Discussing family squabbles in public has always been distasteful, but being that we always see so much of it with such negative results, I feel there is an urgent need to clear up some of the misconceptions flying around, for Jews and non-Jews alike..
The Jewish people are a family united first by birth and then by faith. Our essential bond to each other is the fact that we are a family, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Once born of a Jewish mother, one will always be a Jew. A person can change their belief system, but not their birthright.
Of course, it is not our birthright alone that has forged our place in history. Throughout the centuries it has been our strong faith in G-d and the mission we received at Mt. Sinai that has endowed us with the strength and inspiration to try to serve as a “light amongst the nations”, sometimes against great odds. Many converts have been welcomed to join us in accomplishing this goal. During most of these 38 centuries, with great diversity (and sometimes conflict) in the family, we were for the most part united in our faith.
However in the last two centuries we have witnessed the development of new interpretations of how the ‘family’ is to carry out its mission. They have brought many major and minor departures from tradition, which adjust an individual’s level of observance for the sake of modernization. Some changes, though, have tampered with the very glue that keeps the family together. They are seen as a threat to the very foundation of the family (like new definitions of what it takes to become a member of the family).
All of these changes are viewed as a compromise of the original message at Mt. Sinai. But it is the changes that affect the very foundation on which the family is built, that are of greatest concern.
As a result of these diverse beliefs, in recent years we have seen an unfortunate development in our family relations. The labels which describe our different approaches to being Jewish have become institutionalized to the point where they have taken on an independent identity. Many people speak of themselves as Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, or Chassidic Jews, almost as if this represents completely different families. Disagreements have swelled to the point where they have caused much public outrage. For some, emotions have boiled near to the point of no return.
Unfortunately, it seems we have forgotten one simple fact. Our affiliation is based on our personal belief system, but our birthright is still the same. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter our appearance, the synagogue we belong to, or our personal religiosity.
Bearing this in mind, the ‘family’ needs to take the following points under careful consideration. First of all, no matter how serious our disagreements may be, a fellow Jew must always be dealt with respectfully, even while giving rebuke. Generalities or assumptions cannot be made, while efforts amongst all parties to uproot prejudices must be exerted. People don’t change as a result of throwing words, stones, votes, or pronouncements at them. The leaders in all groups must turn down the temperature, and condemn acts or words of prejudice.
Secondly, those who have in the past, and continue to introduce change into Judaism, must take responsibility for the historical fact that they are as great a contributor to the present divisiveness, if not more, as the ones they accuse. This is particularly true when these changes are made without building consensus throughout the world. All Jews practice Judaism as they choose. But trying to force the whole ‘family’ to accept those changes which are seen as a threat to the family’s very existence, is unreasonable, disruptive, and in the long run, counterproductive (what ‘organization’ can survive with multiple definitions for membership?).
Third of all, issues that affect the Jewish world are of concern to all of us. However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that in our community we have enough challenges ahead of us to create a Jewish future for our children. We don’t need to import every problem from Israel or other parts of the world and make them our own. Let’s focus on keeping our local Jewish community united, and carefully rebuke those who breed divisiveness locally. It’s easy to talk about changing Israel. The hard job is changing ourselves.
And last but not least, let us all pray to G-d that it will be the cool heads who prevail in future attempts to heal our differences. (Photo Credits: Chabad.org)