Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Big Barn

The notion of the Jewish people constituting what moderns call a “big tent” is so basic to our worldview that it feels surprising to learn how differently our forebears in ancient times understood the concept of boundary and limit as it applies to individual Jewish souls.

Moderns understand Jewishness in terms of gateways negotiated, of which there are only really two: birth to a Jewish mother and the process of conversion. (As is well known, the Reform movement accepts as Jewish individuals with Jewish fathers as well, but that hardly changes the concept itself that there are still only two ways in: conversion and the circumstances of one’s birth.) To say the same thing in other words, we take Jewish status as an ineradicable feature of any Jewish person’s identity based on that person having entered through one of the two approved doorways. But, although the ancients would certainly have agreed regarding the ultimate indelibleness of Jewishness itself, they considered the right to participate in Jewish communal life as something different entirely. And that distinction is what I’d like to write about today.
The idea that the right to live within the Jewish community depends on an individual’s willingness to hew to certain basic norms of belief and behavior has roots in the Bible, where we read in dozens of different contexts that the individual who sins in some specific way is henceforth to be “excised” (which is just a fancy word for “cut off”) from his or her people.  Some of the offenses listed will sound, even to tolerant moderns, as basically incompatible with Jewishness—things like eating on Yom Kippur or engaging in various kinds of incestuous behavior. Other offenses, particularly those related to the Tabernacle, the priesthood, or the Temple, have fallen into desuetude over the years. But the concept itself that there are norms so basic to Jewishness that rejecting them should result in the formal exclusion of that individual from the community is itself an idea that has fallen so fully out of fashion with most that it will come as a surprise to many even to know that such a thing ever existed in the first place.

What I’ve written above is surely closer to the original biblical idea than its subsequent rabbinic elaboration, but the rabbis of classical antiquity, however they understood excision per se, most certainly also accepted as basic the concept of people being temporarily or even permanently banned from participation in communal life. Of these kinds of bans, the most serious were niddui (pronounced in three syllables to rhyme with “kerflooey”) and cheirem. If punished with niddui, an individual was basically shut out of the community for a week or a month. Such a person would not be countable as part of a minyan, was expected to behave roughly as mourners behave during their week of formal bereavement, and was forbidden the company of any other than his or her closest family. And the punishment was meant to fit the crime because the reasons one could end up in niddui were all offenses deemed, one way or the other, to weaken the community, to loose the bonds that tied its members to each other, or to bring disrepute on the community or its norms or ways. (For Maimonides’ list of actionable offenses in this category, click here and scroll down to paragraph 14.) Cheirem was more or less the same thing, but went on indefinitely.
These were the thoughts I brought to my consideration of the vote earlier this month by the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston to exclude from membership any organization that formally self-defines as being anti-Zionist or that supports the world-wide BDS initiative to boycott Israeli companies, individuals, or goods.

On the face of it, it hardly sounds like a daring decision—the details have to do with the membership in the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council of the local branch of the Workmen’s Circle, a venerable non-profit organization with a long history of involvement in the promotion of Yiddish culture, community education, and social justice issues (and a founding member of the JCRC itself) in the wake of that organization’s establishment of some sort of tentative relationship with the Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that is openly supportive of the BDS movement, emphatically opposed to American military aid for Israel, and unapologetically hostile to the Israeli government and its policies.
Whether the Jewish Voice for Peace itself is or isn’t hostile to the very existence of the State of Israel depends on whom you ask: the evidence seems at least slightly equivocal, although the organization’s willingness to endorse the language of genocide to describe Israeli policies towards the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the invitations it has extended in the past to convicted terrorists responsible for the murder of civilians, including American civilians, certainly seems—at least to me—to tip the balance more or less clearly. But I wish to address a different question this week, one not specifically related to the Boston JCRC decision or to the politics of the Jewish Voice for Peace or the Workmen’s Circle.

Is there a set of values that can reasonably be described as being so basic to the Jewish worldview that rejecting them should automatically put any who hold them at risk of being set outside our admittedly very large barn and no longer considered part of the community at all?
For a people so endlessly obsessed with its own numbers, excluding anyone at all sounds like an unlikely plan forward. And it is surely true that, at least historically, this kind of formal exclusion from communal membership was applied arbitrarily. One-time Communist luminaries Grigory Zinoviev (formerly Hirsch Apfelbaum) and Leon Trotsky (formerly Lev Bronstein), for example, were excommunicated by the rabbis of Odessa before being murdered, in 1936 and 1940 respectively, by Stalin’s willing executioners. Whether their political beliefs did or didn’t warrant their formal excommunication from the Jewish community is debatable, with cogent arguments suggesting themselves on both sides of the matter. But who today would defend the decision of the Amsterdam rabbinate in 1656 to excommunicate the twenty-three-year-old Baruch Spinoza, later—and still—acclaimed as one of the greatest thinkers of modern times? (That was meant as a rhetorical question. The chief rabbi of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam declined to revisit the ban as recently as 2012. So that’s who!) Closer to home and even more outrageously, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the eventual founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, was famously excommunicated in 1945 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis because of his decidedly non-Orthodox approach to theology as expressed in his many books and essays and particularly in his edition of the Haggadah for Pesach.

So there is surely plenty of room for abuse. (The Mordechai Kaplan episode retains its ability to outrage me even after all these years.) But the more basic question is whether the barn should be supposed to have infinitely expandable outer walls or if, in fact, there should be a point at which a person with either of the appropriate credentials necessary to claim membership in the House of Israel in the first place—birth or conversion—should be deprived formally of the right to participate in the affairs of the Jewish community.
It's not that easy a question, and not least of all because I’m sure that there are plenty of rabbis out there who would gladly excommunicate myself and all my Rabbinical Assembly colleagues if they thought they could actually get away with such a thing. Still, one of the truly remarkable things about the Jewish people—and I say this seriously, not cynically—is that, even despite all the perverse pleasure we seem to take in vying with each other to see which inner-Jewish group can be even less respectful of which other, in the end we somehow are able to work together on matters of supreme importance without letting denominational affiliation get in the way. And, that being the case, I think that perhaps we probably could agree on certain standards that would lead, perhaps not to old-style shunning in the traditional sense of the term, but to a blanket—and universal—exclusion from the councils and organizations that define Jewish life in these United States. And, yes, I have a little list!

First and foremost on my list would be people who actively work to weaken the ability of Israel to defend itself at home or abroad, including at the United Nations. Rabbis and lay individuals who reject the legitimacy of the State would be on my list as well (no matter how huge or black their hats), as would those willing to make a separate peace with avowed anti-Semites or their unapologetic supporters for the sake of not being themselves excluded from some group (or march) in which they wish to participate. People who openly and shamelessly mock Jewish women, and particularly Jewish mothers and Jewish wives—those people, whether professional comedians or just tasteless jokesters, are on my list too, as are surely also all who defend the right of Holocaust deniers to publish their phony scholarship regardless of what they themselves insist they know to be the truth about the Shoah and no matter how passionately they feel called upon personally to defend the concept of free speech as a basic constitutional right.  
Those are my categories! Am I setting myself up as judge and jury? I suppose you could say the same thing about anyone who dares judge another soul outside a court of law where there actually are a jury and a judge present to determine the guilt of the accused. But I write whereof I know and among the things I do know is that the Jewish people needs to establish the perimeter of its barn and then, as one, to respect that outer boundary…even if that means that people whose Jewishness is undeniable are denied space inside. Do we have the courage of our most basic convictions? That is yet another way to ask the same question, albeit an even less palatable one to imagine hearing posed out loud by someone waiting for an actual answer!

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