What New Jews (and Those Curious about Judaism) Can Do for Existing Jews

Decade by decade, they can transform the face and energize and re-moralize the base of Jewish societies everywhere.





Members of the Bnei Menashe community arrive at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on March 22, 2018. Yossi Zamir/Flash90.
Last Word
Nov. 25 2019
About the author

Ofir Haivry, an Israeli historian and political theorist, is vice-president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and the author of John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge). He served as chairman of the Public Advisory Committee for Examining Israel’s Approach regarding Worldwide Communities with Affinity to the Jewish People, appointed by Israel’s ministry of Diaspora affairs.


In my Mosaic essay, “The Restoration of the Jewish People.” I addressed the welcome challenge posed by an amazing contemporary phenomenon. I described that phenomenon as follows:

Millions of individuals who in the past would have been regarded as irretrievably lost to the Jewish people are now visibly in contact with it, and some of them or their descendants are actively returning to the fold. At the same time, many more persons or groups with at best very distant Jewish connections are strengthening those connections and moving closer to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

Here I’ll take up the two responses to my essay by Hillel Halkin and Shlomo Brody, both of whom I thank for their thoughtful attention to my argument.

 

Hillel Halkin poses two sets of questions about my treatment of the phenomenon in question and of how “we”—that is, we Jews, and Israel as the Jewish nation—can or should respond to it. His first question regards our motives for wanting more people to draw closer to the Jewish people or to Judaism. Have we, he wonders, adequately considered the impact that, especially in cases where conversion becomes an issue, such drawing-closer can have on the personal life of those undertaking conversion under the strict supervision of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment?

Halkin’s second, related question has to do with those who, under the influence of emissaries from Israel, come as whole groups from far-flung places in the world where they lived for centuries, and who are insufficiently prepared for the “many social, economic, and cultural problems of adjustment” they will face in their new home. He cites here in particular the case of the B’nei Menashe of northeast India.

I sympathize with Halkin’s concerns for respecting the diverse circumstances and makeup of the persons and groups drawing closer to Jewish life, as well as his wariness of a rabbinical approach that is too monolithic and unimaginative. In both cases, however, I believe his concerns are misplaced because the reality on the ground is very different. Let me elaborate briefly.

In dealing with those who we feel are somehow part of us, like members of our family or our people, it is very difficult to unravel self-interest from benevolence and philanthropy. Yet it is precisely that sense of affinity with lost family members that is ultimately driving so many Jews, both in Israel and abroad, to welcome with open arms those who wish to become closer to or even to join the Jewish people.

Nor, exceptions aside, is there any significant movement afoot actively to seek out and convince others of the superiority of the Jewish way of life. Rather the opposite: we hear the knocking on our door of those who have decided, for their own reasons, to seek us out. My own view is that, for us, the honest and reasonable response is to open our doors, to present to the newcomers, as best we can, the Jewish story and the nature and substance of Jewish values, and to let them decide whether it suffices for them to have learned about these matters or whether they want to try and come inside the House of Israel.

Halkin’s preference for societal pluralism and diversity, which he juxtaposes to the exclusionary vision of the Israeli chief rabbinate, prompts his historical observation that, in antiquity, the most pluralist and diverse forms of Judaism existed after the Temple’s destruction by the Romans, only to be ended within a few centuries “by the rise to complete dominance of a rabbinically-regulated halakhic Judaism.” By the same token, he writes, it was the waning of rabbinic dominance in modernity that “made room for the proliferating expressions of Jewishness that we encounter today” and that presumably lie under threat from the chief rabbinate.

Space doesn’t permit a lengthy discussion of this point, but I’ll just note that the period in antiquity extolled by Halkin for its diversity was also a time of great crisis, one that saw large parts of the Jewish people lost, often to early Christianity. Rabbinical Judaism did not so much overwhelm other Jewish views as constitute the one version of Judaism that was left standing when all others had fallen away.

As for today, once again there are indeed innumerable options for Jewish expression, some of them not so different in kind from those that flourished 2,000 years ago. But this “pluralistic” reality unfolds against a rapid disintegration of many Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The main difference between now and post-Temple times is that now there is once again a Jewish state, and it (as I wrote in my essay) makes all the difference.

By definition, and in both political and theological terms, a sovereign state has the final say in its own sphere. However tolerant and welcoming Israel decides to be—and it is very tolerant and welcoming—it still has to define its own parameters for recognition of Jewishness and for the right of return. As I also wrote, nothing prevents communities around the world from defining themselves and their Jewishness in whatever manner they choose. But for all intents and purposes, the true arbiter of Jewish identity is now the Jewish state, whose Jewish population overall tends toward a rather mild but unmistakably traditionalist form of Judaism.

 

Rabbi Shlomo Brody adopts a more more practical approach. In confronting the plainly “expressed desire of untold numbers of newcomers somehow to attach themselves to the Jewish people,” he focuses on the specific response of “the rabbinic gatekeepers who in Israel determine the standards of religious conversion to Judaism.”

Of special concern to him in this connection is the population of so-called “Jewish non-Jews” who have already been admitted to Israel under the Law of Return, which is more latitudinarian in its definitions than the rabbinate. Most of them hail from Russia and Ukraine; they make up, Brody writes, “the majority of recent immigrants to Israel.” What can be done to normalize their status as Jews vis-à-vis their fully Jewish Israeli compatriots?

Brody points to a longstanding debate among rabbis on “whether such individuals, given their recent Jewish lineage, might be entitled to more lenient conversion standards.” Lending plausibility to such a position in the Israeli context is the very nature of the surrounding society, which, as he says, naturally facilitates some form of nominal ritual observance (like eating kosher food and observing basic Jewish holidays). Indeed, a number of Orthodox rabbis, like himself, have been pursuing such a more lenient path, including through one organization in which he serves that concentrates on converting the minor children of consenting parents with the aim of helping to preserve “the social fabric among Jewish Israelis.”

But, conspicuously, Brody does not hold out too much hope for initiatives of this kind, whether among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union or, still less, among “the tens of millions of people who, to some degree, are aware of a very distant Jewish ancestry” or “groups claiming an unprovable historical connection with a long-lost Jewish community of the past.”

What with all of the other challenges facing both Israel and the Diaspora, Brody fears that this is one challenge to which the Jewish people may be incapable of rising. Indeed, he frankly doubts “whether the Jewish people have either the resources or the incentive” to make the necessarily vast investment that would be required to educate these aspiring Jews, “with no guarantee that doing so would result in producing a sufficiently committed number ready for conversion, aliyah, and a potentially costly integration into Israeli society.”

To my contention in Mosaic that, in fact, “encouraging the inflow of enthusiastic and committed newcomers” could simultaneously act to energize otherwise languishing Diaspora communities around the world, Brody counters with the example of the mass conversion and move to Israel of almost the entire B’nei Moshe community from Peru. Did this dramatic event, he asks, actually inspire any renewed Jewish commitments in any Western Diaspora community? The answer, he is confident, is no; for him, the only hope for preventing the majority of those Diaspora Jews from disappearing within two generations lies in a greater adoption by them of elementary Orthodox observance.

My own view is very different. For one thing, giving up on the millions of Jews who will certainly not become even notionally Orthodox is not only something I’m unwilling to do, but also something that I’m incapable of doing as one committed to the Jewish people as a whole. I know for sure that Shlomo Brody, too, has absolutely no such intention; but unless a more drastic approach is adopted, the effect will be the same.

Brody is not alone in pointing out that the vast majority of those Diaspora Jews leaving Judaism belong to non-Orthodox denominations or to no denomination. But how well are Orthodox and even ultra-Orthodox communities doing? Relatively, of course, very well, as compared with the dire state of many of their fellow Jews. But their communities’ higher birthrates, and partial success in attracting some young Jews from other movements, cannot hide the fact that they, too, are facing dereliction and defection from within. In scores of Orthodox families known to me personally in the Diaspora, a sizable number of younger members, and sometimes the majority, have left the community; those who haven’t moved to Israel have essentially joined the masses on the path to assimilation.

My own sad impression is that—to adopt Brody’s shorthand nomenclature for, respectively, religion and nation—“Torah” without “Zion” has been a failure, masked only by the even larger failure of other Diaspora choices. If 80 percent of current Diaspora Jews and their descendants are to be lost to the Jewish people in, say, two generations, are we entitled to call the 20 percent who survived a success? To the contrary, I suspect future generations would see them and their spiritual leaders as having presided over one of the biggest spiritual calamities in the history of the Jewish people.

The signs of this sad decline are everywhere, but one will suffice: regardless of the numerical strength, affluence, and security enjoyed by most Western Diaspora communities in the last three generations, and putting aside the mere going-through-the-motions factors of synagogue attendance or Sabbath and kashrut observance, their combined intellectual and spiritual output has been, to put it kindly, negligible.

Where are the giants of Torah, of Jewish philosophy, and of Jewish ideas produced by the Diaspora during the last half-century or so? After all, while Israel has had to devote strenuous efforts over many decades to the cause of sheer survival and social and economic growth, the Diaspora seemed to provide every possible convenience and opportunity for a great flourishing of Judaism. Where is the evidence of it? The great spiritual figures still (rightly) revered by Diaspora Jews are the likes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (b. 1902), Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (b. 1903), and Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel (b.1907). Compared with these, the recent decades have borne little fruit.

To try and repair this situation, we must resist the temptation to become guardians of a small walled citadel; instead, we must walk out into the open. My own belief is that now that the Jewish state exists, Jewish life in the Diaspora is sustainable only if it is centered upon and to an increasing extent reliant on that state as the expression of the Jewish nation. And that is why I believe, and stated in my essay, that the multitudes who wish to reconnect with the Jewish nation can also help revitalize the existing communities of the Diaspora.

In deprecating that contention by citing Diaspora Jewry’s non-reaction to the wholesale move of the B’nei Moshe to Israel, Brody ventures that, by contrast, “the conversion and aliyah of the basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire, a Hebrew Israelite who found his way to Judaism, has stirred greater excitement.” That may be so—for some. But many others, especially younger ones, might well be seeking the deeper kind of Jewish experience that an encounter with the new communities can offer.

In the Diaspora today, some small proportion of young Jews undertake good works for the advancement of Jewish interests. Even at its best, this endeavor, however praiseworthy in itself, is static and inward-looking; at its worst (and most popular), performed in the name of Tikkun Olam, it is an activity with zero Jewish content.

But now imagine for a moment young Jews from both Israel and the Diaspora, trained to visit new communities in Peru or India or Uganda in order to impart basic Jewish instruction and, once there, undertaking to introduce them to such things as the Hebrew alphabet, Jewish songs, Jewish history, or the Jewish traditions practiced in their own community. The life of such young men and women, indeed their understanding of what it means to be Jewish, would be transformed by the experience. Surely, as much as they would be teaching others, they would be learning at least as much about themselves and about the Judaism that is their common legacy.

In reply, then, to Brody: I believe that communities like the B’nei Moshe of Peru or the B’nei Menashe of India and many others like them can indeed inspire many Jewish individuals and communities, especially in the Diaspora, to assume greater responsibility for the future of the Jewish people than they have done in the past, and certainly in the recent past.

True, the majority of those farthest away from the center are unlikely to convert, but, with our help, they can and will move closer to us. Meanwhile, others, in far smaller numbers, will indeed become fully Jewish, and in their tens of thousands will, decade by decade, transform the face and energize and re-moralize the base of Jewish societies everywhere.

Yes, the organizational and financial issues are grave and burdensome; yes, obstacles will arise. But the benefits will vastly outweigh the costs.

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