Assimilation and nostalgia for coercion

The Chief Rabbinate has revealed its impotence in facing the critical issues of the day and will likely never consider the nature of religious coercion.

A window is pictured with the Star of David in a new synagogue in Cottbus, Germany (photo credit: REUTERS)
A window is pictured with the Star of David in a new synagogue in Cottbus, Germany
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Mordecai Kaplan, iconoclast American rabbi and one of the seminal Jewish voices of the 20th century, published a groundbreaking prayer book in 1945. He expunged any reference to God’s election of the Jewish People as chosen. This altered the traditional text of the siddur, especially in the Torah blessings. This radical rewriting of the Jewish liturgy reflected Kaplan’s belief that any idea of God choosing the Jews as a “treasured people” did not jibe with the ideals of civil equality enshrined in the American Constitution and American life. While I disagree with Kaplan’s radical theology – I truly believe Jews can make the traditional claim of being chosen, even in a modern democracy – I do condemn the response of some Jewish traditionalists to Kaplan’s work.
At a meeting at the McAlpin Hotel in New York on June 12, 1945, the Orthodox Agudat HaRabbanim excommunicated Kaplan and burned his prayer book. As extreme and hideous as this was, it could have been much worse. Had Kaplan lived 500 years earlier his punishment would have been more extreme: he would have been accused of heresy and thrown out of the Jewish community. That was the fate of Spinoza in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. But unlike Spinoza, Kaplan loved the Jewish community and Judaism. That would have made his punishment even more severe than that of the indifferent Spinoza.
Why were the rabbis who burned Kaplan’s siddur unable to dislodge him from the Jewish community? The answer to this question provides the key to the major transformation that occurred as Jews entered the modern epoch. In the late ancient and medieval worlds, Jews were autonomous and self-governing. While there certainly was interaction between Jews and the non-Jewish majority of pagans, Christians and Muslims who ruled over them, for the most part the policy was “hands off.” Except for periods of persecution and exile, Jews thrived from Spain to Babylonia. They controlled their businesses, had their own law courts, took care of the appointment of rabbis, controlled public morality, and had that weapon known as the herem, the ban.
Those Jews who violated the laws of the community – Jewish law – were punished in various ways under the ban. The ban of excommunication placed on Spinoza was an extreme form of the herem. The wealthy Jewish elite and the rabbis ran the community. As for the emperors, kings and caliphs who assured Jewish survival as an important economic force in the kingdom or caliphate, their practical benevolence was always challenged by the masses, most taught to despise Jews by their priests, ministers and imams. Jewish self-government reached its apex in Poland in the 17th century with The Council of the Four Lands, a state within a state.
Most Jews living in their self-governing communities were dedicated to their life as Jews, following law with its origin in Revelation, the reality of a short lifespan offset by immortality of the soul, and the future promise of Messianic redemption and bodily resurrection. While there are examples of Jews who left Judaism for paganism, Christianity and Islam, most Jews could not imagine not being Jews and living as converts to what they deemed as “false faiths.” Plato and Aristotle, the composing of Hebrew poetry, ethical and mystical tracts, codification of Jewish law and intense study of the Talmud provided a world that was laden with meaning and challenges for the intellectual and scholarly elite. While there were significant differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, much in common bound the Jews together as a “Halachic Nation.”
While there were opportunities for individuals to live in the Land of Israel, there was no possibility for Jews to live there in sovereignty until the great empires that controlled the Middle East eventually faded into oblivion in the 20th century. There is a long list of Jewish claimants to Messianic kingship who utterly failed their followers, leaving them disillusioned and demoralized.
Almost overnight from an historical standpoint, Jewish self-government shattered. This was especially so in Western and Central Europe with the granting of Emancipation to the Jews. Leora Batnitzky, professor of religion at Princeton University, argues persuasively in How Judaism Became a Religion (2011) that the emergence of the nation-state in the modern epoch reconfigured Judaism. As individual citizens with equal rights, the concept of the autonomous community governed by Jewish law ended and Judaism became a religion in the Protestant mold, an expression of individual conscience and faith.
There was also the issue of dual loyalty epitomized by the clarion call of Jews in Prussia that “Berlin is Our Jerusalem!” This dynamic took place much later in Eastern Europe and, indeed, it is no surprise that Zionist thinkers first emerge in what was left of the Polish kingdom after it was divided by Russia, Prussia and Austria. The majority of early Zionist thinkers were products of the Russian Pale of Settlement. This is precisely where rabbinic authority and Jewish autonomy continued, although both would eventually collapse under the weight of history. But following Prof. Batnitzky’s thesis, the idea of Judaism as a religion was foreign to those areas where a nation-state did not emerge and the Jewish collective was dominant. It was only a few steps from the concept of Jewish collectivity to a Jewish nation.
The Jewish world has changed dramatically. The autonomy of the Halachic Nation is gone. Judaism is accepted as a religion – or rejected as a religion. American Jewry is seen to be a “Diaspora” and not denizens of an “Exile.” At the same time, the State of Israel is emerging as the center of the Jewish world. The Germans and their collaborators destroyed almost all of Yiddish-speaking civilization, more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have made aliya, David Ben-Gurion’s assumption in the Status Quo agreement with Agudas Israel reveals the great man’s underestimation of the power of Jewish faith and ritual. Finally, Jewish sovereignty in Israel was accomplished without a Messiah and there is great ambiguity about the role of religion and state in Israel. A simple question has not yet been answered by Jews in Israel and America: Who is a Jew?
While many Jews conceive of Jewish life for 2,000 years in the Diaspora as a “black hole” of persecution, exile and pogroms – this is a half-truth having more to do with political ideology than the scholarly study of history – there is the opposite danger of nostalgia for the past. The coercion of the herem is no more. The right to question and express oneself should not be censored. We need not agree with each other but toleration of others is not a betrayal of the authentic self. I disagree vehemently with Spinoza and Kaplan but I can learn from them. To shut out the world, to brand other Jews as goyim – that is not even the ethos of medieval Judaism. That is fear of modernity.
We do not have to accept every modern value and there are certain values that should be rejected. We can learn from our medieval ancestors – but their certainty about life, death and God is gone. We live with ambiguity. It is a challenge. But what is the alternative? I just read Shulem Deen’s memoir about his life as a hassid in New Square and his successful but traumatic departure from a closed society that allowed no questions. It seems that the only way to recreate a community that is governed by Jewish law is to promote social and intellectual coercion. That is because there is no political and halachic coercion. This is simply a form of the ban.
If the Jewish people cannot survive without the herem, that only betrays the weakness of Judaism and Jews in the 21st century. This nostalgia for the herem is a defense mechanism. Perhaps it can only be defended in the face of an American Jewry that is losing its identity at a rapid rate. But nostalgia for a closed society is a pathetic response to the crisis of assimilation. Jews will be the New Amish. If Jews in America can only survive as Jews in isolation from the rest of society, then acculturation is a failure and American Jewry can be counted as a long but failed experiment, not a glorious Diaspora homeland to rival the Jewish state.
And back to Mordecai Kaplan. Prof. Batnitzky, analyzing the McAlpin Hotel excommunication, states that it “was only symbolic, since the orthodox rabbinate had no political or social jurisdiction over Kaplan, or anyone else... The modern Jewish world is one in which the corporate Jewish community has lost its authority over the individual Jew.” On the one hand, that prevents the Jewish leadership from coercing the Jew through Halachah – but I don’t think the herem was the reason Jews wanted to remain Jews. They were not forced to be Jews. They wanted to be. On the other hand, the loss of autonomy was painful and has lessened the status of Jewish law in public Jewish life but it paved the way for Jews to found a state in the Land of Israel and it allowed Jews to question tradition at a time when external events could no longer be ignored.
I believe that the absence of coercion has its risks but in the end freedom of thought and conviction strengthen our identity and vitality. Of course, the issue of coercion is one that is not tied to the Diaspora alone. At some point, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate must address this issue in the Jewish state. But the Chief Rabbinate has revealed its impotence in facing the critical issues of the day and will likely never consider the nature of religious coercion. This fact alone should lead to its demise.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.