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There Is No Simple Definition Of Jewish Values


Judaism And Universalism

I absolutely abhor when someone who has never been a liberal religious Jew tells me who I am and what motivates me. The huge amount of time that people expend on haphazardly analyzing someone they have never had the inclination to really understand reeks of patronizing arrogance. As a result of various misconceptions, I often hear from skeptics that I cannot be both religious and liberal. Ironically, the only reason why the two value systems might seem mutually exclusive is because some of these skeptics made it so. They set the two worldviews in opposition, creating unfortunate false dichotomies that alienate people like me from the rest of the community. I am then told that the reason I feel alienated is my own fault. Apparently, I should have taken a closer look at the Jewish Bible and realized that I have to choose between equality and religion.

In the past, I have spoken extensively about how some forms of intersectionality do not include the Jews. To summarize my feelings, I would say that, for years, many liberals have ignored Jewish complaints about how Nazism and fascism are on the rise throughout the world. Some of the comparisons made between contemporary ideologies and Nazism were definitely unfair and misleading. Other comparisons were actually reasonable. No matter what, most people in the United States, especially those on the left side of the political spectrum, disregarded our fears. I cannot speak for people in the rest of the world, but my feeling is that Jewish voices have been dismissed in European countries as well. Even when Nazism in the United States was thrust into the public eye after the 2016 election, Jews were still somewhat left out of the conversation about the experiences of those deeply impacted by white supremacy. Instead, the liberal left allowed other minority voices to take the spotlight because, for reasons related to both conscious and unconscious anti-Semitism, oppression against Jews is seen as a thing of the past. While I do recognize that all minorities need to speak up, I think the far left has been dismissing the Jews a little too much, which is definitely disappointing to me. Hopefully, with the recent attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, left wing Jewish voices will soon no longer be dismissed.

Unfortunately, I am also being dismissed by religious Jews because of my liberal values. Outspoken religious Trump gadflies often rail against Jews who emphasize moral responsibility, calling us inauthentic and disloyal. During these wrenching times, I have witnessed the damage wreaked by demagogues who command the pulpit in large synagogues. I am especially disheartened by the poisoning of younger congregation members. It pains me to watch children squirm in disgust at the mention of gay marriage or crossdressing. I know that it is not difficult to get children to be accepting. It just takes a little bit of healthy exposure. The innocent children who will never know the hardships of what it is like to be queer in a religious community may one day inadvertently play a role in a suicide attempt made by a gay or transgender peer. I hate to put it so blatantly, but the reality is that queer individuals are at an extremely high risk of suicide. Studies show that simple gestures of acceptance can result in dramatic decreases in this risk. People can argue that being queer is a mental illness all they want, but the science clearly shows that the mental illnesses result from homophobia or transphobia and not from the homosexuality or transgenderism itself.

Transphobia and homophobia are not the only problems in my religious community. Sexism and Islamophobia have been prevalent for years. Recently, I have also witnessed a huge spike in overt racism because people seem to be manipulated by the hate that Trump incites. Of course, plenty of religious Jews are compassionate people, but the most compassionate Jews can still fall into political traps that cause them to be intolerant in the name of preserving the Jewish people. To me, it is imperative that I find a way to appeal to their compassion by reminding them that righteousness, justice, and peace are values that religious Jews espouse and promote. These values can stand at the very center of what it means to be a Jew without shaking the foundations of our faith. Unfortunately, my constant protest against certain forms of hate often falls on deaf ears because many respected religious Jewish leaders disagree with me.

In a recent diatribe, one particularly frustrating Rabbi in my community touted a quintessentially and commonly held distorted picture of liberal Judaism that confuses parochial behaviors for parochial values and responsibilities. He wrote that liberal Jews are putting Judaism second to universalism. He also added that liberal Jews specifically avoid preaching and supporting any Jewish values because, apparently, for Jews like me, Judaism is neither valid nor valued as a religion. Rather, according to this Rabbi, we see Judaism as an innocuous ethnicity that can never contradict universalism.

This tirade fails to acknowledge that various universalist values fit nicely within a religious Jewish framework. Universalism is replete in our source texts, etched in our historical psyche, and central to our current religious mission. For example, in the Jewish Bible, we see instances of when our forefathers felt obligated to help others. Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom, the Children of Israel wept for the Egyptians who died after the splitting of the Red Sea, and Jonah was expected to help the people of Nineveh. Anyone who believes that Jewish tradition does not promote any universalist values must then contend with the notion that Jewish values are not uniform because there is no denying the existence of universalism in the Jewish Bible. If Jewish values are not uniform, then you cannot accuse liberal Jews of prioritizing secularism above Jewish tradition. Instead, you have to accept that liberal Jews have a different definition of Jewish tradition.

I personally believe that Judaism evolved from a structured ethnoreligious enclave to a destiny centered universalist nationality whose purpose is to spread righteousness. This outlook on Jewish values is in line with what Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in some of his books. Rabbi Soloveitchik was a highly regarded modern orthodox Rabbi who shaped American modern orthodox Judaism. His opinions are still widely accepted among most modern religious Jews throughout the world. By following his guidelines, I do not put my Judaism before my universalism. Rather, the two will always go hand in hand.

Demagogues may illogically posit that those who internalize their obligation to the other as universal in scope are treating Judaism like a bland ethnicity, but I cannot tolerate this viewpoint of Jews who simply believe in moral responsibility. I am not particularly interested in defending my form of Judaism, but I think that it is unacceptable to attack it without fully knowing where I am coming from. Somehow, liberal religious Jews have been criticized by our Jewish peers and I am tired of trying to prove that my ideology has not been wrongfully polluted by ideas that are sometimes considered evil just because these ideas are arguably considered secular. In fact, in my opinion, those who expropriate exclusionary nationalism from non-Jewish political ideologies are the ones who seek to improperly diminish my religion to a selfish ethnonationality. However, I would rather not debate whose type of Judaism is worse and I have no intention of trying to get every religious Jew to agree with how Rabbi Soloveitchik interpreted Jewish nationalism. All I ask is that no one interprets my personal values without first asking about them and making a legitimate attempt to understand them.


Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on October 30, 2018:

Shalom alaikhem.