NEW YORK, Aug. 27 (JTA) — Just as American Jews spent the last decade worrying about “continuity,” they will likely spend this one worrying about lack of consensus as to just what kind of Judaism should be continued.
That’s the message of a provocatively titled new book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” by award-winning journalist Samuel Freedman.
That there are tensions among the different streams of Judaism — particularly between Orthodox and liberal Jews — is nothing new. Indeed, in every large Jewish community throughout the United States, the loud pleas for “tolerance” and “unity” have become something of a cliche.
Umbrella organizations like federations and Jewish community centers have struggled with dueling demands such as whether to close for Shabbat or remain open, to allocate overseas funds to the liberal streams of Judaism or to Orthodox yeshivot and social organizations, to support the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to exchange land for peace or to condemn it.
What makes his book unique, says Freedman, is that it is not “from one polemical point of view or another.”
Instead, the book puts faces on the Jewish disunity, thoroughly chronicling the stories of a handful of people caught up in such disputes.
The disputes in modern American Judaism, contends Freedman, go beyond simply Orthodox vs. secular.
But the central conflicts of the book are the ones that pit Orthodox against liberal Jews.
• The simultaneous demise of a secular Zionist summer camp and exponential growth of a neighboring Chasidic community in New Jersey;
• A failed joint Orthodox-Reform-Conservative conversion program in Denver;
• Reform Jews who left their Long Island suburb because they felt their Orthodox neighbors were judging them;
• A protracted dispute in suburban Cleveland pitting liberal Jews against Orthodox Jews seeking to build a synagogue, mikvah and school.
However, not all conflicts are Orthodox-secular. He also writes of:
• Tensions that emerge in a traditional Conservative congregation in Los Angeles when one of the members seeks to include the matriarchs in the liturgy;
• A terrorist act in Jacksonville, Fla., inspired by sharply different visions of the Israeli peace process;
• The intra-Orthodox tensions ignited when five fervently Orthodox students declared the Yale University’s dorms improper settings for observant Jews, even though hundreds of modern Orthodox Jews had happily lived in them for years.
Even buzzwords like “unity” and “pluralism,” have partisan undertones, writes Freedman. Unity — generally used by more traditional Jews — asks all Jews to adhere to the same beliefs, while pluralism, writes Freedman, often implies that anything goes and there are no common rules at all.
Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor raised in an “intensely secular” household, brings somewhat of an outsider’s perspective to the debate. This is his first book on a Jewish topic, and he is reluctant to take sides or prescribe solutions, preferring instead to “create a dissonance in the reader’s brain,” by showing the humanity of those with whom they might passionately disagree.
Interested in Judaism as a child, Freedman chose against his parent’s wishes to have a Bar Mitzvah but his Jewish interest “ended abruptly” when the rabbi refused at the last minute to lead the service due to a dispute over whether the reception would be sufficiently kosher.
“We had to find another rabbi and another synagogue, so everything I’d heard from my parents about how sectarian and petty Judaism was seemed to have been confirmed,” said Freedman.
He returned to religion years later, in an unlikely spot: as a reporter writing a book on an African-American church in Brooklyn. There, people frequently asked him about Judaism and “the fact that I knew so little made me feel such a profound sense of shame.”
Now, Freedman identifies as a Conservative Jew and belongs with his wife and children to B’nai Jeshurun, a large Manhattan synagogue known for its lively prayer services and extensive array of social action projects.
Although he and his wife considered enrolling their children in a pluralistic Jewish day school, they ultimately opted for public school, mainly because they wanted them to be exposed to children from other backgrounds.
Freedman suggests that in the future American Jews will be aligned into four main constituencies: Haredi or fervently Orthodox; what he calls “Conservadox” — a partnership of modern Orthodox and traditional Conservative Jews who favor gender equality but find Jewish law binding; and “Reformative,” liberal Jews who incorporate tradition but accept such things as gay marriage and patrilineal descent.
As for the fourth group, what Freedman terms “just Jews,” he sees little future. Ethnic/secular Judaism, he writes, has been buffeted by intermarriage, upward mobility and is becoming indistinguishable from broader American culture.
However, he is not writing off Secular Humanistic Judaism, a relatively young Michigan-based movement founded by a former Reform rabbi, Sherwin Wine. The movement has secular congregations throughout the country that host discussion groups, services that do not mention God and even train children for secular Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
“Those sorts of organizational entities are what’s been missing from secular Judaism, so if it can perpetuate, that’s all to the good,” he said, but noted that “I can’t help being struck by the fact that their leader is a rabbi. It’s sort of paradoxical.”
Chabad-Lubavitch, a fervently Orthodox Chasidic stream with extensive interaction with other Jews, may also break from the general mold of Orthodox and other Jews having little to do with each other.
“You get in, get loved so much and get a sense of community, then decide willingly to be haredi,” observes Freedman. “They’re onto something. You don’t win by browbeating.”
The fact that Jews are segmenting and fighting in no way eliminates concerns about Jewish continuity, however, writes Freedman.
“It is tragic, yes, that American Jews have battled so bitterly, so viciously over the very meaning of being Jewish,” are the last words of his book. “It is more tragic, perhaps, that the only ones fighting are the only ones left who care.”