Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Jay Michaelson argues that as long as you take your Judaism seriously, you’re as authentic as anyone else…Really?

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2009 at 9:45 am

Those of us who are in the liminal state between being middle-aged and being old are sometimes reminded that we are closer to the latter than the former. Oy! Jay Michaelson argues against calcified notions of authenticity in The Forward. Progressives, i.e. gay, Bhu-Jew, neo-feminist Jews whose bedrock values are hybrids of the “best” of cultures, are as authentic expressions of Judaism as any ultra-Orthodox community.  Judaism is dynamic and has always made accommodations to historical currents, so all responses to modernity are equally authentic.  I declare, therefore, I am. If I say I’m Jewish, then I am.  If I meditate, and the wrap my tefilin around my neck because it is more meaningful to me, then that is as Jewish as following the rules.  I imagine that if a progressive can create a community around her Judaism, then that according to Michaelson is as authentic as anything or anyone else’s.

…the entire notion of authenticity is a false projection of particular historical quirks onto an imagined ideal of “realness” that artificially freezes culture, and thus spells its demise. The truth is that there is no single authentic Jewishness. Like any living culture, Jewish culture (and religion) evolves over time in order to remain vibrant. Of course, there are certain core values, myths and cultural traits that remain relatively constant. But bagels, bookishness and bar mitzvahs all evolved historically; none is more “really Jewish” than sushi, sports or a Sweet 16

Self definition is a combination of positives and negatives.  I am Jewish, but I am not Christian. Michaelson would have trouble with that one because by his definition we would  have to welcome Jews for Jesus, especially if they kept an eco-Kashrut and observed the holidays. After all, Christianity was perceived as the fulfillment of Judaism without regard for certain mitzvot, and a belief in a charismatic messiah.  I am a declared vegetarian, but I eat chicken–they’re stupid enough to be considered ambulatory vegetables, according to my version of vegetarianism.

Just because there is a dialectic process of tradition and modernity, and that process is dynamic, does not mean that anything, or even most things go.  For years, I led a team of Reform, Conservative, secular teachers on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships where the purported “myth of authenticity” was regularly debunked by the broad spectrum of representation.  We would live together as a– united by our willingness to discuss our differences–community for five intense weeks in Israel. We also would gather for a follow-up weekend in the fall.  I would ask these group of  high school seniors an open question. “What have the last couple of months been like for you?”

Most of them assumed I meant how often had you been to shule in the last two months, or what rituals had you adopted that you hadn’t done before.  When interviewed, “Birthright Israel” college participants admit to having little connection to the God of Israel, but have a stronger affinity for the “culture”, but the first “cultural” thing they do when they return to campus is to go to Friday night services, hear kiddush and make motzi. A tradition, dare I say a culture,  may be challenged from the outside, but it is defined by normative practice.  The one thing that makes halachic Judaism normative is the fact that all denominations, and predilections need to be in dialog with it.  They may light candles after sunset, but they still light. The converse is not true, and therein lies the tradition’s claim to authenticity.  Authenticity is not judged by meaningful experience alone.

Twenty years ago, I had a conversation with a prominent Reform rabbi and author, who was a pioneer in bringing  a revised Jewish mysticism to the Reform movement and beyond.  After admitting that he needed to rely primarily on translations, he opined that “Who knows why you ended up in Israel studying in yeshiva for twelve years and I went to HUC? Why should that prevent us from unifying the Jewish people and sitting on a Beit Din together?”

Well, I did know why. I made a choice to forgo ten years of earnings living in a benign state of poverty to study in Yeshiva for over ten years day and night.   I have a fairly empty 401k to prove it. Then, after some grueling exams that effort entitled me (literally) to be a rabbi. It did not entitle me to be a PhD, nor should it have. If, however, I chose to be a Reform rabbi tomorrow–it would not be a problem, but the opposite is not true, and this cannot, and will not go away. It is from these criteria that authenticity emanates. If I was to cavalierly say to my colleague, “You’re right, what’s the difference” I would be perpetuating a lie, something that would be ludicrous to believe. Years ago, the late Rabbi Alexander Shindler argued for the legitimacy of patrilineal descent for the Reform movement.  With rhetorical flourish, he argued, “If they were Jewish enough for Hitler, they should be Jewish enough for us!”

So, Hitler should be the one who determines “Who is a Jew?”

Removal of authenticity is tantamount to the removal of standards, and removal of standards ensures and perpetuates intellectual, spiritual and communal mediocrity. If you don’t believe me, take a look around. I guess that I can officially say that I’m too old for Michaelson’s brave new world.

  1. I find your points to be very compelling. There are indeed a growing lack of accountable standards in almost every sphere of life. And this lack of standards allows anyone to claim to be an expert whether they deserve it or not. There is a danger however to the view that suggests that the amount of time devoted to learning determines authenticity, even in a Rabbinc framework. I’m sure you are not trying to suggest volume can substitute for other human qualities. I would leave you with another Adin Steinsaltz essay from 1996 which adresses aspects. Hope you find this interesting. http://www.steinsaltz.org/learning.php?pg=Talmud%20-%20Essays&articleId=1450

    And yet, there is something to what Jay says that is not quite as

  2. The larger point I was trying to make which was that even if people are not spending day and night with their nose in the books, they take their cues from those who are. We say Kiddush, a rabbinic invention. The “matbeya” the core prayers, a rabbinic compilation. People create new tunes, say them at different paces, but they don’t or shouldn’t say: I’m going to make kiddush over chicken soup because it is my favorite part of the meal–and for me, that is more meaningful. When Rabbi Lopatin makes a case for changing the blessing “shelo asani isha”, he demonstrates that there is rabbinic precedent for making the change. One can agree or disagree with his argument (I found it compelling), but the process is solid. What I disagree with is the idea that if we get together and agree to have a certain experience together and we all have some connection to Judaism, and it is “powerful”, then it is as authentic as saying shema in the morning. Nothing will kill culture quicker than this.

  3. I think the key to the whole position (and indeed for many challenging Torah questions) is whether you can step outside of yourself and choose the path that you really believe is the path God would want; without ego, without predetermining the outcome and without selfishness but with true Yirat Shemayim. Our great tradition sometimes calls for Pinhas, sometimes to act for the sake of God in bending the law to fit human needs. How do we know which is the right path if everyone is tied into their own subjectivity?

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