The Shul I Don't Go To

There's an old joke about a Jew who's shipwrecked on a desert island. Finally he's rescued, and they find he's built not just one but two synagogues on the island. They ask him why. "One is the shul I pray in," he says, "and the other is the one I never step foot in!"

There's a liberal synagogue just a few blocks from where I live, which I'll call, arbitrarily, Beth Emeth. The atmosphere is nice, the people are friendly, the services are pleasant. But it's not right for me.

Why? Lots of reasons. I guess part of the problem is liberal Judaism itself. (By "liberal Judaism" I mean the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements collectively, as opposed to Orthodox Judaism.) In many ways my issues with liberal Judaism mirror my difficulties with American liberalism generally: it's become smug and self-satisfied, it has reduced the spirit of true inquiry and idealism to a set of political dogmas, and it has embraced reform for its own sake - to the point where the reforms themselves take on more importance than that which is being reformed.

Beth Emeth is in many ways a typical liberal Jewish synagogue. There's a lot of emphasis on social action - which is all to the good - but not much real dialog about important issues. As you've probably already guessed, I was the lone voice of dissent when the rest of the congregation were voicing their anti-war and anti-Bush sentiments. That by itself wasn't the problem - I mean, I could live with it. What bothered me was the realization that religious issues - even basic things like the divinity of the Torah - were open to debate, while political issues were not. The Torah was less sacred than liberal doctine.

(Were there other people who agreed with me? Well, sort of. Occasionally someone would come up to me after services and tell me privately that he agreed with me, or knew someone else who did. But no one else wanted to say so in public.)

The rabbi, whom I'll call Rabbi X, is nothing if not a scholar. And he won't let you forget it. It's hard to catch him on a Shabbat when he won't begin his talk by mentioning the famous philosophers he's read or the famous rabbis he's schmoozed with. He doesn't take kindly to being challenged; in the first part of 2003, I had an e-mail discussion with him about Iraq, which went smoothly until it became clear that my opinions weren't exactly the same as his. Then - suddenly - the conversation ended. His messages became terse and abrupt, and he soon stopped answering my e-mails altogether. Rabbi X had, in fact, originally leaned towards supporting the war, but then reversed himself; in fact, he gave a talk on the High Holy Days in which he publicly did "teshuvah" (repentance) for having supported the war in Iraq.

Liberal intellectuals like Rabbi X are very fond of speaking grandly about "dialog" and "competing narratives" and (my favorite) "the encounter with the Other". And who is the Other? There's the beauty of it - the Other is whoever you want him to be. For Rabbi X, as for so many Jewish intellectuals, Palestinians are the quinetessential Other. But Iraqis are not the Other; and American conservatives are most definitely, emphatically, not the Other. Why? Because when you designate someone as "the Other", you are obligating yourself to enter into a dialog with them. And many, many so-called "liberals" are afraid of that dialog.

I could tell you a lot more stories about Rabbi X, but I think you get the idea. I am not writing this post to single out a particular congregation or a particular Rabbi. The problem is not with this or that rabbi, or this or that congregation; it's with liberalism generally. It's with a political and cultural movement that has barricaded itself in ideology and has closed itself off from any ideas it finds challenging.

The problem, in short, is that American liberalism has isolated itself - to such a degree that liberals might as well be living on a desert island.