Where Do the Limits of Jewish Fraternity Lie?

No matter which city or country I’ve lived in, the sense of a shared destiny among Jews lends itself to a strong sense of community. But these bonds have their limits, which we must actively work to erase.

Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.
Limmud Conference, U.K., Dec. 23, 2013.Credit: Flix'n'Pics
Dr Samuel Lebens / Jewish World blogger
Dr. Samuel Lebens

My family has just been through the trauma of moving house, after a year in South Bend, Indiana.

I had never heard of South Bend before I applied for the job at Notre Dame. I’d heard of the university, but not of the town that hosted it. Nonetheless, as soon as we got there, we were enveloped by the Jewish community who seemed so happy to have new members in their midst. Their warmth wasn’t extended to us because of how similar we were, or how well we fit in. The community we joined was, mostly, ultra-Orthodox, or leaning in that direction. We are Modern Orthodox. They were American. We are, even after all of these years away, still very British. But it didn’t matter, because, like a family that hosts varying political beliefs and disparate hobbies, something more profound tied us together.

In Edison, New Jersey, our new home, we have already been welcomed so warmly by the huge Jewish community here. Only the other night, we were greeted by a member of the official welcoming committee. What was interesting was that the committee was formed by eight of the local synagogues. Now, of course, the eight synagogues represent a relatively broad spectrum of beliefs, attitudes and practices within the Orthodox spectrum; from the ultra-Orthodox to the very Modern, with many shades in between. But, despite their differences, and indeed their institutional distinctiveness, and the inherent competition that must come with that, they see themselves, very much, as one community. Even the fact that they produce a sheet with all of the weekly and Sabbath prayer service times across all of the communities strikes me as pretty remarkable. The communities don’t seem to be vying with each other so much as feeding into a broader sense of a shared higher purpose; a higher unity.

So, both in South Bend and in New Jersey, we've been struck by a powerful sense of Jewish fraternity. I wonder where the limits of this sense of Jewish fraternity fall. Some people have argued that the mainstream Jewish community doesn’t make room for you if you are anti-Zionist. That doesn’t sound quite right to me, although I’m sure it must be alienating to hold a political view that is held by such a vanishing minority of your own community.

The reason it doesn’t sit well with me is that I’ve seen too many striking counter-examples to accept that politics defines the edges of our sense of collectivity. Indeed, the community in South Bend is home to one anti-Zionist, the lone Hungarian Hassidic family in the town. People know his political views, he probably doesn’t discuss them all that much within the community, but he doesn’t hide them either. And he and his family are, rightly, cherished members of the community, and I had the pleasure of learning with him regularly, despite my overt and explicit Zionism.

The boundaries may be more significant at the denominational frontiers. While the eight Orthodox communities are part of this welcoming committee, the local Conservative and Reform communities are not included. One the one hand, this makes perfect sense. The denominations differ on the crucial question as to who is actually Jewish and as to which sorts of rituals and practices are halakhically acceptable. Both issues make it hard for theses religious institutions to organize religious life collectively, as the Orthodox communities can do.

On the other hand, Jewish life in America, and elsewhere, is, in so many ways, cross-denominational. I was speaking with an Orthodox teenager behind the counter of a kosher pizza store in Pittsburgh and she was talking about the sports teams she belongs to at the local Jewish community center alongside girls from all of the denominations. It reminded me of Maccabi Jewish sports teams in the United Kingdom. Our sense of Jewish fraternity certainly extended beyond denominational lines. And, even if Orthodoxy was reticent in the past for those cross-denominational interactions to translate into religious activity together, the growth of the Limmud movement, worldwide, and the increasing participation of mainstream Orthodox educators at Limmud events, goes to show that even Torah learning – one of the central religious activities of Jewish life – can extend beyond these denominational distinctions.

Perhaps the limit to these fraternal bonds lie in the boundaries of socio-economic class. This is an area where we need to be especially vigilant. On the one hand, I think we do a very good job, on the whole. The communities I have belonged to in the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States have all had a spectrum of members from wealthy to struggling, and all of them have had funds and trusts to help make sure that every family in the community can afford to put food on the table and to make sure that their children can access Jewish education.

But, on the other hand, I remember introducing a single woman who had had a very tough working class life, punctuated with domestic abuse, and other sorts of horrors, into the very middle class community to which I belonged, when she discovered that she was halakhically Jewish. I don’t think it was to do with a disparity of wealth so much as a different sort of upbringing with different sorts of values and experiences, but I remember being shocked to see a community that was, in all other respects, so warm and so loving, almost subconsciously close ranks against this person who they felt uncomfortable around.

Overall, the Jewish community is exceptional at embracing its members from far and from wide. It is, to echo Rabbi Solovetchik, because of the bonds of a shared fate and destiny that we feel such a potent sense of unity. But, we do have to be on our guard. These bonds challenge us to build communities that make every single Jew feel at home and every single Jew feel that their extended Jewish communal family stands by them no matter what; no matter their politics, denomination or socio-economic class. This is something we do well; but we could always do better.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Modern-Orthodox philosopher who works at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University and chairs the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism. He spoke at LimmudLA Fest, this past weekend.

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