An afternoon in the City of Peace
Reading Palestine

Moving beyond the Big Three

Happy Arrival Day!

Jonathan asked us to write about "Jews, Judaism, Jewish thought, perceptions of Jews or interaction between Jews and gentiles. Because this year is the 350th anniversary of the American Jewish community, I also ask - although I won't require - that the essays focus on a common theme: the Jewish future."

In order to reach the American Jewish future I hope we're headed for, we need to acknowledge and then remove (or sidestep around) a stumbling block I see in our path. The obstacle is, we have a tendency to fixate on three things that aren't actually fundamental to Judaism. I call them the Big Three: 1) remembrance of the Shoah, 2) Zionism, and 3) abhorrence of intermarriage. They crop up in sermons, and get hammered home in Jewish youth group activities and teen programs. They pepper the pages of our synagogue newsletters, and of magazines like Reform Judaism and Hadassah. The assumption that these are priorities for all American Jews shapes our discourse, and shapes the way the non-Jewish world sees us.

Why is this a problem? Well, our attention is limited, and by spending so much of it on these three things, we give short shrift to Judaism's many other facets. Plus, I'm not convinced these three things are genuinely central to Judaism. They're all relatively recent historical developments,* they're all social or political phenomena (as opposed to spiritual/religious ones), and I think they've outlived their usefulness as rallying cries.

The thing is, a Judaism built on our current Big Three obsessions doesn't have staying power. If we're merely teaching our children, "Remember the Holocaust, support Israel no matter what, and don't marry goyim," we're missing the boat. Anecdotal evidence suggests I'm not alone in encountering a mainstream American Judaism so wrapped-up in these three issues that other aspects of Jewish education and experience suffer as a result. So I offer three steps towards the future I want to see us embrace. The first one is, we should change how we engage with the Big Three.

Insisting that the Shoah was singular belittles the suffering of other peoples, and "never forget!" loses meaning if it doesn't impel us to act against other genocides. We should use our remembrance as a springboard for social action. (This is already happening in some places; the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC has done excellent work raising consciousness about Sudan, and the Museum of Tolerance in LA has an excellent exhibit on Rwanda.)

As far as Israel is concerned, we need to teach our children to think about it critically, eschewing the easy paths of unthinking allegiance or unthinking opposition. We should help future generations to become informed about the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, and to offer critique when appropriate. We might want to encourage future generations to think of the world in broader terms than just America and Israel. And we should address the question of Diaspora Jews who want to stay Diaspora Jews, who want to sanctify our lives in other lands and resent the primacy given to those who make aliyah.

And on the intermarriage front, it's high time to stop demonizing intermarrieds and start welcoming them into our congregations and communities. I understand that the current antipathy towards intermarriage arises out of a fear that Judaism will dissipate, but I'd argue that there are good ways and bad ways to preserve Judaism, and that rejecting those who marry out is a bad way.

A good second step might be enlarging our sense of Jewish history, and contemplating a few other Big Threes our tradition has to offer. Every time I think about our current Big Three, I find myself humming the song Al Shlosha Devarim, "On three things." It's a verse from Pirke Avot, attributed to a Rabbi Simon:

On three things the world stands:
On Torah,
On service [of God],
And on acts of human kindness.

How much stronger would American Judaism be if we focused on that trio? If you want to be metaphysical about it (and I usually do), you can relate those three things to thought, speech, and action: the totality of how we are in the world. Torah, serving God, and acts of human (or loving) kindness: these are Judaism's foundations. These are central to Judaism in a way that today's Big Three just aren't.

An alternate threesome for our focus might be the one in the Unetanah Tokef High Holiday prayer, which tells us that we can temper the severity of God's judgement with "teshuvah (turning-toward-God), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (righteousness)." That's another good trio to cleave to.

The thing is, Rabbinic Judaism is full of threes. There are three categories of mitzvot a Jew is supposed to die rather than transgress (per Sanhedrin 74a): avodah zarah ("strange worship," usually interpreted as idolatry), giluy arayot (forbidden sexual relations), and shefikhut damim (murder). Or the three things for which a Jew does not inherit the world to come (per M. Sanhedrin 10:1): saying the Torah did not come from heaven, denying the resurrection of the dead, and being an apikorsos ("unbeliever" -- sorry, Elf!) I see some parallels between these latter lists and today's Big Three. Each list reflects a particular period's understanding of the beliefs or priorities regarded as definitional of the Jewish people.

It's that "definitional of the Jewish people" part that bothers me. I'm perfectly content for some Jews to continue to define their form of Jewishness by today's Big Three, but I don't want that definition to become assumed. I want the freedom to define my Jewishness differently: not by unquestioned Zionism, a Shoah fixation, and askance glances at intermarrieds, but by the elements of Judaism I find most meaningful, rich, and important.

And there are so many elements of Judaism which fit that bill that I can't imagine limiting ourselves to three of them...which brings me to the third, and most important, change I'd like to see: I think we need to make a conscious effort to broaden our focus. Judaism can't be limited to any three things. In order for American Judaism to thrive, it needs to be built on a broad foundation. It should rest on our long history, our songs and our prayers, our meditations and our piyyutim, our customs and our arguments. It should be built on Torah and avodah and gemilut chasadim; it should be built on teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah. It should be built on thought and action and deeds. It should be built on the clear-thinking intellectual rigor of the Talmudic sages, and the joyous God-focus of Hasidism. It needs to be rich and multifaceted, vast and containing multitudes. Our current Big Three focus limits us, and Judaism deserves better.

In my experience, mainstream American Judaism has a tendency to repeat the three notes with which we've become most familiar. And I want to say, "Guys! C'mon! We've got a whole orchestra over here -- could we maybe hit some other notes? How about playing in another key?" The trouble is, we're so accustomed to these notes that other melodies seem foreign. In many American Jewish communities, it's practically apostasy to argue that rising intermarriage rates aren't sounding our death knell; that the inward focus of our Shoah remembrance is limiting; that Jews should be free to reach their own conclusions about Israel without fear of communal reprisal.** The fact that these ideas are regarded as radical is a sign that we've gotten our priorities mixed-up.

The reorientation I seek shifts us away from twentieth-century political fixations, opening our sense of what Judaism is and can become. I see this change as the first step on a path toward the future I envision for American Judaism, the Judaism I hope my grandchildren will celebrate and carry forward. In that vision, the denominations interact respectfully, with the wellbeing of k'lal Yisrael (the whole Jewish community) in mind. Women are fully accepted as equal participants in Jewish life, across the denominational spectrum. A post-triumphalist sensibility, which honors and respects other faith-traditions (and those families which weave them together), has gained ascendancy. A wide range of possible practice, ranging from contemplative to study-oriented to devotional, is open to all. There is a safe, peaceful pair of states in the Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians can interact as human beings. Jewish poetry and midrash and liturgy continue to flower.

And in that vision, my grandchildren find this blogpost quaint: a sign of how we began the twenty-first century mired in twentieth-century insularity before we remembered what's really at Judaism's core.

Pirke Avot also includes another list of three things on which the world stands, from the other Rabbi Simon (yes, there were two) which was clearly written in parallel to the first set. He said the world rests on emet, din, shalom: truth, judgement, and peace.

I'll take the trio of either Rabbi Simon over "support Israel, don't marry out, and Never Forget" any day.

*The Shoah happened in the mid-twentieth century, making it quite recent on the timeline of Jewish history. Zionism arose as a political movement in Europe in the late nineteenth century, so ditto. And though the insularity behind abhorrence of intermarriage has deep roots, and intermarriage itself is an old phenomenon, I'd argue that contemporary anti-intermarriage invective dates back to the Shoah and is the result of the fear that Judaism will vanish.

**In their 2003 Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion, the American Jewish Committee asked people to agree or disagree with the statement, "Regardless of their individual views on the peace negotiations with the Arabs, American Jews should support the policies of the duly elected government of Israel." 63 percent agreed. That tells me that a majority of American Jews believe we should support Israel even if its actions run counter to the peace process. It's hard to speak critically of Israel in an environment where a majority of people assume that unquestioning support is the way to go.