The Coming Crisis: Three Stories
By Rabbi Basil Herring
At this moment there is a membership application form on my desk, submitted by a young family in my community. It has been sitting there for some weeks now, waiting for a decision from me. It is not a question of whether or not the application will be accepted, for there is no question that it cannot, and will not be. The question is rather how to explain to this young couple that in spite of what they have been led to believe, neither the wife nor their children are Jewish. For she was ?converted? by a Reform Rabbi some years ago: the ceremony took place on a Friday night at the temple, when the certificates of ?conversion? were signed with great fanfare by her two best girlfriends. She never went to the mikveh then or subsequently; since their marriage they have had children, but have never gone to any synagogue, or for that matter maintained a home that was in any real sense ?Jewish? other than in name. Now they want to send these children to the Hebrew School and youth groups of my congregation to mix with ?other? Jewish children. How am I to explain to this couple that it is inconceivable for us to recognize such a ?conversion??
A second story: In the course of this past month, I was called on the phone by a member of the congregation, with the good news of his son's upcoming marriage and a request to schedule the aufruf. When we met to discuss the arrangements, and in the course of our conversation, it slipped out that the bride's parents were not Jewish, while she had recently ?converted? in a Reform ceremony, one identical to the kind I mentioned above.? You can imagine how difficult it was to explain our problem, both theirs and mine, in having our congregation help them to celebrate such a ?simchah.?
A third story: A woman with a civil divorce living in our community recently approached me with a problem, which I am right now struggling to resolve. When the divorce was finalized, the judge, at her request, required of her husband that he give her a get. But when she subsequently approached him to do it as required, he informed her that he had found a willing Reconstructionist Bet Din that had issued him what they called a get. And so she came to me and asked ?how could a proper get have been given without my knowledge, my participation, or even notification at any stage?? And I told her that without these elementary procedures, the get is completely invalid, their marriage as far as the halakha is concerned is intact, and unless she receives a valid get, she remains unable to remarry for the rest of her life, or if she does somehow remarry without sanction of Jewish law, her subsequent children will be considered bastards, and she an adulteress. But when she raised the matter with her ex, do you know what he answered her? ?Too bad,? he said, ?it is good enough for me; it will have to be good enough for you!? And so she faces the devastating prospect of having the truly tragic status of what our law and tradition calls an agunah, a woman whose husband has the temerity to prevent or delay, for ulterior motives, his ex‑wife's legitimate remarriage, as he withholds the issuance of a recognized get, exploiting and manipulating Jewish law for whatever reason.
Three Stories. Three thus far sad endings. But one lesson.
The Coming Cataclysm
What is the lesson, the moral? The lesson, quite literally, is that the Jewish people, the Jewish community, had better get its act together soon. For we are faced with a coming cataclysm that will likely render our people apart, much as did the advent of Christianity 2000 years ago. We are facing, and as these stories show ‑ not in the future, but right now ‑ the reality of large numbers of Jews who do not, who cannot, recognize the claims of others to be either Jewish or marriageable, or legitimate. We are looking at the reality of a kulturkampf and of a sectarianism in institutional Jewish life, between a traditionalism that is growing ever stronger, and a non‑traditional faction that is growing more and more liberal in its approach to Judaism ‑ a case in point being the recent headlines that the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis is actively considering the ordination of homosexual ?rabbis.?
supposed to work out this way. As recently as 30 years ago, the conventional
wisdom was that Orthodoxy and tradition were about to become extinct in this
land. Even the Orthodox themselves had just about given up hope that Orthodox
Judaism would ever be reborn or revitalized here, in what they used to call the
?treifene medinah? of
America. But today, as Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits,
Chief Rabbi of the British Empire recently put it, the strictly Orthodox are
now the only growth element within our people, not only in
This change in fortunes has, quite predictably, given rise to tensions and fears on both sides of the divide, stresses which tear us apart and alienate us from each other. On the one side, the non‑Orthodox, and for that matter those among us whom we can call the ?non‑observant Orthodox,? feel terribly threatened, confronted as they are by the specter of a resurgent religious coercion, or the imposition, in whatever form, of a way of life which to them has little meaning or compelling validity. They don't want to be reminded that Jewish law does not allow the use of a car or shopping on Shabbat, or to be made to feel guilty about which restaurant they eat in. On the other side, are the fears of the Orthodox who feel that in a largely secular society, their unique minority way of life is constantly threatened and exposed, if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren whose spiritual allegiances and religious commitments are always subject to challenge or to the seductive allure of a hedonistic, pleasure‑seeking society, and who, therefore, want to create as supportive an environment as possible for their traditionalism. And so each group, feeling exposed and vulnerable, has the very natural and understandable instinctive reaction of shutting the other out, building a wall, if not with bricks then with words and actions, that will supposedly keep ?them? out, while purportedly strengthening ?us,? and ?our way of life,? as each defines its own.
Parallel to 12 Spies
Now there is an interesting parallel to this phenomenon to be encountered in the Torah. I refer to the 12 spies whom Moses sends to report on the nature of the promised land. What does Moses tell them to look for? He tells them as follows:
You shall look at the land, and the people who dwell therein. Are they strong or are they weak, few or many? Is the land in which they dwell good or bad, and are the cities in which they live open and spread out, or fortified and strongholds?
Nu. 13: 18‑19
Now it is Rashi who quotes the midrash to these verses, in the following language:
With these words, Moses gave the spies a siman, a reliable indicator as to the strength of the Canaanites: if the Canaanite towns are open and spread‑out, it shows that they are a strong people, in that they rely on their own strength for self‑defense. But if they live in fortified, enclosed strongholds, it must be that they are a weak people, and cannot fight back.
In other words, Rashi seems to be suggesting, when one encounters people who raise barriers around themselves, who withdraw into their own little protective cocoon, who forcibly exclude those whom they see as posing a threat? then you can be sure that such people are weak; they have no backbone, no faith in themselves or what they stand for; and in their cowardice, their obstacles notwithstanding, they will easily succumb to outside forces. But if one finds people who are not afraid to be challenged by the outside, who do not raise artificial barriers to keep out the other, but who instead are open and accepting, self‑confident and courageous, willing to fall back on their own inner strength and resources, then you must know that these are strong and vital people; indeed, a people to be reckoned with, a nation that will not easily crumble before external pressure.
No Time for Sectarian Divisiveness
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that this is an idea, a concept, a siman, whose time as far as the Jewish community is concerned, is now. As we contemplate the opposing ?camps? that characterize the Jewish people, we cannot but agree that this is not a time for sectarian divisiveness, or for distancing ourselves from each other across the divide that separates us. We have each of us, the Orthodox as well as the non‑Orthodox, the traditionalists and non‑traditionalists, to realize that this is a time that calls for us to show real strength and conviction and inner‑confidence ? not by putting up barriers that will exclude, but by tearing down artificial walls so as to join hands. Yes, we can understand the deep fears, the hidden concerns of each, but it is time to realize that if there is, indeed, truth to what we believe in, if there is authenticity to the visions that we each hold, they will only be strengthened by opening up to the other, and by entering into a real dialogue, an openness to the challenge posed by ?them.?
Those in the Jewish community on either side of the religious divide, whether it be here in one's own shtetl, or in Manhattan or for that matter Jerusalem, whose only response to the challenges of our time is to draw the wagons round ever closer in the laager, betray their own lack of faith in themselves and what they stand for, their own weaknesses and insecurity. What the Jewish people need at this moment is to show strength and courage, not weakness or cowardice. We need to reach out to each other, with sensitivity and understanding. And thus:
We, the Orthodox, need to reassure the non‑traditionalists that we are not out to impose anything on them, or rob them of what they regard as their human rights or civil liberties, that they will be free to do what they will, as members of an open society. But they in turn must, as Rabbi Jakobovits puts it so felicitously, ?reassure us that they will let us live by our traditions, and will not undermine our freedom to transmit our heritage without interference by a seductive environment.? That they will not stand in the way of the strengthening of the practical observance that is so integral a part of our self‑definition as Jews. Moreover, that together we will reach out to each other, to establish mutually acceptable standards and means of conversion to the faith, of divorce procedures, as in all matters of personal status, so as to avoid personal tragedies such as those with which I began ? for without such measures, our people will never survive as one nation. And finally, that we will respect our differences, whether or not we can find ways to legitimize them in each other's eyes, so that at the very least we will speak to each other respectfully and with dignity.
It is only in this way that we have any hope whatsoever that the Jewish people, and communities such as ours, will enter this final decade of the 20th century ready to confront the challenges to be posed in the 21st not by our own differences, but by those posed by the nations of the world to our own precious people of the covenant, to see that time when, in the words of Joshua and Caleb, the Almighty God will take delight in us, to bring us up to the promised land, and to give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey, those redoubtable symbols of strength as well as sweetness, in brotherhood, and in peace.