Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Can’t Believe Everything You Read in the Newspaper: The SY Empire, Part II

You can’t always believe what you read in the newspaper. An Anonymous commenter who has a fair amount of experience with the Syrian community took exception with my previous post, and wrote:

First of all, I wouldn't jump to conclusions about the prevalence of the "tribal" attitude based on Jakie Kassin's comments. The author of the article clearly had an axe to grind, and perhaps the comment was not understood properly in context. And in any event, your piece basically accuses the entire Syrian community of a racial attitude as reflected by the edict, and this is simply not fair. Also, I don't know if it's true that this community "emphasizes the exclusion of converts." This exclusion is practiced, but I wouldn't say it is emphasized, it is not a central part of their attitude and lifestyle. I have heard literally dozens - perhaps hundreds - of derashos (sermons –c.s.) from Syrian rabbanim, and read lots of their literature, and the only time I heard the edict mentioned was in the precise opposite context - a prominent Syrian rabbi made the point of how Judaism recognizes the potential of every human being for greatness notwithstanding the Syrian minhag (c.s. – custom) not to marry converts.I generally like your blog very much, but in this instance I believe you are wrongly condemning a large community and disparaging their talmidei chachamim based on one clearly-biased article. I think you should get to know some Syrian Jews more closely before casting such harsh judgment and calling them racist.

In another post, s-he continues:

Just to clarify a bit more my complaint against this post:The Syrian takana (edict –c.s.) was made as a "migdar milsa" (to fix a problem – c.s.) in response to what was perceived as a wave of pseudo-conversions for marriage purposes. The takana is NOT what you make it out to be - a reflection of a fundamentally different attitude towards the Jewish people whereby we are Jewish by blood and race rather than conduct and so on. Personally I'm not comfortable with the takana, but I am honest enough to see it what is, and not turn it into an expression of racism…….

I would add to the commenter’s remarks that s-he is correct, that on the issue of intermarriage the reporter, Zev Chafets, does have a personal axe to grind.

I also agree that I have limited first hand knowledge of the Syrian Jewish community. And I apologize if my own piece was perceived as imputing racist thoughts to the entire Syrian community. (Indeed, I avoided the explosive term “racist” because I didn’t think it was fair.) That was not my intent.


Let’s be serious about this. Jakie Kassin’s remarks were not made in a vacuum. And here, I’m not talking about Syrian Jews. I’m talking about all Jews. There is way too much tribal thinking in Jewish life. I have heard different versions of it from different people – from a stray remark from a chassid about whether or not non-Jews have the same souls as us, to the nearly secular Jew who has no interest in religion, but can’t imagine his child marrying a non-Jew because “they’re not the same”. Yes, tribalism is a philosophy that a smallish minority of Jews still maintain – but it is still a serious problem, whether you live in Flatbush or Montreal or Israel. I was simply using the Times’ article to highlight an issue that is significant for all Jews.

And to reiterate, tribalism is dangerous for the Jewish community. Aside from the fact that tribalism will at times morph in racism, tribalism is a philosophy that will eventually fail. Jews need to know why they’re Jewish. If we decide to base our identity on being part of tribe, we will forget exactly what it is that made us Jewish in the first place. And a tribe without a higher purpose simply cannot survive.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. Just bear in mind that your first post on the subject really does sound like you're interpreting the takana as a reflection of a "blood-based" perception of Jeiwsh nationhood, rather than just a measure deemed necessary under extenuating circumstances.

One cute story that may or may not be relevant, but at least will lighten the mood a bit: Rabbi Eli Mansour, one of the most dynamic and influential rabbanim in the Halab community, once told about a custodian that was hired to set up and clear up s'euda shelishit, and would hang around waiting for the Rabbi to finish his devar Torah at the meal so he could start cleaning up. At some point the custodian quit his job, and several years later Rabbi Mansour met him in Miami - at a shiur he was giving, wearing a kippa! It turned out that the custodian was so inspired by Rabbi Mansour's derashot that he decided to convert to Judaism. He heard that he would not be allowed to marry into the Syrian community, so he moved to Florida and got married there.