Toward a more assertive liberal Judaism
The orthodox narrative about Judaism must be confronted, challenged, refuted: vocally, diligently, persistently; may this be the first step.
The pluralist agenda of the liberal Jewish movements, while admirable in principle, can sometimes lead us to be less vocal about why we differ from Orthodox Judaism, and why that difference is important.
Liberal Judaism makes a powerful claim, and the claim is that Orthodox Judaism is, at its core, wrong. Orthodox Judaism is built around a narrative that contains a foundational error: “The Torah was written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai”. This statement, and the orthodox religious narrative that emerges from it, has been disproven by generations of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, sociologists of religion, and historians. These scholars have demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ words, that the traditional, orthodox understanding of Jewish history is false. The origins of Judaism are much more complicated than that.
Why, then, do we still allow that discredited understanding to remain the dominant and default narrative in the Jewish world? Why do we allow it to be repeated in the public marketplace without censure? Why do we stay silent before those who believe it, rather than make clear the untenability of their position?
I want to suggest three reasons: complacency about the narrative’s danger; fear of disunity; and concern about assimilation.
We are complacent about the Orthodox narrative because our eyes are blinkered to the damage that it has already done, and the dangers that it holds.
The Orthodox narrative is the main rationale and driving force behind Israel’s mistaken settlement enterprise of the past 40 years. This is obvious when one thinks about the national religious movement (“God gave us this land”), but it’s also true, if less obvious, when one examines the tacit consent given by the non-orthodox majority to this ill-starred experiment. Many non-observant Jews believe the Orthodox narrative, and therefore have a grudging respect for those who live their lives by it. This Jewish guilt is particularly prevalent in the Sephardi community, where vast numbers of non-observant Jews vote for Shas because, in part, of a belief that they keep the flame of “real Judaism” burning. But it’s not confined to Sephardim.
Large sections of the Jewish people, particularly in Israel, have tolerated the right-wing settlement agenda because they respect the beliefs of orthodox settlers. The time has come to challenge those beliefs more assertively. Fundamentalist orthodox ideology is based on historically incorrect claims and dubious assumptions about Jewish history. It’s time we said so.
To be clear: I’m not denying the Jewish people’s historical connection with the land of Israel, nor am I questioning our right to political self-determination on part of that land.
What I am denying is the fundamentalist narrative that sees the connection as divinely ordained, and the subsequent use of that divine narrative to justify political actions.
Israel is increasingly controlled by those who are guided by the orthodox narrative. It’s not just the settlements, but also the place of non-Jews in Israeli society, the legitimacy of non-orthodox Jewish streams, the rights of minorities, educational subsidies, and a dozen other issues. Israel’s current government is a terrifying coalition of those who believe and live by the orthodox narrative (the ultra-orthodox and national orthodox), and what I call the “orthophiles”: non-observant Jews who may not live by the practices of orthodoxy, but nevertheless believe or respect the orthodox narrative (Shas’s voters, the Likud party, and even much of the supposedly secular Yisrael Beiteinu party). This coalition of the orthodox and the orthophiles is leading Israel towards several abysses at once.
Liberal Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora must try to stop this cultural and political coalition before it is too late, and one way we can do that is by challenging the core claims of the orthodox narrative.
A second reason that we allow the orthodox narrative to hold center stage is our own fear of Jewish disunity. We tread on eggshells for fear of saying that others’ opinions might be “wrong” or “false”. We nod our heads when we hear absurd and historically ridiculous statements spouted by orthodox friends, because we believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, and because we want to be nice. We think it’s important to be united as a people, so we swallow our pride and allow the orthodox narrative to become the default Jewish position.
Ironically, it is Orthodox Judaism that is the main force leading to the destruction of the Jewish people’s unity. Liberal Jews are like, l’havdil, abused spouses. For decades, orthodox Jews have ignored our concerns, discriminated against our converts, insulted our rabbis, and used our money against us; yet we still smile weakly at them and cling to the hope that they’ll make nice. No. This is not about the unity of the Jewish people any more; it’s about the vision of the Jewish people. No longer can we allow that vision to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.
The third reason we tolerate the orthodox narrative as default is because we are concerned about assimilation, and deep down we wonder if the narrative, even if it’s false, might help stem the tide of Jews leaving the Jewish people. We are right to be concerned about assimilation, and we need to roll up our sleeves and develop passionate but liberal arguments for why Jewishness is a wonderful and enriching prism through which to live life. The fight against assimilation is certainly harder without the orthodox narrative, but we dare not sacrifice truth for Jewish continuity.
All this is not to say that we should cease being pluralist. Liberal Jews must continue to talk with and learn from each other, wherever they are on the denominational spectrum.
We must also talk with and learn from thinking orthodox Jews who are open to such dialogues, and there are many. But pluralism, dialogue, and mutual learning must no longer be allowed to obscure the genuine disputes about history and ideology that separate us, and we liberal Jews must be more prepared to dispute the fundamentalist orthodox position in our dialogues with orthodox friends and colleagues.
A new world Jewish movement is needed: a movement of Jews who are no longer prepared to remain quiet and cede Jewishness to a fundamentalist, incorrect orthodox narrative. This orthodox narrative must be confronted, challenged, refuted: vocally, diligently, persistently. May this be the first step.
Dr Alex Sinclair is the director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He lives In Modiin, Israel.