The Inheritance of Jacob: A Rejoinder

I thank Tal Keinan for his calm, collegial response to my review of his book, God Is in the Crowd. I will try to respond in the same equable spirit, but, as our founding rabbis understood, sometimes what is called for is an argument. So, let me also try to sharpen our differences.

I had argued that while Keinan got the problems facing contemporary Jewry in Israel and the diaspora roughly right, his idea that Judaism can be conserved, developed, and passed on by, in some sense, crowdsourcing it was radically misguided. Keinan’s conception is a little like a high-tech version of Solomon Schechter’s idea of the authority of the practices of “Catholic Israel,” from a century ago:

The norm, as well as the sanction in Judaism, is the practice actually in vogue. Its consecration is the consecration of general use—or, in other words, of Catholic Israel.

But Schechter not only presupposed a largely observant community of Jews who would make up “Catholic Israel,” but also that their “collective conscience” was still embodied in the tradition “with its long continuous cry after God for more than twenty-three centuries,” from the “prophets, scholars and scribes” to the “martyrs, sages, philosophers, scholars and mystics,” who still had a say. Schechter never quite resolved the tension between the demands of tradition and the facts of contemporary practice, and, to say the least, neither has the movement of Conservative Judaism which he helped to found. But he precisely did not think that God was in the crowd. God was in heaven, His will was embodied in tradition, and the Jewish crowd was obliged to enact that will in keeping with its present historical circumstances. For Keinan, at least in the less convincing parts of his book, there is just the crowd.

Solomon Schechter.

He is quite right, then, to characterize my central criticism by quoting the question I asked toward the end of my review “How exactly does one teach one’s children ‘constantly evolving Crowd Wisdom’ and why?” But then Keinan does something interesting and unexpected. Instead of defending his application of “the wisdom of the crowd” to the problem of Jewish continuity, he shifts our discussion to the experience of Jewish converts and their families. I take it that he does so for at least three reasons:

  1. Conversion provides a model of a mature, critical commitment to Judaism, which, at least anecdotally, may generate more staying power than the less self-conscious identity of the ordinary American Jew.
  2. Conversion is near the center of tensions in the Israeli-diaspora relationship, in which Israeli power politics, American liberal culture, and the demands of halakha are all at odds.
  3. At least theoretically, conversion provides clear criteria for what it means to be a Jew.

Both of Keinan’s anecdotes resonate with me and tally with the experiences of my own family. As a famous midrash says when the Torah is called “an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut. 33:4), it includes anyone who joins with Jacob’s people: “the converts who devote themselves to Torah are equivalent to the high priest.” Which brings us to Keinan’s argument for a reconstituted central authority for Judaism. Keinan wants neither a high priest nor a Chief Rabbinate, but he does argue for the indispensability of a central Jewish authority that can promulgate universal standards.

The fact that there is a universal definition [of conversion as enforced by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate] that carries moral, and even legal, significance for Jews everywhere provides an important governance tool for 21st-century Judaism, but the defining mechanism itself is fracturing Judaism. Our unprecedented agency affords us the opportunity to redesign that mechanism.

Keinan and I agree that the Jewish people would be better without the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, a relic of Ottoman and British rule which has been coopted by Machiavellians and ideologues who feather their own nests while waging cultural war on their fellow Jews in Israel and America. And we agree, more or less, that this is “fracturing Judaism.”

I say “more or less” because Judaism is already fractured, and though the Rabbinate’s monopoly over questions of personal status exacerbates the problem, no one—short of the Messiah—will put us back together again. The answer, contra Keinan, is not to come up with an alternative to the Rabbinate (he proposes that the Israeli presidency be expanded to world Jewry) and a nonhalakhic “universal definition” of Judaism that is “compelling to a critical mass of Jews.” That will lead to precisely the kind of watered-down “de facto pillars of contemporary Jewish identity,” that appear at the end of God Is in the Crowd. Believing in the importance of justice, education, tradition and ritual, the value of dissent, and community will not bring anyone into the inheritance of Jacob. The converts Keinan rightly admires filled those general categories with very particular content and committed to much, much more than that besides. I do not know how to engender or replicate such commitment, except to note that it is inspired by particular Jewish texts, individuals, relationships, and communities, not by top-down definitions derived by plebiscite.

In closing, Keinan writes that “We must put forward our own solutions if we believe in Judaism’s value, to Jews and to the world. None of these solutions will be perfect, but an imperfect plan is better than no plan.” I am less sure than Keinan that there must be, or could be, a single plan or solution, but, as he says, we agree on the problems, and his book has sketched them compellingly for a broad readership. That’s a good start.

Abraham Socher’s original review of God Is in the Crowd can be read here.

Tal Keinan’s response to the review can be read here.

Comments

  1. Alan Carpien

    All today’s Jewish leaders say there must be a “plan!” Yet, the Talmud, both of them, had no plan, nor did the midrashim that followed. I have always objected to those who say Judaism is a “conversation.” In the end, maybe, that is all we have. As Mordechai said, “Who knows.”

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