What does it mean when someone says “I don’t believe in labels, I’m just Jewish.” When a synagogue advertises itself as “Just Jewish?”
I’m putting forth the thesis that there is a meaningful difference between rhetoric and reality, between talking the talk – and walking the walk, when it comes to Jewish unity.
People who describe themselves as “Just Jewish” posit that thinking this way is more authentic and less divisive than being part of a movement (e.g. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.) Yet such terminology – while it feels good – has real-world implications that we need to address. So let’s ask: How does being “just Jewish” work in practice?
When synagogues are part of a movement they recognize each other’s legitimacy. They communally and financially support each other, with practical results across the world. When a synagogue belongs to the USCJ (Conservative), or URJ (Reform), or OU (Modern Orthodox), it is part of a real-world network of hundreds of similar synagogues. And of course such membership doesn’t at all preclude it from working with any other community.
Now, what about a synagogue that won’t join a network of synagogues and instead is”just Jewish?” What other synagogues are they cooperating with in the real world? Do they really support all Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative congregations? And do all of those congregations support them back? Of course not. In practice these “just Jewish” communities have the least amount of communal cooperation; they partner with just a handful of other places. So while their rhetoric sounds more inclusive, their actions are less inclusive.
Let’s ask another practical question: What’s the hashkafah/השקפה (religious worldview) of “Just Jewish” those who use this term? Are they what they advertise themselves to be? I’ve interacted with many – yet despite their rhetoric most of them definiately had a particular agenda and outlook
- Many turn out to be essentially Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) They view their form of Judaism as the only acceptable form, and thus the “most inclusive” because it draws Jews into, in their view, the only acceptable way of being Jewish.
They use words of love and unity, but what are the on-the-ground facts?
They do not recognize the legitimacy of most rabbis from other groups. They often don’t recognize the legitimacy of their marriages, divorces, or annulments. And they certainly don’t accept the validity of their conversions.
So in what way is this “just Jewish”?
- Many others turn out to be essentially Reform/Reconstructionist – viewing halakhah as no longer normative or binding. They view their form of Judaism as the “most inclusive” because it has the least amount of boundaries in beliefs and practices. In fact many of their teachers deny that Judaism has normative principles of faith, by any formulation.
- They use words of love and unity, but what are the on-the-ground facts?
On a positive note, they do accept the legitimacy of rabbis from other groups, and so accept the legitimacy of their marriages, divorces, annulments, and conversions. But in these communities their own lifecycle events don’t have to follow halakhah, and they aren’t part of a movement. So the result is that there are no there are no other groups which necessarily even accept their own conversions, etc., as valid to begin with. They can be a “just Jewish” community whose conversions are recognized by just a tiny fraction of the Jewish people. The intent is meant to including, but the result result can be excluding.
That’s the difference between talking-the-talk and walking-the-walk: if groups splinter apart, what does it mean when they say that they are one with us and our own community’s synagogue?
Do they recognize the legitimacy of our rabbi as an actual rabbi? When someone in our community converts to Judaism, are they accepted by other groups as a Jewish person? Can I count in a minyan in their prayer services? This is the point. Put aside rhetoric and look at actions.
Now we can see that being a part of a movement is a wonderful thing. It doesn’t mean blindly agreeing with every statement from that movement’s current leaders. It doesn’t mean breaking Jewish unity. It merely means, at the very least, recognizing each other’s legitimacy. And of course that doesn’t preclude working with anyone else as well!
What’s been historically so fantastic about the Conservative/Masorti movement is that it’s the only denomination that’s made a sustained attempt to create unity between all the branches of Judaism. Right off the bat, the Conservative movement recognizes the legitimacy of everyone within the USCJ – their marriages, divorces and conversions to Judaism. It also recognizes the legitimacy of Orthodox Judaism, and of the varied forms of Sephardic Judaism.
And the Conservative movement has worked to find common ground with non-halakhic rabbis in Reform Judaism. For instance, as long as certain halakhic requirements are met, the Conservative movement recognize their conversions to Judaism as valid (It should be noted that that this is a position agreed upon by many Reform and some Orthodox rabbis as well.)