Continuity: Wrong and Right Answers

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Quite a stir ensued at a recent American Jewish Committee symposium in Washington when Israeli novelist A.B.Yehoshua called the hosting organization’s 100-year record “a great failure” and opined that Jews in the United States cannot live genuinely Jewish lives. Only in Israel, the celebrated writer asserted, can a truly Jewish life be expressed, and only the Jewish state can ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Reaction was quick and spirited. Many of Yehoshua’s American listeners were scandalized – New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier accused him of “insist[ing] on narrowing [Jewish religion, culture and literature] down to Israeliness.” And Israeli commentators took Yehoshua to task as well for, what the Jerusalem Post’s Uri Dan characterized as, “the stupidity” of the novelist’s remarks.

Citing the work of Israel Democracy Institute’s Professor Aryeh Carmon, Forward editor J.J. Goldberg perceptively framed the brouhaha as the yield of a conceptual divide. With the destruction of Jewish Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, asserts Carmon, Israeli Jews “inherited” the Jewish identity expressed through daily life in an identifiably Jewish environment; and American Jews, the experience of Jewishness as a “way of looking at things.”

Writes Goldberg: “It ought to be obvious… that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way – joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different.”

Different, to be sure, but “merely” may not do justice to the yawning gulf between the two. More critical, though, the suggestion that either expression of Jewishness has lasting power is highly arguable.

Speaking Hebrew, having a Jewish army and living where the winter holiday is Chanuka and the spring one Passover are fine things, but to imagine they have the power to fuel Jewish continuity is to imagine that a shiny car without a motor can get you across town.

It doesn’t take rocket science, only social science, to spy the implications of the large and increasing number of Israelis, mostly young, who have chosen in recent decades to emigrate. (New York and Los Angeles have particularly sizable Israeli expatriate communities, but most large American and European cities have their own healthy shares of once-Israeli residents.) Hebrew and army service are apparently insufficient to keep Israeli Jews in Israel; can they be expected to keep them vibrantly Jewish? And if Hebrew fluency is itself somehow the measure of Jewishness, the definition is as meaningless as it is tautological.

Nor is “American-style” Jewish cultural identity a bridge to our people’s future. Not only is Hebrew Greek to most American Jews, but so are the most basic Jewish beliefs and concepts. Asked to name a Jewish tenet, the average American Jew is likely to respond “pluralism” or “repairing the world,” even though his understandings of those concepts are bizarre expansions of how they are used in the Talmud. The true fundamentals of Jewish belief are books as closed to Joe Q. Jewish as the Talmud itself. Such obliviousness is hardly the stuff of generational continuity.

But continuity is attainable. The key is to recognize that there is a third heir to the Eastern European Jewish world that perished last century. It is neither Israel nor America, yet it resides, in fact thrives, in both countries – as it does on other continents. It is the world of Jews who live neither Israeliness nor liberal idealism but Judaism – in the word’s original sense: Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition.

Not only is affirming and observing Torah and halacha the most authentic expression of Jewish nationhood, it is the one – and only one – proven to have empowered Jewish continuity in the past. And it is clearly poised to empower it in the future. The recent American Jewish Committee study showing a steep rise in the Orthodox percentage of young American Jews (and predicting a continuation of Orthodox growth) could not have come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the multi-generational vibrancy of Jewish life in the many Orthodox Jewish enclaves across America.

The truism that Judaism underlies the Jews is often greeted with the blithe retort that observance simply “isn’t for everyone.” The Tel Avivian needs his nightlife, and the New York Jew his cultural relativism. How easily we turn wants into needs. And how easily we dismiss our past and forfeit our future out of fear that our styles may be cramped.

One need only enter almost any Orthodox synagogue to meet Jews from the most unusual backgrounds who, through force of determination and conviction, came to Jewish observance as adults. Every Jew stood at Mt. Sinai, and every Jew today can return to it. And all Jews – in Israel, America, Europe and elsewhere – who do so return, will, along with their children and descendents, become pulsating parts of the Jewish future.

Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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5 Responses

  1. Avi says:

    I absolutely agree with Rabbi Shafran that Jewish continuity is dependent taditional Jewish beliefs and adherence observance of halacha. However, one can only achieve a “full Jewish life” by fulfilling these precepts in Eretz Yisrael where G-d intended them to be fulfilled. To imply that there is no significant difference between living an Orthodox lifestyle in America and living an Orthodox Lifestyle in Israel is, in my opinion, a misguided approach.

  2. Menachem Lipkin says:

    While Rabbi Shafran glibly dismisses the value of speaking Hebrew, celebrating Chanuka and Pesach the fact is that Jews in Israel are, on average, much more “Jewish” than those in America.

    Currently there are about the same number of Jews in Israel as in America. (Actually, Israel just surpassed America with 5.5mm vs 5.2mm.)

    In America the intermarriage rate is over 50%. According to NJOP, of the 5.2 million Jews in America, 2.2 million of them are completely unaffiliated. They are so far gone that they no longer self-identify as Jews. Another 1.5 million Jews are “moderately” affiliated. Those are the ones who might answer, as Rabbi Shafran mentions, that Judaism is about “repairing the world”. Of the remaining 1.5 million only about 400K are “orthodox”.

    In Israel, intermarriage is virtually non-existent. Chanuka is not just an Israeli version of Christmas, as over 90% of Israeli Jews light a menora and are familiar with the historical significance of the holiday. Likewise, a similar number of Israeli Jews have a Sedar during Pesach, matzoh is eaten everywhere, it’s not just “spring break”. There are well over 1.5 million orthodox Jews in Israel and a majority of the rest fall into a spectrum of observance that doesn’t exist in America.

    So while Rabbi Shafran is correct that “Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition” is the path to Jewish continuity, A.B Yehoshua is also correct (while not meaning it this way) in that living in Israel, while not guaranteeing Jewish continuity, certainly increases the chances of many fold.

  3. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Not only is affirming and observing Torah and halacha the most authentic expression of Jewish nationhood

    Very true! And recognizing that the Torah demands a national life in Eretz Israel is the other half of that equation. Rabbi Zeira, once he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, fasted for 100 days in order to forget the Torah he learned in Bavel and relearn the Torah fresh in Eretz Yisrael. I wonder how many religious Jews living outside the land truly feel that there is something intrinsically missing in their Torah of Chu”l as Rabbi Zeira recognized.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Today (at least right now) we are still in Galut wherever we are. So even in Eretz Yisrael and even in the frummest communities, there are inevitably some gaps between the way we live and the ideal way we should live.

    But obviously some paths taken have been less successful than others.

  5. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Today (at least right now) we are still in Galut wherever we are.

    I guess Rabbi Zeira didn’t know that.

    (Not all aspects of galut apply everywhere – there is no question that MORE is lacking in chu”l than in EY)

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