Do Jews Need God?

By Michelle Cove

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614: The HBI eZine

That’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since the Pew Research Study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” came out in 2013 showing that two-thirds of Jews polled said it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.  I remember being shocked at the statistic when I first read it, although I’m not sure why exactly. I know many Jewish people who don’t believe in God, and are perfectly comfortable with their Jewish identity. I also know some atheists, to be fair, who struggle to feel connected to our religion given all the patriarchal language in prayer books and Torah stories. In a religion inundated with stories and prayers centered around God, there seems to be so much room and space to be Jewish and not believe. What makes some Jewish atheists feel at peace while others feel at odds?

For the latest issue of 614: the HBI eZine, I asked a rabbi, a few women authors, and an artist for their viewpoints on what it is to be a Jewish atheist and what the repercussions are. All of them struck me as confident and unapologetic about their beliefs.  After all, Jews are not only allowed to have our doubts, we are encouraged to grapple and question, which is pretty unique. Says Rabbi Lev Baesh, who is featured in the issue: “You should never be asked to agree blindly or to demean your own views for others (or theirs for yours, for that matter).”

There are plenty of Jewish leaders and thinkers who worry that Judaism can’t sustain without a central belief in God. In a September-October, 2011 article in Moment, entitled, “Can There Be Judaism Without Belief in God?” Senator Joe Lieberman stated: “There can be Jews who are good people without belief in God, but ultimately Judaism cannot continue to exist without belief in God because the Jewish historical narrative depends on it.” Rabbi David Volpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California, in the same article says: “Yes, there can be Judaism without God, but only briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself. Judaism without God is running on the momentum of past generations.”

What do you think? How important is a belief in God to our religion? Can Judaism sustain without a belief in God? We hope you’ll read the issue with an open mind, grapple, and weigh in with your own thoughts.

Michelle Cove is the editor of 614: the HBI eZine

Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives: Excerpts

by Nelly Las

Nelly Las

Nelly Las

Editor’s Note: The HBI hosted Dr. Nelly Las, Helen Gartner Hammer scholar-in-residence and author of the upcoming, Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives previewed below. Dr. Las of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem researches contemporary Jewish history including Zionism, anti-Semitism, history of French Jewry, Jewish NGOs, and gender studies including women in Jewish history, Jewish women in feminist movements and analysis of contemporary Jewry through the prism of gender.

My approach is to observe what happens when today’s feminist activism and Jewish dilemmas meet and intersect against a comparative background of France and the United States. The feminist debate is thus placed in a setting which does not address women’s “voices” only but also more generally historical and contemporary aspects in Jewish identity and dilemmas.  Why look for correlations between two topics that seem so far apart? Why deviate from the focal area of feminism and pose questions about it on the slippery and complex terrain of Jewish identity? This initiative is based on both theoretical work and hands-on experiences, in the context of feminist thought as well as the Jewish search for identity. Our starting point is the principle laid down by feminists themselves: that the issue of women must be considered as it intersects with all issues in the society in which they live and develop.

….

All research has its autobiographical roots, and the choice of this particular subject is definitely a reflection of various topics of interest to me, including Jewish history and current affairs, plus the universal topic of women, with the stress on France with which I have linguistic and intellectual ties. To this mixture I must add the American and Israeli sources and situations which have fed my Jewish and feminist experiences, enabling me to juxtapose different intellectual traditions. It goes without saying that “the Jews” are not a marginal topic, one studied only out of personal interest. Just as women’s issues do not concern women alone, so Jewish issues do not concern Jews alone. The Jews have played a key role in our civilization. They have in turn been idealized, denigrated, tolerated, or condemned, all the way to the abhorrent Nazi plan to exterminate them, a plan which passes all understanding. Today, they are still very much at the heart of current affairs, at the center of philosophical, political, and media discussions, especially in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict in which, like it or not, they are caught up.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a period which was particularly harrowing for the Jews, many Jewish women were involved in general feminist movements that called for women’s rights to vote and work, as well as for world peace. At the same time, organized action to help the oppressed Jews was undertaken almost exclusively by Jewish men and women. The Jewish women involved in these struggles had to fight for their co-religionists without any outside help.

Unlike the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement, which many white women supported, female activists showed no empathy over anti-Semitism. At times, as we will see, they even joined the anti-Semitic camp. In France, during the Dreyfus affair there were both pro- and anti-Dreyfus feminists. Similarly, between the two world wars and then under the German occupation, no clear feminist line was adopted in favor of the Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. The phase of feminism on which we will focus here is the contemporary period, known as the “second wave,” which began at the end of the 1960s, some twenty years after the Nazi genocide and almost the same number of years after the establishment of the State of Israel.

This period coincides with the beginnings of increased awareness and speaking out about the Nazi period, as well as support by the left for Third World struggles, especially that of the Palestinians. A number of Jewish women who had thrown themselves enthusiastically into the feminist movement were bitterly disappointed by the indifference, lack of empathy, and sometimes hostility of their non- Jewish comrades about their fears and dilemmas. Others, including Israeli women, supported the vehement criticism of the Jewish state’s policies. Since this time, the feminist debate has included the question of Israel, the origins of Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The contemporary Jewish “voices” cited in this work highlight diverse— and even contradictory—elements that make up Jewish identity, defined as a religion, a diasporic or national culture, or a historical memory bound up with anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. One of the questions that arise when feminism is chosen as a tool for analyzing multiple-component dilemmas in Jewish identity is, inter alia, to what extent is such an approach likely to enrich reflection by giving it new perspectives? The other question concerns the positions of feminists as a whole, in respect of issues of current relevance: is it possible to identify a particular tendency which is more in keeping with feminism than another? This refers in particular to debates of ideas about current events in the domains of politics and society with regard to the Jewish world: religion, history, memory, anti-Semitism, and Zionism. It goes without saying that we must take account of pluralism and diversity in both feminism and Jewishness: expressions of identity, as well as political, intellectual and ethical engagements. Hence the range of responses will be extremely wide and varied.

Jewish Voices in Feminism: Transnational Perspectives by Nelly Las is published by the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Las received a translation award from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute to translate the book from French to English.

Highlights from “American Jewishness Today: Identity and Transmissibility in an Open World”

Editor’s Note: Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, HBI Co-director and the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life, delivered the Marshall Sklare Memorial Lecture at the annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, this year in Baltimore, MD, December 14-16.  Here are some of the highlights of her talk.

By Sylvia Barack Fishman

Sylvia Barack Fishman

Sylvia Barack Fishman with the Marshall Sklare Award

In my talk, “American Jewishness Today: Identity and Transmissibility in an Open World,” I discussed three challenges to Jewish family formation: late marriage and non-marriage; unwanted low fertility and infertility, and mixed marriage. Each of these is produced in part by the larger society’s social norms and is deeply influenced by American culture. And each of these challenges in turn has a profound effect on the transmission of Jewish culture to the next generations.

Many American Jews experience Jewishness primarily within families and friendship circles, so it is critical to understand Jewish family formation and the disruptions that have changed family format for Americans and American Jews.

On a positive note concerning the formation of Jewish families, Jewish partnership marriages are flourishing; ‘partnership marriages’ are marriages in which heterosexual or homosexual spouses share meaningful work outside the home, child rearing, and household tasks. Partnership marriages give both spouses room to grow and develop as human beings. But there are too few of these marriages and they start too late–many are initiated at an age in which it is difficult for spouses to achieve their own goals for parenthood.

The survival of the group as a self-evident goal, maintaining the society, and transmitting the culture have been values in and of themselves for historical Jewish societies, but today many younger American Jews do not share these group values. The declining centrality of the family is closely tied to the fact that Jewish identity is invested in the individual today rather than in the family or the community.

Today, many critiques of the family and theories that seemed disruptive of middle class norms and lifestyles in the 1970s have been mainstreamed and internalized by young middle class and upper middle class Jews.

Asking the questions: “Why am I Jewish, why does Jewishness matter to me, what about Jewishness matters to me?” is important not only for individuals but also for their children. Children respond to parental passion for aspects of Judaism, even if they don’t share those particular passions.

I concluded with a challenge: American Jewry today faces a crisis regarding the transmission of Jewish culture to coming generations. Personal Jewish journeys–how Jews ‘do Jewish’–are a central component of that transmission, but they are not the whole story or the whole answer.

Sylvia Barack Fishman is the HBI Co-director and the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life.

A Journey Through My 40-Year-Old Field Notes

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Ofra Greenberg

By Ofra Greenberg

Forty-two years ago, as a 27 year-old married woman with a freshly minted Ph.D. in social anthropology, I embarked on a research project to learn about the only women’s prison in Israel, Neve Tirza. Specifically, I wondered if it would conform to Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of total institutions: places where a large number of similarly situated people reside.

I used the participant observation method, spending days and nights with the prisoners and wardens, working alongside them and interacting over a period of one year. I took copious notes, filling more than 1,000 pages. I got to know them well, learning a bit about their private struggles.

One of the prisoners was Sonia, sentenced to life for the murder of her husband. She left her three-year-old daughter with her mother and found it nearly impossible to maintain a good relationship with the child. She told the child the prison was a hospital, but the lie ultimately made their relationship worse.

Though I learned so much about the personal stories of these women, I don’t know how their lives unfolded after I left. I drew my conclusions about total institutions, not entirely agreeing with Goffman. I published my research in a book, Women in Jail in Israel.

I have since engaged in what is now a 40-year academic career, today at Western Galilee College, specializing in medical anthropology. I am not sure if it is a function of my age or stage of life, but my mind frequently wanders back to my days at Neve Tirza. What happened to Sonia, to her relationship with her daughter, to the others? I have recently felt a need to return to the field notes because I know that they contain a great deal of information I didn’t use.

Even so many years ago, after I completed my dissertation, I toyed with the idea of writing about motherhood but never did as I became engrossed in a new research field, the use of traditional medicine. Other times since then, I considered using the diaries to write about my personal experiences and feelings during that time and perhaps I may still get there.

Through my teaching, I have recently delved into gender literature, and this has once more led me toward the issue of motherhood. Now that I am a mother, a grandmother and a senior scholar, I wonder how I would view this topic in my field notes through the lens of my life’s perspective? Would I find something else there?

Recently I was asked whether the young women whom I met in the prison had been sexually abused as children. I could not answer this question because I never asked. I was a young woman from a good family. What did I know about sexual abuse? Forty years ago, we talked less about this issue.

A summer scholar-in-residency at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute gave me the opportunity to revisit my notes. I scanned all my notebooks and took them with me to Brandeis University, where I began the process of re-entering that time of my life, of the lives of the women I studied so long ago.

As I read through the notes, there are so many directions I might have taken. I could have studied power relations, but the subject that rises to the surface for me today is motherhood and the social status conferred by it in prison. Not being a mother at the time, perhaps I did not pay as much attention or perhaps I simply stayed close to my original goals, to study the theory of a total institution.

Now the issue of motherhood takes center stage as I revisit my field notes and form new conclusions. I see that being a mother in prison entails an extra measure of pain. It brings with it a special concern, pity and a desire to help on the part of warders and other inmates. It leads the mothers to manipulate their status to win concessions and benefits.

I am just at the beginning of the process, through 200 of the 1000 pages. Will I discover something unforeseen, about myself perhaps? The diaries bring to the surface memories of events that I did not record. I can hear the sound of clanging doors, of the main gate opening, the voices of certain women whom I now miss. What happened to them? I am sad that I will probably never know.

None of this emotion will appear in the present analysis. It belongs to an analysis that places the researcher at the center. The present research evokes my memories, but that is personal. I believe the research should be based solely on my notes. Yet, I wonder if my memories or a story about my own growth and relationship to this project remains an option for the future.

Dr. Ofra Greenberg was a Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence at HBI during the summer of 2014. She is a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel specializing in medical anthropology.

How the Arrest of Rabbi Freundel Led to Much-Needed Discussion

By Amy Powell

Gender, Religion and Family Law: Theorizing Conflicts between Women’s Rights and Cultural Traditions Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, ed.; Sylvia Neil, ed.

Gender, Religion and Family Law: Theorizing Conflicts between Women’s Rights and Cultural Traditions
Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, ed.; Sylvia Neil, ed.

Shortly before Rabbi Barry Freundel was arrested on charges of voyeurism for allegedly planting cameras in the synagogue’s mikveh areas, HBI’s graduate research associate, Rachel Putterman, highlighted the potential for danger in Fresh Ideas from HBI, The Beauty and the Horror of the Mikveh.

At the time, some readers criticized Putterman for being extreme or even unrealistic. Looking back, her work was prescient. Shortly after her post appeared, the Freundel abuses came to light. Unlike so many issues in the news cycle, this one stubbornly stays alive for good reason. As Putterman noted in her piece, there is much about mikveh practices that requires close examination and change.

What seems clear in the month since Freundel’s October 14th arrest is that this potentially isolated incident is born of a system without the necessary checks and balances. The discussion surrounding this inexcusable breach emboldened women and men to come forward and tell numerous stories revealing abuses of power both in the realm of the mikveh and in the process of conversion. We also see reaction from governing authorities such as batei din and the Rabbinical Council of America.

Here are some articles that best highlight the much-needed discussion that has ensued in the scandal’s wake:

  • Ethan Tucker on the core texts anchoring the discussion about mikveh practices and possible pathways forward in The Times of Israel, Immersion, Dignity, Power, Presence and Gender
  • Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director, Carrie Bornstein in The Times of Israel, Breaking the Mikveh Monopoly, on opening the leadership of the mikveh to multiple stakeholder to avoid future scandal.

At HBI, we have always supported scholarly research and publishing to develop fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide.  For example, Michal Roness has written, in Gender, Religion, and Family Law, published in the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, about the process that led to the accreditation of the first cohort of yoatzot halacha or rabbinical law advisers who provide advice to women on how to observe the laws of family purity.

As Rabbi Freundel’s case winds through the legal system, there will be more evidence revealed and more discussion. It is our hope that those that hold roles in these sacred spheres will pay close attention.

 

 

Amy Powell

Amy Powell

Amy Powell is HBI’s communications director.