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Not in my name!

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-02-16

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

This month so many disparate groups and individuals on both sides of the Atlantic have been claiming to speak for Jews or for those Jews who believe their voices are not heard. Indeed there are so many different and disparate Jewish voices. Can anyone speak for the Jews?

Simply, the answer is NO! Moses tried to, but look how often he was asked to take a hike. Biblical Prophets never claimed to. Talmudic Rabbis didn’t. Some kings might have, but they didn’t last.

There are so many conflicting definitions—religious and secular, state and private, that in one way it is easiest to simply say that a Jew is anyone who claims to be one. The only absolutely clear definition is the traditional religious one that a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother or converted out of religious conviction in accordance with ancient procedure. But even this is no longer as absolute as it was in the loosely termed ‘Jewish World.’

So if we cannot talk about who a Jew is with any degree of unanimity, what of all those people who claim to speak in the name of or as Jews? What the heck gives them any such right? Democracy it certainly isn’t, because there is no framework for all Jews to be registered on an electoral role. Sure there are groups that have their own pseudo-elections which are about as fair as gerrymandering ever was. Usually Jews in the Diaspora are represented by self-appointed spokesmen, sometimes simply wealthy Jews who arrogate to themselves authority simply on the basis of their bank balances. It’s great that they give to Jewish causes, but that no more qualifies them to speak on behalf of Jews than an ATM cash machine.

We have a plethora of Councils, Federations, Boards, Leagues, Associations and Societies. Many of them do tremendously good social and educational work and I applaud them for that. But not one of them is representative of Jews in any way that I recognize or take seriously, from Right to Left, in Israel or outside. As far as I’m concerned, we’d be far better off without anyone claiming to speak for Jews and then we could use the money wasted productively on Jewish causes that actually help people. One of the reasons why American Jewry has done so well is precisely because everyone and anyone can get up and say what he or she likes or claim to represent God and His Angels and in the end it’s the best man, woman or organization that survives or sinks, wins or loses and everyone knows they only represent themselves and their interests. Darwinian survival of the fittest proves the point.

As for Israel, I do not see why a corrupt politician, a party political hack or a minister of the Diaspora should speak on behalf of Jews just because enough Israelis vote for his party for entirely different reasons. And I personally do not want someone who has no regard for religion at all speaking on behalf of me, any more than an anti-Zionist, self-hating Jew with a chip on his or her shoulder and a heavy streak of masochism (no matter how intelligently or literarily cloaked).

The financially dubious World Jewish Congress doesn’t represent world Jews. It represents itself. The Board of Deputies of British Jews does not represent the Jews of Britain, it represents itself. All American Jewish representative organizations are simply self appointed pressure groups. There’s nothing wrong with that so long as no one is fooling anyone or pretending anything else. Lobbying is helpful, even necessary but it is not a license to deceive. Chief Rabbis of whatever country do not represent the Charedi world, or the Reform, or the secular. They may do excellent jobs but they are not representative either. A Hassid will ever accept any representative other than his own Rebbe.

Then there are those voices on both sides of the Atlantic (and the Mediterranean, too) who love to advertise their dissociation from communal opinion (particularly on Israel) as if there ever was such a thing. Even if they declare they are not speaking for the Jewish community they are in practice setting themselves up as an informal representative body of the disaffected, seeking to express a ‘Jewish Voice.’ So people like Harold Pinter, for example, are so far removed from Jewish life they have no idea how much actual debate goes on in the Jewish community, because they neither practice nor associate nor do anything that might mark them out as Jews in any positive way whatsoever, and who aspire to completely non-Jewish values. Or they are ideological anti-Zionists like Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, or Jacqueline Rose who are often given platforms at Jewish events such as Book Week but are in fact as representative of Jews as David Irving is of historians. Speak out by all means but don’t suddenly and uncharacteristically flaunt your Jewishness as if it defined you or empowered you.

I wouldn’t mind so much if they were people involved or giving a damn about the Jewish people in some way. There is a huge difference between criticism of Israel or Judaism coming from those who care and are manifestly involved such as Daniel Boyarin, and those who by their very actions show that they are not. Who, anyway, would take them seriously except predisposed antagonists, as the response in ‘The Guardian’ to the “Voices” debate amply shows?

So why do all these disparate groupings pretend that they speak on behalf of any Jews except themselves? Using ones name and fame to publicize ones own private agenda is nothing more than vanity. If one is doing it for charity the end might justify the means. But to assert something with great fanfare as if it were the general view is simply humbug regardless of where it comes from, the right or the left. Give up boys. You’re not fooling anyone. It’s clear there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish Voice’.

The only Jews I would ever even think of speaking on my behalf, in theory, are those I know as genuinely spiritual and learned ones of stature. And they, as a matter of interest, never speak in the name of Jews. They may speak in the name of Torah and their communities and some of their acolytes might even claim they speak in the name of the Almighty. But they are wise enough and aware enough of the realities of Jewish life to know better than to try to speak on behalf of Jews in general. If only others would learn. I know I can only speak for myself and I haven’t given permission for anyone to speak on my behalf. Perhaps I don’t count as a Jew!

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com