Who runs the back office for Judaism?

by Maskil on 24 Apr 2008

The SA Jewish Report (SAJR) on both 11 and 18 April 2008 carried letters concerning the introduction of a mechitza in the ohel (sanctuary) of the Jewish section of West Park Cemetery (Johannesburg’s largest cemetery). The mechitza was apparently introduced by the Chevrah Kadisha in Johannesburg, at the request of the Beth Din. The letters protested this measure and it appears that it will not be enforced at progressive funerals or where otherwise requested.

I’m not proposing to get into a discussion about the religious pedigree of the mechitza. I hold the progressive view that the mechitza no longer has a place in Jewish life or worship. Not in the synagogue, and still less at the graveside. If you’re of another opinion, my blogs will probably not be to your taste.

What I’d like to first make note of is what I refer to as the tactic of creeping Halacha. Introduce an extension or embellishment to an existing law, custom or tradition. If nobody squeals, the new measure quickly assumes the status of Halacha. If there is some resistance, back off a little, try again later. This is (presumably) acceptable within a congregation. It is not acceptable when applied to the Jewish “public domain” as a whole. Those (such as the letter writers above) who observe the phenomenon at work should continue to raise the alarm.

Secondly, and the main reason for this posting, is the issue of how Jewish social and religious “services” (such as burials) are being provided and who is providing them.

For as long as anyone can remember, the ABO (anything but Orthodoxy) end of the Jewish spectrum has relied on Orthodoxy to provide these services. The non-Orthodox streams of Judaism were only too glad to leave the supervision of Kosher kitchens, etc., up to Orthodoxy. The services would be paid for by Jewish public funds, to which secular, traditional and progressive households contributed (probably more than) their fair share. Of late, however, we’ve started seeing the following worrying trends worldwide:

Raising the bar. Such as with the mechitza issue mentioned above, where our comfort with the level or nature of observance expected in order to utilize the services is continually being tested.

Exclusiveness. Services are increasingly being denied to the secular, members of progressive communities, the inter-married, converted, those with only one Jewish parent or who otherwise don’t meet the requirements, but are fully accepted within their own congregations or communities.

We can confidently expect both of these practices to become increasingly prevalent.

So, can we still trust Orthodoxy to continue to run the back-office for the rest of Judaism? Or, is it perhaps time for the ABO streams within Judaism worldwide to consider setting up shared parallel Jewish religious and social services, provided in a pluralistic, egalitarian and non-denominational manner or form. Perhaps it’s not the most important or urgent item on the Jewish agenda, but I believe it will start becoming more and more of a priority.

One of the first steps in setting up these shared parallel services would be to set up proxy funds. All contributions from those wishing to participate would be channeled into these proxy funds. Monies collected would be handed over to the bodies currently responsible for providing Jewish religious and social services, with conditions attached as to the market and tone of services expected. If at any stage the community wishes to go ahead with the actual shared parallel services, it would then be a simple matter to divert the proxy fund to the new “ABO” services.

A further initial step would be to define exactly what services would be provided. The list could include kosher/eco-kashrut supervision, ritual baths, charities and burial services and all other services traditionally supplied by Chevrah Kadisha societies. This could also be defined as all services provided by and to the community as a whole rather than a specific congregation.

Traditionally, we have always relied on Orthodoxy to provide the “Jewish infrastructure” for the entire community. Increasingly however, we are having to deal with a whole host of hidden and not so hidden agendas with regard to the delivery of these social and religious services. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about new ways of delivering these services in a pluralistic, egalitarian and non-denominational manner tailored to the needs of the alternative streams of Judaism.

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