The Perils of Particularism
Two prominent Conservative Rabbis recently left the movement in order to officiate at intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews, which the Conservative movement prohibits. Among the many arguments on both sides, there was an underlying reality: America is very uncomfortable with particularism. Borders, boundaries, and exclusions make us uneasy. Standards smack of elitism. Saying to someone, "you may not join," goes against our American ethos.
In the American story, love erases all boundaries. Think of the Disney movies: beauty marries the beast, the mermaid marries the man. The people who stand on the sidelines in such stories and say, "you cannot marry each other, you are from different worlds," are either clueless or evil. How many American movies, shows, and books tell the story of the outsider who is finally accepted? You can be a green witch, as in "Wicked," or a green ogre like "Shrek," but underneath everyone is the same.
Crossing boundaries is part of the American national story. Interracial marriage, and later gay marriage, were boundary questions, decisively resolved in American society by denouncing the validity of those boundaries. Today, the fight over immigration takes on this question: what are our rights of exclusion and what are the norms of inclusion?
For Jews, this is a very powerful question. Unlike Christianity, which is a belief based system (believe in Jesus and you are Christian), Judaism is familial. You are born Jewish. Like any family, you can join (through conversion), but you are expected to "feel" like family. You are implicated in the fate of all Jews.
So when a couple comes to my office and says, "but I thought all that mattered was being a good person," I have to carefully explain that Judaism sees the matter differently. There are norms that dictate who is in the group and who is outside. Every club worth joining has norms of admission — whether a college or a bowling league. But I know it feels unwelcoming, like you are rendering a judgment on the person. Even though you are not "judging" a Frenchman who does not become a U.S. citizen by insisting he deserves a vote. Yet the analogies melt away before the emotion of rejection. It feels un-American to say that being good is inadequate. It's like chasing off the Little Mermaid.
To ask someone to convert, to become something other than they are, can feel like a different sort of dismissal — "I'm not good enough as I am?" In a society awash in language of self-acceptance and embrace of the other, how can a Rabbi sit and say, "I cannot celebrate your love unless you change"?
Yet we know what happens when there are no borders at all. Without boundaries there is no nation, without standards there is no institution, without periodic rejection acceptance means nothing. So on one side religion risks being seen as narrow and exclusionary, and on the other side is the possibility of losing all self-definition.
Given the population statistics for Jews — a mere 2.2% of the U.S. population — the question is urgent. Can we argue the case for the validity of exclusion in an embracing society? When the Rabbis left the Conservative movement they were in part making a calculation that our world would no longer tolerate the boundaries we build between one another, and that Judaism is better served by Rabbis dropping this ancient prohibition. History will judge, as it always does. But I continue to believe that the collapsing of boundaries is inseparable from the collapsing of standards, and that welcoming is a step from dissolving. When a Rabbi says, "I will bless this union if you commit to Judaism or not," is that a sign of acceptance or acquiescence? Despite the title, at the end of the movie Ariel is no longer a mermaid.