Trauma in Judaism

By Marty, Martin E. | The Christian Century, July 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Trauma in Judaism


Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century


WHEN THE hyperorthodox wing of the Orthodox rabbinate in the U.S.--more than 500 rabbis strong--declared earlier this year that Jews who belong to Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Humanist branches of Judaism are not professing the religion of Judaism, the Jews who had been virtually excommunicated (to use a Christian term) reacted in anguish or anger. The tempers raised by that defining act have not cooled. In the Christian community such a judgment might be brushed off as coming from marginal voices. But Jews are too small and close a family to be able to brush anyone off.

Globally there are 1.9 billion Christians, 1.2 billion Muslims and only 14 million Jews. For comparison, consider that the Southern Baptist Convention has over 15 million members in the U.S. alone. The 2.3 percent of Americans who identify with Judaism make up a cohort one-tenth the size of each of the following three groups: Catholics, mainstream Protestants and evangelical Protestants.

Small families are most aware of internal conflicts, and Judaism is a small family. It cannot afford to lose members, and for it deep internal strife is traumatic. Judaism in the U.S. has lost members through generations of intermarriage. The pace of intermarriage with non-Jews and the consequent loss of many loyalties is felt more deeply because Jewish families generally have fewer children than do others. Some worry about Judaism fading into statistical insignificance in pluralist America. Jews are in no immediate danger of losing cultural influence, but the long-range view is not promising.

If American Jews had only American Jews to worry about, the trauma could skill be treated rather effectively. But Jews differ from the other large religions in that most of them acknowledge another homeland, a Zion. From 194X until recently, Jews in the U.S. across the religious spectrum supported the state of Israel--and the Reform and Conservative elements, the largest groups in the U.S., kicked in most generously. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg once remarked that there seems to be only one Jewish belief the denial of which would make one a heretic: belief in the utterly positive meaning of Israel. During the decades when so many groups looked to race, ethnicity, class, religion or tradition to find and promote identity and power, most Jews found their identity in the cause of Israel, a country to which some of them migrated. Those who did not make aliyah, who stayed here, could certify their credentials as Jews by remembering Israel in their hopes and prayers and with their voices, votes and dollars.

That focus of identity is now in question because of changes within Israel. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu--a coalition that includes radical Orthodox parties--has supported legislation stating that conversions to Judaism in Israel will be recognized only if performed by Orthodox rabbis. Such a move would serve to codify in law what is already the practice in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate has jurisdiction over many aspects of education, family law and public life. Orthodox leaders control marriage, divorce and burial for all Israeli Jews--which means, for example, that Reform and Conservative rabbis cannot officiate at weddings in Israel.

The conversion bill directed at non-Orthodox Jews has sorely strained the traditional connection between Israel and Reform and Conservative communities in America. Numbers of them have begun to earmark their donations for specific causes they can support in Israel, or are withholding money entirely, or are giving to Jewish causes in America. The United Jewish Appeal in the U.S. recently launched a $20 million campaign to promote non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel.

The old rhetoric that called all Jews to be unequivocal about Jerusalem and Zion is now muted. When voiced, it inflames argument and adds to the trauma. For years American Jews could say that non Jews who were anti-Zionist and not pro-Israel, who did not assent to notions of a theologically based Jewish claim on the land of Israel, were anti-Semitic.

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