements and made them a central part of their religious outlook. Such people were inclined to emphasize the humanity of Jesus, for example, and to try to understand the Jewish context of the NT and its links to the OT etc.. For example, there was a particular fascination with Hebraic sources in 16th and 17th-century Europe (the ‘Respublica Hebraeorum’ notion, etc.). Hebrew scholarship has often flourished in Christian circles (e.g. 19th-century France).

  30. Mark, we probably disagree on what the word “Christianity” denotes. Given how I understand it, it is more Greek than it is Hebraic. And I would maintain that this is how the overwhelming majority of practicing Christians understand it. The things you describe are fringe elements, and with regard to the very earliest church, we really don’t know anything at all, other than what is in the NT.

  31. It feels a bit disconcerting that my questions have steered a thread based on a rather light, positive discussion into some strange, darker place. My apologies for that.

    Hi Mark, I agree that Dan has made some interesting, useful replies (actually I thought all replies were, with a special nod to Wallerstein). Certainly Dan’s last reply to me was eloquent and compelling.

    However, I still feel that Dan has not tackled the question of what elements Judaism had during its foundation in the past (that led to its success), that an emerging liberal, secular community today could not have (and so be equally successful). I understand and agree with the potential stumbling blocks he discusses. I just reject (or question) the implied notion that all liberal, secular communities would have to incorporate such stumbling blocks (or cannot avoid having them).

    I also believe that regardless of how eloquent, compelling, and understandable his argument was for Jews being wary of Gentiles (and so holding to a self-identity for self-preservation), it is errant. This has motivated me to write something on that (form of) argument.

    Hi SW, to be fair I was not arguing that people should not be honest about their situation. No matter how much a person is not X, if everyone is calling them X, they have to deal with that reality. I was arguing they can rebel, or try to change it. I thought it odd to believe one was being inauthentic for doing anything else but accepting one was X (because others said so). Accepting that people will call one X is a whole other matter than accepting one is X.

    While I might have been wrong about Sartre’s concept, the idea of Genet choosing to be a “writer” does not seem opposed to what I was arguing people can do.

    And (while understandable if someone does) I am certainly not arguing that anyone who feels they are Jewish (or any X) should deny that they are. Certainly not to themselves. While cowardice might be a factor, I think you are also missing a practical decision. I generally don’t go around in daily life discussing my personal lifestyle/community, because most people are bigoted toward it and that would introduce needless conflict. It is irrelevant to most things I need to do in my daily life. And while I usually am open about what I am if people ask, or the subject comes up (particularly if people are talking ignorantly about my “kind”), I could see the possibility I would deny it. To be honest, I have.

    Sometimes discretion really is the better part of valor. The question is if you are using the denial to go under the yoke, or as a temporary measure to rise above it.

  32. dbholmes: I don’t see anything wrong with the conversation. Seems quite substantial to me. Not too many online venues where the discussion is at this level and with this much civility. I actually think we are quite lucky in that regard.

    The question you say I have not tackled is one that I never will, as it is not an argument I want to make. My religion is not a philosophical proposition for which I need to give compelling arguments. And I am not trying to persuade anyone to join it. I do have certain views about how lasting communities are formed, but Judaism certainly isn’t the only such possible community.

    As for how Jews should feel about gentiles, I think it is probably best territory left alone. Just as whites probably shouldn’t be telling blacks how they ought to feel about them, given a long history that only stopped very recently — and still hasn’t entirely stopped — gentiles probably should not tell Jews how they ought to feel about them, given an even longer history that only stopped very recently — and still hasn’t entirely stopped. These are not necessarily rational sentiments, but as you well know by now, I depart with the mainline philosophical tradition in that I do not believe that human beings are defined by reason.

    You speak of discretion and don’t realize how unfortunate it is. My daughter is being “discrete” about her Jewishness in school, because she is afraid that in this 99% evangelical Christian town, her friends will stop liking her if they find out she is not a Christian. This is not an idle fear. She has lost friends for this reason already. Indeed, so bad is this, that it might actually cause us to move back to the East Coast.

  33. s. wallerstein

    dbholmes, My use of the word “deny” is not clear, I admit. If the Gestapo comes to my door asking if I’m Jewish, I’ll lie. I was trying to use the word “deny” first, in what I believe is Sartre’s sense of not lying to oneself, not denying to oneself that is Jewish, living one’s life keeping that in mind, and that implies, at times, standing up for the Jews and for being Jewish even when that has costs or risks. I’ve lost clients and maybe possible friends because I spoke up upon hearing anti-semitic remarks, but once again, no, if ISIS takes me hostage, I’m not going to explain to them that I’m Jewish, if they don’t realize that from my last name. If I begin to know someone and see them as a possible friend or when I was younger, as a possible lover, I will always explain that I am Jewish and at times that produces a certain distance: not everyone likes Jews and not all women want to get sexually involved with one.

  34. Savanaroller

    Dan, It is terribly dismaying, yet I have lived here long enough to have no doubt that this brand of bigotry is all too common in the region/city, and must certainly be coming from the home, and even more disturbingly, from some of the churches’ pulpits. I have a daughter the same age, and with some of the emotions kids must undergo at this age, something like this should not be an issue. Absolutely dreadful, but I work in the schools, and am frequently stunned by what I hear come out of the mouths of kids. No organized religion of a substantial numbers can be perfect to the last person, naturally. I only hear these things second-hand, but that’s pretty darned close. I am relieved that in my entire life of listening to sermons in the pews of many and many a Catholic, and from hundreds of priests, I have never heard the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and, at this point, would be knocked off my feet if I did. For me, I hope that you and your family remain in town, though I can certainly understand feeling that have crossed my mind, too, at times…and I’m more of a conservative, but good heavens, not that stripe! Also, I have been enjoying all the useful discussion here, even if I have been ignoring other duties to sneak in and read.

  35. Good grief! Children afraid of losing friends because they’re Jewish? Women not wanting to get involved with a Jew? This is the 21st century, for heaven’s sake!

    I dunno, maybe I was spoiled in the first two years of college, which I attended just outside of NYC (‘the other Israel,’ as some liked to call it). I won’t simply say ‘I had a Jewish friend;’ one couldn’t not have Jewish friends at that school, without locking one’s self in one’s dorm room. But that really didn’t matter, I don’t think anyone even thought about it. Certainly I never heard anyone ever mention American anti-Semitism except as some past unpleasantness clung to by yokels and fringe-nuts. (Although there was a deep cultural memory of the Holocaust, since virtually every Jewish family had lost at least one relative in that debacle.)

    My girl friend at the time was Jewish. I never felt any antagonism from any of her family for my being a gentile. Her parents were more concerned by my being a vegetarian – especially since her father made a chicken soup that he was especially proud of.

    The city I live in now is no NYC; but it is liberal enough that one would have to go door to door quite a while to find someone willing to openly espouse any strident form of anti-Semitism. (Although racism remains a real problem here regarding other minorities, alas.) So I confess I am unpleasantly surprised, and disheartened, by the reports from DanK and s. wallerstein. Even though I am a confirmed pessimist, I am still capable of being disappointed by the backwards attitudes of some fellow humans, and the social injustice these threaten.

  36. Yeah, my daughter has had other kids flat out tell her that they cannot be friends with her, because she is not a Christian. Her English teacher, terrified at the prospect of having to teach the Diary of Anne Frank to this population, begged me to come into the classroom and do a presentation, something that my daughter quickly vetoed, as she was terrified of being “outed.”

    She really has two circles of friends: her friends from the synagogue and her friends from school. They do not overlap. And she is far closer and more intimate with the friends from the synagogue. Indeed, her school friendships are almost entirely relegated to school hours. These are not the people with whom she has sleepovers, playdates, and the like.

  37. And no, EJ, none of this would be the case if we lived in NY. This is because we live in the lower midwest.

  38. s. wallerstein

    ejwinner, I’m almost 70 and some of the things I relate happened in my youth. I live in Chile and while I lived in the U.S. for many years, that was a long time ago, but you’ve never heard someone use the phrase “Jew them down”? I consider that to be anti-semitic. You never heard someone after 9-11 affirm that Mossad was behind the attacks and that all Jews in the World Trade Center received an email warning them beforehand. That’s anti-semitic too. You’ve never heard someone refer to the Jews when they are speaking of Israelis (always negatively) as if Jews were a monolithic bloque who all supported Israel unconditionally? That’s anti-semitic too.

  39. Dan,

    Saddened to hear this; you and your daughter have my sympathies. Hopefully the experience will make her stronger; and I also hope for the time when she will feel able to express her tradition openly.

  40. s. wallerstein,

    When I was a child, I heard some of that in my mother’s family; but that ended when my aunts got involved with the Republican Party – which in New York at the time meant ‘liberal Republicans’ (which are now called ‘conservative Democrats’). At any rate, my aunts would brook no anti-Semitism in their presence – and they always had a way of being present.

    I mean, I’ve heard some of this stuff in passing, like on a bus; and of course I can still see it on the internet; but in general, no. I guess I’ve been fortunate most of my life to be around non-Jews who don’t carry that grudge.

    And, given my own experience, when I have heard or seen it, I assumed it was the grumblings of someone who either didn’t know better (needing education), or someone who was merely lashing out and who would reconsider in calmer spirits.

    I know there are plenty of Mel Gibsons in the world; I just wasn’t aware that these still had all that much impact in their communities.

  41. EJ: Just a few days ago, a high school boy threw a penny in front of my daughter’s best friend from the synagogue and then told her that as a Jew, she should pick it up.

    She smacked him. God, I admire that girl.

  42. s. wallerstein

    ejwinner, I don’t know how much real impact it has either. Outside of some Islamists, no one wants to gas Jews these days and if Western countries, including Latin American ones, were to turn fascist, I don’t think that the Jews would be their target group. It obviously will have some psychological impact on a girl the age of Dan K’s daughter. Generally, all these prejudices attribute Machiavellian or nefarious motives to Jews (or their supposed representatives, such as Mossad) and well, if I’m Jewish, they must believe that I have those motives: that if I had received an email the day of 9-11 warning me of the attacks, I wouldn’t have warned my non-Jewish work mates to evacuate the building and wouldn’t have informed the police, etc. or if Jews only think about money (the word “judío”, that is, “jew,” in Spanish is used to refer to a miser), they must believe that I only think about money. Those phrases are almost always spoken with a certain passion (Sartre says that anti-semitism is a passion, not a mistaken system of beliefs) and that passion is frightening in itself. I recall as a small child being told (this was before Pope John XXIII) by a Catholic neighbor that the Jews had killed Christ and I still recall the passion with which those words were spoken. So I don’t see anti-semitism as a prejudice in the dictionary sense of “an unfair and unreasonable opinion, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge” (Cambridge online dictionary): anti-semitism seems to serve some kind of deep primitive need to project “evil” thoughts or fantasies on someone and the Jews are the perfect target. I’m very critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, but the fervor and passion with which Israeli policies are condemned and hated often seem out of proportion to the very real crimes of the Israeli government. Homophobia has always seemed to be very similar insofar as it serves deep and probably unconscious psychological needs.

  43. Savanaroller

    I am wondering how anti-Semetic slurs like the high school buy used are being kept alive in an area with practically no Jewish people. I hear slurs against blacks, but they have a visible population in the city, and always have. But from my understanding, there have never been that many Jewish people in this area; not any more than there are Italians, yet this is the sort of thing I would think would be heard in an urban center high school.

  44. Hi Dan,

    The picture you paint of the Midwest is disturbing. Not even 60’s era Glasgow was that bad. There was never any question of Jewish kids hiding their religion, not that they could, as it was always obvious who regularly was away on Jewish holidays. If there was ever a problem with having Jewish kids as our friends, then our parents kept it well hidden from us.

    And it is not as though we were a particularly enlightened or tolerant mob. I am constantly surprised at what an extremist position Christianity is among many Americans.

  45. Savanaroller

    Robin, With over three-hundred-million citizens, The United States has about every shade of every color imaginable. Some Christians wear their identity like a shirt with no pattern: quietly, unobtrusively; while some march it about in a thoroughly corrupted version, a result of personal psychology at its worst (pardon the generalization) and get a good deal of press and attention, like any other aberrant behaviors. I think the majority of American Christians are like the majority of American Muslims, as we are often told and reminded, most interested in being allowed to practice their faith without persecution by other faiths or the government in office. They (I) also believe that others must have the freedom to practice other faiths, or none at all, with as much tolerance and freedom I expect and enjoy. The creeping, lingering existence of racial, religious, and other stripes of bigotry, are, in my opinion, fluid and often difficult to locate and identify as a stationary entity. There are the obvious cases: church burnings, racial slurs on walls, verbal or physical assaults, but these are, to my knowledge, generally regarded with scorn and derision by the average citizen. Working with kids, I see and hear the early growth of bigotry in many, often surprising, exclamations. In lieu of wondering at the sad phenomenon, I have the daily opportunity to gently correct and educate the innocent, open minds of children. It is my responsibility as a member of the greater community (also as a Christian) to promote peace by example. Someone earlier mentioned that Jews are not a proselytyzing people. Neither are Catholics, if I am a reasonable average example. Walk it, don’t just talk it.

  46. labnut

    I thoroughly enjoyed your delightful interview and found myself nodding in agreement throughout. I need to watch it again before I can say anything substantive but in the meantime I congratulate you on an informative post that has greatly improved my understanding of Judaism.

  47. labnut

    Someone earlier mentioned that Jews are not a proselytyzing people. Neither are Catholics, if I am a reasonable average example. Walk it, don’t just talk it.

    Yes, that is my experience as well. Although our parish church does have a large banner over the doorway, as you leave the church, that reads “You are now entering the mission field“. But this missionary work is primarily reflected in our humanitarian work.

  48. Mara Cohen Ioannides

    Ok, I’m going to jump in here and say that Dan’s daughter has a different view than mine and we live in the same town. She rejects people who reject her religion. She will have no truck with them and so has no problem with “being outed.” I’ve gone regularly to her high school to lecture on what Judaism is like versus what is presented in The Chosen and did so on her request. That there are bigots here is very true and every Jew chooses how to react to that. She has fought anti-Semitism in her school fearlessly.

    This is an amazing forum. The first time I have seen all this discussed with civility and maturity. Thanks Dan!!

  49. Mara, I wish my daughter was more like yours in this regard. But as you know she is a very different sort of person, and I am very hesitant to impose myself on her or push her to far, for fear of having the opposite effect of what I want to achieve.

    Your daughter is special, and I admire and love her fiercely!