If you’ve ever tried to explain being Jewish to an outsider, it’s complicated.
You’re sitting on an airplane, and the fellow sitting beside you sees you’re reading a Jewish book and he asks you, Excuse me, but could I ask you something: Are you Jewish?
Yes, very much so.
I’m Christian. I love my church. I go every Sunday. You must go to synagogue every Saturday?
No, not every Saturday. Only on holidays and special occasions.
But you’re really Jewish? Don’t you need to pray?
Well, but it’s complicated. There are lots of ways to be Jewish. My family is more cultural than religious.
You do believe in God, don’t you? The Jews are God’s people, right?
Well, it’s complicated.
Israel must be important to you?
Yes, Israel is very important.
I’ve never fully understood that. How come Jews are committed to Israel?
Israel is our homeland; where it all started.
Homeland? But you live here, in America.
Yes, I’m live here, but Israel is my homeland.
Have you been there, to Israel?
I went when I was in high school, and the last year, we took our kids for a visit.
So, Israel is your homeland, but you’ve only been there twice in your life.
Yes, as I said, it’s complicated.
But you took your kids to the holy land? That must have made a big impression. I bet they’re deeply committed to your faith!
Well, it’s complicated.
The truth is, it is complicated. It’s frustrating trying to explain our Jewish lives.
So let’s draw a map. This is based on ideas suggested by my friend Rabbi Donniel Hartman.
The Jewish story begins in the Bible, in the book of Genesis. God chooses Abraham, and he puts Abraham through tests and trials. When he has passed every one, God makes a covenant with Abraham’s descendants. It’s in Genesis 22:
“I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes. All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you obeyed My command.”
Abraham’s obedience earns a blessing for his descendants. But they don’t have to do anything to gain that blessing. It’s not earned. There are no commandments to follow. Just by virtue of being a descendant, they are blessed. As if to test the proposition, all of characters we meet in Genesis, all of Abraham’s descendants, are deeply flawed. There is not one tzadik, one moral hero in the bunch. Jacob steals the birthright from his brother, his sons attempt fratricide against their brother, Joseph. Joseph parades about in his Technicolor coat. Not much there to admire. That’s the point of Genesis – the blessing is inherited, no matter what we do.
This is a narrative of identity -- Genesis Judaism. We are bnai Yisrael, literally, the children of Israel, of Jacob, and through him, of Abraham. We are family, and we’re proud of that. We were born into this family. We do anything to earn or deserve our membership. We are members of the family and that carries only one obligation, only one duty – to protect the family.
When we turn to the Bible’s next book, to Exodus, we find a different narrative. In Exodus 19, we stand at the foot of Mt Sinai and accept God’s covenant:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully, and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Exodus introduces a new word into the conversation: “if.” If you will obey… This covenant is conditional. Something is demanded of us. Identity is bound to the fulfillment of obligations. Jewish is not something you are; it’s something you do. The tradition counts 613 commandments, mitzvot. 613 is a made-up number: it’s the 248 parts of the body plus 365 days a year. To be a Jew, in this Exodus model, is to serve God with every limb of the body, every moment of life.
This Exodus Judaism is built upon our core narrative – we were slaves in the land of Egypt and God brought us out from there to a Promised Land. As slaves in Egypt, we experienced ultimate social invisibility. We were unseen, unvalued, inconsequential, socially erased. The bitterness of slavery stayed with us, and an exquisite social ethic grew from it. Egyptian slavery taught to see the Other, and to see ourselves in the Other, to identify with the pain and plight of the Other. This is an ethic of empathy: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex 23:5) Exodus Judaism is an identity rooted in moral aspiration, a social vision for the world. To be a Jew is to build a world where no human being is ever relegated to invisibility.
These two dimensions of Jewish identity -- Genesis Judaism and Exodus Judaism live side by side in us, as they coexist side by side in the Bible…but not easily. The Bible’s drama flows from God’s struggle to impose Exodus Judaism on a people firmly planted in a Genesis Jewish identity. Look at the Haftarah we read on Yom Kippur morning, from Isaiah 58.
The prophet, Isaiah, sits up on the walls of the Temple, and watches the rituals of Yom Kippur. The citizens of Jerusalem come up and offer their sacrifices, and then they complain that the holiday hasn’t the impact it once had:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see;
when we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Like the truculent child forced to come to a family dinner – “I’m here, now give me my Hannukah present” -- the Israelites came to do Yom Kippur out of family obligation. These are good Genesis Jews. Their rituals are an affirmation of their place in the family. These are gestures of belonging, of ethnic solidarity. They transmit affiliation from one generation to the next. The rituals are performed carefully, but with no religious depth. They have no effect.
Witnessing this, the prophet explodes. The prophet lives a different Judaism, an Exodus Judaism. For him, Judaism is not about ethnic pride. Judaism is a moral vision, with an unyielding sense of moral responsibility.
“Is this the fast that I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
You call that a fast?
No, this is the fast that I desire –
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free; to break every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to offer clothing,
And not to ignore your own kin.
In the late 19th century, each of these Judaism’s gave rise to its own version of Zionism. Theodor Herzl was the quintessential Genesis Jew. He knew little Judaism, and practiced less, but carried a deep sense of Jewish belonging. Herzl recognized that Emancipation had failed Europe’s Jews. Emancipation offered Jews the opportunity to enter European society as equals. It struck a bargain – give up all that separates you from the majority, and you will be accepted. So Jews gave up all the expressions of their separateness, in dress and language, custom, even religion. But still they met a wall of rejection, a wall of anti-Semitism.
Herzl’s moment of truth came during the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. A Jews who reached the rank of captain in the French Army, and a posting in the General Staff headquarters, Dreyfus was falsely accused to treason, of giving over secrets to the Germans. On the 5th of January in 1895, Dreyfus was convicted, stripped of his rank, and exiled to Devil’s Island. Herzl covered the story as a reporter for the Vienna New Free Press. What traumatized him was that the mob wasn’t shouting, “Death to the Traitor,” or even “Death to Dreyfus,” but “Death to the Jews.” If Jews were not accepted in liberal France, he concluded, they would not be safe anywhere.
Anti-Semitism had plagued Europe’s Jewish people since the rise of Christianity. Herzl perceived that modern anti-Semitism was different. Christianity would never destroy all the Jews. Christianity needed Jews as visible evidence for their narrative. Modern anti-Semitism had no such need. Modernity could anticipate a final solution to the Jewish problem. Herzl lived with the burning awareness that the Jews of Europe were in immediate peril. He saw Auschwitz in his dreams. He launched a manic effort to secure a state for the Jewish people – an effort that would kill him at age 33. All to get the Jews out of Europe, away from the plague of death he knew was coming. In this world, he lamented, might makes right. Jews could argue tirelessly for their rights as human beings, as Europeans, and as citizens. But without the power to defend ourselves, the power that only comes with sovereignty, we will not survive.
In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress to start the political process that might bring his vision to reality. Sitting in the back of the hall at that First Congress, was a curmudgeon with a different vision. Asher Zvi Ginsburg, was a Russian Jew, who wrote under the pseudonym, Ahad Ha-Am, one of the people.
If Herzl was the quintessential Genesis Jew, Ahad Ha-Am was the archetypical Exodus Jew. He received a traditional education in Eastern Europe. He was an illui, he mastered the entire Talmudic tradition while still a boy. And then he got the keys to the community’s library, where he taught himself a dozen languages, and read European literature, science, philosophy.
Ahad Ha-Am understood Judaism as a culture -- as a vision of the world, way of life, a body of ideas. He perceived that Jewish culture was dying. In the Bible, Judaism was a moral code touching every aspect of life. In diaspora, we have shrunk Judaism down to religion, down to the regulation of pots and pans, rule for constructing a Sukkah, what’s kosher for Passover this year. Diaspora has choked the life out of Judaism. Judaism, argued Ahad Ha-Am, will stagnate and die until it is challenged to engage the real problems of contemporary life – economic justice, war and peace, the rights of individuals. The purpose of Zionism is to save Jews, but to save Judaism. What we need is not just a state where Jews live. But a Jewish state – a state whose national life, whose policies, whose culture are shaped the values and aspirations of Jewish culture. In a truly Jewish state, Judaism will come alive in new ways and will enliven the entire Jewish world.
We lived with two kinds of Judaism, and two kinds of Zionism, until the Holocaust.
The Holocaust proved Herzl right. The Holocaust elevated survival above all other Jewish values. Survival became our prime imperative, our only mitzvah.
The Holocaust justified the founding of Israel, and continues to be at the heart of its narrative. Why does Israel exist? To protect the Jewish people. Every state visit to Israel of a dignitary of any note begins with a trip to Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the Holocaust. Yom Hashoah is celebrated the week before Yom Ha-Atzmaut.
Following the trauma of the Holocaust, the Jewish family around the world, was so deeply wounded, we desperately needed a symbol of life, of resurrection, of renewal. Israel has become that symbol – the salve that heals the deep wound of the Holocaust destruction. Israel lives at the heart of our identity as a sacred symbol that our family lives. A Jew today can deny God, deny the truth of Torah, deny tradition, and still be counted a faithful Jew. But denying Israel as the Jewish homeland will bring expulsion and exclusion from the Jewish community.
The Holocaust proved Herzl right, and even we who live in the Promised Land of American freedom, even we see the world through Herzl’s eyes. We see the world as unimaginably dangerous for Jews. And we accept our duty to defend our own. We slip so easily into binary vision, with no room for nuance -- you’re either with us, or you’re against us. Survival is our mitzvah. All else, most especially Ahad Ha-Am’s call for a state rooted in Jewish moral aspiration, has been set aside.
Until this summer. During this Summer’s controversy over the Iran Nuclear Agreement, the Jewish community split almost evenly. But if we factor out age and generation, it turns out that younger Jews overwhelmingly supported the agreement. Despite the vocal opposition of nearly all of the organized Jewish community, as well as Israel’s leadership, young Jews supported the President. This portends a profound change in our Jewish conversation.
There are those of us who remember the Six Day War. We grew up with an Israel that was vulnerable and endangered. There are those who were raised among the survivors of the Holocaust, whose stories are part of our own memories. There are those of us who have known anti-Semitism – the foul word, the prejudiced glance, the closed door. We don’t take for granted that we are the first generation of diaspora Jews who have never feared a knock at the door in the middle of the night. For us, the instincts of Genesis Judaism to defend our family are strong. For us, the warnings of Herzl are poignant. We live with a constant undertone of insecurity. We know how quickly a liberal society can turn hateful. We have an exquisite sensitivity for dangers that lurk beneath the surface of genteel society. Call it PTSD. Having been through the worst trauma in human history just a generation ago, we carry in our genes a quality of suspicion and fear.
But our children have none of these memories and none of these suspicions. They don’t live with our insecurities. They’ve never experienced a moment of prejudice or rejection. America’s democracy, its tolerance and pluralism are permanent features of their reality. The Israel they grew up with has always been overwhelmingly strong. In their experience, Israel’s problem is not its vulnerability but its power; the ethical dilemmas of occupation, and the conduct of warfare. The Israel they grew up has not been pristine. Sabra and Shatila, Baruch Goldstein, Yigal Amir – their Israel bears the faults of violence, extremism, intolerance, even brutality. They don’t resonate to Herzl’s Zionism, to the Zionism of Jewish survival. If our talk about Israel is all about fear, they will not respond.
They don’t resonate with our Genesis Judaism. They don’t see themselves born into the age-old Jewish family. They are born into the human family. They reserve the right to choose to be Jewish. They don’t feel themselves responsible for the Jewish family. They are universalists before they are particularists. They are focused outward toward the world, not inward to the family. And if they accept Judaism, it is not as an inheritance, a place at the family table. They look to Judaism as a vision of the world, a body of ideas, a moral aspiration. If they choose to be Jewish, it is as Exodus Jews, not Genesis Jews like their parents. Judaism is not about loyalty to the family. Judaism is about remaking the world.
This is a different Judaism than many of us are accustomed to.
Rabbi Schulweis discovered this by accident. When he established the Jewish World Watch, he got all kinds of resistance from older Jews. Why do you care about Darfur? You should care about Jews in trouble! The people who took to Jewish World Watch the quickest, and with the most enthusiasm, were young people. High schoolers, college students, young adults, were waiting for a Judaism that reflected, not inward on the Jewish family, but outward, on the world and its suffering. Their Judaism is not a survival mechanism, but an activism to do tikkun olam.
Younger Jews do not support Israel reflexively, instinctually, as their parents did. They expect more of Israel, than ask more of Israel. They are critical of Israel when Israel does not live up to the values we taught them – equality, pluralism, the pursuit of peace, the pursuit of justice. When they do find these values in Israel, they will fight passionately for Israel’s place in the world. That’s how the BDS movement has been defeated on campus after campus. Not by asserting Israel’s right to exist, but by asserting its dreams for democracy and equality. They are Zionists, but they are Ahad Ha-Am Zionists. Israel is the sovereign expression of a Jewish moral aspiration and a Jewish vision of the world.
This will be the new/old language of Jewish life. It is a language we must learn to speak. When I was young, I planted trees in Israel. It took 20 dimes, two dollars. I babysat my brothers, saved Hannuka gelt, did my chores, and gathered my 20 dimes, then filled out the card and sent it in to the JNF. I received back a certificate that my tree was dutifully planted in downtown Jerusalem, and I could go visit anytime. I had a stake in the land of Israel. I was engaged in the process of making Israel.
If we want our children attached to Jewish life, if we want them to feel they have a stake in Israel, we have to engage them. We need to talk together. And we need to listen.
If you sit with your children at the close of the holiday and you ask them why younger Jews are not engaged in Jewish life, why they don’t attend the synagogue or stand up to defend Israel, they will roll their eyes and dismiss you with a curt, “Whatever!” But if you engage them and ask them,
What should be the Jewish response to a half million Syrian refugees stranded on Europe’s borders?
What should be the Jewish response to the “Black Lives Matter” campaign? What do Jews hold in common with African Americans seeking visibility in American culture?
What should the Jewish community do to address the problem of income inequality in America?
What should a Jewish state be like? What does it mean to have a Jewish state?
Ask these questions, and you will see a light shine in their eyes. They are only waiting for us to ask.
I know what you’re thinking….Rabbi, so many are alienated, distant, uninvolved? How can this be the beginning of something significant?
It’s a good Genesis Jewish questions: How many? What will be the demographic implication of this? But that’s not the only way to perceive this.
In Exodus we were taught that counting Jews is forbidden. Moses was told by God: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one my pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no mishap will come on them when you number them.” (Ex 30:12)
According to the Torah, we don’t count Jews. King David once held a census, and disaster struck his kingdom. If you need to count the population, you have each one bring a half-shekel, and you count the coins. You don’t count Jews, you count their contributions.
This is the Exodus understanding -- To be Jewish is to be asked to give, to contribute, to make a difference, to be a blessing to the world. And when it comes to these kinds of contributions, it isn’t the number that counts, it’s the passion, commitment, dedication. Jews aren’t counted by the size of our numbers. They are counted by the magnitude of our aspiration. And no one in human history has had bigger dreams than us.
Abraham Joshua Heschel reflected this truth:
The significance of Judaism does not lie in its being conducive to the mere survival but rather in its being a source of spiritual wealth, and source of meaning relevant to all peoples. Survival, mere continuation of being is a condition man has in common with animals. Characteristic of humanity is concern for what to do with survival. To be or not to be is not the question. How to be and how not to be is the question.
How to be and how not to be. This is the question that will open a new era in Jewish life.
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