The “Crisis Narrative,” Revisited

As part of the Jim Joseph Foundation’s investment in Leadership Development through ten grants following an open request for proposals, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) is conducting a cross-portfolio research study to understand common outcomes, themes, and strategies in developing Jewish leaders. The Foundation is pleased to share CCL’s literature review exploring this space, along with this ongoing series from leaders in the fields of Jewish education and engagement sharing reflections on this research and questions and challenges related to leadership development.


By Yehuda Kurtzer

In its insightful report prepared for the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) reaches a conclusion which echoes an axiomatic foundational principle of our work at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America: that the conditions of social comfort and relative political security challenge us to articulate visions for Jewish community and Jewish identity that are robust enough for Jews to want to opt into them in an open marketplace of identities and choices. The CCL report wisely observes that the American Jewish project had shifted, by the end of the 20th century, from the attempt to assimilate into trying to thrive after having successfully assimilated. In such a climate, with the absence of pronounced persecution on par with earlier eras in Jewish history, and with an increasing diversity of ideological expressions and even of the very definitions of Jewishness, Jewish leaders and educators face the challenge of having to “make the case” for Judaism itself to potential adherents who could easily default to opting out.

This is why so many of us do what we do in Jewish education: we believe there is a Judaism that is greater than the one forced upon us by the “crisis narrative,” that Judaism should not be a coercive default; and that a clear articulation of such a Judaism not only makes a better case for Judaism to survive and thrive today, but also reflects a deeper understanding of the covenant itself. My colleague Shaul Magid argues provocatively that to be fixated on existential threats – to be constantly concerned that the Jewish people will be destroyed – is its own act of disbelief in the covenant, a lack of faith in God’s promise that the Jewish people will not be destroyed. Or, if we prefer a secular framing: the Jewish people, in all its lachrymose history, has been relentlessly adaptable. Shouldn’t the business of Jewish leadership be to lead the people towards the next adaptation, rather than merely protecting the people against threats? After a while, if you don’t tend the house, what’s the point of guarding it?

Our institution has premised itself on this understanding of Judaism in general and specifically of American Jewry since its founding, and argues that one of the ways in which we “make the case” for a Judaism of meaning is through the quality of our ideas. David Hartman z”l articulated this in slightly different terms, and for Israeli society, in his landmark essay “Auschwitz or Sinai,” arguing that it was time for Israelis to move past a victimhood-consciousness – which impeded moral obligation and responsibility – and towards a Judaism characterized by the metaphor of Sinai, and the responsibilities created by covenantal commitment. Persecution and oppression may be useful catalysts to sustain community in moments of crisis; but over time, and when existential threats no longer describe the totality of a community’s experience, we need positive and constructive commitments around which to organize our sense of belonging. Failure to identify and invest in these commitments will not only mean that we will fail to hold onto our adherents; it will also seed suspicion in those who believe that our fixation on existential threats belies a vacuousness in whatever it is we seek to protect. For at least a generation, we have heard this refrain echo in the Jewish community: what, after all, is the meaning and morality of survival for its own sake?

Increasingly, however, I find myself conflicted. Antisemitism consciousness is again on the rise in the Jewish community, and I fear that in our haste to repudiate it, those of us critics of Judaisms built on survival and solidarity perhaps never really engaged with the seriousness of its claims. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, writing in 1967 – still in the shadow of the Shoah, and in the midst of feverish rising hostilities on Israel’s borders – wrote as follows:

“I confess I used to be highly critical of Jewish philosophies which seemed to advocate no more than survival for survival’s sake. I have changed my mind. I now believe that, in this present unbelievable age, even a mere collective commitment to Jewish group survival for its own sake is a momentous response, with the greatest implications. I am convinced that future historians will understand it, not as our present detractors would have it, as a tribal response – mechanism of a fossil, but rather as a profound, albeit fragmentary, act of faith, in an age of crisis to which the response might well have been either flight in total disarray or complete despair.”

I feel indicted by Fackenheim’s words, and I am concerned that inasmuch we have insisted that a previous generation’s survivalism was merely tribalism, we are left unprepared to grapple with the urgency of its moral message. We have been so convinced by the need for a post-crisis moral language that we failed to harvest the moral possibilities and legacies of a generation of Jews whose very survival was an extraordinary affirmation in light of more plausible alternatives. In our haste to insist that the morality of our predecessors was insufficient, did we simply not do the work in understanding it?

Worse than that, we also see now that antisemitism didn’t disappear; the only thing that has disappeared has been the capacity of our community to organize with some sense of shared resistance to it, a commitment – even if ‘secular’ in nature, even if only committed to survival for survival’s sake – to fight it as a collective. Antisemitism for American Jews today is just another datum in the partisan divide, and this is the worst of both worlds: the persistence of a pernicious hate, without even the gift of solidarity among Jews on the other side. Is it possible that in fixating on a moral alternative, we evacuated the useful and instructive moral message of what it was that we were rejecting?

But it’s not that I want survivalism and the crisis narrative to come back again as the organizing principle in American Jewish life, to swing the pendulum in the other direction to correct for the mistakes of having let it go too quickly. Survivalism is not only a set of fears and the framework for a moral response; it also brings with it an economy of actors and institutions who benefit when the energy and attention of our community fixates on self-preservation and political solidarity. Sometimes, in my more heretical moments, I feel angrier at anti-semites for warping our communal priorities than I even am at them for hating us and trying to destroy us. I feel in these moments affirmed by the Haggadah’s brash assertion that Lavan the Aramean was ‘worse’ than Pharoah, as he sought not merely to eradicate us physically but also to extinguish our spirit. When we become fixated on threats against us – on the enemies at the gates rather than on the covenant in the center of the camp – are we unwittingly complicit in our own demise?

I suppose that one of my hopes for Jewish education and Jewish leadership today is to find a deeper epistemological humility inside this swinging pendulum, more seekers of Jewish moral meaning of our most existential fears, a community of interpreters of our biggest political questions – committed more to the complexity found in imperfect solutions to Jewish problems than to advocacy for this tendentious choice or its radical alternative. We have to find ways to work on identifying the redeeming moral arguments behind the survival of the Jewish people just for survival’s sake, even as we hold alongside them our moral and sociologically-informed instincts that those arguments that fueled the Jewish past may not be sufficient to anchor a Jewishness for the Jewish future. I am not convinced that the most innovative and visionary leaders of the Jewish people are those that are capable of transcending the constraints and limitations of those that came before us. Jewish continuity has always been made possible through a weird hybrid of being forward-looking, and informed by the choices and mistakes of the past, all at the same time. It is possible that the survivalism of the 20thcentury – with its secular commitments to “Jewish peoplehood,” and the odd continuity for its own sake – have what to teach even those of us who are skeptical of their hegemony. To move beyond the crisis narrative – which I still believe we must urgently do – we may need to revisit it.

Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.