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"Ghetto Judaism" Is "A Retreat From The World" Declares Rabbi Yoffie

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 1998

While "American Jewry...has achieved unprecedented success in the 20th century," it is now faced "with a new challenge as we approach the millennium: the emergence of ghetto Judaism in American life," declares Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations." (Washington Jewish Week, Aug. 27, 1998)  

Rabbi Yoffie defines "ghetto Judaism" as "the belief that in order to maintain the pristine, unadulterated quality of Torah, Jews are obligated to avoid any but essential contact with the general society. It is the belief that our connection with the outside world should be a utilitarian one, limited to obtaining services and education needed to sustain our communal life. It is the belief that our responsibility to others does not extend beyond creating a Torah community."  

Such "ghetto Judaism," Yoffie points out, exists in Israel, where it "has caused much grief," as well as in such enclaves as Williamsburg and Borough Park in New York. In the past, he notes, "it has always been a tiny and marginal phenomenon" but now "it is moving from the fringes of our world into the center."  

Discussing the lawsuit against Yale University by four Orthodox students who have charged the university with religious discrimination for requiring all freshmen and sophomores to live in university dormitories, Yoffie states: "What is important here is not the details of a lawsuit, but the underlying attitude that the lawsuit reflects. I say this because of what the students themselves have said...They report that they do not choose their courses until they consult with their rabbis; that they remain silent in class rather than engage in discussion on topics such as abortion or evolution; that female students in music classes obtain female tutors so as not to violate religious law by singing for a man; and—specifics aside—that they fundamentally reject the culture of modernity which Yale represents, except to the extent that this culture advances their own specific interests."  

While Jews in America "have the right to live circumscribed, isolated and inward looking lives," Yoffie declares, others must ask themselves whether, "now that ghetto Judaism is emerging into the public square, are we projecting an alternative view? Are we aggressively articulating our own very different vision of what Jewish tradition is all about?"  

Speaking for liberal Judaism, Yoffie states that, "We refuse to live in an ivory tower precisely because that would limit the impact, the message and the grandeur of Torah. We believe in the significance of Torah in all times and in all areas of human endeavor, and we are confident that the general society will benefit from the Torah values we espouse...To look only within, to close ourselves off to the society around us and the needs of others, is nothing less than a betrayal of America."  

Rabbi Yoffie defines his vision this way: "...champions of Torah and study and prayer, but champions, too, of a Judaism that engages the world; Jews who believe that self—centered religions wither, just like self—centered people; Jews who care for our own, but reject the me-first priorities of an exclusive Jewish agenda; Jews who believe, with a full heart, that we have something unique to contribute to the world in which we live."  

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