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Confronting the Myth of Jewish "Unity"

Paul Gottfried
Winter 1998

Having heard the protests by American Conservative and Reform Jewish leaders against the suggestion made by Orthodox spokesmen in Israel, that non-Orthodox Jews organize themselves as a separate religion, it is unclear to me why this proposal has produced such outrage.  

The suggestion seems entirely reasonable, assuming that what separates Jewish congregations is a theological gulf. Since Catholics and various Protestant denominations maintain separate identities as confessional communities, why shouldn’t Jews, to the extent they view themselves as religiously divided, do exactly the same? Why should they persist in maintaining a semblance of religious unity with those of radically different beliefs?  

There are several conceivable reasons for this pretense of confessional unity by non-Orthodox Jews which the readers of this journal might consider. First, no matter what the American Council for Judaism would like to view as the essence of Jewish life, ethnicity is an unchanging, overshadowing reality for most Jews in most places. As Kevin P. MacDonald demonstrates exhaustively in A People that Shall Dwell Alone (Westport, 1994), social and genetic separation from gentiles is a recurrent theme in Rabbinic laws and commentary, indeed this theme can be traced as far back as the age of Ezra and Nehemiah, when severe prohibitions against intermarriage became a defining element of Jewish communal life.  

Though Rabbinic laws are concerned about other features of Jewish society as well, separation from alien peoples was inherent in the creation of intricate dietary and dress codes. Such laws keep Jews socially apart from gentiles, who are not even allowed to touch Jewish wine or Jewish milk, unless working under close Jewish supervision. Moreover, Rabbinic and later, Hasidic opinions abound concerning the defectiveness of gentile souls, and thus it is easy to understand the distaste for non-Jews felt by generations of Jews.  

Ethnic Zionism  

Such attitudes feed easily into ethnic Zionism today shared even by Reform Jews. In this Zionist thinking, well explained by such commentators as Israel Shahak, the gentile remains the perpetual outsider, though the reason publicly stated is that, like blacks, Jews have been victimized and have a special right to cultivate national self-consciousness and identiarian politics This supposedly defensive nationalism is, among other defects, ahistorical: it ignores the significant cultural differences among various Jewish communities, some of which long prohibited intermarriage with each other. Indeed Zionism has become as contrived as black and Hispanic nationalism, assuming a shared national and victimological experience for all members of the ingroup which often conflicts with historical facts. But what makes this ideology work and unify the Jewish ingroup is the usefulness of attributing one’s ancestral prejudice to an invariably hostile other.  

Because of this presumed outside hostility, American or French Jews are required to think of themselves as Israelis in exile. In the U.S. this siege mentality, largely fueled by Jewish prejudice, takes a second bizarre form, pretending that all American Jews are from Eastern European states and were victims of all the same enemies. Most Jews I have known are of Central, not Eastern, European descent, but, like my family, try to hide this fact by talking about Czarist pogroms and an Ellis Island experience, and sprinkling their remarks with bad Yiddish. Since childhood, I have been painfully aware of the conformism and imposed ethnic consciousness that characterize self-identified American Jews.  

Claims to Victimhood  

These tendencies explain why American Jews fail to notice the ridiculousness of certain claims to victimhood, which are seen as well-intentioned even if inaccurate. For example, no protest known to me came from the Jewish community when Ed Koch told Israeli Chief Rabbi Meir Laub, a former concentration camp inmate, that he too was "a Holocaust survivor." Surprised by this discovery, Laub asked Koch where he had spent the war years. The former mayor responded quite earnestly: "I survived in New York."  

In a widely celebrated Jewish Book of the Month selection, History of American Anti-Semitism (New York and London, 1994), Leonard Dinnerstein devotes 700 pages to recounting every alleged example of American anti-Semitism (all of which are attributed to "Christianity"). But Dinnerstein does not mention that most of the exclusions described were equally the fate of non-WASP Christians, and in some cases, even longer. Dinnerstein also leaves out of the account the abundant examples of Christian Philosemitism encountered by American Jews from the colonial period on.  

Second, non-Orthodox Jews, up until quite recently, rarely stated in public their theological differences with the Orthodox. Growing up among both groups, I noted that the Orthodox ridiculed the non-Orthodox as lazy Jews who are too self-indulgent to perform Rabbinic Mitzvos, while the other side responded by emphasizing Jewish unity. If theological rancor was expressed by the non-Orthodox, it was directed at Christians, who were alleged to be polytheists and possibly idolaters. This last impression was confirmed dramatically when I read the work of the late German Reform Jewish thinker Leo Baeck. While Baeck argued furiously against the evils of a simplistically presented Pauline Christianity, he showered praise upon the Hasidim and muted his own disagreements with the Orthodox. I raise this point not to belittle Baeck, with many of whose positions I agree, but to underline the problem with non-Orthodox Jewish thinkers who have wrongly desisted from criticizing Orthodox thinking, while exaggerating the faults of Christianity.  

Uneasiness by Non-Orthodox  

These attitudes may be ethnically driven or based upon an unwillingness to shame other Jews before the gentile public. They may also indicate (and I think they do) the uneasiness shown by non-Orthodox Jews in the face of the charge made from the other side, that they are ritually lazy and would in fact be Orthodox if they took their Jewishness seriously. In any case the non- Orthodox seem to want it both ways. They wish to be associated with the Orthodox while insisting they are somehow different. They, moreover, wish this differentness to be respected in a religiously pluralistic Israel, but at the same time do not wish to be recognized as a separate religion.  

If these Jews see themselves as religiously different, they might try to look upon themselves upon analogy to Hungarian Calvinists in relation to Hungarian Catholics. While Hungarian Calvinists and their Catholic fellow-Hungarians recognize shared ancestral and linguistic ties, they are nonetheless separated by being in different Christian churches. By contrast non-Orthodox Jews cannot make up their mind whether they wish to be a religiously distinctive communion or ritually lax Jewish political liberals. If they wish to insist on a specific religious identity, then let them by all means take up the Orthodox offer and become a separate confessional group. And as a preliminary step, they should stop assigning the positive term "religious" to the Israeli haredim and shchorim, the black-clad Orthodox legalists trying to take over the state of Israel. Such a questionable linguistic practice entirely concedes the religious debate to the other side.  

The most inconceivable objection to this separatist course of action is registered by a ethnically-conscious Jewish academic colleague of mine. If we take your advice, she explains, "the goyim will pick all of us off" First, it is not clear who the "goyim" are, except for the cloyingly Philosemitic Christians I meet daily. Second, unlike the non-Orthodox, the Orthodox do not seem to feel an overriding need for Jewish unity. And they are right not to care, because clearly these people believe something beside political correctness and fearing gentiles.  

Their Own Religious Turf  

There are, in my opinion, excellent grounds upon which Jews who are not Orthodox might stake out their own religious turf. Orthodox theological positions are often ex post facto attempts to justify strict adherence to Rabbinic laws and customs codified in the Shulchan Aruch. Theology is of secondary importance in relation to this compendium of dietary and Sabbatarian restrictions, most of which have little to do with ethics as well as theology. Rabbinic laws uphold a double standard in dealing with gentiles, prepare us for the restoration of animal sacrifices, and treat the descendants of some groups, such as Amalekites and Canaanites, as required targets for physical annihilation.  

There are of course other traditions and emphases in the rich history of Jewish life and thought, a history out of which the early church and Hellenistic Judaism both came. Looking for theologically and ethically based alternatives to Rabbinic legalism, without ethnic grudges, is precisely the kind of task that non-Orthodox Jews might set for themselves. But the pursuit of that task requires religious seriousness, as opposed to lax Orthodoxy — or whatever else now characterizes the non-Orthodox proponents of continued Jewish religious unity.  

In a religiously free society confessional communities have a right to assert their particularities. But such a right cannot be properly exercised unless those intending to use it first define their unique religious character. Needless to say, Jewish secularism is not a religious alternative. It is the avoidance of such choice and the affirmation of the Jewish status quo, by which only the other side is conceded to have an authentic religion.

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