Saturday, 1 March 2008

The American Jewish Divide

Originally published 3/1/08, 9:20 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.Link no longer works.
Recently Gary Rosenblatt wrote an editorial about the furtherance of disunity amongst the Jewish community in the United States. The article is available at:
He is clearly correct in asserting that the Jewish Divide, as he describes it, is growing. The problem, however, may be more than just a question of unity. In this respect, I wrote the following letter to The Jewish Week.

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt:

Your article on the American Jewish Divide intrigues me. The issue is, however, in my opinion more than just a question of unity but rather a much more fundamental question of definition. Beyond the question of 'who is a Jew?' -- which really deals with defining criteria for membership in "the group" -- we have to start dealing with the question of 'what is a Jew?' -- the very definition of "the group." The issue, phrased in a different way, is not simply how do we keep "the group" together but the need to define the very nature of "the group."

What I believe is occurring with the advent of a further divide is a development of different fundamental definitions of "the group." This has caused even greater problems as we seem to further ignore this very need to define who we are. In dialoguing with fellow Jews, we assume that we all share the same definitions and understandings when, in fact, we do not. Even in your article, you refer to "Jewish ethics" as if it were a monolithic standard that is basically shared by all Jews, i.e. members of the group (in fact, as you would seem to present it, a defining characteristic of "the group"). The fact is that, although references to Jewish texts may be used by each different perspective, there is no longer a monolithic vision of Jewish ethics. The question of unity cannot, thus, be dealt with by reference to a theoretical single yardstick of Jewish ethics but must move on to a further question: how do we unite different segments of "the group" with different understandings of the ethics that each one believes is actually fundamental to "the group"? If our ethics actually reflect that same spectrum that exists in the general world, how can we even refer to them as a unique aspect of Jewishness? This is precisely my point. The demand is for definitions and understandings, not simply a call for unity.

In this vein, may I direct you to an article I wrote that basically calls for people to investigate their definition of Jewishness, rather than ignore this need. From this perspective, I contend that the only path to dealing with this problem is through the insistence on adjectives in defining one's Jewish identity rather than their avoidance. While a reference to being 'Just Jewish" sounds as the short path to unity, it actually fosters disunity and further problems for it leads to obscurantism and the lack of a definition for Jewishness. The article is at:

Thank you.



Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Of course, at issue is the very value of the unity of the broader Jewish community. While in theoretical terms, the unity of Israel is a prime Torah concern, the question does practically emerge as to what cost. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, for example, while very open to individual Jews regardless of their level of personal observance was not open to any connection to Reform Judaism even in the name of general Jewish unity.

Further on this topic, I invite you to look at my article "National Identity" in Nishma Introspection 5767-1 which is available on request from Nishma. (Contact information for Nishma is available at the Nishma website at This article is not yet available on line.)

Garnel Ironheart said...

So you write a long letter, then plug yourself in the letter and then you comment on yourself in the blog too?

Check out my blog: for an example of the divide in action.