When I was growing up, my mom subscribed to Ladies Home Journal, and I used to find it around the house and sometimes read with curiosity a regular feature called “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (I later learned it was considered the best-known column in any American magazine at the time.)
The format called for husband and wife to separately summarize a problem in their marriage — the levels of seriousness varying from month to month — followed by a response from a counselor who offered advice (which seemed to usually put the onus on the wife to make things better).
The distant memory came back to me, and especially that phrase, “Can this marriage be saved?” in thinking about the increasingly worrisome ruptures within our Jewish community — religious, political and in other ways — and between American Jews and Israel as we enter a new year.
And I wonder: Can our Jewish community be saved?
Further, can we still think of ourselves as one community, one people, and if so, what is it that continues to bind us today when we differ so sharply on every issue? Is Sholom Rubashkin, freed by President Trump after eight years in prison for bribery and fraud in his kosher meat business, an embarrassment or a hero; should interfaith marriages be lamented or embraced; should Israeli policy toward the Palestinians ease up or get tougher; and how do we even define who is a Jew?
The problems aren’t new, but the divides are getting worse of late, in part because of the impact of the powerful and polarizing leaders of the two countries that are home to 85 percent of world Jewry: Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. (France is a distant third in Jewish population, with 3 percent of the world’s Jews.)
The president and the prime minister appeal to a specific segment of the Jewish community, generally those on the political and religious right who value the two leaders’ us-against-the-world approach that makes the majority of the world’s Jews anxious and uncomfortable.
So, for example, when Trump and Netanyahu are seen standing arm in arm, smiling together — and Israel’s transportation minister wants to build a train station in the Old City and name it after the president — supporters take pride and praise the U.S. leader for identifying strongly with the Jewish state, while critics argue that associating closely with Trump alienates many and is ultimately self-defeating.
From Discourse To Disdain
Closer to home, there was an emotional and a telling debate this past year over how to respond to the new normal of interfaith marriage, which is now the reality in almost three-quarters of weddings outside of the Orthodox community. The Orthodox prohibit it, the Reform have made peace with it, so it played out this year among Conservative rabbis torn between maintaining halachic tradition and responding to congregants’ requests to take an active religious role at the marriage of their children. The alternative — to decline — risked potentially alienating the couple permanently.
Exacerbating the problem is a cultural and political shift in which we no longer debate those with whom we disagree. Rather, we seek to marginalize and even demonize them.
There has been a healthy, important and respectful dispute among serious colleagues about which approach ultimately is best for the future survival of the Jewish community. But it should be noted that one of the reasons why surveys show increasing numbers of younger American Jews expressing less attachment to religious observance, fewer communal affiliations and softer support for Israel is because the composition of our community is “thinner” Jewishly. For example, it has been reported that more than half of students on campus who affiliate with Hillel have a parent not born Jewish.
Exacerbating the problem is a cultural and political shift in which we no longer debate those with whom we disagree. Rather, we seek to marginalize and even demonize them. President Trump personifies this change in attitude as the first resident of the White House in memory who sets out to divide the country rather than unite it, playing to his base of about 35 percent of the electorate rather than making an effort to broaden his appeal. Sadly, this toxic move from discourse to disdain is evident in the Jewish community as well.
We seem to spend more time and energy calling each other out than making the effort to sustain and strengthen our frayed ties. Critics of Israeli policy are labeled “self-hating Jews” and defenders of Trump or Netanyahu are derided as drifting toward fascism. In some cases, Orthodox leaders, particularly in Israel, insist Reform Jews are inauthentic; liberal Jews express contempt for their Orthodox co-religionists as fanatics. We’ve dispensed with context and nuance; we don’t try to understand the other side. In too many conversations, we don’t listen, we just wait for our turn.
The question is whether, going forward, we Jews even care about exploring what binds us.
But there is hope in the efforts of caring Jews who recognize the urgency of the problem and seek to promote what Rabbi Melissa Weintraub of Resetting the Table calls “sacred disagreement.” Mediating Arab-Israel and intra-Jewish disputes, she and her colleagues convene programs in communities that encourage stakeholders to hear each other out on the road to arriving at delicate decisions. In Israel, The Gesher Foundation has been working to bridge the religious-secular divide for more than four decades. Those are just two examples of the many groups doing God’s work here and in Israel.
At year’s end, I was inspired by attending the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, England, along with 2,700 other Jews from 37 countries. We were as diverse a group as one could imagine in age, observance, culture and political views. But what brought us together, as I tried to describe in last week’s column, was a kinship of caring about Jews and Jewish life — our holy texts, our modern-day dilemmas and everything in between. More than DNA and history, we shared a core belief in one of Judaism’s great gifts to the world: that each of us is created in God’s image, which should lead to respect and compassion for others, starting with our brothers and sisters.
I can only hope that 2017 was a nadir for our society and that the new year will be one of rebuilding broken relationships before it’s too late.