What’s a Rabbi to do with the Rob Tannenbaums of the World?

1 Jan

In the 1980s, I recall there was tremendous debate revolving around the question: “Who is a Jew?” As the Reform Movement adopted either patrilineal or matrilineal descent as their standard, the Orthodox and Conservative Movements shook their heads and began to contemplate a generation not too far down the road where marrying a Reform Jew would be impossible without conversion. And of course, they would only have themselves to blame for it….

That was a very painful chapter in modern Jewish life.

Setting aside the ramifications of how that question will ultimately be resolved, I am sensing that in recent times the central question has been changing. And the new question is not being raised by rabbis or movements. It is not being debated by scholars of Jewish law or Jewish historians. Actually, the question isn’t even being asked….but it is being answered nonetheless.

Here is the new question: “What is a Jew?” And it is at the grass roots level that people are answering the question for themselves.

It is a subtle shift in focus, but it seems to this rabbi that it is THE significant question that we need to be addressing at this time.

You see, while the leadership of the central Jewish movements worldwide have been fine-tuning their definitions, and repackaging their theologies…the majority of the Jewish world has stopped caring altogether about this question. Instead, whether consciously or unconsciously, Jews worldwide are redefining for themselves NOT who is a Jew, but what does it mean to be Jewish?

In a recent article in the Jewish week, (http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c345_a1481/The_Arts/Music.html#), a popular young Jewish performer named Rob Tannenbaum, was interviewed regarding his Jewish identity.

“I was a ‘bar mitzvah’ Jew,” Tannenbaum admits. “But I believe my personality and my sense of humor are deeply Jewish. In fact, I’m Jewish in every way except my religion. I guess ‘real’ Jews would call me a Christian.”

It is interesting that from Rob’s perspective, there are ‘real’ Jews, and then there are ‘Christian’ Jews. Obviously we all know he is not using the word ‘Christian’ in a theological sense, but rather what he perceives that ‘real’ Jews consider to be the equivalent of being non-observant, or non-affiliated with the formal Jewish community.

Where did Rob T. get that idea? Where did Rob get the idea that a Jew who is not observant, a Jew who is unaffiliated, might as well be a Christian, for all intents and purposes?

The article continues with the interviewer making the following comment regarding Rob’s perception that people would probably call him a ‘Christian’:

Probably not, although they might call him an apikoros (apostate).

Is that true? Would Jews who meet Rob T. really think of him as an apostate? As one who learned and then rejected it all?

I would suggest that this comment says more about the impressions and perspectives of the interviewer than it does about Rob T. Even suggesting this betrays the fact that the interviewer himself has the sense that non-affiliation, and non-observance, leads in some degree to be ostracized from the affiliated community, the Jewish “in-group.”

The article continues:

The simple fact is, like so many other secular Jews, Tannenbaum feels drawn to Jewish thought, Jewish ethics, Jewish cultural efforts, but not to synagogue. “The things I love [about being Jewish] have to do with my friends and family,” he says. But he is completely committed to the idea of Jewish identity….

In the weekly Torah reading, we find ourselves at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. Moses’ mission is to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. He is not to check around to identify which families are living “authentic” or “real Jewish” lives, patterned after the teachings and values of Abraham. No, they are all meant to leave Egypt, they are all meant to go forth to freedom, they are all meant to stand at Har Sinai, they are all meant to experience the revelation. Every man, woman and child. Period.

At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Va-eyra, the nation is shocked. They had become hopeful, they had become excited that the time had come, they were to be delivered; then, after Moses and Aaron spoke with Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Jewish nation, suddenly life got more difficult for them, their suffering increased, their hope waned.

Moses reassures them that they will be delivered, and then the Torah tells it like it is:

“…but because of their disappointment and the hard work, they would no longer listen to him.” (6:9)

Is the Torah making excuses for the people? Is there not a standing covenant on the books, made with Abraham, a promise to be delivered from this foreign land? How dare they deny their heritage, how dare they reject the word of God!

And yet, their disbelief, their disappointment, does not upset God. They will not be punished or “ostracized” from the nation because of their lack of faith at this moment….Moses and the elders of Israel will still look after their interests, they will still be included in the plans for exodus…as long as they are willing to go out with the people when the time comes, as long as they are willing to cast their lot with fate of the nation.(The midrash suggests that many who did not even want to cast their lot with the nation at this time died during the three days of darkness – they had severed their connection completely.)

It seems to me that the contemporary message is quite powerful. Like the Jews in Egypt, masses of Jews today, in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, are feeling disappointed with what Judaism has to offer them. We who have embraced it, who hold Jewish life and Jewish law to be one and the same, we who feel at home in the synagogue and secure within Jewish tradition – we need to stop and reassess the situation.

Who is affiliated? Why is that so important?

To what extent am I living my Jewish life selfishly, making sure that my needs for authentic Jewish living are being met, always welcoming of others to come join me in my ways – even at their own pace – but failing to look outside the bubble to take note of all those who are out there on the fringes, looking for their place within the Jewish people, but unable to listen to the message as it is being packaged?

I am not advocating here for a revolution – for changing Torah or amending halacha to meet this challenge. I am simply advocating for a little bit of thinking outside the box, in a very, very practical way.

What is a rabbi to do with the Rob Tannenbaum’s of the world?

Kiruv is only one approach.

It is time that we come to terms with the reality that kiruv alone will not resolve the challenges we are facing in the modern world. We have a responsibility, like Moses, to look beyond the rejection of Judaism and see the Jew, to come to terms with the fact that some Jews just will not find synagogue or halachic living to be appealing – ever!

It is time that we who are committed to Jewish living find ways to broadcast the message loud and clear to those who are not, that we do not stand in judgment of them, and that as long as they are willing to cast their lot together with ours, we will consider them to be full-fledged members of this nation – no strings attached.
We cannot assume that they know this – in fact, many of the messages being broadcast out there indicate just the opposite.

I realize that this will be more difficult(read: impossible) for some than it will for others, but we who value the notion of Am Yisrael must begin making this critical adjustment.


7 Responses to “What’s a Rabbi to do with the Rob Tannenbaums of the World?”

  1. bonnie siegel Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 10:38 pm #

    Way to go Rabbi Schwartz. How sadly we have lost the sense of Kehillath since you have left. A greater inclusion, instead of judging and exclusion. This is the demise right now.

  2. Trudi Galblum Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 4:19 am #

    Rabbi Schwartz…We know aliyah suits you, but might you consider retiring several months a year in KC?

  3. Marc Chervitz Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 6:17 am #

    Beautiful column. The responsibility falls on “both” sides. “Our” side has to understand the concept of Am Yisrael as that of our entire people being an organic whole, one guf, one body. Once you visualize this, it is easier to feel affection and love for every Jew you meet, no matter their behavior visa vis observance. This affection should be a given, a fundamental base line from which all interactions and considerations are based.

    When we speak in these terms though, there is a very real danger, which has manifested in modern times, of “legitimizing” their nonobservance. This cannot and should not be done, both for their sake and the sake of Am Yisrael. We cannot and should not rationalize that observance and nonobservance are perfectly equal choices from which to pick. I am not in any way saying you are suggesting this. I am merely trying to point out one of the fine lines that have to be walked. Once you say nonobservance is “okay,” then you risk opening yourself up to “personal autonomy” and you are right back to where we are today.

    The challenge of “their” side is to accept, regardless of their personal behavior, what is “authentic” and “ideal” Jewish behavior.

  4. Morey Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 11:57 am #

    Hi Marc,

    I agree, and I think that by and large, “they” would have that understanding if “we” would broadcast the right vibes.

    We need to make it clear in bold print the inclusive perspective on Am Yisrael, as you have described here, and then, when people feel more included, I am confident that they will grow to respect more what it is they may have chosen to neglect.

    The first step in that process will be the willingness to learn about it, in non-judgmental/non-coercive settings….like the Melton Mini-School! I believe that is what all the rave is about the Limmud conferences across the globe today. People are coming out to learn and feel connected, under conditions which reinforce inclusiveness.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. Rob Tannenbaum Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 4:59 pm #

    Rabbi Schwartz,

    Imagine my surprise when I woke up and found, in Google Alerts, a headline reading “What’s a Rabbi to do with the Rob Tannenbaums of the world?” I’m not just a person now, I’m an example, a demographic, a metaphor. Reflexively, I expected admonishment — after all, my music group Good For The Jews prides itself on being un-orthodox.

    Instead, I was pleased to find your thoughtful essay. A few brave rabbis have embraced our approach, and we’ve even been invited to perform in synagogues (Sixth & I in Washington D.C., the Village Temple in NYC). In other articles, I’ve described myself as “an Orthodox version of a Reform Jew,” which is a humorous way to address the paradox of non-observance. I’ve also said that a Good For The Jews concert is akin to being in temple: surrounded by people of your faith, contemplating and celebrating your shared heritage, except at our concerts you’re allowed to drink beer, which is frowned on in temple, last time I checked.

    My band recently finished a thirteen-city tour, where we had capacity crowds from Seattle to D.C. Anyone who wants to hear the music or get in touch with us can go to GoodForTheJews.net — and that includes you, Rabbi.

    Best wishes for the New Year,

  6. STEVE WEITZ Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 1:47 am #



  1. rabbi tannenbaum - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

    […] matrilineal descent as their standard, the Orthodox and Conservative Movements shook their heads ahttps://ravmorey.wordpress.com/2008/01/01/whats-a-rabbi-to-do-with-the-rob-tannenbaums-of-the-world/This Day, January 4, In Jewish HistoryJanuary 4 In Jewish History 41: The Praetorian Guard killed […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: