April 13, 2008

Recent Posts

Here is a short roundup of recent posts:

Passing The Baton- Grandma is 94
Letting It All Hang Out
Using Math/Science to Explain Women
HH #162- Worth More than A Dime
Remote Controls
I Am Taking Requests...
We Won't Be Shaking Hands
And your blast from the past:
Morality Without Religion- A Comment to The Self-Righteous
Why The Baal Teshuva World Irritates Me
What Is Your Favorite Topic To Blog About?


Fievel Chuchem said...

Sorry about the length - but it's an important matter that I think should not remain unchallenged.

While it's true that lots of religious people don't really live up to what religion advertises, and a lot of non-religous people do live up to what religion advertises, both secular and non-secular Jews today seem to me clueless about what the point of Jewish religion is, and just how our distinction to be both a Nation and a religion makes us different than other belief systems.

On one hand, being "religious" is seen by some as all sorts of ritual stuff. Somehow, that's supposed to make a person moral, but that's obviously not always true. On the other hand, being secular is seen by many to be the freedom to choose a morality without the weight of various behaviors that are obviously irrelevant to morality. This also inconclusively leads to personal morality.

But why are we speaking of personal morality as though this is the only bellweather? For the last 60-70 years at least there was a huge shift in how "societies" are understood and morality is if nothing else a co-existant of society. For thousands of years prior, societies were understood as repositories for systems of values. Beliefs, per se, were guarded by societies as a means to order them so that they could better gather resources to defend the societal values. Duly defended, people use societies as a means for personal growth in ways that they cannot when our communities have no sense of collective obligation. People were absolutely ruthless in defense of their community's values, and their own values were matters of compliance rather than a matter for a comparative religion class.

Today, most people feel they can hire an army to defend their society's values, or compromise when the costs are too high. They feel it's beyond them to sacrifice for it even unto their lives or those of their kids. They relate to their socieities as a product purchased off the shelf, as if it'd always been there, and if it doesn't perform they think that all that need be done is elect someone else to make it "better". Like a box of soap powder, values have become more a matter of personal interests rather than principles. That's a net loss, in my view. It essentially means that in some important respects, society has lost its utility.

Judaism is not, nor has it ever been, an off the shelf product. It requires each of our personal involvement. The institutions, whether it be shabbat or kashrut or taharat hamishpacha or the rabbinate, are all there to ensure the survival of the values our community stands for, and through which we build our lives and the lives of our families. It is the means by which community influences us, and by which we influence our communities. It is not only about whether we, as inviduals, can be moral with or without it, which seems to me how you phrased the matter in your two posts. It's about whether the specific Jewish values we as a community defended for thousands of years are still worth defending, and the question about how best to defend them and sustain them.

Now, I'll agree with you that most BT's and religious Jews are as clueless about what Jewish values are as secular Jews are. They are not "universal". They are not "Judeo Christian". They are not even about ritual. They are about process and growth. They are about how we grind the competing values together and come to solutions, and how that grinding together enhances our growth and understanding as individuals of what life's about. Our community's approach to values is process oriented, not something we lift onto a pedestal, and it's a way of approaching life that I think is unique.

It deserves preservation, I feel. It's a great tradition, and too bad so few of us respect it enough to allow it to flourish as such, dumbing it down to self-referencing ritual preservation.

That I say this implies that I believe you are spot on in some of your observations. Some changes within religous life are necessary, if only from the perspective of resynchronizing how ritual and community life really work in our era. I would agree with you that that Judaism's too tied up in ritual and formalism rather than substance. That doesn't mean to me that your view or your perception of other's views about morality are even the issue. But in my view, the best approach is to rebuild Judaism from within. We ought not see this as "they need it and I don't" issue, and therefore everyone does just whatever they want. It's not about you. It's not about me, or him. It's about whether there'll be an "us", and whether that "us" ought to be used in service to protect the values of our community, and how we'll ensure that happens generation after generation.

We could analyze the situation and say Jewish values aren't really that important, and thus neither is Jewish community. But the matter is significant enough to require the sort of thought that makes that a choice, rather than a de facto result of our actions.

You seem to be a person who's Jewish identity is important to him, though you're not a person who is conventionally religious based on the two posts I just read. I'd find it illuminating to hear what you'd do if you were Grand Poobah of the Jews, Jack. If it were all on your shoulders, would you just say, "live and let live", seeing as you do that this is resulting in the diminishment of Jewish identity on one side, and the increasing formalization/ritualization on the other, or would you fluff up the Jewish pillow a bit? Can you imagine a world where you see the relevance of ritual observance for YOU, such that it serves the purposes its intended for and if everyone did what you did, there'd still be a Jewish community in 100 years?

Fievel Chuchem said...

Whoa - I guess I overdid it. :-)

Anyway, to distill what I've said in an attempt to be clearer (after I've reread what I wrote) it boils down to Voltaire's statement - "I disagree with your statement, but I'll defend to the death your right to make it".

Voltaire was an athiest. He even hated Jews. He sure didn't need Torah to understand there was such a thing as values and to know what it means to defend them.

But he understood that even as we may disagree, the values of his Europe held freedom of thought to be inviolable, and he was willing to defend those values at the expense of his life.

That was then, now is now, thanks mostly to Rousseau. He undermined the idea that there was any sort of values worth defending - it's all relative.

Jews today get to move the fulcrum in favor of Rousseau or Voltaire, Kaplan or Ramchal. It's a fateful choice. All I'm saying is we shouldn't just assume that there is no choice, or that Rousseau's approach is naturally the only one we've got. My preferred approach is modified Voltaire. "I defend your view with my life, but don't you think it'd make more sense if you did it this way?" I feel that I have that right if I'm in the community, to influence as well as be influenced. That's all I'm suggesting, Jack - think about how you can influence things rather than bowing out and saying "it's not for me", if that's what you've done.

Leora said...

One of my relatives by marriage who is a BT is a great example of how one can become very Right Wing but still make relatives who have not chosen observancy comfortable with who they are (my husband and I are Modern Orthodox, as I was raised, though I waivered a lot in my twenties). We are off to his house for the sederim, and I feel very comfortable in their home, but probably won't venture out much into their neighborhood where almost everyone is wearing black and hardly a lime color can be seen.

There are all types in this world.

WomanHonorThyself said...

interesting comments!

Jack said...


You deserve a better response than the one I am going to give. But for now let's leave it at this.

We spend too much time trying to out frum each other and not enough celebrating our similarities.


I have the privilege in living in one of the larger enclaves of Orthdox Jews in Los Angeles.

My neighbors are good people and for the most part I don't feel any pressure one way or another.

That is refreshing. I kid around about having fallen off of the derech. Truth is, I am not sure that I was ever on it...

Most of my neighbors are very cool people, but every now and then I get that funny apikores vibe. It is usually in a conversation when someone wants to explain something about the chagim to me.

Fievel Chuchem said...

Yep. I hear you Jack. But all similarities aren't equal. I was reading a "profile" on a meeting site of someone who thinks she's sampled Judaism because she remembers a paragraph from her bat mitzvah recitation, and because she likes a bagel with shmear. That's kind of like saying I know what it means to be American because I go shopping on Thanksgiving weekend.

I don't deserve a better answer - it's really a rhetorical question for you to consider for yourself, as I'm in no position to judge anybody at all - of this I'm more certain than everything else I've said. And while I agree with you that a lot of what separates us Jews is just unnecessary, my point was I don't think either the secular or the religious really "get it" in terms of how to make your vision of focusing on commonality a reality.

What I'd propose, and I'll be getting into it on my blog once I get my head clear for it, is what we might call our favorite music if we were hillbillies - "old-timey". There's a way to reach into the past and make it relevant to what we know today, so that it can all be something that we hold in common. It's a remanufacturing of our similarities. I have often told my co-religionists who are not of my mind on this that I'm shocked at their lack of concern about the 90% of Jews we lose just so that they can keep their 10% pristine. I don't understand how that's "ahavat chinam", for sure. At the same time, I see a reciprocal obligation for the 90% to proactively seek the common ground, and not to treat it as an off-the-shelf proposition. It's critical that for all Jews to own the vision, all Jews need to be part of it. It can't be from the top down.

That's it - don't feel obligated to respond, I just wanted to clarify where I'm coming from if I wasn't clear. I enjoy your blog - I especially love the stuff you write about your grandparents. It's bittersweetness drives home the price we must pay for every vision - whether it be brotherhood, love or life. Keep up the great posts.

Jack said...


I'd be interested in reading your blog. Your comment about the 90/10 ratio is sensible and important.

I have had more than one discussion friends who are BT and FFB about the need to be inclusive and not exclusive for many reasons.

Not the least of which is that some of the things they do are primarily based on minhagim and are not Halacha.

It irks me to listen to them rant about such matters. Chazal didn't say to do X,Y,Z. Our relatives did it because they were trying to fit in with the culture of their time.

Fievel Chuchem said...

Minhagim vs. Halacha? Maybe. I'm not sure it makes so much of a difference in the end, and I'll explain why.

Yep - some of the things that some of us did were like that - fitting into the culture of our times. But it's not really something that is so overarching so as to be said as descriptive of Judaism. You're probably thinking of things like modes of dress and the like. I'm speaking more of "values" - I think on this foundation, there is a lot of room for finding common ground, if people would just be honest about the extent of what's known to be true, and circumspect about how we ought to deal with doubt within the common realm. Is there a value in the principle of the Noble Lie? There might be - but it makes me feel uncomfortable.

It seems to me that we are going through an era that is not less in its potential for upheaval Jewishly than the time of the destruction of the 2nd Temple. It was then that Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today was invented, as a means for securing the survival of our People for the long Diasporic existance that confronted us. Think about what you'd have done if you were them - and you'll realize how wise these men and women were. The system worked very well for a very long time as a receptical, a values capsule for our Nation. But it's not working so well anymore when we can't engage any but a "remnant of a remnant" with it. It's worth looking carefully and thinking about what's wrong. But what isn't wrong is that we haven't "fit in" well enough. That's never been our objective, though it sometimes motivated changes, no doubt. Rather, it's a matter of self- and national-respect. We can't realistically maintain observance over a broad-base of our People by guilting them into it, or brainwashing them. For many of us, we want to know how our contribution fits into a big picture, how we influence, not just how we are influenced. The threshold is so high for influencing our community under the current system as to encourage apathy.

For me, it's been a rather difficult few years looking deeply into the matter - nothing seems to be exactly as I thought it was regarding what I had been told by people I trusted to "know". That undermining of trust has significant implications for me, and the community I'm part of. It leaves me with 3 choices - 1) to find some way to toe the line at least with regard to ritual, while being true to myself with regard to principle or 2) abandoning it all as inconsistent with any principle that is true to myself or 3) attempting (long shot - agreed) to realign, or to be part of a realignment, of how the principles and rituals interact.

I am aiming for the last, "influence", number 3, because I believe ultimately the principles are the key issue and I sense that "influence" less than ontological membership is what makes us members of our community. The mitzvot, in my view, are there to serve the principles, and each of us in dedication to those principles has to chart our own path that is consistent to them if the existing one has veered off course. The shadow casts the man, not the man his shadow. But admittedly, this is a HUGE amount of effort - it requires an appreciation and interaction with my decisions Jewishly that demands a lot of "stretching" on my part, because it's not an "off-the-shelf" solution. But I value my fellow Jew, and my place in the community, and I don't know any better way to keep thier connection to me intact without the effort.

Fools game? Mere pastime? Might be. I sure hope not, though. Literally, in some ways I've bet, and continue to bet my life on it. I believe it enough that I can recommend this path with a full heart to others. That's why I wrote this. :-)

Chag kasher v'sameach

Jack said...


I appreciate everything that you have said. We do live in a different time.There is no doubt that overall this is another golden age, at least when it comes to our overall safety.

While it is easy to find the horrors of the past looming in the near distance, it is also a time in which we again have a land of our own.

It makes it much easier for us to settle into whatever land we live in be a part of that country and a Jew, as opposed to the other way around.

One of the big challenges is that we have such a gap between so many of us. Too many non-Orthodox feel disconnected and or judged by their fellows.

And the finger can be pointed in the other direction too.

We need to find some common ground that we can all rally around.