Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Re: [Shefa] Rabbi Eric Yoffie: "Judaism is always ‘tikkun olam’—and more"


With all due respect to Rabbi Yoffie, though I can't speak directly for Mr. Alperson, I believe this response somewhat mischaracterizes Alperson's Op-Ed (Judaism is more than 'tikkun olam'  www.jta.org/news/article/2011/07/27/3088736/op-ed-judaism-is-more-than-tikkun-olam ) and even supports Alperson's observations more than it refutes them. At least, this is my personal take, for the following reasons based on my understanding of Alperson's piece:
Alperson never rejected the idea that Judaism should teach or encourage Jews to do "tikkun olam" as a religious act, but rather as a replacement for religious acts (Alperson: This distancing from Jewish religious (i.e., God-based) teachings and ritual experiences inevitably leads to a distancing from Jewish purpose.) When we stand up for the poor and oppressed *because* we've learned in Torah and Talmud that this is what God/Judaism expects of us, we are practicing faith - but, as Rabbi Yoffie says, " the work of social justice, absent text study and ritual practice as a foundation, is inauthentic and will not sustain itself" However, as recent articles have shown (Study: Young Jews volunteer, but don't connect it to Judaism www.jta.org/news/article/2011/06/22/3088270/study-shows-most-young-jews-volunteer-but-few-connect-it-to-jewish-values Study: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=11910 ) many young Jews today view tikkun olam as something to do absent connection to God or ritual. It is these reports that I personally suspect may have informed Alperson's Op-Ed.
Though volunteering of any type is certainly laudable, it is not the same as having an understanding of and practicing mitzvot. How many Conservative congregants would answer the question, "What is a mitzvah?" with "A good deed" rather than "doing something commanded or required by God/Torah/Judaism?" How many would respond negatively rather than positively to the idea that Judaism is at it's core a covenant, framed in commands and obligations?
Here too, in his response, Rabbi Yoffie touches on the heart of the matter when he says, "Social justice, in short, is required by our religious texts and is inseparable from our religious mission." and
"Do we need to study Torah, embrace Jewish ritual and observe Shabbat? Absolutely, although Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews will interpret these obligations differently."
Rabbi Yoffie, obviously believes in and raised his daughter with a sense of *obligation* which many Jews, young and otherwise, that I know are missing and often averse to.  They have little to no real knowledge of our sacred texts to draw, having been given a bar/t mitzvah event often learned by rote memory rather than long-term learning. The idea of Judaism involving *obligation* (or as I refer to it "the dirty 'o' word") is foreign to their American "Have it your way" mentality, which. all too often our institutions have sought to accommodate rather than challenge. It is my personal belief that some of the success of indie groups like Mechon Hadar lie in their restoration of the concept that Jews (not just rabbis and cantors, etc.) have an obligation to learn and grapple with our faith's texts and beliefs in the real world in which they live (See: Hadar's Popular Egalitarian Yeshiva Grapples With Sex Before Marriage  http://forward.com/articles/137147/ ) Though I'm certain this is not the only factor.
I concur with Alperson's conclusion that we must both EDUCATE those in our congregations and create communities where PRACTICE of our faith is the norm rather than the fringe of a social/cultural event-driven Jewish experience.
Today's digital generations are collaborative (I'm a 46 year old first generation digital native) and aren't looking for a hierarchal Judaism to follow. Many of us are, however, looking for a Judaism that gives us the building blocks (texts) and tools (halachic framework/practice) to build individually halachic Jewish lives that can be connected together into vibrant halachic Jewish communities.  This familiarity with our texts and how we view them is something I feel Conservative institutions have by-and-large failed to provide to their constituents.
I believe it's time we, as Conservative Jews, heed both Alperson's call to heal ourselves and articulate a clear theology and it's obligations and Rabbi Yoffie's that our tikkun olam be founded on our faith.
My Two Cents,
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Tuesday, August 02, 2011 12:22 AM
Subject: [Shefa] Rabbi Eric Yoffie: "Judaism is always 'tikkun olam'—and more"

JTA Op-Ed: "Judaism is always 'tikkun olam'—and more"

NEW YORK (JTA) -- I have no patience for survival Judaism. Whenever I hear someone talk about what Jews must do in order to "survive," I head for the door.

Joel Alperson has joined the long list of Jewish communal leaders offering a formula for Jewish survival. Along the way, he informs us that Modern Orthodoxy has all the answers and Reform and Conservative Judaism are on the road to extinction -- a point with which I strongly disagree but that I will not argue here. What does need to be said, however, is that he shows a total misunderstanding of what Judaism is about and fails to comprehend that a Judaism obsessed with survival is a Judaism that will not survive.

Anyone who has urged college students to care about Jewish survival knows that they will respond with indifference, incomprehension and contempt. They are not interested in being Jewish so that we can survive. They need to hear the opposite message: Jews do not observe Torah in order to survive; they survive in order to observe Torah. And -- this is the key for such students, and for most North American Jews -- observing Torah means much more than worrying only about our own souls.

Observing Torah involves fulfilling a grander purpose. It means taking to heart the words of R. Hayyim of Brisk, the greatest Talmudist of the late 19th century, who defined the rabbi's task as follows: "To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor." 

Social justice, in short, is required by our religious texts and is inseparable from our religious mission. There is no such thing as a morality that is selectively indignant -- that looks within but fails to look without. And Judaism without ethics, both personal and societal, is a contradiction in terms.

Do we need to study Torah, embrace Jewish ritual and observe Shabbat? Absolutely, although Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews will interpret these obligations differently. The work of social justice, absent text study and ritual practice as a foundation, is inauthentic and will not sustain itself. Indeed, I have found that the work of "tikkun olam," for all its rewards, is lonely and discouraging work, and only by absorbing the light of the Shabbat candles and by studying and worshiping with a strong, dynamic Jewish community can I immunize myself against the cynicism and alienation that surround me.

But the point that Mr. Alperson misses is that social justice is not, as he claims, a secular pursuit meant to compensate for the absence of "God-based" Jewish experience. Social justice is God-mandated in precisely the same way that Shabbat observance and Torah study are God-mandated. In the book of Jeremiah (9:24), we find these words: "I am the Eternal, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight."  Serious Jews know that in the Jewish tradition, healing the sick, clothing the naked, helping the poor, pursuing peace, loving my people and my neighbors -- these are the attributes of God, and we testify to God's existence by emulating God behavior.

And in fact, Mr. Alperson can't seem to decide if Jewish education and Jewish practice are "God-based" or are instruments of survival. Ultimately he appears to choose the latter, referring to them as "the water pumps and sandbags employed by the Orthodox movement against the rising tides of assimilation." Orthodox leaders can speak for themselves on this point, but I will share with you the reaction of my daughter Adina, who is a social activist, belongs to an Orthodox congregation and was incensed by this article.

"We don't observe Shabbat because it is a sandbag against assimilation," she said, "but because it is part of the eternal covenant between God and the Jews that evokes the miracle of Creation and the Exodus from Egypt and links me to Jews throughout the centuries." Exactly so.

The essence of Mr. Alperson's argument, and the height of his folly, is that "we can't have it both ways"; we cannot, he says, both insist that tikkun olam and social justice are central and also embrace serious Jewish education and Jewish practice. But we can, and in fact, we must. To do one without the other is to retreat from the world and distort Judaism's very essence.

(Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism.)

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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