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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Response to A.B. Yehoshua: Remarks at the Jewish Agency Assembly
June 26, 2006

I am honored to occupy the stage with A.B. Yehoshua. 

His impact on me has been particularly strong. I studied Hebrew language as a student at Brandeis University.  When, after several years of struggle, I was finally able to read a Hebrew book, the very first book that I read was Mr. Yehoshua’s “Mool ha-ya’arot” (“Opposite the forest”).  It is an important book and its influence on me was profound and lasting.  Mr. Yehoshua is undoubtedly one of today’s great writers in the Hebrew language, and indeed in any language.

In addition to writing fiction, Mr. Yehoshua has been addressing issues of Zionism and Judaism for a very long time, and he has been doing so with great passion and consistency.  His essay “B’zechut ha’normaliut” (“In Praise of Normalcy”), first published in the 1970s, set the tone and direction for much of what came later. 

Before turning to more general issues, I would like to begin by noting two areas in which I agree with what Mr. Yehoshua has just presented. 

First, as a Diaspora Jewish leader I have no trouble stating that in some ways, it is possible, as Mr. Yehoshua argues, to lead a fuller Jewish life in Israel than in the Diaspora.  In Israel, you can be a Jew in a completely unself-conscious manner, without explaining to a non-Jew who you are.   In Israel you are free of the psychological terrors of minority existence, which exist even in affluent and secure democracies.  In Israel, Jewish values are not merely a personal resource but are the context that shapes public consciousness and debate.  Indeed, Israel is the sole place where Judaism belongs to the public domain, where Hebrew is the language of the everyday, and where Shabbat and the festivals provide the rhythm of the calendar.  In Israel you can celebrate a Jewish holiday as a joyous occasion and not as a strategy for survival.

Second, Mr. Yehoshua is quite right that knowledge of the Hebrew language is a critical dimension of Jewish identity and that our inability to teach Hebrew to our children in North America and elsewhere is one of the great failures of Diaspora Jewry.  We succeed in teaching perfectly respectable Spanish to our children in two years of high school study.  Surely, with more effort, we could teach these same children a respectable level of Hebrew proficiency.

But what I would really like to do is address the central assumptions that underlie all of Mr. Yehoshua’s writings on the subjects of Zionism and Judaism over the last thirty years. I suggest that the heart of his argument is the following four propositions:

  • The purpose of Zionism is to normalize the Jewish people.
  • The State of Israel will be the instrument of this normalization.  It will establish Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, give Jews their own language—Hebrew—as the language of the State, and open the State to every Jew wanting to be part of it.
  • The greatest obstacle to Jewish normalization in the Jewish State is the nature of Judaism itself—because Judaism is a unique combination of a distinctive nationalism and a distinctive religion.  And why is this a problem?

…because belonging to a State must be unconditional, not dependent on any value system or set of beliefs.  Therefore, there will always be tension between religion and nation.

…because in the last 150 years, the secular Jew has emerged, and this secular Jew refuses to believe in the God of Israel and the Torah of Israel.

…because Israel has many citizens who are completely loyal but who are not Jews, such as Christian immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

…because Jewish religious groups are always in conflict among themselves, leading sometimes to tragic consequences, as we saw with the destruction of the Second Temple.

*In light of the obstacles noted above, the only solution is to work for a gradual severance of Jewish national identity from Jewish religious identity.  Mr. Yehoshua believes there is a precedent for this solution in the First Temple period, when some “children of Israel” worshipped foreign gods and yet were considered part of the Jewish national entity.

This approach, it is important to stress, does not dismiss Jewish religion, but it does suggest that we will see a new kind of Jewish religion.  Especially in the Diaspora, Jewish religion will shed its ties to Jewish nationality.  Jews in the Diaspora will have the option of being religiously committed but without a connection to the Jewish state and the Jewish people.  This approach will bring many new adherents to Judaism, but on a purely religious plane.  On the other hand, Jewish nationalism in the State of Israel will attract members of other religions, and both Christians and Moslems will be fully integrated into the Jewish nation.

This is Mr. Yehoshua’s vision:  clear, powerful, revolutionary.  And – with respect – wrong.  Wrong historically, wrong practically, and a disaster for the Jewish people.

Yes, Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion are intimately related and inextricably intertwined.  And yes, this relationship is fraught with tension.  I suggest, however, that it is the precisely the interplay between the two – tension and all – that has maintained our existence for 3500 years.

And in fact, separating the two makes no sense.  Indeed, the concept of the Jews being one people with a deep connection to the Land of Israel is not an ethnic or political idea.  It is a religious idea, called into being at Sinai.  It is an idea rooted in covenant, in religious commitment, and faith.  Therefore, severing religion from peoplehood/nationalism is a logical impossibility.

Furthermore, it is also a practical disaster.  The State of Israel is a small and vulnerable state, surrounded by enemies and beset by terror.  Inevitably, therefore, young Israelis ask the question:  “Why do I risk my life here, rather than going to Melbourne, Toronto, or New York?”  This is a question that cannot be answered by run-of-the-mill nationalism; patriotic slogans and nationalistic rhetoric might work in Bulgaria or Finland, but they will not work in beleaguered Israel.  In Israel, a compelling answer can only be provided by a religious philosophy, both humane and caring, that speaks of holy community and of the connection of the Jewish people to its land.

Therefore, to my secular friends I say:  I respect the choice that you have made as individuals.  But I do not believe that secular Judaism can be passed on to the next generation.  And there is nothing in all of Jewish history to suggest that a Jewish community anywhere, including in the Land of Israel, can sustain itself without God and Torah.  Torah-free civilizations have no staying power.

So yes, I worry about illiteracy and assimilation in the Diaspora, but I also worry about the indifference and even hostility to Jewish religion in some parts of Israel.  And it is silly to think that Israelis are the first Jews in 3500 years who have no need for mitzvoth, prayer, and the sacredness of Jewish texts and traditions.

Mr. Yehoshua, confident of the power of Jewish nationalism, seems to feel that it is impossible for an Israeli Jew to assimilate.  His assumption seems to be that a Jew who lives in the State of Israel will always be Jewish because the very fact of a Jewish majority assures Israel’s Jewish character. But this is absurd, and dangerous as well. As a Reform Jew, I believe in a diverse, pluralistic Judaism, but that is not the same as saying that Judaism can be stripped of its religious character and can become whatever you want it to be.  If Israelis lose all connection with Jewish religious practice and belief, and assume that simply living in Israel is enough to make them Jewish, there is every reason to believe that Israelis can and will assimilate, even if it takes them a bit longer than others to do so.  There is no reason logically or historically to think that Israel could not find itself fifty years from now populated by Hebrew speaking, once-Jewish goyim who are perfectly content to separate themselves from the Jewish people around the world.

Of course, if I am correct that religion and peoplehood/nationalism are inextricably interwoven, then the equation works the other way as well.  Judaism is also threatened by those who practice a Judaism of spirituality alone and who think that Judaism can somehow be denuded of its communal and national dimensions.  This means the Kabbalah-spouting Americans who care nothing for their community, and it means the universalistic do-gooders who want justice for everyone except for Israel.  And it also means those who immerse themselves in the minutiae of Jewish ritual while retreating behind ghetto walls—who are so focused on every jot and tittle of the law that they banish from their heart the leaving and breathing concerns of their people and of the Jewish state.

Mr. Yehoshua has raised the issue of religious extremism.  He has suggested that religious conflict is endemic to Jewish life and – potentially, at least – is a serious threat to the Jewish state.  These concerns are surely legitimate.  Who can deny that extremist forms of religious expression are to be found in Israel, especially now, and that in some cases they have undermined rather than strengthened Israel’s national life?  It is true that from the earliest days of our people, Jewish religious tradition has been subject to extremist temptations.  Nonetheless, most of our people, most of the time, are moderate and sensible.  Not embracing religion because it might become zealotry is like not using soap because you might trip in the bathtub.  Religion is essential to our very being and it is worth the risk.

Religious extremism, it should be noted, is not the domain of any religious group or stream.  It exists in every group and every stream, and we are all responsible in our practice and belief “l’itpose et shvil ha-zahav” (to embrace the middle way).

And how do we resist extremism?  Not by arguing with extremists, who are not generally amenable to argument of any kind.  Rather, first, by affirming again and again that the State of Israel is a Jewish-democratic state, which means that it must have a secure Jewish majority and must be democratic in the commonly accepted meaning of that term; and second, by discouraging religious monopolies and welcoming diverse expressions of Judaism.  Such diversity, by its very nature, tends to moderate and marginalize extremist religious views. It also promotes the release of the creative religious energies of the Jewish people, deepening our commitment to Torah and immeasurably enriching Jewish life.

I conclude by reaffirming that to be a Jew is to be a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish religious tradition.  The interplay of religion and peoplehood is complex, but both pillars are essential to any individual, community, or state that aspires to be and to stay Jewish.  And the Jewish significance of the State of Israel – one of the titles for this seminar – rests precisely in the fact that in Israel alone, where Judaism’s entire pulse is collective, societal and communal, can national consciousness and religious consciousness develop fully, both out in the street and within, in the soul.

With regard to Israel’s future, I am an optimist.  In the State of Israel, the radical proponents of de-Judaization – whether they be post-Zionist historians, well-meaning secularists, angry Orthodox haters, or assimilated yuppies – are likely to fail.  However, if by some miracle they were to succeed, their “victory” would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.  Jewish religion, in some appropriate form, remains the key to Jewish survival and continuity.

What then is our task?  Our immediate task is to be supportive of the Jewish State at this critical time, to rally the Jewish people to her side, and to fight anti-Semitism wherever it appears.

But our longer term task is to concern ourselves with the quality of Jewish life and civilization, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora.

It is to advance the partnership of the Jewish people, and to insist that all Jews who care must view the Jewish people as a single entity, however diverse.

It is to accept the responsibility to renew Judaism for Jews everywhere, and to help Jews recover their belief in Judaism.  It is to help them recover too their commitment to Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people and the starting point for the building of a new Jewish future.

We have much to do, my friends.  Let us begin.




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