Jewish Identities, Jewish Values and the Jewish Future

You might expect sparks to fly with topics like the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, the role of social action in Jewish life, and the tension between liberty and loyalty. But three marquee panelists – Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of Jewish Funds for Justice, and Israeli music superstar Kobi Oz – largely agreed when they talked about those issues earlier this week during the Jewish Agency’s meetings in Jerusalem.

Still, each speaker did have a different story and a distinct outlook. Sharansky as a Soviet dissident had faced an inescapable conflict between being Russian and being Jewish; Rabbi Jacobs found common ground between her American nationality and Jewish values. Sharansky, asked what shaped his commitment to the Jewish people, responded that anti-Semitism made him a Zionist, and being a Zionist made him more aware of what it meant to be Jewish. Rabbi Jacobs was galvanized by the experience of joining her parents in a March on Washington for Soviet Jewry as a child, which she described as “also an American story.” Oz, born in Israel, felt Israeli first, and his sense of being Jewish came later.

Asked about cultural influences, Oz explained that he sees himself as an Israeli and as a part of the Levant, including the Arabic culture of his Tunisian parents, the cosmopolitan West, and his Jewish heritage. Natan Sharansky avowed his attachment to Russian culture as well as a feeling for tikkun olam, which he described as the desire to be free and to be part of the world but also to belong to the Jewish people. Rabbi Jacobs responded by talking about the values of Jewish justice and American democracy rather than culture or community.

Asked about the tension between loyalty and liberty, all three panelists pointed to responsibilities that go beyond personal freedom. Rabbi Jacobs observed that Judaism is much less concerned with rights than with obligations to others. Sharansky concurred that loyalty “takes you out of your individual life.” Kobi Oz sees loyalty as an alternative to consumerism, a response to a global culture that “makes us buy things.” Only Sharansky intimated that these appeals to loyalty may fall on deaf ears, wondering aloud about the shallowness of many people’s beliefs. For them, he asked, “is there anything worth dying for?”

That momentary remark was a reminder of the tension between broad ideals and practical realities. Kobi Oz urged that Jews reach beyond the idea of Israel being a “normal country” and make it a place that “can’t be quiet about hunger and racism in the world.” Yet many Israelis are tired of being abnormal and want normal life most of all. Jill Jacobs repeatedly called for applying the wisdom of rabbinic law to public issues like the treatment of workers, the environment, and health care, adding that “a dichotomy shouldn’t exist between helping Jews and helping others.” But rabbinic law often distinguishes sharply between obligations to Jews and non-Jews.

The backdrop for this conversation is the accelerating shift from communal loyalties to universal values among American Jews. Many now feel that diversity, democracy, social action, and caring for the environment are much more compelling causes than preserving the Jewish people or maintaining the Jewish character of the State of Israel. What Natan Sharansky called the “desire to belong” may ultimately prove more important than logical analyses and talking points.

Bob Goldfarb is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He lives in Jerusalem.