So What Exactly Is Out of Bounds in the Jewish Community?


As a rabbi, I would say that a good part of my job, at this point in Jewish history, is just to get people to enjoy being Jewish. And part of my strategy of getting more people to like Judaism is defining our community broadly enough to make people feel included. I spend most of my time figuring out ways that we can push ourselves to define as many people and approaches and ideas as inside the bounds of who we are as a community.

But in the past few weeks, I have been asked the opposite question a surprising number of times: What is out of bounds? What would define someone as outside the community? As we come off the holiday of Shavuot, where we're so united as one people, with one Torah, seeing ourselves as if the entire Jewish people, across time, stood at Sinai, it's a hard question to answer.

It feels like an archaic notion: how to apply the oft-repeated words of the Torah "v'nich'r'tah ha-nefesh ha-hi"— that a person should be cut off from the rest of the community, the rest of the people. Back in a time when communities were very defined and separate — for reasons of economy and protection and family, among others — that may have made sense. But nowadays, when our communities are so porous — people coming and going as we please — how would we strongly define someone asoutside?

It's not a feel-good question … but it's an important one, especially in a time when we stretch ourselves to be as inclusive and embracing as we can. What would define someone as outside the Jewish people: Someone who purposefully and mindfully denies or minimizes the Holocaust defines himself as outside the Jewish people. It's just too central a definition of the history of Jewish persecution and survival against all odds. I don't mean it as a punishment — to be cut off from the Jewish people. Really, it is a point of fact: You can't be a part of the community of Israel, and give legitimacy to any doubt of the evils of the Holocaust.

Similarly, the existence of the State of Israel and the return of Jews to a rebuilt Jerusalem is the single most significant event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple almost 2,000 years ago — so anyone who denies this modern-day miracle similarly defines himself as outside the Jewish people. We do not have to agree on politics or specifics — Israelis don't. It's the age-old tradition of "two Jews, three opinions."

But to not support the right of a Jewish state to exist in peace and security, as the eternal home of the Jewish people — this is out of bounds. Someone who does not support such a central aspect of Jewish identity, someone who calls for the others to boycott, divest or sanction (BDS) Israel, accordingly defines himself as outside the camp, not a part of how we define the Jewish People.

So, in modern times, both Holocaust denial and the refusal to support the existence of a secure, peaceful, Jewish State of Israel should cause us to say "v'nich'r'tah ha-nefesh ha-hi." I know it's not necessarily a feel-good sentiment, but we are not just some open, undefined, unbounded mass of community. We strive to be welcoming, to widen the tent as much as possible — but we do stand for something. We are ideals-driven. And if you think about it, you wouldn't want it to be any other way, because if we stood for everything, then we would really stand for nothing.

So yes, I want you to love Judaism, but I don't want that love to be some vague, diffuse feeling. We stand for more than that. I want you to love your Judaism … but I also want you to be proud of your Judaism. On certain fundamental and central principles, we must agree; we must stand together. We must stand for certain things; and necessarily, then other things are outside of those bounds.

I only pray that, as we proudly define ourselves, based on our ideals and the 3,500-year-old vision of our people, that we continue to inspire one another to greater heights, greater togetherness and unity, and greater ahavat Yisrael — the love of Israel and of our Judaism. u

Rabbi Eric Yanoff is religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station.


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