Communities of Conviction

Much has been made of the deepening fissures in the Jewish community in the United States. Lately it has been seen as a split over the legitimacy of divergent points of view about Israel, but the schism may actually be more far-reaching and more permanent.

Here’s a symptom. Last week the writer Nicole Krauss spoke with candor and conviction at the International Writers’ Festival here in Jerusalem about what Jewishness means to her. (I describe the event at greater length here). At one point she explained that the title of her forthcoming novel Great House, which is set in the present, comes from a story about the historical figure Yochanan ben Zakkai.

“He was the most famous student of Hillel,” noted the author. “When he went to Yavneh he heard Jerusalem had fallen [to the Romans]. He had to ask what it meant to be a Jew. His answer was, ‘We’re going to pray, it will be portable, it will be internal.’ It’s one of the most powerful stories in the history of Jewish literature and text. Now when we think of Jerusalem we feel we want to get back to it, yet we know we’ll never get back to it.”

That’s a description that many American Jews would recognize and endorse. Rich Cohen’s unreliable pop history called Israel is Real tells the same story in the same terms: “Judaism became portable in those years,” he writes. He, like Krauss, implies that ben Zakkai created synagogues, invented the idea that one could worship God outside of Jerusalem, and believed Jerusalem would never again be the center of Jewish religious life.

That account functions as a myth of origin, tracing the roots of Diaspora Judaism as we know it in America today. There is also a competing narrative, based on the existence of synagogues and Rabbinic Judaism before the destruction of the Second Temple rather than having been invented as a replacement for it. According to this traditional narrative, Jews everywhere prayed for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem for nearly two millennia (until the advent of Reform a couple of hundred years ago), and Israel will always continue to have special significance for Jews.

The first account ratifies the distinctive values of American Judaism, which are closely related to American values generally. It’s a view more likely (for instance) to see Chanukah as a celebration of the American idea of freedom of religion than as a military victory in a war over control of the Temple. The traditional view, on the other hand, favors Jewish particularity and a kinship with other Jews even if those things conflict with American identity.

The divergence between these narratives may look like the political disagreements between progressives and conservatives or the theological splits between Orthodox and liberal Jews. It is actually a deeper question of identity, however, where each group holds fundamentally different assumptions. These world views operate on different planes rather than at opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Of course Jews have had profound disagreements before. Think of how Labor Zionism, religious Zionism, Labor Bundism, and Yiddish nationalism competed for the loyalties of Eastern European Jews a century ago. That kind of multiplicity seems to be emerging ever more strongly as our future in America. If it does, American Jews will increasingly identify with distinct communities of conviction, rather than as members of a single body politic who happen to disagree about certain questions.

The common ground that remains will be cultural. As beliefs about identity, religion, and politics continue to diverge, what we have in common will be an intuitive connection that transcends those differences. As Nicole Krauss said about her time as a graduate student at Oxford, “I felt out of my depth, but I felt an affinity with other Jews whether I liked them or not. There was a shared understanding.” Building on that cultural affinity while recognizing and respecting our differences is the key to our future.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem and a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He also blogs for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in At Home Abroad.