« Movie Report: The Amateurs | Main | Cut it the fuck out »

YHB: Threat or menace?

Well, and seriously, Your Humble Blogger is not interested in the Something foolish someone wrote in a column in the Jewish Daily Forward beat. That would have to be a team effort, anyway, a team of particularly patient, strong-stomached men and women, with a sense of the long arc of history. Restricting itself to its own issues, the Interfaith Family Blog can’t quite keep up. Even the Is this פארווערטס article serious or satire? beat would be pretty grueling.

I, however, find myself wanting to point out to Gentle Readers all the column by Yoel Finkelman called Why Intermarriage Poses Threat to Jewish Life—But Gay Marriage Doesn’t. The headline is more Ferverts than Finkelman, I’m guessing, as when the writer says A Jewish same-sex family can provide a boon for the Jewish community, while an interfaith couple presents a threat, or at least a challenge. he… sorta… tempers? Yeah, he tempers the language of threat. He leaves open the possibility, let me say, that an intermarried couple might not pose a threat, which is different than explaining the threat that the intermarried couple poses. Which, of course, he doesn’t do, because we aren’t letting him in on the secret plan, ha ha.

Most of the so-called argument is just the same business of saying that synagogues should exclude interfaith couples until they start bringing their kids up in synagogues—until the people we lock out start doing some work around here, why should we let them in? And there’s also a lovely blithe assumption that the LGBT community would not require much outreach or other serious application to include; they have at least some middle-class suburban domestic values, after all. It’s not like we’d have to include working-class or urban riff-raff in our nice clean shul. No, it’s just those nice gay couples, we don’t have to make any accommodations for them. Jewish same-sex couples with children are low-hanging fruit whilst interfaith couples are just so much work.

Digression: I can’t help it. Hehehehehe he said fruit. End Digression.

But the great part of the article, I have to say, the reason I can’t just let it go the way I ought, is that Mr. Finkelman completely gives up on the moral claim against either interfaith or same-sex marriage. He writes that At one level, same-sex marriage and intermarriage present the same problem. What problem is that? The problem that it’s impossible to justify moral outrage against them; that the only possible justification for excluding them is blind traditionalism. How dare these happy couples present the problem of making it difficult to justify their exclusion on moral grounds! All is not lost, however, as Mr. Finkelman seems to feel that while morally, there is no basis for excluding either kind of couple, we should continue to discriminate against interfaith couples because inclusion in their case while morally correct would just be too damn much work.

Was it not Rabbi Tarfon who said The day is short and the work is great, and the labourers are sluggish, and frankly it’s a bit of a challenge so let’s not bother.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I hesitate to comment on this post because I do not have the cultural experience to understand fully and clearly what the issue of "intermarriage" means to those for whom it is an issue, but in the effort of furthering my understanding, I will ask this: am I correct in understanding that Mr. Finkelman is arguing that it is easier to coerce Jewish young adults of marriageable age into marrying other Jews by excluding them from the community if they don't than it is to welcome the families of intermarried Jews into the Jewish community, so therefore continuing the coercive practice of exclusion is pragmatically justified?

I might want to ask other questions about this article, but I think I had better limit myself to this one as a start.


Insofar as I can speak for Mr. Finkelman, I think you have pretty much nailed it. Well, and I suppose I would add that welcoming the families of intermarried Jews would seem to waste all those generations of effort railing against intermarriage. And, in some seriousness, my understanding is that Mr. Finkelman believes that Jews have an obligation to raise Jews, and that Jews who marry non-Jews can't/won't do that. And, to some extent, if you are within a traditionalist mindset, someone who marries outside the tribe is already providing a fundamentally bad example for the children, no? It's terribly circular, but that's how I see it.

I'd love to hear your other questions.

Thanks,
-V.


OK. Since I have understood Mr. Finkelstein on this point, I'll venture some further questions. I'll preface the question with a claim. It seems to me that you misrepresent his case slightly when you say that the only justification he offers for excluding intermarried couples is blind traditionalism. When he is analyzing the case from the standpoint of liberal individualism, he puts it that way, but he also says, "neither same-sex marriage nor intermarriage makes much sense to someone who sees marriage as deeply connected to communities and their age-old traditions." Here, he seems to be saying that marriage is about defining and perpetuating a community. Accepting intermarriage practices would redefine the community and, Mr. Finkelstein believes, would threaten its perpetuation. So it's not just traditionalism but a kind of communitarianism that is a justification for perpetuating a practice that cannot be defended morally within the framework of liberal individualism.

Insofar as Mr. Finkelstein offers no justification for prioritizing the perpetuation of this community in this manner over the happiness of the individuals who would be coerced into so perpetuating it, I might perhaps accept that this is a kind of blind traditionalism, except that he appears to promote blind traditionalism for the sake of community, rather than promoting community for the sake of tradition: community and tradition are obviously not wholly distinguishable for him, but they are not identical. It appears to me that he is not willing to put into question at all the value of perpetuating this community in a manner that replicates it with all possible exactness. So my questions are about that unwillingness. First, is my inference correct that his line of argument only makes sense if the value of perpetuating the community as exactly as possible is taken as given? Second, what are the consequences for members of a community who prioritize perpetuating the community above all else without allowing themselves to consider the value of that commitment? Or, third, does he have in fact have a strong sense of the value of this perpetuation, but that value is so much taken for granted both by himself and his intended readership (and I am certainly not his intended reader) that it goes without saying? If so, what are those values? Only by stating those values explicitly could Mr. Finkelstein make his case, as articulated here, seem more than an appeal to blind traditionalism, but he doesn't see the need. Is that because he thinks his readers already know exactly what those values are, or because he doesn't recognize that his argument isn't actually morally coherent as he has stated it?


I think you are on to something here. But before I get too deep into it, I want to say that there is a good deal of middle ground between ‘perpetuating the community as exactly as possible’ and ‘keeping the synagogues solvent’ that I don’t think Mr. Finkelstein really sees. And there’s important background: Mr. Finkelman like a lot of us (particularly men) born after the Shoah and the founding of the Israel state was probably told explicitly that if our generation intermarried, there would be no Jews at all in a hundred years and that Hitler would have won. We grew up with intermarriage presented as an actual existential threat, in the shadow of genocide. That helped us to believe things that I now believe are totally crazy.

First, is my inference correct that his line of argument only makes sense if the value of perpetuating the community as exactly as possible is taken as given? I think so. Or at least, I think that it is taken as a given, by the writer and by many of the readers.

Second, what are the consequences for members of a community who prioritize perpetuating the community above all else without allowing themselves to consider the value of that commitment? Not to mention that change is inevitable, and that the way communities convince themselves that they are succeeding at the goal is to believe untruths about the past—we have always worn black hats (or whatever). But yes, the consequences include blindness to the costs, and of course excluding those who actually pay those costs, so the community need not be reminded of them.

Or, third, does he have in fact have a strong sense of the value of this perpetuation, but that value is so much taken for granted both by himself and his intended readership (and I am certainly not his intended reader) that it goes without saying? Yes. Yes, it does go without saying, but going-without-saying is part of not allowing themselves to consider the value.

If so, what are those values? The rabbis have said that the entire world was created so that Jews could study Torah. I think that (at least in some sense) the value of perpetuating the Tribe is a Divine Commandment. From there, it’s a matter of interpretation: what does it mean to raise Jewish children? What does it mean for one generation to raise another generation of Jews? How important is kashrut, or Yiddish, or Hebrew, or bagels, or black hats, or candles on Friday nights?

I have told this Elie Wiesel story before, but I will tell it again: A few years ago, on a street in Brooklyn, Elie Wiesel met an old friend from their Carpathian childhood before the Nazis came. The friend is dressed and groomed like their fathers and their fathers’ fathers: the coat and hat, the payess, the beard, the fringes. Mr. Wiesel (who still, by the way, calls himself a Hasid) is beardless, in a modern suit. He asks his friend, has nothing changed, then? His friend replies “How can the Torah change?”

I believe that everything changes—that not only does the Divine speak to men (through Scripture) in the language of men, but to men of different times in their times. But for Mr. Wiesel’s friend… not so much.

Thanks,
-V.


Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.