Ghetto Judaism or Jewish Amnesia

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

In a recent article Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, addressed a topic of concern to all American Jews, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform alike - the growth of what he terms "Ghetto Judaism" in the United States. Representing but one view within Orthodox Judaism as to how to function in an American milieu, in the main rightly defined by Yoffie, I am nevertheless perplexed by his pointing to a group of Yale students, Orthodox Jewish students, as indicative of this approach. Rather I would have hoped that as a Reform Rabbi and as an American, he would have embraced their cause as, first and foremost, a clear representation of the Jewish role in society. I would have hoped that he would have viewed their studies at Yale as an example of the Jew who desires to be an active participant in those elements of America that are not antagonistic to Jewish values. And finally, I would have hoped that Rabbi Yoffie would have recognized this case as an example of the healthy tension resulting from a multi-culture approach to American society, an approach supported, I might add, by the Jewish community. Let me explain.

The students filed suit against the University claiming that Yale's requirement that all Freshmen and Sophomores reside in the University's dormitories, co-ed dormitories, as Yoffie writes is "immoral and contrary to their religious beliefs." I cannot fathom why it is that Rabbi Yoffie does not resonate with this position. American Reform Judaism has always proclaimed its adherence to the moral and ethical values of Jewish tradition. In its first attempt at defining itself, the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the movement stated. "We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish People for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws..." In the Columbus Platform of 1937, its second attempt at defining Reform beliefs and practices, the importance of the moral teachings of Judaism is expressed as follows: "The Torah, both written and oral, enshrines Israel's ever-growing consciousness of G‑d and of the moral law. It preserves the historical precedents, sanctions and norms of Jewish life..." It is this commitment to the moral teachings of our tradition that has always placed the Reform movement in the forefront of activities for justice in our society. The rights of the worker, civil rights, housing, you name it, have all been moral issues addressed by the Reform movement. Those of us in other Jewish religious movements would do well to take a lesson from our Reform brothers and sisters in this arena, dubbed by many of them as the work of Tikun Olam, righting the world by actively influencing society to adopt Jewish moral values, the Prophetic vision for humankind. Tikun Olam is a cornerstone of American Reform Jewish belief.

To claim, as the Yale students have done, that living in co-ed dormitories is "immoral and contrary to their religious beliefs" surely is understandable. In a society in which sexual promiscuity is generally accepted, in sharp contrast to the Jewish moral view that sexual activity should be confined to the sanctified relationship of man and woman in marriage, the students' fear of living in the dormitories is real. Placing oneself in surroundings that can have negative effects upon ones deeply held moral beliefs is foolhardy. Moreover their assertion of Jewish belief, of a Jewish moral value, through their court case, places before society as a whole a moral issue that needs to be addressed. Is this not Tikun Olam according to Rabbi Yoffie? I cannot believe that he would condone sexual promiscuity as being in concert with Judaism. Rabbi Yoffie takes exception to these students consulting their Rabbi on the many issues facing them in their collegiate life, for him a sign of "ghetto Judaism." It was my understanding that the very purpose in establishing the Hillel Foundations, the first one opened at the University of Illinois in 1923, was to provide a religious, cultural and social Jewish depository from which Jewish collegiates could draw guidance and support as they pursued their education. Founded by the Jewish community's foremost fraternal organization, B'nai B'rith, the Hillel Foundations have enjoyed and continue to enjoy support from all quarters of American Jewry. How many parents during these nearly eight decades of Hillel activity on the college campus have expressed their personal joy and frankly relief to learn that their son or daughter had struck up a close, personal relationship with the local Hillel Rabbi. Faced with a myriad of decisions, the parent was overjoyed to learn that the student sought the Jewish support of Hillel and the advice of its Rabbi. I fail to understand how the Yale students' reliance upon the wise counsel of their Rabbi constitutes an example of "ghetto Judaism."

Finally, Rabbi Yoffie is correct in stating that the issue of how far our collective society must go in accommodating the various cultural and religious nuances of its citizenry is a matter for the courts. I would hasten to add, courts ever cognizant of the broad commitment of society to multi-culturism as a fundamental building block for society's very future. I cannot understand why he finds the Yale students' abstention from or only patrial involvement in areas of college life that present religious difficulties for them as negative. Give and take in the world of multi-culturism should never require the sacrifice of a deeply held conviction just because it is not the view of the majority. At times this means one must abstain from involvement in certain activities rather than making each and every instance of difference a cause celebre warranting protest or legal action.

Attempting to learn from the rich legacy of humanity, attending one of the most prestigious of America's universities, these students are demonstrating, in a manner, I believe, considered laudable in all Jewish circles, their respect for the genius of humankind and, at the same time, their deep commitment to their sense of Jewish morals and ethics.

Orthodoxy in America is mainstream. No longer limited by quotas and anti-Semitism to attending public colleges in large metropolitan areas or their private counterparts, Orthodox young men and women can now be found on college campuses across the United States. Upon graduation they have taken positions in the professions, in business and in government. These young people, by virtue of their success in a society that is evermore open and accepting of difference, have learned how to live committed Jewish lives and at the same time participate in the great adventure that is America. The Yale students whose actions Rabbi Yoffie berates as "ghetto Judaism" live lives that earlier generations of American Jews could only dream about. To be free to practice Judaism, to feel able to call to task none other than Yale University, when a Jewish moral impropriety has taken place, is a far cry from those days when Jews faced quotas, when Jews had to play it cool, so that they could be "acceptable" in the hallowed halls of the "ivy league university." Truly Jewish amnesia can be very debilitating.