Monday, January 23, 2012

You don't own me

After my earlier rant, Eliezer Pennywhistler commented:

Unless you have also ejected Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze-ba-Zeh from your Judaism, you are fully associated with them.

Don't keep running away. Deal with it.

I've been thinking about this all day for two reasons.

1) I think I do want to eject kol Yisrael arevim ze-ba-zeh ("all of Israel are responsible for each other's actions") from my Judaism. I think that was my point about Reform Judaism: I thought we already did. Why do I have to own the actions of people who wouldn't deign to touch me? Why can't I stand up, as moderate Muslims have done with their extremists, and say, "This is not Judaism as I know it?" And more than that, why do I have to put up with the world seeing them as the "Real Jews" and me as something less? 

What this does is allow THEM to own US. It is the language that implies that I could be a better Jew, that there are degrees of Judaism, that offends me constantly. And it's what bothers me about the way we, as Reform Jews, teach our children. We lead a secular life that sometimes doesn't even include attendance at services or any kind of prayer, then send our children to a school where they are told that Jews do this and that--things of which they may never have heard before--and we wonder why they grow up to marry non-Jews. We teach them that it is wrong to discriminate, that women are equal to men, that lobster is delicious and Shabbat is meaningless, and then let the world believe that the Orthodox are the "real Jews." Well, then--what does that make us? If we are not real Jews, what are we doing? And if we are real Jews--if we can be real Jews without sexism and kashrut and Shabbat--then what is Judaism? Or Jewishness?

2) Which brings me to Eliezer's second point. He accuses me of running away. Oddly, he is the first person to do this. And it makes me wonder.

Clearly, I am running away. I have described this (but maybe not here) as my mid-life crisis. That, I will own. And I know this atheism was born of a repulsion I feel toward the Religious Right. So in that regard, I am running away. I'm running away from being perceived as a Religious Jew--a title that I previously fought to have applied to me as a believing Reform Jew, but which now makes me think of hatred, violence and oppression. And in general I prefer the "deal with it" approach to the "running away" approach.

I would also argue that this blog is my attempt to deal with it. I am searching for the other Jews who believe as I do: 
  • That equal rights, freedom and dignity for all is essential
  • That careful choices about eating can be made on a scientific, rather than textual, basis
  • That God probably doesn't exist, but Torah and Talmud do, and there is wisdom in those texts--wisdom that comes from people who have lived before us.
  • That questioning is the primary responsibility of the Religious
  • That people should be judged based on their actions above all else
because I want to be part of a community, and I want to enjoy the joy and comfort I have taken from rituals all my life. And also because I want to have a voice in the larger Jewish discussion, and I think many voices are louder than one. I want the world to know that the Orthodox are not the only Jews, that Progressive Jews are just as authentic as anyone, and that we, as Progressive Jews, reject the behavior of those who use Judaism as a vehicle for hatred. We reject them based on their actions and we reject their assertion that their desire to control other people has anything to do with God or Judaism. 

So, faced with extremists, my response is, "You don't own me, and I will not own your behavior. I am NOT responsible for what you do and you may not blame my religion for your actions. Neither may you tell me what to do or how to understand the texts we share. I am a smart, well educated, thoughtful Jewess, and I can make my own decisions about where to pray and how to dress and what to eat. If you can't, that's your problem."


  1. Hi, I just stumbled across this blog, and I have enjoyed the few posts I have read so far. I hope you don't mind a little friendly criticism, though. I was born Reform, fell away from religion early on, and have recently been exploring considerably more observant forms of Judaism, so hopefully my perspective won't be too alien, although I am sure some of my points will not resonate if you have truly internalized your atheism.

    First of all, I don't see why you must abandon the idea that there is a fundamental unity to the Jewish people and that we are responsible for each other's actions in order to say that the Haredi are doing it wrong. Remember that there is symmetry to the idea. If they don't feel that you own them just because they associate with you while rejecting your claim to authentic Judaism, why do you feel like you are letting them own you by acknowledging an association while rejecting their notion of what Judaism has to be? Instead of abandoning the field to them, accept that you have some responsibility to your fellow Jews, to help keep them from immoral behavior, and advance a vision of Judaism compelling enough to convince them if you can. Obviously you can't expect to singlehandedly eliminate extremism, but that is no excuse to wash your hands and forget about it, either.

    As for your summary of your beliefs, I see only a few things to object to from a traditional standpoint, at least as far as I understand it. I will take it point by point:

    That equal rights, freedom and dignity for all is essential

    Mostly I agree. Equal dignity, absolutely; we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and we are taught that everyone should believe that the world was created for his or her sake alone. We share common descent to a single couple, and the royal line from which the Messiah is supposed to arise sprang from converts, bastards, and drunken incest to teach us that no one should consider themselves better than others by dint of their birth. What greater affirmation of the worth and dignity of every human life could you ask for? As for freedom and rights, I would agree in a certain sense, but I would first question your definition of freedom. In my understanding, freedom is not about doing whatever you want. It is about being self-governed rather than ungoverned, in control of yourself rather than a slave to your whims. For that, you must know what is right and what is wrong, and so you are most free when obedient to a set of good laws. Good laws, presumably, would take into account nuance and significant differences rather than blindly apply the same to everyone in every circumstance. I assume that your comment was aimed mainly at sexism in the observant community, which is clearly a problem, but I don't think it is a solution to deny that there are differences between men and women. There are clearly physical differences, so why reject the possibility of spiritual differences, or say that those differences shouldn't make any difference in practice if they do exist?

    That careful choices about eating can be made on a scientific, rather than textual, basis

    Careful choices about eating can be made on any number of bases. You could carefully choose your food on a purely aesthetic basis if you so desire. I assume when you refer to a scientific basis for choice you mean to help you choose healthy food that is environmentally friendly. I think that is a great idea, and you should absolutely rely on science to help, but it doesn't conflict with kashrut, nor does it in any way address the same issues. You say that you find comfort in ritual. Why would you not want that in every part of your life? Especially for spiritually important things like food, which nourishes and sustains us, which frames and anchors our daily life when we eat proper meals, it feels meaningful to make that activity sacred. Where is the conflict with making your careful scientific choices, and how do those choices fill the gap if you aren't mindful spiritually as well?


  2. ...

    That God probably doesn't exist, but Torah and Talmud do, and there is wisdom in those texts--wisdom that comes from people who have lived before us.

    No problem here. If I could have gotten the kind of serious engagement with the texts in the Reform movement that I am finding with the Orthodox community, I might never have left. However, in my experience, the ideal of lay scholarship has largely fallen by the wayside. No more is expected of Hebrew school students than the ability to get through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah without embarrassing themselves too much, and it isn't any better for adults. The vast majority of Reform Jews I have met have an extraordinarily shallow knowledge of Jewish history and thought. In your temple, how many people would you guess have read the entire Torah, let alone the rest of Tanakh? Even a single page of Talmud?
    And as for God, as long as you say "probably", not "definitely", no problem. Be open minded and engage with the tradition, both in study and in life, and if it doesn't move you to belief, then it doesn't, and that's not your fault.

    That questioning is the primary responsibility of the Religious

    Similar to the last point, no problem here, but take it seriously. When you don't understand some aspect of tradition, how much effort do you take to learn about it and figure it out before rejecting it out of hand? You have to be ready to challenge your own beliefs and values if you want to demand that others do so as well.

    That people should be judged based on their actions above all else


    Whatever you end up finding, best of luck on your search!