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On Smorgasbord Judaism

On Smorgasbord Judaism

Friday, October 31st, 2008

It’s understandable that people who are concerned about the future of Jewish life tend to be passionate and emphatic when discussing intermarriage.

But often, when expressing their legitimate concern about this topic people can go over the top.

In a strident letter in the current Jewish Week in response to Julie Wiener’s controversial “In The Mix” column, a reader takes passionate exception to Julie’s assertion in a High Holy Days-themed piece that, notwithstanding her marriage to a Catholic man, she feels fully connected to Judaism and enjoyed participating in holiday services, during which she held a Torah.

The reader advises Julie that, instead of holding the Torah, she might consider “opening it up and not pick and choose her Judaism.” She concludes that Julie must acknowledge that she has “broken a major law in Judaism.”

Ostensibly Judaism is for the writer an all or nothing proposition, and she rejects what some cynically call smorgasbord Judaism.

The most recent National Jewish Population Survey, taken in 2001, found that 72 percent of American Jews light Chanukah candles, while 67 percent hold a Passover seder. Only 59 percent fast on Yom Kippur. The numbers on kashrut and Shabbat observance surely would show similar diversity. Clearly the smorgasbord is open, and popular, as the vast majority of American Jews indeed “pick and choose” the customs that appeal to them. Rarely do we see letters of concern about those who kindle the menorah but do not hide the afikomen.

I am not trying to obscure the fact that intermarriage poses a more imminent risk to a thriving Jewish future than the decline of the seder. But we do tend to pick and choose the sins about which we become indignant. One who violates the Sabbath, for example, would likely feel welcomed in most Orthodox shuls, while a person in an interfaith or homosexual union would not, despite the fact that former violates one of the Ten Commandments, while the latter two do not.

In our concern about continuity it’s important to reject the imaginary view of a one-size-fits-all Judaism, to accept that people can, and do, embrace their heritage in increasingly untraditional ways, and to abandon the view that their doing so is less valid than what we do in our own homes.

The best way to increase the level of Jewish observance and connection in America is to be the kind of Jew that sets an example for and inspires others.


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