Is Judaism a club? Unity, not uniformity!

by Maskil on 13 Nov 2007

This posting was prompted by a letter to the editor published in the 2 November 2007 edition of the SA Jewish Report (p12) in which a correspondent (H Stein) compared Judaism (he considers Orthodoxy and Judaism to be synonymous with one another), saying in part:

…as a High Court judge once said: “If you wish to be a member of a club, you must follow the rules.”

This quotation is routinely trotted out whenever the issue of alternative streams of Judaism and/or Orthodoxy’s strict requirements for conversion are debated.

Leaving aside the question of whether this quote can be attributed to a mythical un-named High Court judge or not, here’s why I think this analogy doesn’t work:

The members of a club (having followed protocol) are usually empowered to change the club’s rules. Mr Stein presumably believes Judaism’s rules were handed down completely intact almost 4,000 years ago, and have remained totally unchanged since then. So, not much of a club.

Most successful clubs (unless they are already oversubscribed) actively try to attract and welcome new members or member candidates, not push them away. The candidates’ motives are also usually not brought into question. Wanting to belong to a club is its own motivation. Once again, hardly an accurate description of Mr Stein’s Judaism.

Has Judaism ever been a single, monolithic club as envisaged by Mr Stein? Within documented history, I believe that Judaism was only ever one club when it was forced to be so by the outside world, wanting a “single address” for the Jewish people (usually to impose discriminatory taxes and other measures). Like to go back to those days? Let me know how that works out for you…

So, does the club analogy fit at all? Yes, if we think of Judaism as a loose federation of clubs, rather than a single monolithic or hierarchical club. This loose federation of clubs is tied together by a common history and destiny, rather than by a single rigid set of common beliefs and practices.

I would venture to suggest that very few human enterprises are ever just one club (perhaps with the exception of the Communist Party, hardly a model we should wish to emulate). Judaism is no exception.

I’m pleased to see that Mr Stein still believes that “those Jews who support Reform or Independent are still regarded as Jewish brethren”. Saying that you can’t tolerate Reform (Judaism) but love Reform Jews must be a difficult mental balancing act, something akin to saying you hate Zionism but love Israelis.

We need unity Mr Stein, not uniformity!

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