Tag Archives: American Judaism

The Legacy of American Judaism

1. Intro

Years ago, I was contemplating taking a summer job working with Jewish American teens in the US. Even though it was a fairly simple summer job I none the less debated whether it was the right “path” to take or whether I should invest my time and energy in educational endeavors in Israel. When discussing the issue with one of my rabbis, he asked me why I wanted to go. I answered that it would allow me to teach and promote a stronger relationship between American Jewish kids and The Land and State of Israel and therefor promote Aliyah (immigration to Israel). He responded that, “though indeed that is the only legitimate reason to leave, logic dictates that for that exact reason you should stay in Israel”. He explained that the largest waves of Aliyah have not occurred due to the educational efforts of individuals, rather due to large scale changes in Israel itsStatueOf Libertyelf; the settling of the land during the first decades of the Zionist movement, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Six Day War and the financial boom of the 1990’s. “If you really care about American Jews and want them to come to Israel – stay here and make Israel better”. When I asked “what about the meantime; what about all the Jews who will be lost – intermarried and assimilated – between now and the time when Israel can just draw them in?”. He looked me squarely in the eyes and said: “that’s not your problem”. With time, I learned that my rabbi’s answer, which shocked me at the time, was simply an expression of a deeply seeded approach towards world Jewry.

Throughout the past 20 years, during which I have made it my “problem”, I’ve found myself from time to time revisiting that exchange, wondering about its premise – that the only reason to invest in American Jewry is for the sake of promoting Aliyah (in one way or another). At the same time, as I was increasingly exposed to American Jewry and American Judaism, a question began to develop, a nagging quarry that lay right beneath the surface of everything I saw and did. It has taken me years to realize that it wasn’t to do with the specific congregation where I served as the Rabbi or the summer camp I directed or the post secondary Yeshiva where I taught or the Yeshiva High School I am the principal of. There was an underlining question that has always been there waiting to finally be fully grasped and articulated:

“What is/will be the Legacy of American Judaism?”

In order to best explain what I mean by “The Legacy of American Judaism”, though, I need to present several prefaces.


2. Dual centers

For the past 50 years we find ourselves in a situation that has occurred only a small number of times in Jewish History, where the overwhelming majority of World Jewry is concentrated in 2 major centers. It’s happened with Israel and Babylon during the 3rd to 5th centuries, with Spain and Ashkenaz (Germany and Northern France) during the 12th to 14th centuries and (one could argue) again with Eastern and Western Europe in the 17th to 19th centuries. Each one of these distinct communities has uniquely contributed to the development of the Jewish People. Be it through major creativity in the development of Torah scholarship, major societal changes or new movements within Judaism. Though none of these locations continues to serve as a center for Jews or Judaism – Israel being the obvious exception – they have left rich legacies, deeply and forever embedded in the communal Jewish identity and existence.


3. American Jewry as a Center

Consider America Jewry. When in Jewish History has there been such a large concentration of Jews for so long a period of time? Jews have been living in America since 1654, when a group of Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil – in wake of the Portuguese invasion – requested and were granted entrance into New Amsterdam. Soon after, in 1678, they established a Jewish cemetery and in 1695, a Shul. By 1730 the young Jewish Community had built the first Shul in America – She’erit Yisrael. 100 years later there were approximately 2000 Jews living in 5 different cities – each with their own community and Shul. 100 years later, numbers swelled to approximately 200,000  and so on after that, with the waves of mass immigration and the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries – millions.

Sheerit Israel shul

First American Congregation – Sheerit Israel 1654

For over 350 years, the Jewish Community in America has grown and flourished becoming one of the largest Jewish communities in history, numbering today anywhere between 5.5 to 6.5 million (depending on who and how you count). Furthermore, the Jewish Community has integrated so deeply into the story of America itself that one could easily identify the truth in the revealing words of American Vice President Joe Biden that “Jewish Heritage is American Heritage” as well as the words of President Eisenhower who, in describing the intent of the founding fathers, identified the American Government as rooted in “The Judeo-Christian concept“. One cannot deny that in our generation we are once again experiencing this “dual center” phenomena – Israel and the US.


4. Why the Answer Matters

Throughout my life, growing up in Israel, I was taught to think of America solely as ‘Galut’ (exile) and of American Jewry as divided into two groups – those who will, sooner or later, make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel) and those who will intermarry and completely assimilate. There was no third possibility. The logic of this thinking lay in a deeply rooted theological belief that the divinely orchestrated and miraculous survival of the Jewish People throughout the long and dark exile was necessary due to Jewish statelessness and powerlessness. Now that, through divine providence, we have returned to Israel – to sovereignty and self rule – the divine protection of the Jewish People is no longer necessary or justified, as the purpose of that very survival is now coming to fruition in Israel. The Jewish Collective has been reborn, making protection of Jewish identity outside Israel not only unnecessary but even counterproductive.

As I became increasingly exposed to the various facets of American Jewry and the degree to which America and “its” Jews have become intertwined, I began to think about the issue differently. To best explain my personal paradigm shift I will use an important Israeli example – the attitude towards secular Jews.

Ben Gurion and The Chazon Ish

Ben Gurion and The Chazon Ish – the empty and full wagons

The classic Charedi (ultra Orthodox) approach has always been that of the “empty wagon”. Enlightenment, Secularism and heresy are not things of substance, rather, are an absence of faith. They are foreign influences which should be categorically rejected. Traditional Judaism, on the other hand, is the “full wagon” as it is filled with thousands of years worth of faith, heritage, traditions and way of life and when two wagons meet on a narrow path, the empty wagon must give way to the full wagon. The response to Secularism, according to this approach, has been to see no value in what the secular world had to offer. At best, they were willing to fill the ’empty wagon’ with the contents from the ‘full wagon’ but it was absolutely a one way street (or is at least proclaimed as such).

The second approach, that of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, identifies the events of history – first and foremost those of the Jewish collective – as one of the primary tools through which the Will of the Divine Providence appears. Enlightenment, Secularism and heresy are things of substance meant to advance, cleanse and purify the Jewish People (and through them the rest of the world and humanity). Though Rav Kook acknowledges the damage such phenomena may bring in their wake, he sees them as temporary collateral damage, similar to those of growth pains or even childbirth. As a consequence, Rav Kook’s approach towards secularism and secularists was one of inclusion, focusing less on the “exterior” of what was being verbalized and more on the internal process these elements were serving – the rebirth of the Jewish Collective in the Land of Israel – the third redemption. In many places in his writings, Rav Kook analyzes the processes that were taking place in his time and that would shape the future. He focused on the complex ambivalence towards individuals and groups who – in speech and action – seemed far from traditional Judaism but would ultimately realize and identify that the ideals in whose name they have been working so hard and in whose name they were rejecting traditional Judaism, can – and should – be realized through traditional Judaism itself. It is “our” job to identify and expose the “sparks”, the correct, positive and even divine elements of these social, political and theological phenomena, allowing the secularists to “find their way back” to traditional Judaism.

This approach of Rav Kook has, for decades, served as the primary theological approach of the Religious Zionist movement in Israel resulting in a positive approach and full cooperation with secular Zionism. Varying degrees of ambivalence towards individuals and individual actions continued to be an inherent component of the Religious Zionist philosophy. (The fact that this approach was patronizing, to say the least, did not escape the Religious Zionist community’s attention but did not detract from the conviction of its truth).

As the decades went by since Rav Kook, it became increasingly troubling that the expected “return” to traditional Judaism had not taken place. The majority of Jews in Israel were secular and seemed very comfortable with the idea. Things were made worse when not only did Religious Zionism not seem to gain numbers beyond natural growth, but many Religious Zionist youth began gravitating “out” to secular society. Additionally, as the Religious Zionist community began participating in the political leadership of the state they found themselves ill equipped to deal with many of its challenges. Most of all, though, it was getting increasingly difficult to reconcile the dichotomy between the external words and ideals of secular Israel and the “internal process” of the return to the land and nationhood. Nowhere was this more evident than in the approach of the Religious Zionist community to the question of “Land for Peace”. Ever since the question presented itself – primarily following the six day war – they have been caught between the “inner” process (the return of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel) and the “outer” one (cooperating with the Secular Jews who are, supposedly, fulfilling those same internal goals regardless of what they say and do). Similar difficulties presented themselves in questions such as “Who is a Jew” in relation to the Law of Return, conversion laws as well as the status of Shabbat in the public domain. Reality was not behaving as anticipated and expected.

Due to these, as well as several other factors, a fundamental shift and revisiting of Rav Kook has been taking place in the past 15 to 20 years. There is a growing understanding that it is not just a matter of “them” realizing that the truths they hold so dear can – and eventually must – be found with “us”, the keepers of their long lost tradition. There is a growing understanding that just as the re-awakening of the Jewish Collective through statehood and sovereignty require and force “them” to rethink their assumptions and understanding of Judaism, Jewish identity and tradition, it requires no less from us, even if in a different way. The result has been that the past 10 years have seen a significant shuffling in what one could call Israel’s undefined “denominational lines”. Different segments of Israeli society have been searching together for something new, something which encompasses the truth and the best from all worlds and times. The realization has hit that “they” are not “going” anywhere, rather that we are all going somewhere new together.

I’d like to suggest that the same is true for the perspective on American Jewry. For decades, the official Zionist approach to all Jews outside of Israel was an accusatory one, expecting them to drop everything and ‘return home’. The rhetoric ranged from emphasis on past, present and future antisemitism to fear of intermarriage and assimilation – cultural and ethnic.AliyahAs the decades since the establishment of The State of Israel went by, it became increasingly troubling that the expected ‘return home’ did not take place. At least not from the US. For sure, many Jews from around the world came back but most were doing so from countries and societies where their were far worse off than they would be in the State of Israel. Since 1920 until today, less than 150,000 American Jews have made Aliyah to Israel representing around 0.02% of the entire Jewish community in the US. And they seem to be very comfortable with the idea. It does not help that between the years 1948 and today over 200,000 Israelis have immigrated out of Israel to the US, with some putting the numbers at more than double that. Additionally, Israeli culture has been – and continues to be – heavily influenced by American morals, ideals and culture. Most of all, at least for me personally, is the fact that American Jewry continues to not only exist but also to flourish. (I will not get into the question of rates of intermarriage and assimilation as the question is far, far more complex than people make it out to be. Additionally, it is by no means just a question of numbers. Anyone well versed in the study of Contemporary American Jewry knows that though rates of intermarriage grow in the periphery of American Jewry, the “core” is getting stronger. Especially in the past 10-15 years. Those who are choosing to stay, are far more serious about doing so than in the past. This phenomena is true to all Jewish denominations. Additionally, a growing number of even intermarried families are maintaining some relationship with Jewish identity. For those interested, more detail can be found here). The fact that it is possible to live a seemingly full and rich Jewish life, while also maintaining a strong relationship with the State of Israel has been increasingly weighing on my ability to continue seeing all of American Jewry as nothing more that living on suspended time. Once again, reality does not seem to be behaving as expected. Here too, I believe, there needs to be a shift from what “we” need to teach “them” about themselves and Judaism (that it is the best thing for them to come home whether they realize it or not) to a larger question, one that needs to be figured out together.

American Jewry is not going anywhere anytime soon. The thought that a community of 5.5 million Jews is not worthy of serious contemplation beyond “they are a passing phenomena” is anywhere between naive and questioning the divine’s guidance of Jewish History. This is not to say I don’t believe that the ideal place for all Jews is Israel. I most certainly do. This is not to say that I don’t think American Jewry will be harshly judged by Jewish History for their “armchair Zionism” rather then joining in in body and not just in heart and soul. I most certainly do. This is not to say I don’t believe that American Jewry is now far, far more dependent on Israel’s existence for the sake of their self identification than the opposite. I very much believe that. None of that changes the fact that American Jewry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and that, as a community, they have a distinct identity which has contributed and will, for the foreseeable future, continue to contribute to the development and progression of the Jewish People. And none of that changes the fact that there is a growing sentiment that Jewish Identity in Israel has unresolved issues. There are things American Jewry need from us – a home to return to and a national consciousness – but there are things we need from them as well. What are those things?
Within the answer to that question, I believe, lay the understanding of the role and eventually, the legacy, of American Jewry. The question goes beyond historical curiosity and touches upon a fundamental question of faith in Hashem’s providence in history. I believe that such a marvelous and possibly unique phenomena in Jewish history must have something important, even vital, for the Jewish future.


5. Achievements vs. Legacy

Before I take a very presumptuous attempt at answering the question of the Legacy of American Jewry it is important to distinguish it from the achievements of American Jewry. If we were considering the achievements of American Jewry we would mention things such as:

-Paving the way for America being a place of religious tolerance and freedom

– Serving as a safe haven from the European destruction through the absorption of approximately 2.5 million Jews between 1880 and the 1930’s.

– Extensive Support for the Jewish community in Israel during WW1

– Support surrounding the establishment and continued success of The State of Israel through both major financial and political support.

– Significant participation in and contribution to the Civil Rights Movement

– The fight for Soviet Jewry

– Imparting Jewish ideals, values and standards into mainstream American culture and society; distant past, recent past and present

All these are, no doubt, significant accomplishments which American Judaism should be proud of but I do not believe they will have a lasting impact on the Jewish Collective. Most, if not all, of these events would have taken place regardless of American Judaism’s efforts. Soviet Jews would have, eventually, been let out anyway. The Civil Rights movement would have succeeded even without the high percentage of Jews in it. The State of Israel would have been established with or without their support and so on. These events serve more as internal landmarks for American Jewry itself, rallying points, helping it form and define its identity. Will they have a long lasting effect on Jewish History and on Jewish Identity? Do any of these achievements hold within them a new message or a fundamental development to be shared with and adopted by The Jewish People throughout history? I do not believe so.


6. Legacy Suggestion

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in something that has permeated throughout American Jewry’s existence so well and that we take so much for granted that it is hiding in plain sight. Tight nit communities have been a trademark of our existence for close to two thousand years. These community structures supplied most all of the needs of their members, including everything from education to welfare to religious services to leisure activities and much more. The communities served as both a protective shield from a hostile world as well as a societal “green house” allowing for religious and cultural existence and growth.

Both Jewish centers – Israel and the US – presented a shift in this age old model. Whereas in the past Jews had no choice but to live in insular communities due to persecution and various levels of antisemitism, in the US – possibly for the first time in over 1500 years of exile – Jews were free to live how they chose while being fully accepted into the general population. The freedoms given to Jews from the moment they set foot on American soil and have accompanied them ever since, have created a Jewish Community which very well may be completely unique in Jewish History.

Discrimination and persecution, the foremost challenges confronting most diaspora Jews through the ages, have in America been less significant historical factors than have democracy, liberty of conscience, church-state separation, and voluntarism. Emancipation from legally imposed anti-Jewish restrictions, and the penetration of secular “enlightenment” ideas into Jews’ traditional religious culture, central themes of Jewish history in Europe, have also been far less central to the history of the Jews in the United States. Expulsions, concentration camps, and extermination, of course, have never been part of American Jewish history. By contrast, in America, as nowhere else to the same degree, Judaism has had to adapt to a religious environment shaped by the denominational character of American Religions, the canons of free market competition, the ideals of freedom, and the reality of diversity (Dr. Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism)

This has resulted in a Jewish Community based purely on volunteerism. No external coercion – in the form of discriminatory laws, physical harm or foreign religious persuasion – have been part of the American Jewish experience. American Jews are free to choose if and to what degree to be, feel and act Jewish with no repercussions beyond their own private lives. Put otherwise, what is amazing is not that so many Jews in America have intermarried and assimilated. What is amazing is that so many did not! rather, they chose – despite having no coercion of any kind – to remain connected to their Jewish identity and tradition.

In Israel, on the other hand, Zionism sought to do away with the “exilic” model of the Shtetle and replace it with the national identity through sovereignty of a people in its land. What need is there for the Jewish Community when a Jewish State exists? The State of Israel saw itself as responsible not only for the safety and economy of the Jewish People but also of Jewish identity. This included not only religious services such as Shuls, Jewish Education, Mikva’ot (ritual bath houses) and Kashrut, all of which were now funded by the state but also general culture, community centers, language and even sports. The feeling was that there is no longer a need for the smaller societal circle of the community. The single individual and The Nation were to be enough. Except, they weren’t. In the past 20 years we see Israel experiencing a dramatic return to the communal model. A plethora of organizations, institutions and initiatives have been popping up throughout the country recreating the community dynamic. Examples include such things as the establishment of many small Yishuvim in the Negev and the Gallil, catering to various “specialty” forms of living, such as environmentalism, religious diversity or even the arts. Private and semi private schools, focusing on various specialty educational models, are an growing phenomenon. People are willing to pay large amounts of money to have their kids part of these separate school communities, despite excellent options in the public system. To be clear, these do not refer necessarily to religious schools, rather to schools which serve as a response to demand by the general public. Other examples for the return to the communal model can be found in the many lay learning groups, social communes and city “Kibbutzim” so prevalent in recent years and even in the speed in which people find themselves joining social network groups and forums devoted to various causes. All these phenomena demonstrate the degree to which people are no longer looking exclusively to the State or society at large  for a sense of identity. There is a need for an intermediary circle, larger than the individual but smaller than the nation for a person to discover and express themselves.

Based on all this, I’d suggest that the legacy of American Jewry is the communal and congregational structures within a pluralistic and liberal society that can then be transplanted to the framework of The Jewish State. Imagine an entire nation having a deep rooted sense of “if I don’t take responsibility for my own Jewish identity – no one will” coupled with the safety net of living in a Jewish State which promotes Jewish life and values through its mere existence and where there is not even the possibility of any real assimilation and persecution.

What was (and remains) for American Jewry a method of survival can become the tool through which The Jewish People – as an independent and sovereign society in the State of Israel – launch forward to a much richer, much more comprehensive Jewish life, penetrating through all levels of identity – the individual, the communal and the national.

 


7. Conclusion

The fact that Israel has what to teach and give American Jewry has been clear and evident for many years and will only continue to grow. But Israeli society is mature and confident enough to recognize that it has what to learn from American Jewry, as well. Continuing to adopt and develop the communal structure in Israel, while translating it to the unique Israeli setting, will not only serve to enhance the Jewish identity of many individuals who are searching for it but will also promote a better understanding of American Jewry, a wider platform for communication and cooperation and – influence.

One could only hope that as Israeli society becomes enriched through the “hand-off” of the communal model so carefully protected and developed by American Jewry, American Jewry realizes in turn that a whole new – and far more significant – legacy is only now beginning to form and its promise and potential extend far beyond the here and now and into the realm of the loftiest dreams and yearnings of our people.

בינו שנות דור ודור – let none of us be caught on the wrong side of history.

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