This month’s issue addresses cultural diversity—a term we have all become very familiar with in this era of social awareness. But what about Jewish diversity, and how tolerant are we of that? Several years ago, I was representing a Reconstructionist congregation at the Israeli Fair, when someone approached me and said, “Oh, you’re the ones who don’t believe in G-d.” This was not a question; it was an assumption. He further declared that Orthodoxy was the only true and valid Judaism. (I must add here, that not everyone who considers him/herself halachically observant expresses that sentiment. Point of fact, Dr. Tamar Frankiel, a traditionally observant Jew is the first woman President of the trans-denominational seminary I attend.)
Traditionally, though, Orthodox Judaism has held that both Conservative and Reform Judaism have made major and unjustifiable breaks with historic Judaism. While it does not recognize Reform and Conservative as valid expressions of Judaism, it does recognize Jews affiliated with these movements as full-fledged Jews–well, aside from those whose Judaism is of patrilineal descent and/or were converted under Conservative or Reform auspices.
However, that is changing even within some areas of the Orthodoxy. According to Dr. Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College in New York, a large number of Jews prefer to identify themselves as “post-denominational” or non-denominational. They are tired of being boxed into these categories. The overwhelming majority of people don’t even know what they mean. Instead, they are yearning for a real connection that has real life application.
Rabbi Mendel Teldon, who received smicha from Chabad, is from Long Island, New York, and who would be considered “Orthodox” wrote in the Jewish Week the following: “I am not Orthodox since there is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew just as there is no such thing as a Reform Jew or Conservative Jew.” He asserts that there are levels of halachic (Jewish Law) observance, and that “…these terms are artificial lines dividing Jews into classes and sub-classes. The most important thing about us all,” he adds, “is that we share one and the same Torah….” But we share a cultural and historical heritage as well.
Some might accept these labels for a number of reasons: social, financial, communal, political or even emotional. But they are all just labels. They don’t define us as a people, and they won’t help us plan for our future. Most significantly, they don’t explain what it is that has kept us alive and strong for three and half millennia. “These labels are more about tearing us apart than furthering Judaism.”
In his book, “A Jewish Code of Ethics,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin claims in the very first line: “This book has a simple thesis: G-d’s central demand of human beings is to act ethically.” If that is, as I believe, one of the essential pillars of our tradition, then it certainly suggests we treat and view our fellow Jews with the same respect we seek from others; whatever synagogue we do or don’t pray at; wherever we were born; whatever our lineage; and however halachic our practice might be. We are all Jews!
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.