It is Time for Building Together

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Arnold M. Eisen

It is Tisha B’av, and I am fasting as I write these reflections on the state of conversation about Jewish peoplehood in the summer of 2018. Observance of the holiday attests to my identification with Judaism and the Jews. I am saying that the story told of twice-over exile and destruction in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. is my story, that the Jews who suffered in those events exercise a legitimate claim on me, that the religious tradition connecting Jewish history to divine promise is one I am obligated to honor and transmit. I affirm that I, a contemporary Jew, am shaped by and responsible to forces larger than myself: a history, a people, a faith.

In the very same book in which he set forth the best case I know for understanding Judaism as an “evolving religious civilization” and the Jews as a worldwide people (Judaism as a Civilization, published in 1934) Mordecai Kaplan also identified the forces that would soon work to divide the Jewish people and weaken its resolve to do the work that he – ardent Zionist, committed to building the Land and being built by it – called “reconstruction.”

For one thing, some Jews had dispensed with the “religious” part of their ancestors’ identity and had no interest in restoring it. Kaplan, like Ahad Ha’am before him, wanted to give them reason to identify with Judaism and the Jewish people nonetheless. He faulted Reform and Orthodoxy for defining Judaism in exclusively religious terms, thereby leaving no room for those who wanted nothing to do with Jewish faith or Jewish law. He mourned the fact that in modern diaspora Jewish life was organized around the synagogue, a religious institution, rather than the community center. But Kaplan – a rabbi ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a believer – tried repeatedly to redefine Jewish faith and thus to make his people whole. I think he knew the effort could not succeed.

Kaplan also knew that the situation in which Jews found themselves would decisively shape their conception of Jewish peoplehood. Jews, wherever they lived, would bear hyphenated identifies, the Jewish civilization on one side of the hyphen, the country, language and culture in which they lived, and which lived in them, on the other side.

If you want Judaism to be dominant civilization shaping your identity and that of your children, he pointedly told his readers, go to Palestine. In America, as in France, the gentile civilization would be dominant and the Jewish “subordinate.” The only model of equality in civilizational power that he could identify was entirely theoretical: Simon Dubnow’s notion of ethnic autonomy. I think Kaplan would have understood the chasm that has opened up in our day between the Jews of America, France, and every other community where Jews constitute at best a small but influential minority of the larger population, on the one hand, and the Jews of the State of Israel, where Jews constitute a substantial majority of the population and fully exploit the power that provides to advance their interests as opposed to those of the minority.

Kaplan foreshadowed a further source of tension between Israelis and diaspora Jews when, soon after the state’s creation (A New Zionism, 1955), he urged Jews to understand Zionism as a movement to regenerate Jews and Judaism everywhere, charged with helping Jews to find Meaning in Jewish life wherever they lived, inside or outside the Land. This had been a key plank in the Spiritual Zionism embraced by Kaplan’s mentor, Solomon Schechter, and remains the hope of many Zionists around the world to this day. They want Israel to make them proud to be the Jews they are, where they are – even as they recognize that Israelis have other priorities. The State cannot make anyone proud unless it survives and thrives in the face of enemies who wish to destroy it, and this means taking action that sometimes gets in the way of pride. To my mind, the civil religion of the great majority of the Jewish people in 2018 remains “Am Yisrael Chai.” That explains why most Jews my age and older, who remember the wars of 1948, ’67 and ‘73 when Israel’s existence was threatened, continue to bend over backwards to defend the State even when its policies alienate us and our children more and more. Younger Jews, who lack these memories, and know only a less vulnerable Israel, are more inclined to demand more pride in exchange for their loyalty and support. They also find less and less reason to identify with Judaism or their local Jewish community.

All this is worrisome, of course, but it is no surprise, given the larger political and sociological developments that shape Israelis and diaspora Jewish communities alike. But – the key point in my view, as we look at the ever-growing divides among our people – is to do what we can to bridge the gaps, rather than to acquiesce in their inevitability or, worse, exploit them for political gain.

I don’t expect Israelis and diaspora Jews to agree on Zionist fundamentals anytime soon, any more than I expect “religious” and “secular” Jews, or Orthodox and Conservative or Reform Jews, to reach such agreement. (I write days after the passage of the Nation State bill by the Knesset, and the arrest of a Masorti/Conservative rabbi by the police in Haifa at the bidding of the Orthodox rabbinical court – both developments that to my mind harm the dignity of Judaism, threaten the unity of the State, and further alienate diaspora Jewry). We will not all agree on these matters anytime soon.

But could we perhaps avoid active insult, find projects in which we can cooperate, strengthen “national institutions,” prefer compromise to the exercise of brute force in our relations, and formulate a shared narrative? These would be major steps forward.

Could we agree – as I learned from my teacher, Professor Eliezer Schweid, at the Hebrew University in 1975 – that 20th century Jews developed two and only two viable options for the existence of Jews and Judaism? One: statehood, protected by its army and its allies. Two: strong diaspora communities, protected by the rights afforded all citizens in a democracy. Neither is entirely secure. Both are threatened. They need one another to survive and thrive.

Could we also agree that Jews have never survived in our long history by trying only to survive, but rather because we served a higher cause, the Highest and Most Holy? That we need to guard our lives and our interest, of course – I called this, in Zionist parlance, Normality – but also must serve Covenant, justice, compassion, the Good?

And could we cooperate in the two major tasks that we share, but which necessarily take very different forms in the Jewish State and outside it? I refer to the building of new sorts of Jewish communities, rooted in our history but attuned to the needs of here and now, and the ever-new interpretation of Jewish tradition, likewise rooted in what Judaism has been over the centuries but reformulated to suit the unprecedented realities of today?

There is so much for us to do together as Jews, so much for us to teach and learn, to mourn on the 9th of Av, and to celebrate the next day, and the day after that. This is a time for celebration far more than mourning. And, as Zionism has always taught, it is above all a time for building together.

Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world’s foremost authorities on American Judaism, is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to this appointment, he served as the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.