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Jewish Civility and Interdenominationalism

by Harold M. Schulweis

A perverse solipsism applies to the idolatry of denominationalism which has taken hold of us. Idolatry is the worship of the part as if it were the whole.

To overcome this idolatry requires on the part of all of us courage, love of the Jewish people and the wisdom of Judaism. What must be overcome is our self-imposed segregation. The disconnection that has reduced us to monologists. The alienation that has destroyed the sanctity of dialogue. We know from our tradition what it means not to speak to each other. Maimonides wrote:

"We have not spoken for more than three days. Speech is essential for peace." As the Orthodox philosopher, Michael Wyshograd, in his book The Body of Faith put it, "The alternative to speaking is violence."

We practice apartheid on our people. We have visited the iniquities of or polarization upon our children. Despite our pulpit concern for continuity and our ringing of the hands about rising mixed-marriage, we have through our separation and segregation destroyed the critical mass that is necessary for Jews marrying Jews.

Our children do not study together, pray together, play together, sing together. They remain in separate worlds from nursery and kindergarten schools, Hebrew High Schools, Day Schools and summer camps.

The result of this apartheid was signaled in the Book of Joshua 22.

"In the time to come your children will say to our children 'What have you to do with the God of Israel? You have no portion in our God.'" Tragically and ironically while we may not succeed in preventing mixed-marriage, between Jew and non-Jew, we will succeed in preventing Jews from marrying Jews.

The issue is beyond matters of Halachah. There simply is something profoundly wrong when Jews cannot pray with Jews. There is something profoundly wrong when it is easier to have a Cardinal and his congregants join in a service in a synagogue than it is for one rabbi have another rabbi of another denomination join together in prayer.

The matter of prayer is a symptom of the deepest schism and misunderstanding.

What ever happened to that remarkable statement read before the Kol Nidre?  "By virtue of the heavenly authority and the earthly authority we permit the prayer with those who have transgressed."

Whatever happened to the marvelous rabbinic homilies that explained that foul smelling galbanum [Hebrew: a fetid gum resin used in varnish and in medicine] was mixed together with the sweet smelling incense because it emphasized the importance of inclusion?

Whatever happened to the preachments which explained that the aravah, the willow that has neither fragrance nor taste, must be included in blessing the lulav and ethrog because inclusiveness is mandatory for a community and for communion?

What is to be done?

The largest Jewish community must have the courage to lead this community to unity in diversity. We have to overcome the pernicious solipsism of sinah.

It evolves upon the leaders of the community, specifically the rabbinic community to join forces in countering the extremist views that distort Judaism.

My people, as yours, read the Times and read Jewish newspapers. They read about the shameful racism that seems to motivate the spilling of blood of innocent Ethiopian Jewry.

Some hear that it was a rabbinic decree. I do not think so. But if it was in fact a result of secular acting, then they have a right to hear the religious voice in unison condemn this violation of shaming another and of desecrating the image of God.

They read of the alleged decree of the former Chief Rabbi who maintains that observant Jews must refuse transfusions which come from the blood of Gentiles or from non-observant Jews. If this is a false statement then rabbis must be heard against this so that a tradition is not twisted and turned into racism. If it is the case that such a decree is issued then it seems to me that we ought to be united enough to condemn that sort of racism that smacks of the Aryan ideology that regarded Jewish blood as defiling.

There are things we can all do within our own congregations. I suggest to you that a few years ago I gave a series of talks on "THE BEST OF JUDAISM" which presented the best of Reform, the best of Conservative Judaism, the best of Reconstructionism, the best of Orthodoxy, the best of Satmir, the best of Lubavitch, the best of Yiddish Socialism, etc. In any event, it is clear that dialogue must be placed high on the agenda of Jewish life, dialogue on the serious divisions within our ideologies and interpretations of Judaism. But dialogue is predicated upon respect for the other. When we engage in interfaith dialogue with Christians and Moslems it does not mean that we endorse their views. But it does mean that we respect their sincerity and their yearning for God. The same conditions that apply to interfaith dialogue must apply to intra-faith dialogue. There is a benediction in our tradition for pluralism. It comes from the Talmud Brachoth. "When looking upon a gathering of Jews one is to pray "Blessed is he who is wise of all secrets and who knows that the opinions of each is not like that of the other just as the face of one is not like the face of the other. There is a large constituency that looks at these quarrels and squabbles and hurtful denunciations and in its heart cries out "A plague on all your houses." We have to with humor and with love recite the Sh'ma Yisrael together. Not all recite it with the same dialect but all of the intend to be embraced by the oneness of God.

Sh'ma Yisrael.


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