“we Jews almost defy definition. We are a unique demographic group; none of the customary sociological categories is a perfect fit for us”

We must begin by trying to define Judaism and the Jewish people, no easy task even for one who has spent a lifetime studying Jewish history. Worlds like religious and secular and nationalistic, which have clear-cut meanings in other contexts, become fuzzy and confused when applied to us. The plain fact is that we Jews almost defy definition. We are a unique demographic group; none of the customary sociological categories is a perfect fit for us.

 

We are a religious group, true, but simultaneously more than that. We share some facets of national existence, but not all of us partake of them fully. We are an ethnic entity, yet at the same time an admixture of many races. If we are to be defined with any measure of accuracy, a new term must be devised, peculiarly and uniquely for us.

Roland B. Gittelsohn, Partners in Destiny: Reform Judaism and Zionism (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1984), 1.

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“The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate…”

I managed to avoid the recent rerelease of “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” in 3-D, but only barely. Every father who loves the original “Star Wars” trilogy eventually runs into the fiasco that is Jar Jar Binks — a character capable of destroying a generation’s worth of affection with a single rustle of his oversize ears. While many have noted Jar Jar as a racist stereotype, it’s unclear exactly which stereotype he is. Is Jar Jar a Rastafarian stoner or a Stepin Fetchit or a Zuluesque savage? Or is he just a Gungan? And what about Watto, also from “The Phantom Menace”? A dark-skinned, hooknosed, greedy slaveholder, he’s an all-purpose anti-Semitic caricature. Or possibly he’s just a hovering bad guy in a fantasy world. The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.

Stephen Marche, “Loompaland is a Complicated Place”, New York Times Magazine (17 June 2012), 61.

“To understand Zionism in anything more than a superficial sense, we need to examine its indigenous origins in Jewish tradition”

To describe Zionism purely as a modern, socio-political phenomenon makes about as much sense as to explain my career entirely in terms of events since the day I was ordained a rabbi, as if my genetic heritage, my childhood and adolescence, my undergraduate studies and extracurricular activities had nothing to do with making me what I am today.

 

Of course there have been external tendencies and trends which have helped shape the nature of Zionism, among them Emancipation, Enlightenment, massive anti-Semitism, and the burgeoning of nationalism throughout the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But these have been like the winds and rains which influence the ultimate growth of a tree. Without seeds and roots, wind and rain would produce only gullies, not living organisms. To understand Zionism in anything more than a superficial sense, we need to examine its indigenous origins in Jewish tradition.

Roland B. Gittelsohn, Partners in Destiny: Reform Judaism and Zionism (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1984), 1.

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“There is no young leadership if the young people branded as such have no real place in these bodies”

We have to make space for these young leaders in our normative governing structures. There is no young leadership if the young people branded as such have no real place in these bodies. Observing may be informative and donating a certain minimum gift is nice too, but to have young leadership means that they have a proportional share of the leadership body of the organization.

Sarah Eisenman, “A Young Leadership Lesson, From 1960?” eJewish Philanthropy (3 July 2012) {http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-young-leadership-lesson-from-1960/}

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Aesthetic Identity versus Collective Identity in the Jewish World

In referencing Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen, Smokler distinguished between the normative and aesthetic approach to Judaism – with the normative approach meaning anything larger than oneself and one’s immediate family while aesthetic refers to the more personal and journey oriented approach.

 

“We have reached an extreme where the normative approach has become the purview of the Orthodox community,” said Smokler. “Without the normative approach, the very idea of community is strained, [and what we’re left with is] a lifestyle enclave, a group of individuals with similar consumer patterns.”

 

“We face a challenge that young potential leaders do not have a collective identity – they have an aesthetic identity. We need both,” he continued.

Abigail Pickus, “The Search for the Jewish Holy Grail: NextGen Leaders,” eJewish Philanthropy (3 July 2012) {http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-search-for-the-jewish-holy-grail-nextgen-leaders/}

“Today’s public honors are more routinely bestowed on successful individuals in finance, or industry, or the arts whose personal lives are bereft of Jewish content”

…there was a time when American Jewish leaders chose their heroes and communal role models from the ranks of figures like Haym Solomon, a financier of the American Revolution. They may have overstated Solomon’s contributions to the war effort, but at least he was an engaged and observant Jew. Today’s public honors are more routinely bestowed on successful individuals in finance, or industry, or the arts whose personal lives are bereft of Jewish content.

Is this the road to Jewish group survival? In light of what is at stake, one wonders who is prepared to undertake the urgent task of constructing a more honest and more challenging story about the place of Jews and Judaism in America, a story of gratitude, patriotism, and compatibility, but also of difference, dissent, and distinctiveness.

Jack Wertheimer, “America and the Jews: Different, or the Same?”, Jewish Ideas Daily (13 October 2010) {http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/735/features/america-and-the-jews-different-or-the-same/}

“Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth. It is the Jewish game par excellence”

Halacha is the greatest chess game on earth. It is the Jewish game par excellence. For the man who wants to live a life of great meaning and depth, nothing is more demanding and torturous while simultaneously uplifting and mind-broadening. He loves the rules because they are the way to freedom. All he wants is to play chess. He recognizes that others wish to play with less complicated rules. And that is fine. But the chess player smiles. That is not chess. That is nothing but dominoes played by kids.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, “Halacha: The Greatest Chess Game on Earth,” Thought to Ponder #301 (28 June 2012).

” The ancient Jew regarded himself quite naturally as the equal of the member of any other race or nation in his contemporary world”

The more the archaeologists dig around Palestine and its environs, the more evidence they discover of the variety and versatility of the activities of the Jewish people. Singularly interested in moral and religious questions they certainly were – else we could not explain Moses, the prophets, … – but not to the exclusion of everything else. All the evidence spells a normal, healthy people and the reason for it is self-evident. The reason was national independence and the integrity that came with the possession of soil, language, liberty and the strength of ethnic cohesion. The ancient Jew regarded himself quite naturally as the equal of the member of any other race or nation in his contemporary world.

Leon I. Feuer, On Being a Jew (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1947), 97.

“…religion, and such secular or anthropomorphic disciplines as philosophy, psychology, or sociology, have something in common, and that is an awareness of the abiding fact of man’s unhappiness”

What I do suggest is that religion, and such secular or anthropomorphic disciplines as philosophy, psychology, or sociology, have something in common, and that is an awareness of the abiding fact of man’s unhappiness. And it would seem that certain words of ancient provenance – like “good,” “evil,” “free will,” even “original sin” – do not have to be superseded by pseudo-scientific terminology just because they happen to derive from a God-centered approach to man.

Anthony Burgess, “The Clockwork Condition,” The New Yorker (4 & 11 June 2012), 72.

“Far too many Jews are too lazy mentally to take the trouble to inform themselves about the trends and currents of contemporary life”

Far too many Jews are too lazy mentally to take the trouble to inform themselves about the trends and currents of contemporary life, and of how they and their lives fit into the pattern of what is happening…. They make a virtue out of their ignorance of the Jewish past, thus dispossessing themselves of vital links to the present and the future. As far as religion is concerned, when they do affiliate with synagogues and, when they do occasionally attend services of worship, they look upon it as a form of entertainment headlined by a rabbinical performer in the pulpit. The phrase, “I enjoyed the sermon,” is one of the chief criteria of the religiosity of the modern Jew.

Leon I. Feuer, On Being a Jew (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1947), 6.