Tish’a B’Av (and counting)

I had planned to post yesterday for Tish’a B’Av. I started writing a post, but the draft didn’t save, and by the time I noticed the draft hadn’t saved, it was too late in my day to start again. It was going to be a barn-burner, too, an approving response to Rabbi Michael Lerner’s article on Salon.com, and his subsequent post at the Tikkun Magazine website, about how Israel is destroying Judaism as he knows it.

But then the draft didn’t save. (Side note to the WordPress admins: why is it easier to create a post where there won’t be an automatic save of the draft? Not a very friendly feature, I think.)

So here we are, Tish’a B’Av (and counting). (Using the Hebrew number isn’t going to get any search engine hits.)

I’m still going to talk about what I liked in Rabbi Lerner’s article. Simply put, he recognizes that Jewishness in the United States has become far too tied to Israel, and laments that.

So, I’ll quickly attach the caveats: 1) I’m not anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian or whatever you want to call it. But: 2) I’m not going to talk about Israeli politics, the offensives or ceasefires or whatever-else is happening in Gaza, the West Bank, or wherever.

What I am going to talk about is American Judaism. Because I think, unfortunately, Rabbi Lerner may be right: American Judaism may have created a too-central place–in American Jewish identity–for Israel.

(To be clear: I’m not suggesting there is One American Judaism–if only because, self-servingly, were I to say so, I would quite likely be pretty darned near to outside it. Rather, I mean by American Judaism to say “the broadest cognizable spectrum of American Jewish culture and religious practice from where I’m looking.” It would likely exclude some, or even most, Hasidic and “Litvishe” Haredi groups, as these tend to opt out of larger Jewish communal life.)

This too-central place for Israel is an entirely understandable thing, for many reasons. One issue is that we try to “learn lessons from history” (despite the fact that there are at least a few historians who warn us against a too-pat approach to that enterprise). One of those lessons? If we don’t have a homeland, someplace “safe” to go, we’re vulnerable. This is the core principle of Zionism: as a nation, we need a nation-state; only then can Jews be safe. That message did not take on the kind of nearly-universal assent it now holds until after World War II; then the message became very powerful, and for obvious reasons.

If we accept that narrative–and I see no reasons to really doubt the validity of that narrative in large part–we have the twinning of Israel and the Holocaust.

This is not problematic in itself–I don’t have any objection to the basic principle or narrative–but because of its broader effect on Jewish life. Namely, even for those of us who live in the secular and humanist areas of the Jewish world, Judaism has traditionally been described as relating to three poles (or stool-legs, or whatever): god, torah, and Israel. (The lowercase “g” and “t” are intentional, to allow those concepts to be as broad as they really are in American Jewish thought.) Yet as we have prospered in the United States and seen Israel do likewise, the American Jewish community has largely set aside the god and torah portions of Jewish discourse.

My point here is not to come out of the closet as a traditional Jewish theist. (Y’all, that’s just not happening.) Rather, it’s to point out that threads of a conversation have been lost, and those threads are a significant part of what makes Judaism in all its forms distinct from a kind of generic, textual, Western tradition with some level of engagement with what Paul Tillich would call “ultimate concerns.” (For what it’s worth, I think the torah and Israel facets of this are of greater importance in defining the conversation than god, which I see in Jewish discourse as often generated from and dependent upon the other two threads.)

The upshot of this is that American Judaism, both in response to the opening of possibilities and in defense against the possible closing of those possibilities, has invested itself most heavily not in merely secular matters but in expressly and primarily geopolitical matters.

That change in focus is the source of Rabbi Lerner’s despair. That is to say, I don’t think Israel is “murdering Judaism.” Rather, it’s that American Jews have taken much of what makes Judaism distinctive out of the equation by focusing so strongly on Israel and the Holocaust. (And let’s be clear–however much we need to resist Nazi analogies and myriad other argumentative sins, most American Jews acknowledge that there is some deep relationship between 1945 and 1948.)

This all happened largely without us noticing. It happened in stages: slowly between 1948 and 1967, then with increasing momentum after 1967, and with a tremendous push forward in 1973. And that progress is, it turns out, largely parallel to the emergence of American Jewish discussion of the Holocaust. (Those still with me: read Peter Singer’s The Holocaust in American Life. It’s an eye-opening work of history and historiography. Or, heck, just get an introductory book on Holocaust theology and see how until the mid-1960s, there was essentially no such thing as Holocaust theology until Richard Rubenstein published his book, After Auschwitz.)

We’re leaning in the American Jewish community too heavily on one leg of the stool, whereas a broadly healthy Jewish conversation places a little more weight on the torah and god aspects of the discussion. It was easy to do because the Israelis and Holocaust survivors were our heroes–people wanted to hear and to see and to interact on those issues. (Many still do, but there’s lots of talk about the last decade’s diminishing attendance at Holocaust Memorial and Israeli Independence celebrations.)

But the result of the imbalance is, in its extreme manifestations, isolation of Jews from Jewish life because they don’t share a position on Israel that comports with their local communities–that is, investment in a specific geopolitical view of what it means to be Jewish is becoming a kind of litmus test on Jewish identity. In less extreme forms, it’s sometimes a bit too much global farsightedness, sending efforts and money to Israel while American Jews suffer because many Jewish organizations are only now starting to acknowledge the social services needs of many non-elderly American Jews.

So I have to disagree with Rabbi Lerner’s diagnosis. By having failed to make the other aspects of the Jewish conversation interesting and attractive, we’ve sent American Judaism off kilter. (The issue I won’t address–how is it, exactly, that one country could kill a broad spectrum of ideologies? But that’s the hyperbolic nature of the article’s title.)

A sobering thought this season: Israel isn’t murdering American Judaism. But we may be doing that just fine on our own.

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