Cosmopolitan universalism (often to the point of no longer regarding oneself as Jewish) and clannish separatism are the extremes. In between is a spectrum of compromises, degrees of more or less permeable participation in the polyglot world while still holding oneself to be Jewish. (It goes without saying that other people who care about such things will regard you as Jewish regardless of how you slice it, as many patriotic, Goethe-revering Germans realized too late. I am grateful to be living in the rare time and place where I can say, “That’s their problem.” I don’t take it for granted. But neither am I persuaded to say “Got the name, might as well have the game.”)
I was the cosmopolitan universalist who no longer identified as Jewish until, as I wrote on Ambivablog, I discovered that . . . nothing could be more Jewish! (Here’s the full George Steiner piece that brought that home. The link to it in the blog post leads to a paywall. And here’s the Hillel Halkin article I quote in the update.) It’s a Moebius strip; there’s no getting off it. OK.
Now, in a Sunday New York Times article about Lab/Shul, a “god-optional” mobile community/performance/ritual thingie comparable to an “emergent church,” its originator, a 44-year-old, gay rabbinical student named Amichai Lau-Lavie, again states the two poles succinctly. Here’s the one I identify with:
What matured in me is the sense that Judaism, like all religion, is not the bottom line . . . That it is a tool in our toolbox for human well-being and being helpful beings, and that there is a difference between many people who really view Judaism or religion as the end goal: In other words, keep the Sabbath or marry a Jew so the Jewish story continues. That’s of course how I grew up. I realized that that’s missing the point.
I’m not flying Delta because I’m interested in Delta. I’m flying Delta because it’s convenient or I got the miles on it. The idea is to get somewhere. I’m practicing Judaism because that’s my airline, because I was born into it and I think it’s got a deeply profound, ancient and relevant toolbox for a good life, but the end goal is a good life, not to be Jewish. To be human. To be there for myself and others. And that’s a totally different proposition.
(Except that Judaism isn’t even my airline. It’s the one I flew in on, but I fly on a variety of carriers nowadays . . . and sometimes I just flap my arms.) And here’s Lau-Lavie’s (admittedly biased and condescending) take on the other pole:
The pews are filling with people who just want some structure . . . ‘Just tell me what to do. Give me order in the chaos.’ In an age in which we have more and more privileges and choices, the allure of a system that tells you what to do and what not to do, and what to wear and what to eat, and the consequences and limits of your choices, for some mental types, is essential. I get it. It’s a suspension of disbelief in its deepest sense. I’m judgmental of it and I have a lot of respect for it.
We have both poles in my extended family, and a lot of the spectrum in between. We even all get along.