Melting Pot or Orchestra?

Recently a colleague’s daughter suggested that he reconsider the distinctive blessings that he (and many of us) gives to boys and girls at Friday night services or dinners, since there are those whose genders are still emerging or don’t fall neatly into biblical categories and shouldn’t they receive God’s blessings as well? The colleague, Elliot Cosgrove, writing in the Jerusalem Post months ago, was struck by this question, and mused about it in ways I have been contemplating as discussions of issues like gender and intermarriage happen for me at least almost daily. In real ways, the two are not different issues.

Issues like gender and intermarriage are just a piece of larger discussions on boundaries and inclusion and how we navigate between the two. On the one hand, “identity politics” have become more and more charged, as every subgroup stands vigilant against any “micro-aggression” that somehow offends its distinct stature and sensibility. In our time, everyone must be validated in their identities whatever they may be. Spend a few moments on college campuses and you will see this. At the same time, we are living in a post-gendered, post-ethnic, post-everything world; young people look askance at assigned or inherited social identities and the notion of erecting boundaries of any sort is totally displeasing. The intermarriage discussion fits well here – why can’t we marry anyone we want to, our kids ask, whatever their ethnicity, religion, gender? Didn’t you teach us to treat everyone the same?

What does all this mean for the Jewish community in America? Trouble, or a challenge, depending on our mood. There are two historical answers: Israel Zangwill (100+ years ago) in his play The Melting Pot had a grand vision of America as God’s crucible, where the diversity of its immigrants would melt away into one common identity. Not everyone liked that vision, Rabbi Judah Magnes among them; he saw it as suicide for the Jewish community. The counter narrative comes from the likes of Horace Kallen (in my lifetime) – America is like an orchestral symphony in which “every instrument has its specific timbre and tonality.” We must embrace the other all the while retaining our own particularity.

Our time, you have probably figured out, is not the time of the melting pot or the orchestra. It’s a new era, and we are still figuring it out. But we don’t have the luxury of standing on the sidelines while the discussion rages. In our post-everything world of unending validation, we have to retain/retrieve the language of difference. Jews must opt for particularism over universalism, collectivism over individualism. That may sound “old school.” Inclusiveness is nice, but we are in the business of building Jewish identities, Jewish homes and Jewish families. In that business, not every choice is equally OK. We need to find a new language both affirming our liberalism and maintaining that not all life-style choices are equal. As Cosgrove puts it, we need to find “a language of tribalism without triumphalism, affiliation without parochialism, peoplehood without ethnocentrism.” It’s not easy, to be sure. It’s a narrow path to walk. But do we have a choice?

Let me know your thoughts. Best, Bill Rudolph

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