The most important aspects of Judaism: lighting candles on Friday night, atoning on Yom Kippur, pushing back against dogma, can’t be yanked away by some board of overlords.
One beauty of being Jewish is that you can’t get excommunicated, Spinoza notwithstanding. Sure, there are various boards of rabbis here and there. But no central authority, the way Catholics have their U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nor do Jews have sacraments, like communion, that can be withheld as punishment for apostasy. The way the bishops voted overwhelmingly Friday to draft “a formal statement” forbidding Catholic public officials like President Joe Biden from receiving the eucharist if they insist on supporting one particular legal American right that conflicts with Catholic theology: abortion.
In fact, being heretical is almost the Jewish brand. That’s why the faith is so studded with people like Spinoza, or Freud, or Einstein, or Lenny Bruce. When my son came back from sophomore year and gravely informed me he is questioning the value of his religion, I smiled and replied, “Buddy, I hate to tell you, but doubting Judaism is the most Jewish thing you can do at this point in your life.”
Yes, like all faiths, Jews have our own strong ultra-Orthodox wing, where wearing a pearl gray Borsalino hat will get you in hot water, never mind pushing back against doctrine. But the Hassidim have about as much influence on mainstream Judaism as the Pennsylvania Amish have on the Philadelphia club scene. They do encourage weak tea Jews such as myself to say certain prayers, but are smart enough not to try to punish us if we don’t. Which I respect, even while their lifestyle puzzles me. You’ve got one life. Are you really going to spend it dressed for 18th century Vilnius and arguing obscure points of Deuteronomy dietary law? Don’t let me stop you. It’s a free country.
And I’d like to keep it that way. Which is why we need to resist the bishops, and remind them their authority ends at the church door. Yes, they are free to define the contours of their own faith. But to inflict a special penalty especially on government leaders is not religion but politics. Not just their business, but ours too. It isn’t as if regular lay Catholics are being punished for their beliefs, not anymore. If some Board of Rabbis were to announce that U.S. senators couldn’t eat latkes at Hanukkah unless they keep Kosher, the ridicule would be Biblical.
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