As I was reading the latest batch of think-pieces on Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy in the New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of a book I’m reading, Rabbi Arthur Blecher’s The New American Judaism, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October.
Blecher’s central premise is that modern mainstream American Judaism relies on a set of myths and misguided motives to justify its current form. One of the myths is that intermarriage is decreasing the size of the American Jewish population. One of the misguided motives is that the most important reason to be Jewish is so that Judaism continues to survive. The former, Blecher argues, is factually incorrect; the latter is simply uninspiring, playing on Jews’ fears rather than their hopes.
BRATZ’s movie debut last week was no match for the Transformers–it made $4.2 million in its opening weekend vs. $155.4 million for Transformers–but when it comes to toy sales, it’s no contest. BRATZ has generated more than $2 billion in revenue, and its sales are closing the gap on the most successful girl’s toy in history, Barbie.
So what–or who–are Bratz? They’re the anti-Barbie, large-headed, wide-eyed, multiethnic dolls who wear skimpy clothes and are supposed to be teenagers, unlike the mature, demure 20-something Barbie. Like Barbie, they were created by a Jewish entrepreneur and like Barbie, they reflect the ethos of the time. When Barbie debuted in 1959, the ideal of feminine happiness was white, blonde, rich and monogamous; in 2007, the ideal is younger, more racially diverse, sassier and independent.
Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger died on Sunday.
Cardinal Lustiger was a key figure in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that Pope John Paul II so valued. He was the Pope’s representative at the commemoration ceremonies for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2005 and served as a middle man between Jews and the Church on sensitive issues like Catholic anti-Semitism. He was uniquely fitted for these responsibilities because he was actually born a Jew–a fact that made many Jewish figures who worked with him uncomfortable.
He was born in Paris to secular Polish-Jewish emigres in 1926. Following the German invasion of France in 1940, he and his sister were sent for their own protection to live with a Catholic woman. At 13, he was baptized. Despite his conversion, he considered himself Jewish: “I was born Jewish, and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many,” he once said. And, in a way, he had the most unassailable Jewish credentials: his mother died as a Jew in Auschwitz.
Part of a growing trend around the country, a new “synagogue without walls” is opening in Cleveland, according to the Cleveland Jewish News. Called simply “The Shul,” it will cater to unaffiliated and interfaith families, especially baby boomers.
The rabbi of this new congregation, Edward Sukol, has clearly done his research. He’s not centering the congregation’s spiritual life around Shabbat attendance. He is getting rid of Sunday school and doing family education instead, where the whole family learns about Judaism together (an approach that Stepping Stones in Colorado has perfected over the years). Bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah services will be tailored to family’s needs. And one of his most radical ideas will see Sukol and a local minister running a joint study session for interfaith families:
“We will talk about the similarities and differences of shared symbols within Judaism and Christianity such as wine, water and bread,” he says. “We will discuss the ethical and moral differences of these two religions and let interfaith families articulate for themselves how they want to express their religious identities in their homes.”
This approach touches the third rail of the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage: letting families decide for themselves how to raise their children. As tolerant and sensitive as outreach organizations try to be, most of us have a not-so-hidden-agenda: we want interfaith families to make Jewish choices. It’s exceedingly rare to see a rabbi, especially one trained in the Conservative tradition, willing to share information about other religions with interfaith families.
We wish him the best of luck.
Norman Lamm, the highly respected former president of Yeshiva University–the flagship of the Modern Orthodox movement–stoops to a surprising low in his critique of Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy, on the Forward‘s website. He says that Feldman “succeeded in supplying via the New York Times article enough anti-Jewish material to last a few good years.” It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it’s been used to quell honest criticism of Israeli policies for years: don’t air our dirty laundry because it just gives the anti-Semites fodder for their hate.
But this argument rests on a false and cowardly premise. The “dirty laundry” argument assumes, ridiculously, that if only there weren’t negative information about Jews, Judaism or Israel, anti-Semites would realize that Jews really aren’t so bad. It also assumes that authentic critiques of Judaism are any more valuable to anti-Semites than the stuff they make up, like the Jewish blood libel and the Elders of Zion. But worse, crying anti-Semitism prioritizes the prejudices of idiots over the value of honest dialogue between intelligent Jews. And effectively, it doesn’t really matter. Anti-Semites are some of the most active and savviest users of the Internet. Don’t you think, Rabbi Lamm, that they can find all the anti-Jewish material they need (whether from Jews or non-Jews) on the World Wide Web?
To blame Noah Feldman for the fact that non-Jews are asking Orthodox Jews critical questions about their faith is a cheap shot. And, due to their substantial Jewish education, aren’t Orthodox Jews the best-equipped to respond to these questions in an intelligent and informed way? Indeed, one of the premises of Modern Orthodoxy is that one can be Orthodox and involved in the secular world; inevitably, this means responding to non-Jews’ ignorance about the faith. Feldman’s essay didn’t start this phenomenon any more than Michael Lerner gave birth to anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semites hate Jews, regardless of the facts. Non-Jews who encounter Modern Orthodox Jews know little about Judaism, and will continue to do so. Rabbi Lamm should rethink who we should spend more time educating.
Catching up on some notable articles from the last few weeks:
- Adam Wills, a fine writer at the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, has written a singles piece unlike anything you’ve seen before in a Jewish paper. He’s been giving his brother dating advice since his divorce, the only difference is that while Adam is a devoted Jew, his brother converted to Catholicism–but is slowly crawling his way back to Judaism.
- I’m interviewed as part of a story on a Jewish dating service in The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier. For a piece written by a (presumably) non-Jewish reporter on an issue that I doubt he had much prior knowledge of, it’s quite well-done, sensitively handling those who promote Jewish in-dating and those who are friendly to interfaith couples.
- The Forward recently reported on the push by a small group of activists to take circumcision out of the bris ritual. The article itself is interesting enough, but check out the comments–in print form, there are more than 60 pages worth of comments.