On the Rabbinic Narrative and “Threats” to Judaism

Some weeks back, The Forward introduced a rabbi round table to its readers with this question: What most threatens the Jewish people?

Only one rabbi, Scott Perlo, asked readers to think about the subtext. “Can we think clearly about who the Jewish people should be, what the Jewish people could be, if our frame of reference is what threatens to end us?”

But most spoke to well-worn narratives about the dangers of assimilation, apathy, and indifference. What was at stake in the answers? A definition of Judaism that rests on rabbinic influence and rabbinic power.

Rabbis generally adhere to a mythology about the Jewish past that insists that Jews used to live a halakhic, rabbinically defined, life. They equate this “halakhic life” with Jewishness, per se. In their imaginations, this life included daily observance of rituals, Shabbat practice and regular prayer, and concrete knowledge of the mitzvot governing Jewish thinking and action. For even the most liberal rabbis, those things constitute “traditional” Judaism.

Rabbis thus assume that their role is to find a way to inspire Jews to be “more Jewish” by knowing more “tradition.” “Tradition” here is a code word for rabbinic Judaism.

It is, of course, a form of Judaism that grants rabbis authority and power. No wonder that it is this Judaism that rabbis cling to, this Judaism, they lament, which evokes only apathy and indifference in today’s Jews. Once upon a time it was this Judaism that gave us knowledgeable Jews who appreciated their traditions. Now…

Rabbis (and other Jewish clergy) need to feel that what they know and what they long to give is vital to Jewish life. Whole rabbinic conferences generate, so it is hoped, new ideas and fresh ways to get Jews to recognize the value of what rabbis think today’s Jews have “lost,” to get them – please God – to walk through the synagogue doors, to appreciate the riches of their inheritance, to embrace their traditions.

Such laments are exposés of rabbinic vulnerability and insecurity. The complaints naturally follow: Today’s Jews are all about themselves. They could care less about Judaism or Jewish community.

It is interesting, as one reader noted, that rabbis were asked about what is endangering Jewish life. What might have happened had The Forward asked some of those “ignorant” and “apathetic” Jews the questions they put to rabbis?

As a teacher of the history of European antisemitism, I am not naïve enough to claim that the world is without its dangers for Jews. But the question The Forward asked and the answers the rabbis offered presupposed a rabbinic narrative about what constitutes a “threatened” Judaism.

That narrative is recent, modern, and does not speak to a great deal of Jewish life and Jewish history. It ignores the existence and history of Jews outside of Europe who knew not Talmud. It completely jettisons the history of Judeans in the Second Temple period and Late Antiquity – a history which was not defined by rabbinic ideas about what constituted Judaism and Jewish practice and featured all sorts of practices the rabbis would likely have condemned. And it assumes that rabbis are the spokespeople for the Jewish people when the truth is that rabbis of any age are often prone to speaking for themselves.

I suspect that a good many of those ignorant, apathetic, and indifferent Jews the rabbis so worry about are, in fact, fully identifying themselves as Jewish and reveling in that fact. Many of those Jews are deeply interested in social and communal action and moral and ethical issues of the day. Plenty of them see these issues as related to their Jewish identity and Jewish inheritance.

Rabbis may prefer to bemoan the ignorance of today’s Jews about what they studied in seminary and what they love and think defines Judaism. But my questions for my fellow rabbis are these: What makes you so very certain that your definition of Judaism, a definition that relies on a mere piece of Jewish history and hardly reflects the diversity, the richness, and the power of multiple ways of creating and living Jewish lives is the one you must defend and guard and keep – even in spite of the real Jews before you? How much of your insistence is due to your own need to be respected, honored, and appreciated? And if this need is any part of the wisdom you want to offer The Forward, might you want to sit quietly with your egos and ask whether they are the best guide to the actual condition of Judaism and real Jews?

It isn’t about us, the rabbis. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.

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