Monday, October 22, 2012

Questioning Clal Yisrael

I just finished reading This post by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu from CLAL, itself a response to this op-ed in the Harvard Crimson. The latter describes a student's attempt to find community at the Harvard Hillel and discovers himself the lone Reform Jew in a sea of Modern and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and that sense of alienation and minimization that comes with such an experience. Sirbu, in turn, writes to emphasize that such alienation shouldn't lead us to oppose the other, criticizing how "Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews" (The author of the Crimson op-ed bounces between 'secular' and 'Reform' as a self-descriptor, so I assume that's why she uses the term). She goes on to criticize this fear of the other and encourages a stance of curiosity

 I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.  
I find myself struggling with this sentiment in light of what's happened with Women of the Wall, and recent encounters online (never a good start) where Anat Hoffman were called Extremists, and where it was suggested that my unmitigated support for them was extremist as well.

I love the idea of 'Clal Yisrael', that we are all one cohesive group, and there are times where that imagery is helpful. But too frequently, it is that very idea of "the entirety of Israel" that is used to quell dissent or the pluralism Sirbu holds dear. Instead of encouraging curiosity into the others' values, it promotes a kind of maximal-minimalism: rarely are progressive Jewish values taken into consideration, but Orthodox values are seen as 'acceptable to everyone' so they are encouraged. Instead of allowing a full-throated and meaningful conversation about Israel and the best policies to encourage a strong, diverse Jewish State, 'Clal Yisrael' is invoked to cast anyone who disagrees with the status quo out of the mainstream and out of the discussion. Rather than used to encourage liberal voices to speak up alongside traditional voices, it's used as a cudgel to keep order. Sirbu herself, albeit unintentionally (I assume) falls into this pattern herself: while she sympathizes with the alienation the college freshman describes in his article, she calls him to task for Orthodox bashing, rather than explore what might be at the root of the dilemma  why don't liberal Jewish students feel welcome in so many Hillels? Why is his experience minimized, the burden of open-mindedness placed on him, and not the Orthodox students at Hillel?

Worse, frequently 'Clal Yisrael' is used to create a moral relativisim: somehow a woman singing the Sh'ma in public makes you an extremist and provocateur no different than the Orthodox man who throws acid or ink at that woman. 'Clal Yisrael' was invoked when the Reform Movement began ordaining women (never mind giving them a full voice on the bimah), when we reached out to Interfaith families, when we recognized individuals as Jews regardless of parentage, when we advocated for a full voice for LGBTQ Jews in our community. Each time we were told that we were breaking with 'Clal Yisrael'. Each time peace mongers (to steal a phrase from Ed Friedman) insisted that we were being divisive and were causing the Jewish people harm. Advocates for peace with the Palestinians are routinely told the same thing today. "Clal Yisrael" has even been invoked by "post-denominationalists" (who I find are rarely truly post-denominational) as a way of saying that movements are dinosaurs, are part of the problem, and should shut up already. Guess what? Judaism is not only surviving, but thriving, with greater creativity than ever before, in part because of the advocacy of our movements, not in spite of that advocacy.

In a fantastic article, Rabbi Eric Yoffie talks about why most interfaith dialogue doesn't work.

Most of the time -- and it is painful for me to admit this -- it is terribly boring. Most of the time there is a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not. Most of the time we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Most of the time we cover the same ground that we covered last month or the month before. And far too often we finish our session without really knowing the people across the table and what makes them tick religiously.

Yoffie then spells out what works in good interfaith dialogue:

First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes -- and trivializes -- our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing. 
Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically other they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?
Third, interreligious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practice that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us.

What Yoffie argues for interfaith dialogue is just as true for intrafaith dialogue. I'm all for promoting "Shalom Bayit", peace in the home, but real peace comes from justice, and supporting your own beliefs, not appeasement and an attitude of "can't we all just get along". I'm all for curiosity and learning and openness, but too often that openness is shut down in order to avoid conflict. By all means, let's find common ground, but let's not make "kumbaya" moments for their own sake. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes we think--we know--the other is wrong. Good, let's fight it out in the marketplace of ideas, and let's allow that conversation to get heated. Let's get in each others' faces. Let's push. Let's challenge. Let's talk about who we are and what we do unapologetically, with nothing to prove to the other. But when we invoke 'Clal Yisrael", let's do so with caution, lest we find ourselves giving up on our convictions to make sure no one's offended.

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