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Rising Above Jewish Ethnicity

Paul Gottfried
Summer 1998


‘Rabbi Jay Brickman, who serves Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, Wisconsin contributed an article entitled "A Jewish Universalist Agenda" to the Spring 1997 ISSUES. He wrote that, "The principles upon which Classical Reform were based were few and simple. The first was a rejection of an ideology that viewed the Holy Land as our true home and our nations of residence as places of temporary exile. The Reformers removed from the early prayer books all references to the return to Jerusalem and reestablishment of Temple Worship . . . Although not opposed to ritual, they considered it of secondary importance to religious ideology (love of God, etc.) and moral responsibilities."  
In recent years, Reform Judaism has changed, Rabbi Brickman noted, and its emphasis moved to "the perils of Jewish existence, the need to stress group solidarity . . . participation in the upbuilding of Israel." He argues that there should be a place in Jewish life for "those who believe in the religion but have little or no feeling for Jewish national identity. I have chosen a name for such a program, the Jewish Universalist Agenda. It is modeled on similar convictions to those which shaped Reform Judaism in its origins."  
Professor Paul Gottfried has prepared a response to Rabbi Brickman’s article and Rabbi Mayer Schiller has, in turn, prepared a response to Professor Gottfried.’

Having had informative exchanges with Jay Brickman, a Reform Rabbi of considerable learning, on the subject of Judaism as a universal religion, it may be appropriate to use this dialogue as a departure point for comments on Jewish religion. According to Rabbi Brickman, it is both possible and desirable to treat Jewish identity as a theological choice, one that does not involve ethnic sentiments or a particular national allegiance. What makes a Jew, from this perspective, is the acceptance of Old Testament monotheism and a commitment to the ethical precepts pertaining thereto. Furthermore, Rabbi Brickman perceives the need for a continuation of Jewish liturgy, although he would tolerate a wide range of expressive models, from the Orthodox Siddur to classical Reform worship. Within this range of liturgical choices, there would be a shared expression to belief in the unity of God (as affirmed by the Shma), certain ethical practices, and an observance of ceremonies inherited from the Jewish past.  

Ethnic Cohesion  

One question that should be asked about this proposed form of Jewish religion is whether it can exist, absent a sense of ethnic cohesion. The differences between Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism and the current variations on liberal Judaism are so vast that were it not for a shared national consciousness and continued wariness of the outsider, it seems doubtful that a Lubavitcher Hassid and Alan Dershowitz or Michael Eisner would have much in common. Essential to Jews of different theological and social backgrounds is the belief in belonging to am Yisrael, a people united by fate and ancestry. Whether or not such people are also monotheists or followers of a particular Rabbinic dynasty, most of them do take their ethnicity quite seriously.  

The glaring disproportion in membership between American Zionist groups and the American Council for Judaism underscores this point. Note this observation does not imply a value judgment. It indicates the barriers against which those of Rabbi Brickman’s leanings must operate. There is also the troublesome fact that Rabbi Brickman’s universal religion may win at the present time more positive responses from many Christians, Trinitarian and non-Trinitarians alike, than from Orthodox Jews — or Zionists, whether Orthodox or not. A "Jewish religion" that repudiates Jewish national and geopolitical identity and stresses theological questions more than dietary and ritual observances, does not seem likely to take American Jews, given their present disposition, by storm. What I have seen of Jewish loyalties would argue against Rabbi Brickman’s project.  

Ethical Implications  

Nonetheless, I am drawn to what is being offered as a point for further discussion. Rabbi Brickman does not suggest that he is presenting the only possible formulation of Jewish religion or that most Jews during the last several thousand years would have identified with his formulation. Rather he is stating that it is possible to view Judaism as a body of theological convictions with ethical implications. He is also emphasizing the accessibility of those beliefs to humanity in general, whether or not said humanity is born to a specifically Jewish nation. Faith in divine sovereignty, rigorous monotheism, and a commitment, at least in principle, to biblical ethics are foundations for Brickman’s universal religion; and while there he may permit liturgical variations, he also insists on a recognizably Jewish prayer service.  

Possibly something like this formulation may have growing appeal in the future. With over fifty percent of Jews marrying out and, in most cases, marrying at least vestigial Christians, a Jewish religion that incorporates the universality and theological focus of Christianity while retaining some form of Jewish particularity may come to prosper. Equally significant is the appearance of young Jews looking for spirituality, as opposed to ethnic tribalism or evidence of Jewish victimization. The Orthodox have done well in attracting spiritually unsettled Jews, many of whom do not come from Orthodox backgrounds, but depict themselves as baale tshuvah those returning to the fold. Some such returnees no doubt gravitate toward the Orthodox, and even extreme Orthodox, because of a need for a strong collective identity and a life tightly controlled by detailed rules. Some of those returnees I have known are also affected by Jewish ethnic consciousness and a nostalgia for Eastern European ghetto life and would not welcome Rabbi Brickman’s discussion points.  

But others might, providing his "universal religion" holds on to familiar ritual and retains identifiably Jewish points of reference. Though I admire those German Jews of the last century who launched the Reform project, in my opinion they went too far in dismissing liturgical and other heirlooms bequeathed by generations of their ancestors. Those who set out to reform religious thinking must show respect for custom and usage, unless they run directly counter to one’s theological convictions. Reciting the wish to sacrifice animals in a rebuilt Temple or expressing the hope of witnessing the destruction of descendants of certain Semitic tribes exemplify the practices that Rabbi Brickman and I would eliminate on principle. But praying with a head covering, mostly in Hebrew, is something that a Jewish Religion would have to keep, to attract Jewish numbers, even if it also featured a universal theology and universal ethical rules.  

Folk Memories  

Ironically, it is persistent Jewish ethnicity and Jewish folk memories that may provide a possible foundation for a Jewish universal religion — just as Reformed Christian Churches combined universal theology with Scottish, Dutch, Swiss, or Hungarian ethnic consciousness. Though Jewish ethnicity may be unavoidable for Jewish identity, it can also work to create the demographic base for a genuinely spiritual enterprise. Jews for Jesus illustrate this possibility, even if their presumed Trinitarianism may be theologically incompatible with a specifically Jewish monotheism.  

Like Rabbi Brickman, I am also disinclined to associate an American Jewish religion with any particular Zionist position. Adherents should be free to support or not support any political group in Israel, and there should be no religious line on this issue. Favoring the Israeli Left, which the American Council for Judaism tends to do, is as much a partyline as the predictable enthusiasm for the Israeli nationalist Right expressed by Orthodox groups. As self-conscious Jewish ethnics, individual Jews will inevitably take positions on Israeli politics, but a Jewish universal religion practiced in the U.S. should avoid doing the same.  

One final merit should be mentioned about Brickman’s proposals for a Jewish universal religion. Unlike the present non-Orthodox Jewish groupings, which I criticized in an earlier issue, the Jewish universalists do not have to be a lazier version of Orthodoxy. They would not have to be Jewish tribalists who are lazy about Orthodox observances or who are trying to fuse Jewish nationalism with left liberal politics. They should have a distinctive, non-Orthodox but seriously embraced theology and treat their biblically-based theology as integral to their being Jewish. Equally important, their religious identity should not reenforce ethnic exclusiveness — which is characteristic of Orthodoxy. It should entail a reaching out beyond ethnic concerns and ethnic whining, toward a recognition of the shared spiritual obligations and identity of the entire human race. Unlike Rabbinic Judaism, there would be no distinction drawn between moral obligations owed by Jewish universalists to the gentiles as opposed to each other. The religious focus taken would work against ethnic narrowness instead of strengthening it.  

Beliefs and Ancestry  

A German Jewish commentator, Ivan Denes, is correct to observe that Jews who immigrate to Israel are asked on arriving not about their theological beliefs but about their Jewish ancestry. A Jewish universal religion might not end such a practice nor necessarily change the Zionist emphasis on Jewish lineage. But it would draw a distinction between adhering to a biblical theology and the test of Jewish genes. Contrary to Rabbinic teachings, though not to those of Jesus, such a religion would not permit distinctions to be made between a Jewish and gentile neighbor in terms of ethical obligation. The same moral if not ceremonial commandments would apply equally in our dealing with all people. And ritual and dietary observances would only be retained to the extent that they highlight, not blur, universal obligations, by setting an example of pious living.  

Like Rabbi Brickman, I have no problem choosing universal ethical precepts, e.g., the last five commandments of the Decalogue, over the multiple dietary, sartorial, and ceremonial restrictions which characterize Rabbinic Jewish life. The choice the Orthodox make for Rabbinically imposed laws is not the only one that the biblical text would suggest. It was a choice imposed, as David Ben Gurion frequently noted, by the need to preserve an unassimilated Jewish nation in exile. And while such a regimen achieved the goal of Jewish separation, it did so at a high cost. The Rabbinic Judaism exalted by the Orthodox habituated Jews to ritually prescribed and morally discriminatory lives. One evidence of this continuing link is the Orthodox obsession with ever more detailed dietary restrictions, coupled with the politics of Zionist ultra-nationalism.  

Human Distinctions  

When I asked an Orthodox relative, and a seminarian, what he thought of "gay marriage," he provided a characteristically Orthodox response: "For the goyim it is alright, but for us it’s not mutar [permitted]." The Christian Right and liberal Jews both recognize, from admittedly different perspectives, that what’s good for the Christian goose is equally good for the Jewish gander. But millennia of Talmudically grounded human distinctions and segregated living have convinced Jewish "traditionalists" otherwise. Just as Jews are not obligated, save by the concern to avoid Jewish communal shame, to recognize the gentile as a legal and ethical person, whether in financial dealings or having to save his life or possessions, so too is the Orthodox Jew not bound to advance for everyone what he considers proper for a Jewish community. And what he considers proper is not primarily about universally applicable ethical imperatives but restrictions on food, dress, and conduct with menstruating women.  

Beginning Slowly  

Rabbi Brickman proposes a radical alteration in this Rabbinic paradigm. I too would support such alteration but would advise zarich lalecht maat maat. One cannot accomplish much in these matters without beginning slowly. And one must avoid the errors while admiring the audacity of the nineteenth century architects of Reform Judaism. One should only change what must be changed while attaching universal ethical and theological meaning to what is preserved.  

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