Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Obama's Rabbi

Last week Gavin asked me how Jews define themselves. Since I didn't see how I could reasonably clarify that one with less than a small book, I put it aside to wait for a plausible hook to hang it on. Sure enough, one came along, in the surprising story of Michelle Obama's rabbi cousin. Not, as you might think, the story of a Jew who married into her clan, which wouldn't have been all that surprising. No. This is the story of a tradition started late in the 19th century of American blacks identifying with Judaism to the extent they proclaimed themselves Jews; the cousin, Rabbi Capers Funnye, is part of an offshoot of the tradition which actually seems to be serious about their Judaism.

I admit I've never heard of the entire phenomenon. Just goes to show you how varied the Jewish world is, I suppose. Assuming they're Jews. Are they? And how do you know? More importantly, who decides?

One of the books I'm reading, Paula Fredriksen's Augustine and the Jews, tells about many non-Jews who attached themselves to Jewish communities in the pre-Christian period of the Roman Empire. Judaism was different in those days, but the book makes clear that the gentiles remained gentiles, even when supporting the Jewish communities with funds and participating in their communal activities.

And that was probably the last time Judaism was potentially appealing to large numbers of non-Jews for 18-19 centuries. In the interval, you were lucky if you got through a century with your community intact. There must have been movement on the edges, so there was a definition of being Jewish: anyone with a Jewish mother, or who had been converted halachically - which meant, by a rabbi.

In the second half of the 20th century this changed... twice, and in very different ways. It changed in the US, and it changed in Israel.

It changed in the US because, as touched upon in the previous post, for the first time ever it was possible to be an integral part of mainstream society and Jewish society simultaneously; yet Jewish society was taking on a plethora of new forms that would not have been recognizable as Jewish until recently. This meant a significant number of non-Jews were willing to consider joining the Jews, and intermarriage with non-jews while retaining Jewish identity meant the matriarchal definition appeared too narrow. The Jews lost their consensus on what they were, and then on who they were; today's American Jewry is characterized by a diversity and breadth of expression far greater than any previous Jewish community, including the fractured and disparate one of the final generations of the Second Temple Era. American Jews agree, in a general way, that they have a common history, the kingpin of which is the Holocaust; they sort of agree that being Jewish means having a communal or societal conscience, and they more or less sort of agree that Israel is important. The single most important space for Jewish expression is the liturgical area: American Jews tend to identify by belonging to a temple/synagogue/shul congregation.

Meanwhile, in Israel, it all works differently. Jews are the mainstream society. They speak the ancestral language, Hebrew, as their native tongue, and the national calender is Jewish. The state of war we live in is intrinsically tied up with being Jewish, too. Which means being Jewish in Israel is essentially automatic unless you're an Arab or Druze, and need have nothing to do with liturgy, belonging to a congregation, or any of the fundamental aspects of being Jewish in America; on the other hand, since it's the kind of thing you need the willingness to lay your life down for, it's far more serious than it is for many American Jews. The non-Jews in Israel, and halachically there are hundreds of thousands of them, mostly from the former Soviet Union, are in many ways more actively Jewish than most American Jews, even if they have absolutely no connection with a synagogue.

Which leaves the halachically minded orthodox with two separate battles to lose. In America they've lost the argument about conversion, and are retreating into their own enclaves. In Israel, they're losing the argument, too, though it's a very different argument, and their ability to retreat into enclaves is limited; on the other hand, the demographic dynamic means that within a few generations the problem (if it is one) will largely disappear: The Jews in Israel will be Jews, even if some of their forbears were Slavic non-Jews. I won't hazard a guess as to what will happen in America. Perhaps most American Jews will be African Americans who decided they were Jewish.


Fabián said...

Very clear and very interesting.

I wish I could be so certain about Orthodox losing the battle in Israel too.

David Boxenhorn said...

You can look here for my analysis of the future of Judaism in America:


I wrote it some time ago, but I still stand by it.

Yaacov said...

Interesting, David. Your assumption that the orthodox birthrate, which is astronomically high by Western standards, is sustainable over generations is, of course, the hinge of your argument. It is strengthened by the totally odd fact that the pattern over the past 50 years has been towards more children per orthodox family, and at least partially irrespective of socio-economic status - though this is truer in the US than in Israel, where a majority of the Haredi community has yet to join the modern labor market; then again, it is true for the national-religious orthodox community in Israel, so perhaps it will remain so even if and when the Haredi massively join the market. All of which, of course, raises the question why the orthodox birthrate is so high and rising. Maybe I'll speculate on that in some future blog-post.

David Boxenhorn said...

Yes, for lack of anything better, I assume that current trends will continue. Of course, I admit that the unexpected usually does happen - but how could I take that into account? The unexpected is... unexpected.

Having said that, we can point out what we do know: That orthodox birth rates are post-demographic decline, so there is no reason to assume that the "universal" demographic decline that comes with modern culture and wealth will apply.

If you want to go deeper into my analysis you can look here:


Read the comments (at least mine) to get the full picture.

Gavin said...

Thanks Yaacov, you've confused me more but also given me enough to work it through. I enjoyed the story about the black rabbi. Is there racial differences like that in Israel.. I wouldn't think so just curious.

I probably should have asked what defines a person as not a Jew. From time to time I've met people who have spoken in passing of being Jewish, but also claimed to be not a Jew. For those of us who aren't Jewish that actually makes sense, and isn't a remarkable statement. The problem with your criteria for defining Jewishness is it's part race and part creed. Is Judaism a race or a religion? It seems to me that anyone with a Jewish mother can call themselves 'Jewish' without actually being a Jew... if you get my meaning there. Then there's the reformists in the US who can claim Jewish descent from mother or father. Again, how many are really of the faith?

The term 'self-hating' Jew comes up a lot these days, and my thoughts were running along the line that most of these characters are Jewish by birth, but not actually Jews. Is there such a creature, a Jew by birth who isn't a Jew? How can you tell? And if they're not really Jews can you take their Jewish-sounding names off them... you lot do make things difficult.

Regards, Gavin

Anonymous said...

Off-topic here, but certainly of interest re. one of the major themes of this blog:

Personal code of IDF soldier: 'May our camp be pure'

Apr. 7, 2009

Yaacov said...

Gavin -

You're using Protestant thought patterns, which are not helpful for unraveling these complex issues about Jews.

Originally, Jews were an ethnic group - as all religions of the time were. Christianity was one of the prime forces towards making religion a universal, cross-ethnic matter, but Judaism is very much pre-Christianity in its origins; it's just unusual in still being around after all this time. Yet even in its oldest antiquity, Judaism seemed to have offered the possibility of joining - see, for example, the black wife of Moses, Zipporah, and her father Jethro, history's first recorded consultant.

Rabbinic Judaism, the main, almost single model from the 1st thru the 18th centuries (called Pharisees in the New Testament) was not conceptually ethnic, but in practice it largely was: you could become a Jew no matter where you came from, but who would want to; since Jews were about as un-missionary as can be, the numbers of converts was generally small.

The fundamental thing to understand, however, is that in spite of Judaism being the original monotheistic religion, religious belief is not nearly as important in rabbinic Judaism as you'd think: the practice is what's important. I'm speaking in inaccurate generalities here, and cutting lots of corners, but you can say that whether a Jew "professes belief" or not is irrelevant to his (her) being Jewish; what matters is if he lives as a Jew - which until the 18th century, automatically meant inside the orthodox community. Even today, the orthodox position would be that a non-observing Jew still has the potential of reverting to the "correct" behavior, and is therefor fully Jewish. Conversely, I know quite a number of orthodox Jews who are rather unabashedly agnostic in their beliefs, without this diminishing their orthodox way of life.

Reform Judaism is thus closer to Protestantism than to orthodox Judaism in some ways, but don't tell anyone I said so.

Being black is irrelevant, mostly. The neighborhood of Jerusalem I live in has a higher proportion of American Jews than most parts of the country, so it also has a noticeable number of black Americans who converted to Judaism (mostly via the orthodox rabbinate), and they're as Jewish as anyone else. Then there are the tens of thousands, perhaps more than 100,000, Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Some of the orthodox rabbinate has a problem with them, but because they detached from the main body of Jews before the Talmudic era - anyway, that has been mostly resolved, and never interested the non-orthodox Israelis one way or the other.

Coming back to Obama's rabbi: I'm still scratching my head about them. Strictly speaking, the orthodox rabbis probably wouldn't recognize their Jewishness, since they didn't convert with an orthodox rabbi. On the other hand, they seem to practice more of the corpus of halacha than many reform or even conservative Jews, which means some orthodox rabbis might welcome them, if they moved over a bit more onto the orthodox track. The article seemed to indicate, however, that even the conservative and reform movements in America are leery of them.

Complicated, huh? Is your head spinning?

Anonymous said...

and where would Harry Kemelman's Rabbi David Small fit in?
I read the series decades ago and find the books still highly enjoyable whenever I dust them?
Are they a good introductory read for non-jews at all or are they just pure fantasy?
and weren't Roman legions even before Christianity arrived rather pick and chose without regard to ethnicity in their religious preferences? (i.e. Midras Cult)
rgds, Silke

Gavin said...

Thanks for taking the time to explain this Yaacov. Phew! Yes it is complicated. I can see now why you lot have produced so many Nobel prize winners. After figuring out your own culture writing a theory on relativity would be akin to doing a crossword puzzle in ones spare time.

I have to think about this now. I've been trying to visualise the threads that bind you all together & all I see is knots.

Regards, Gavin.

Anonymous said...

An interesting article in Ha'aretz
on a Black Jewish Congregation in Philadelphia


Superb Jon said...

Obama marks the end of the Burke Maritan Buckley model of conservatism based on collectivist labor unions, police suppression of the Bill of Rights, middle class subsidies for homes and schools under the watchful eye of the Knights of Columbus and Opus D. Every American boom has been caused by an Evangelical Revival and every major Depression by the domination of new Catholic immigrants. See for example George Marlin's history of the conservative party in New York or Paul Johnson's Modern Times, extolling the rise of Carolignianism of Adenauer, de Gaulle, and Gaspieri, forgetting that Hitler, too, was Carolignian and a Catholic altar boy.