LAB B’OMER FEATURE The Tragedy of Lag B’Omer: Judaism’s social catastrophes

NEW YORK, May 13 (JTA) — Most people think of Lag B”Omer as a warm, fuzzy semi-holiday with a nature-loving, children-oriented theme. In the Talmud Lag B”Omer — the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer period — is a devastating reminder of an historic catastrophe caused by Jewish divisiveness. Today, Jewry seems to be heading for a repeat of the disaster. In a very short period, tens of thousands of Rabbi Akiva”s students died. They died because “they did not treat each other with respect,”” says the Talmud. What is the connection of no respect and loss? Akiva and some of his students proclaimed Simon Bar Koziba, the leader of the Bar Kochba revolt, to be the Messiah. Other colleagues strongly opposed the Bar Kochba rebellion in Judea against Rome. Rabbi Yochanan Turta mocked Akiva, saying “grass will grow from your cheeks (meaning, you will be long buried) and the Messiah will not yet have come.”” What if the students had dialogued respectfully and learned from each other? Perhaps the Messianists would have listened to the others; perhaps the two groups would have come up with a more sober strategy of resistance to the Romans. Instead, there was a total revolt that brought a crushing defeat and 1,800 years in exile. Assimilation and Christian proselytizing alike eroded Jewish communities in the first and second centuries. What if Akiva”s students and the rabbis, who differed widely in their approaches, had admitted that none of them had solved the problems of assimilation and cultural competition? Using all the different approaches, together, they might have reached the masses. Had they been more modest, more open, perhaps they could have overcome the enormous contempt and strident conflict between the scholars” circles and the unlearned people. Instead, countless Jews were lost as were many students of the great rabbi. In this generation, we face a social catastrophe in the making. The behavior of Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform leadership is a classic repeat of “they did not treat each other with respect.”” Since the 1960s, when America opened up to Jews in an unprecedented fashion, there has been a “plague”” of assimilation. Instead of recognizing that no one was prepared for such openness and acceptance — and that all traditional systems, not just Judaism, were vulnerable — each group has locked in on its own needs and strengths and written off the others” concerns. Reform responded to its growing constituency of intermarried with unconverted partners by recognizing as Jewish children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Orthodox objections were dismissed on the grounds that the Orthodox would not accept liberal converts anyway. Yet, Conservative Judaism”s rabbinic leadership also rejected patrilineal descent. In another expression of “lack of respect for each other,”” Reform”s leaders concluded that the Conservative laypeople had lower standards than their rabbis, that the laypeople were ready to accept patrilineal Jews and that they would eventually force the Conservative rabbinate to go along. In other words, the Conservative rabbinate had no principles that they could uphold. A plague of divorce swept the Jewish community. Second marriages without benefit of a get, or religious divorce, threatened to create halachically unmarriageable children. To prevent illegitimacy, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that Reform marriages were halachically invalid, thus requiring no get to end them. However, the solution was based on lack of respect for the Reform rabbinate. It was easier to rule that Reform was an invalid religion than to validate Reform marriages and require a higher level of interdenominational cooperation to assure that Reform laypeople would obtain a get. Important Reform Rabbis such as Eugene Borowitz welcomed the Feinstein solution. They accepted disrespect so they, in turn, would have full freedom of action. There would be no need to temper their behavior for the sake of Orthodox concerns. Reform has little or no respect for Orthodox positions on homosexuality and on intermarriage — dismissing them as “homophobic”” or “unrealistic.”” Now the disrespect has boiled up. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis declared that “Reform and Conservative are not Judaism at all, but another religion.”” While the mainstream Orthodox leadership disowned the statement, they also are angry at liberal rejections of tradition. Therefore, they did not make an unequivocal positive statement that liberal movements are legitimate, even it they view them as wrong or mistaken. Neither theologically nor politically is any centrist Orthodox leader able or willing to publicly respect Reform and Conservative Judaism by asserting their legitimacy. Now the leadership of the liberal movements has dropped all restraints of language. Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch recently said that the Chief Rabbinate is “dysfunctional”” and its religious courts are “without a scintilla of moral worth.”” Schorsch called for a religious center “for whom piety and sanity are not polar opposites.”” In other words, in the Orthodox rabbinate piety and sanity are polar opposites. The Conservative leader also called upon all Jews to “recommit ourselves to the goal of achieving”” religious unity. Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie described the Israeli rabbinate as “medieval,”” “extremist,”” “radical,”” and “fanatic,”” and “a disgrace to the Jewish people and its religion.”” Schorsch and Yoffie both know that they must deepen the spiritual life, education and observance levels of their constituents. They know that positive exposure and contact with the Orthodox community will upgrade liberal Jews in those areas in which Orthodoxy is strongest — learning, observance and community. But by now, the anger and lack of respect is the overriding connection. Would anybody use such language use vis-a-vis Christians? In fact, Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Agudath Israel of America know that the Orthodox community is weakest in coping with new roles for women and in facing the challenge of social action. They know that Orthodoxy has a lot to learn from the liberal movements in many areas. They know that insulation has kept intermarriage and assimilation rates among Orthodox low — so they will have to face these issues in time and, again, will have to learn from liberals. But right now the levels of respect are so low that they cannot admit or even articulate such ideas. Unless there is a major uprising by all Jews for unity, the Jewish people may be heading for a fundamental schism. Only spotlighting the forces of divisiveness, generating strong internal pressures within each movement to take other groups into account, and increased support for active dialogue and joint activity can arrest this slide toward alienation and separation. This Lag B”Omer, every Jew should pause a moment in silent tribute to the memory of Akiva”s students who died untimely. Then there should be a second moment of confession and repentance for the coming untimely death of Jewish unity.
_____________________ Irving Greenberg is president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of “The Jewish Way”” (New York: Summit Books).
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