Jewish Identity Theft Recovery

Jay B. Lavine, M.D.

Many Questions, Few Answers

Jewish identity is the watchword of the day. But what is it and why is it worth saving? Does our preoccupation with the subject reflect some innate urge for tribal purity or does it reflect the desire to maintain and perpetuate a deeply held faith and way of life?

I once attended a talk by a visiting Orthodox rabbi who was lamenting Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. He recounted an announcement he had recently read about a country club wedding of a Mr. Steinberg and a Miss Murphy (names fictitious). He was assuming that the Steinberg family was Jewish and the Murphy family Christian. But I thought to myself, “Why did he assume such a thing? Maybe the Steinbergs were Christian and the Murphys were Jewish. Or maybe they were both Christian. Or just maybe they were both Jewish.” Many of us have our preconceived notions when it comes to Jewish identity.

Is loss of Jewish identity really the problem we should be tackling directly and headlong, or is it merely a symptom of a serious underlying problem? We know from the lessons of Hanukkah that a civilization is threatened much more by the social and moral decay from within than it is by the enemy from without. This is a teaching that has important implications both for Israel as a state and for the Jewish people, both within Israel and in the Diaspora. Judaism is a way of life that involves doing. Telling us who we are may not help if we have lost our way and are not doing the right things.

Throwing money at a problem is not always the way to go. We can send young people on free trips to Israel and we can pretend that simply a lack of knowledge is at the root of the identity problem, but all the trips and seminars and all the king’s horses and men may not be the answer. The Jewish establishment must be willing to do a sincere cheshbon hanefesh (self-accounting) and be open to consider its own failings that have led to the current epidemic of spiritual malaise instead of pinning the blame on external factors.

The Jewish spiritual decline leading to the current “identity theft” crisis has been long in coming. Let’s take a trip back in time to the city of Berlin. The year is 1913. Franz Rosenzweig, a brilliant, assimilated, minimally observant German Jew destined to become a great existentialist philosopher and Jewish theologian, had made the decision, under the influence of his closest friend, to convert to Christianity. In mental turmoil precipitated by this Jewish identity crisis, he somehow makes the decision to walk into a small Orthodox shul on Yom Kippur. So moved by the outpouring of emotion and the atmosphere of heartfelt prayer that permeates the synagogue, he makes the immediate decision not only to remain a Jew in the full sense of the word but also to make Judaism central to his life. The rest is history. And now for the next question: If Rosenzweig had entered a synogogue on Yom Kippur now, a century later, is it likely that the ambience he encountered would have triggered in him the same emotional transformation?

Let us now move ahead fifty years and enter the synagogue of the late Rabbi Theodore Friedman, one of the pillars of the Conservative movement of the 1960s. On this Shabbat morning, Rabbi Friedman is giving a derasha (sermon) focusing on prayer. He turns to the president of this prominent shul in the well-to-do northern New Jersey suburbs and says, “In all the time that people have inquired of you about membership, how many times has someone said, ‘I want to join so I can pray’?” The president smiles and shrugs, and muffled snickering among the congregants ensues. It’s a rhetorical question. Everyone already knows the answer.

Rabbi Friedman was discussing the significance of prayer, the centerpiece of a personal relationship with God. I was recently reading the mission statement of a non-Orthodox Jewish day school in the same region as his shul. I came upon the words “personal relationship” and expected the sentence to continue “with God.” Instead, the phrase that followed was “with the State of Israel and its people.”

In many Jewish synagogues and institutions today, Jewish identity seems to focus on food, Israel, food, “lifecycle” events, food, tikkun olam (a modern adaptation of an old Jewish concept, now synonymous with “social action”), and food. But does that suffice for those with spiritual needs? What are they to do? Convert to another Eastern religion or to Christianity? Or engage in substitutes for spiritual fulfillment, such as pursuit of money or status? Jewish food festivals and provision of food after services and at other events may attract people but do not provide spiritual sustenance.

Aside from spirituality, what are the barriers to Jewish inclusiveness that lead to loss of Jewish identity and how can they be deconstructed? In this age of internet access, some clues can be gleaned from synagogue websites, which represent the face that such institutions project to prospective members. At first glance, most seem to worship a kind of trinity: they are all warm, welcoming, and vibrant. It is unclear whether they all use the same marketing consultant or whether they just imitate each other. More troubling, though, is the apparent need of some to present themselves as the best as compared to others in the area. Is it really necessary to demean other synagogues in this way, and what does it say about their Jewish values? If they are egalitarian, fine, but do they really need to say this is part of their modern approach, implying that the Orthodox are hopelessly antiquated? Isn’t it possible to be accepting of diversity and simply present what one has to offer without having to claim superiority over everyone else? In the same vein, can we avoid divisiveness and exclusivity by refraining from calling non-Orthodox Jews “secular,” as seems to be the habit of Israelis?

Financial issues are clearly a barrier to inclusion for many people. For prospective members who have limited finances, shouldn’t it be okay to take them at their word instead of requiring them to produce income tax and other financial documents? Is there an assumption that Jews are people who would lie? Is it necessary to sell tickets for high holiday services as a fundraising activity rather than depend on freewill donations? Do we have to rationalize the practice by pointing out the good the money will do without considering the negative effects? Do we have to raise the bar for new members by assessing phony initiation fees (“building funds”) on them? I am reminded that when Rabbi Friedman, mentioned earlier, proposed that I take semi-private lessons with him at his synagogue, my mother exclaimed, “But Rabbi, we’re not even members!” To which he replied, “This is not a country club!” Amen!

Those who have the financial resources in the Jewish community to support its institutions should be willing to do so unstintingly and without being asked. Even better if they can do so without the expectation of receiving recognition, having something named after them, etc. Soon after I entered private medical practice, I sent a donation to the local Jewish federation. The director thanked me and said it was the first time in his tenure that someone had given without first being asked. What a telling remark, almost an indictment. Even I was stunned. Giving only after being asked constitutes one of the lowest levels of Rambam’s eight levels of charity.

Can we include all people in Jewish events regardless of the size of their donations? First, there is the Jewish teaching that one should not actively seek honors, and, again, according to Rambam, giving anonymously represents a high level of charity. But, beyond that, there is the benefit to be derived from inclusiveness. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, relates a relevant and humorous story in his book Tales out of Shul – the Unorthodox Journal of an Orthodox Rabbi (Mesorah Publications Ltd, 1999). All the local rabbis were instructed to invite 25 of “the most important and influential” members of their synagogue to a special reception for the president of Israel. He knew what that meant, but rather than just inviting the wealthy and influential, he included a number of good people of modest means who he knew would be thrilled to receive such an invitation. These people did not know of his role because the invitations came from a special committee for this gala event. At the reception, all the machers were there, including the governor, the mayor, and a slew of other bigwigs, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Rabbi Feldman delighted in the joy it brought his invitees. However, the sponsors of the event reportedly were not so happy. Rabbi Feldman had to remind them that he was asked to invite the most important members of his synagogue, not the richest. A teaching from Proverbs 22:2 had been fulfilled: “Rich and poor meet; God is the maker of them all.”

Can we have Jewish synagogues and other organizations that don’t have groups for “young professionals”? What are young people who are not professionals to do? And do we have to have organizations for “quality singles”? Again, why should this atmosphere of feeling superior to others, as exemplified by these repugnant expressions, be allowed to persist in our midst?

Can we have rabbis who nourish our Jewish spirituality and promote true Jewish values? There are news stories about rabbis who flock to meet the president of the U.S. and who relish in the status it provides them as they elbow their way to the front. This is the “Haman complex” – “What should be done for the one whom the king wants to honor?” And what about the new breed of rabbis who promote themselves as being one of the most influential rabbis as determined by some secular mass media publication? When have Jews in the past ever depended on non-Jews to determine for them who their most authoritative and influential rabbis were? There is the anecdote of the little girl who is asked to define “rabbi.” She replies, “He’s the one who tells us what page to turn to.” We do need to know what page to turn to, not just in the siddur (prayer book) but also in the book of life.

In summary, Judaism is a religion and way of life of doing, and being a Jew means living a Jewish way of life, whatever that might mean to the individual. One’s identity naturally follows from that. Jewish identity in and of itself is meaningless, and attempts to artificially instill Jewish identity without creating a proper basis for it are as unlikely to succeed as attempting to erect a building without having first created the foundation.