Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Jan. 28 1999 7:30 AM

Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?


Dear Stephen,


Harrumph, I thought by now you'd be so moved by my arguments as to throw on a black frock coat, become a Satmar hasid, go live in Williamsburg, and sell diamonds wholesale. There must be some incredibly illuminating point I've neglected to make to you. Speaking of arguments, I note here for the record that you haven't responded to my basic challenge to you, which was to defend not so much the authenticity but the internal coherence of a liberal outlook on Judaism. So I take your silence as assent and congratulate you for realizing that the heterodox Jewish movements don't hang together intellectually. Maybe that's one reason people our age don't take Reform and Conservative seriously. I think folks of our parents' generation liked liberal synagogues (and churches) for the community they provided. But with life speeding up as it has lately, younger Americans just don't have time for that sort of thing--if it doesn't also offer a serious approach to thinking about G-d.

Stephen, I'm intrigued by your formulation in warning us against "presum[ing] to own the one-and-only Truth." Will Herberg said that we all have faith in something, the question is in what--and to what extent we make a conscious, informed decision to have faith in it. In other words, in practice we all live as if we were in possession of Truth: a whole set of assumptions--about right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, desirable and undesirable--that guide our actions and thoughts.

And furthermore, we behave as if our assumptions were the "one-and-only" correct ones, since we don't give a lot of thought to changing them, at least not the basic ones. Now, the question is whether we are aware of this Truth we live according to, or whether we are essentially unconscious. You swear off any kind of "fundamentalism," but to be unconscious in this way is the ultimate fundamentalism. Look at all the assumptions in just your last e-mail, which you take to be obvious to all ("one-and-only"): a) that "Truth is subjective"--oh is it?; b) that Truth, to be true, "must accommodate the passage of time"--why?; c) that tikkun olam is a central tenet of Judaism--which would surprise, e.g., Maimonides; d) that the Torah is somehow parallel to the Constitution, the latter being a great but human document. The question of whether Torah is human or divine is precisely the question you and I are trying to resolve, yet (apparently without realizing it) you take as a universal premise the very conclusion you should be arguing for.

In short, to believe as I do that Jewish tradition is the Truth is simply to acknowledge consciously what you appear to take unconsciously for granted about your own Truth (which you have not as yet tried to define, despite my prodding).

Another seemingly unconscious assumption: You mention that it's an interesting question why we bother with religion. Ask instead, why does G-d bother with us? Torah is not an object to be embraced if we can think of a good reason to do so (to "lead productive lives," to "pay reverence to G-d"). Rather it is G-d knocking at the door of our souls and demanding entrance. At least this is how our ancestors understood Torah. If you want to overturn their understanding, and make traditional Judaism one choice among many legitimate ones, then my friend, once again, the burden of proof is on you.

Now to your concern that I patronized Reform Jews--definitely not! To behave in a worshipful manner in synagogue is a virtue to be valued for its own sake. If I am chattering away with my buddy throughout the prayer service, as some people in my shul do, then I've missed the point of being there.

Best wishes,