Monday, October 31, 2011

The Evolving Face of Jewish Identity

The question of who is a Jew is the seminal issue of debate these days, and will likely continue to be argued in Knesset and Jewish living rooms for years to come, if not forever.

The question that often receives much less attention (at times to the point of being ignored), yet has just as profound impact on the future of the Jewish people is what makes one want to be a Jew?

Bnei Menashe synagogue - Zeeweez
In the remote mountains of northeastern India, the Bnei Menashe Jews are learning how to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors of thousands of years ago. Returning to Judaism has become intrinsically linked to the identity of the Bnei Menashe, just as it was for their ancestors when they were sent into exile by the Assyrians almost 3,000 years earlier. The political and social struggles of these “new Jewish pioneers” who want to immigrate to Israel are formidable. Yet they persevere …

On an island in the Mediterranean Sea several hours off the coast of Barcelona, Spain’s “secret Jews” fight against the impact of more than 500 years of repression. Part of the Bnei Anusim of Spain, the Xueta Jews (Chueta) also face huge challenges. Whereas previous generations hid their Jewish heritage from recognition out of fear of frequent reprisals, many of today’s Xueta Jews see that same heritage as a guide to learning how they should ethically and religiously live. They have little if any access to kosher meat and supplies, and synagogue services are provided by an out-of-town rabbi who makes frequent visits. Like the Bnei Menashe, they must “relearn” the relevance and meaning of all of the traditions their ancestors had kept alive throughout the centuries. They keep Shabbat, attend classes and observe halacha with the same dedication as would one who had grown up in Israel or in the nurturing surroundings of a North American Jewish community.
A street on the island of Mallorca - Ferlaiker

And yet, as much as one would like to say that it is religion that drives Jewish identity, recent events in Israel suggest that the motivating factors are not that succinct.

Throughout Israel, individuals have been lining up to take advantage of a recent court ruling that states that one can indeed both be secular and Israeli. Put another way: In a country where citizenship is defined by a person’s Jewish identity, one can now be considered Jewish without accepting or practicing the religion that gave him that title.

It interesting that these self-proclaimed secular Jews chose to fight for their Jewish and Israeli identities instead of renouncing them altogether. In fact, the fight to preserve their Jewishness is what ultimately made them Jews in the eyes of those around them. By standing up, by speaking out, by showing they cared, they became Jews in the eyes of those who would otherwise have discredited them.

A Bnei Menashe Jew in Israel - Rajkumar1220

The more I learn about the many disparate and distinct Jewish communities throughout the world, the more I am swayed to believe that the defining element of being a Jew is one’s chosen actions. It is also defined by halacha – that isn’t to be debated here – but it is the desire to be a part of that tribe, and how one manifests who he or she is that matters. It is what makes the person want to be a Jew that matters.

A case in point is the controversial decision by some couples in Israel to circumvent the rabbinate when they marry. To understand the significance of their actions it is important to note that this inclination cuts across all religious strata, from non-religious to Modern Orthodox, to stringently religious Jews. Halacha is still observed during the wedding, and in many cases, in their daily lives. But the participants have taken deliberate step to remove what they see as a political filter from their religious and social obligations. Again, they could have flown to Cyprus to get married; they could have moved out of Israel, or they could have been declared common law. But they chose the more difficult path of action without reneging on their personal values as Jews.

So what defines living one’s life as a Jew? The Talmud and the Torah would tell us that it is bound by 613 mitzvot. But what happens when accessibility to performing all of those mitzvot isn’t available? Put another way, does ensuring the observance of a number of important mitzvot take precedence when not all can be honoured? Does it undermine one’s desire to live as a Jew? Does commitment and conviction have anything to do with one’s identity and definition as a Jew?

A menorah in Barcelona synagogue - Ferbr1

Would a person who lives hundreds of miles from a synagogue, but has chosen that location for the care and the final wishes of a relative be less a Jew than one who lived within commuting distance of synagogue? Is helping to enrich another’s happiness and realization of a dream against challenging odds a mitzvah or misdirection from religious obligations?

Would living outside the physical surroundings of a Jewish community detract from a person’s Jewish identity, even if that life were dedicated to Jewish study and traditions? It’s worth mentioning that much of North America – as well as Israel – was founded with the help of Jewish pioneers who sowed the seeds for future Jewish communities.

What makes us want to be Jews – amid great challenges at times – says as much about who we are as what we are. It also provides proof that Jewish identity is anything but stagnant. It is a living, changing essence that can as much be found in the ideals of the Xueta Jews of Spain, as in those of 19th century North American pioneers. Who is a Jew really never was the question. How we live in conviction and compassion to others defines how people see us, and is ultimately what counts.
Bnei Menashe - Shavei Israel

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Multicultural Jew: Revenge and Forgiveness - Jewish Perspectives of t...

The Multicultural Jew: Revenge and Forgiveness - Jewish Perspectives of t...: Vancouver riots tint the skyline June 15, 2011 - Matthew Grapengieser In September, while Jews throughout the world gathered to obse...

Revenge and Forgiveness - Jewish Perspectives of the Vancouver Riot

Vancouver riots tint the skyline June 15, 2011 - Matthew Grapengieser

In September, while Jews throughout the world gathered to observe the beginning of Selichot, the Jewish call for repentance and forgiveness, a group in Vancouver, British Columbia approached the issue with an unusual angle in mind.

On the evening of September 24, 2011, the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel opened its doors to a public forum on revenge and forgiveness. A moderated panel examined whether the public responses to the riots that shook Vancouver’s downtown quarter earlier this year were ethical. A reception and Selichot service followed the two-hour discussion.

The panel was comprised of four experts: civil rights lawyer David Eby; Jewish law scholar Gregg Gardner; Jerome Henry, who was serving as Deputy Consul to the French Consulate General in Vancouver at the time of the riots; and Emmy-award-winning Journalist Peter Klein, who served as the panel’s moderator. Each provided a different understanding of the meaning of forgiveness and its place in the actions of those victimized by violence.

Selichot forum: Gregg Gardner, Jerome Henry, David Eby and Peter Klein 

In June 2011, angered by the results of the Stanley Cup Finals, sports fans trashed businesses and set cars on fire on downtown streets. The actual number of participants in the riots was considered much smaller than those who stuck around to watch or to oppose the vandalism. Still, the perceived damage to Vancouver’s image as a peaceful, inviting city prompted public outcry.

The question that several on the panel attempted to answer was not whether members of the public should have rioted, but whether their actions deserved the response they received. Would a forceful response by the city actually address the issue? Was the retaliatory behaviour of some citizens that occurred after the riot appropriate? Should more attention or less be given to finding and prosecuting the perpetrators? Jerome Henry, a French national, noted that while Canadians were dismayed at the violence, some in the international community were amazed at the attention that the event had received in local media.

“Coming from the French perspective, it was a very small event,” said Henry. “It was two cars burned. We don’t even count the cars burned every Saturday night in France.”

Peter Klein asked who could be considered to blame for the violence.

“I think a lot of people have wondered, where does the blame go? To those thousands of people who sit by silently and did not intervene? Were they to blame? This is an issue that obviously we as Jews have dealt with in our history,” he said, referring to events such as the Shoah (Holocaust) in which Jewish shops were vandalized before a crowd of silent onlookers.

The panel did not attempt to give any logical reason for the rioting, other than to acknowledge that the outcome of the game and liberal access to alcohol had helped to tip the balance that night. There was consensus that the mob behaviour was destructive and that there were innocent victims in the fray. But the issue at hand was the emotions that had taken center stage shortly after the riots, and their ramifications.

Vancouver: Notes left to itself, July 2011 - J. Lee

David Eby pointed out that a growing chorus for victims’ rights in Canada has overshadowed efforts to use rapprochement as a means for healing wounds. The yearning to see individuals “pay” for their crimes with stiff sentences and long jail time has made it difficult to implement restorative justice programs in which the convicted are rehabilitated through restitution, dialogue and education.

It also emboldened vigilantes who may have felt they were acting conscientiously in striking back against suspected perpetrators.

“(Unfortunately), … we are seeing increased desire for retaliation in the name of victims’ rights,” said Eby, who noted that suspects were later “exposed” online and threatened on local networks – including one shopkeeper who was mistakenly photographed while trying to protect his property. Community action has always been a strong part of Vancouver’s culture. But so has the respect for the innocent bystander.

Gregg Gardner discussed Jewish law as it pertains to slander. “Jewish law places a lot of emphasis on identifying the ‘ideal witness,’ the trustworthy witness, in determining what is proper and responsible testimony. A mob acting as a witness and posting its evidence on social media clearly goes against this,” he said.

With a new year before us, the question that I was left with at the end of the discussion was how the lessons of these difficult events could be applied to other areas of conflict. Were there equally difficult instances of conflict and anger in which Jews could apply forgiveness?

Before the Shofar: Debby Fenson sings during Selichot - J. Lee

Beth Israel closed the evening with a Selichot service – an appropriate measure ...


Cantor Mike Zoosman and Debby Fenson - J. Lee

Followed by the Shofar.

Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, Selichot 5772 - J. Lee