Reflections on the JFNA (UJC) General Assembly

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I spend a good part of last week in Washington D.C. at the Jewish Federations of North American (formerly the United Jewish Communities) General Assembly. This gathering of over 3000 Jews from across North America, and the world, is an amazing experience of the diversity and eclectic nature of the Jewish people.

I think that all Jews, from time to time, think that they are the “average” or “normal” type of Jew. We often forget that there are so many other types of Jews out there, and that so many of them are living very connected Jewish lives. It’s important to have experiences like these with different types of Jews in order to break that feeling of homogeneity.

I had the opportunity over the course of the program to participate in a session run by and for a group of young and passion Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. I was sitting at a table with an active and involved Jewish atheist, two representatives from Keshet (working towards the full inclusion of LGBT Jews in Jewish life) and other types of Jews I rarely have the honor to connect with. As one of the few Orthodox Jews in the room, I was as unique as everyone else – I felt a strong sense of achdut in that moment of plurality.

There is often a misnomer in the Orthodox community that we are the only keepers of the Torah, and that the other denominations mostly consist of lazy or apathetic Jews. In reality, there are so many passionate and educated Jews out there in the world that we are simply ignorant about. We need to break out of our shell, and appreciate the diversity and richness of the Jewish people today.

As a kehilla we need to continue to strive for more of these experiences that bring us together as Jews. We will all benefit from knowing more about eachother, learning from one another, and bonding closer together in our peoplehood.

I look forward to building upon my GA experience at Limmud NY 2010 – will I see you there?

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11 thoughts on “Reflections on the JFNA (UJC) General Assembly

  1. Shocked

    I only pray that few people actually read this blog out of fear that others might actually think there is any truth in any of your posts.

    The bottom line is being connected to Judaism is 100% dependant on following the Torah. Anything else is just dishonest. I don’t see how you could logically separate the two, for if the Torah is the source of all Jewish practice, how can a person accept some, but not all, of it.

    That being said, it’s clear that athiest, LGBT and these other types of Jews are Jewish by birth and obviously you are connected and love them as much as a Jew should love his fellow Jew (as perscribed in the Torah…), they are not practicing Judaism. Though they feel ‘connected’ to Judaism, they are actually just connected to their own practices that they’ve invented.

    It’s one thing to be an imperfect Jew – as long as you recognize this and are working toward dealing with it. We all are imperfect, and God understands (actually designed it like) this.

    However, to accept your imperfections as the norm – to institutionalize these non-Torah values and practices is no longer Judaism, it’s a man made religion.

    I understand that you feel good when you meet these types of people, and they are Jewish just like I, but in no way do we both practice the same religion, and in no way do they have a Jewish identity.

    I’m sorry to say.

  2. Aaron

    I find it fascinating how confident people are in disagreeing with me on this blog, but I’m the only person willing to put my name after my comments. Why are you ashamed to write this comment?

    I struggle with whether or not to approve such hateful and ignorant remarks (for the record, I have so far approved all non-spam comments), but I believe that somehow in your internal logic, you only mean well.

    Orthodox Jews do not have, nor deserve to have, a monopoly on Judaism. It’s greater than any of us, and if you think that today’s manifestation of orthodox Judaism isn’t “man-made,” you might want to take a Jewish history lesson.

    -Aaron

  3. chaim

    While it’s nice to interact with Jews of other streams of Judaism, to think that what they practice is in any way a true heir to the 5,000 year history of Judaism and the Jewish people is ignorant. That does not mean Orthodox Jews should demean or treat Jews of other streams any differently, but we cannot pretend as if we are all practicing the same religion. A Jew who believes and institutionalizes ideas that go against the very essence of Judaism does not, in my mind, practice the same religion as I do. This does not make me a better Jew then them. God judges us all, and the fact that a Reform Jew may drive to shul every shabbos does not make him any less of a Jew then me. However, we cannot pretend as if we accept the skewed version of Judaism that they practice. We can love them as fellow Jews, but a line must be drawn between recognizing them as Jews and recognizing the religion they practice as Judaism. If this post is ignorant or hateful I am sorry but maybe it is due to my lack of knowledge but I do not see how a ideology that does not recognize the divinity of the Torah or the binding nature of all of Halacha can be said to be a true representation of what the Torah requires of every Jew.

  4. Josht

    “in no way do we both practice the same religion, and in no way do they have a Jewish identity.”

    “to think that what they practice is in any way a true heir to the 5,000 year history of Judaism and the Jewish people is ignorant.”

    The above comments are a true testament to the successes of Orthodoxy in forging a sense of community and ideology that convinces its adherents of complete continuity and immutability over the course of millenia. Judaism has never been immune to historical change, and to call for an “essence” of Judaism may also be a distortion of a halakhic system that is marvelous in its flexibility. To criticize other denominations of Judaism for their man-made quality is to tread on dangerous ground, for rabbinic Judaism prides itself on the power of the Hakhamim to set law (see, for example, the “tanur shel akhnai” story– “lo bashamayim hi”– in the Talmud). Where Orthodox Jews and their correligionists differ often lies strictly in the arena as to who has the authority to be the makers and changers of tradition (itself a matter of evolving debate not merely over millenia but over the past century and a half), not the evolutionary nature of Judaism and the participatory hand of humans in its sculpting. To say that we are not actors in the same religion is a far cry from the reality.

  5. Jonah Richardson

    Dear Aaron,
    I think that if you put aside the great contempt that you have for traditional Judaism and look at it through the open and enlightened prism in which you view other denominations, you would be so happier.

  6. Aaron

    Hi Jonah,

    I hope that if you read through my posts you would really that I have a great love and appreciate for what you call “traditional Judiasm.” I love the synagogue I’m a part of, I love the connection with my Jewish past, and I get excited about my family’s Jewish future.

    I love it so much that my main desire is to help make that Traditional community even better. I think we need to be more inclusive of other Jews, and need to provide more opportunities for Jews who want to connect deeper to do so.

    I think when we are able to move more in that direction, I’ll be happier.

  7. Jonah Richardson

    Hey Aaron,
    I have read your posts and I must say that what you espouse is very far from traditional Judaism. I don’t want to ruminate on specifics (the supposed man-made commonality of Orthodox Judaism with the other denominations, your various vagaries concerning the acceptance of homosexuals , and your Orthodox bashing line about forgiving philanthropic sinners) so I’ll address one issue: the absolute lack of rabbinic figures who support your ideas about traditional Judaism. I suggest you ask your rebbeim (even ask someone of Rav Y.H. Henkin, shlita’s ilk) and you will find that none support you. So why should I care about what you say?

  8. Aaron

    Frankly, I am also curious why so many people who disagree with me care what I say.

    The only answer I can come up with is that as upsetting some things I write are to you, you recognize that I am not attacking anything that represents the essence of traditional Judaism. I am working hard to progress the Orthodox community beyond some of the outdated standards which took hold over the centuries.

    I also think that while you may be upset by some of the things I say, it is hard to say that I am telling untruths. It may be hard to stomach what I’m writing, and I understand that. Nonetheless, I think it’s important for these things to be said and discussed in OUR community.

    I am happy that I attract people to this blog that have a hard time reading what I write. I think it’s important for us to have a dialogue, and I appreciate your comments to this blog. I hope that these issues spread beyond the confines of wordpress, and are debated and dissected at our Shabbat tables for years to come.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Aaron

  9. Josht

    I follow this blog from time to time, and have commented once before, but I am particularly curious about the nature of the responses to this posting that accuse Aaron of “non-traditionalism.”

    I have several questions for his readers:

    To those who ask “why should I care?”– In a democratic medium like the internet, this is really only a question you can answer for yourself. No one is obligating anyone to read this.

    That said, I do admire the people who read this blog and are interested in dialogue. To those people, or to others who proclaim the unorthodoxy of this blog, I echo your words: why do you care?

    If Aaron’s ideas are non-traditional, what is the danger? Just as you are asking the author of the post to justify why you should care, I would challenge commenters to make a similar effort in justifying their stances. To say, “this is not traditional” or “rabbis do not agree with this” is to state an observation of the current state of certain religious or ideational categories (as you perceive them), but not to explain the value of such categories. If ideas are good, why should they not merit thoughtful consideration?

    No one is forcing anyone to read the words here. If you do choose to engage with them, perhaps suggest some more meaningful replies than simply noting that these views are not popular.

  10. Are You Serious

    Judaism is actually quite simple. In fact, there is really one rule:

    Follow the Torah according to how it was intended to be understood.

    That’s it.

    So to say that Orthodox Judaism needs to modernize is backword; rather, we must make sure our modern practices are in line with how the Torah was intended to be understood.

    With this view, everything becomes clear. As Aaron says, Orthodox Judaism today looks different than it did generations ago, but these differences have been carefully weighed by Torah scholars to ensure that they do not infringe on the original understanding of Torah. So people might dress differently, or wait a greater or fewer number of hours between dairy and meat, but it is all in the effort of achieving true Torah understanding.

    The Reform and Conservative movements, however, have institutionalized practices that can in no way be incorporated into an honest reading of the Torah, according to its original intent. The Torah says that being a homosexual is a Toevah. The end. The Torah clearly deals harshly with one who profanes the Shabbos in public, therefore driving on Shabbos is out. Period.

    Again, I’m not saying that it isn’t sad and difficult when an Orthodox person is gay; its often heartwrenching to hear their sad story. And I cannot judge their horrible predicament. However, their attitude must be that this is non allowed, even if it is difficult to overcome.

    Its acceptable to sin, its unacceptable to ignore the sin.

  11. It seems that there have been no post to this conversation in 17 months+/-, but I would like to try to add two cents worth(my opinion).

    An important definition first. Torah = 1) The writings between the two sticks in the ARK in most shuls. 2) The Writings of Moses. 3) The First Five Books of the Tanach.

    I did that clarify what the Torah means to me when I say it. AS opposed to other means, one which says that Torah includes all of the teachings; Written, Oral, the Commentaries and Midrash…

    As a basis for a religion and religious groups Judaism does not agree on what are the things we are required to perform and the source of those requirements.

    There are many more difficult issues which I have found in being a Jew. Such as: If you are going to a place of worship, you might expect to be morally up lifted. Maybe you are looking for understanding in what G-D wants us to do. Then again, you could just be seek clarification on the weekly Torah portion. My point is that One goes to the House of G-D to find G-D. Which I have not found, and I suspect many others have not found as the statics show that we are losing Jews on an increasing frequency. Why? Why does it seem that this is about personal power; personal glory; personal profit; I don’t know why the leaders are not leading to G-D and instead are leading away. So people leave in droves. Personally, it tears my heart out, that the chosen people which are still on this earth do not accept G-D and really only a few laws. The Covenant at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20-24) is a contract of the basic requirements every Child of Israel is to perform. It is a contract and it is Written so that everyone can read and understand it.

    So that was some of the religious problems, just a couple really. We are something more than that though, I do not mean a State as in the State of Israel. No, we are family. At least from the tribes of Judah and Levy, the major part of the Southern Kingdom after King Solomon’s failures(an interesting King).

    O.k., we also have food, clothing, dress, deeds, permissions and instructions from every possible religious leader, but where are they leading us. We should think about all of this and then search out G-D for yourself. It is your soul and that of your family, then that of the community, country and the Children of Israel.

    This is not suppose to be difficult for us to do, knowing the rules to follow and how to follow. This particular set of events has been happening mostly since before Jericho fell at the sound raised by the Children of Israel and by G-D’s Will. When we finally get it right, there will never be another Progrom, nor a Holocaust. Then we really will be a Nation of Priest unto the Lord. But first, Deuteronomy 30:10 must be completed. Come on yo can look it up, its not hard and you can even do it online.

    My Name is Yaakov, James Jeffries and I am a Jew BY Choice.
    http://truthintorah.blogspot.com

    You see, I gave my name. I take a stand for the G-D of Israel.
    How about you? What are you doing?

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