Is Loyalty Outmoded?

The current issue of Sh’ma Magazine asks the question “What does it mean to be a loyal Jew?” and ends up talking a lot about dissent. That line of thought reveals a great deal about Jewish discourse nowadays.

For many of the writers in the magazine, raising the question of loyalty is largely an extension of debates about Israel. Hadar Susskind, Shaul Magid, and Amy Eilberg object when dissent is considered illegitimate. They hold that dissent, as contrasted with “dogma,” is inherently a positive thing, in effect transcending the content of any particular argument. Arie Dubnov, writing about Hannah Arendt rather than Israel, concludes that confrontation can “make communal life vibrant and relevant.” That amounts to a shift from substance to process: it turns attention away from the specifics of disagreement and favors the dynamics of contention itself, as though loyalty is an inclination to entertain disputes rather than choosing sides.

The University of Washington’s Noam Pianko makes a similar point when he implies that disloyalty is a better model. He approvingly cites Mordecai Kaplan’s anti-statist Zionism as a “forgotten act of disloyalty,” though when scrutinized it seems neither disloyal nor forgotten. Kaplan’s views owe a great deal to Ahad HaAm, whom Pianko doesn’t mention and who certainly felt a deep loyalty to the Jewish people. The father of “cultural Zionism,” Asher Ginsburg (his real name) thought the Jewish people needed a revival of national creativity, a new sense of spirituality and ethics that would draw upon traditional religion but would be independent of it. In his version of Zionism, it was more important for a homeland to be a source of enlightenment for the Jewish people than a state.

The Sh’ma issue includes an essay by Paul Mendes-Flohr about another alternative Zionist vision: the binational Zionism of Martin Buber, who (like Judah Magnes) was an early advocate of a homeland that was not based on an exclusively Jewish nation. Although such divergent views have long been a major part of the Zionist discussion, Pianko suggests that they have somehow been suppressed when he describes it as a “taboo” to raise Kaplan’s concerns.

Pianko’s view that criticism is “a healthy sign of Jewish loyalty” amounts to a Jewish counterpart to the Bush-era bumper-sticker that declared “Dissent is Patriotic”: it redefines loyalty itself as questioning. Like other Sh’ma contributors, he suggests that, for American Jews, loyalty amounts to a disposition to debate and is no longer a matter of placing one’s allegiance in any particular policy or group or country.

It’s possible that such statements are a coded way of advocating a specific viewpoint while cloaked in the apparently neutral language of healthy discussion, or that they are intended to supplant the dominant discourse with their own. If they are taken at face value, however, those arguments lead to the conclusion that loyalty, in the original sense of being unswerving or faithful in devotion to a country or cause , is no longer important. That’s a startling idea that ought to concern anyone in Jewish communal leadership, if it’s true.

But is it? The people I know who have dedicated themselves to social justice or Jewish education or social entrepreneurship or reinvigorating religious life aren’t preoccupied with dissent. Their actions exemplify loyalty to their ideals and to the Jewish community in the original sense of the word, entailing commitment and engagement and a sense of responsibility. Generic urgings to promote debate sound hollow and empty by comparison.

Bob Goldfarb, based in Jerusalem, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He contributes regularly to eJewishPhilanthropy, and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.