We Are All Implicated in the World’s Repair

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published August 14, 2008, issue of August 22, 2008.
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There’s considerable talk these days about Jewish peoplehood. Is the sense of it sustainable? For that matter, is it still alive? And on what foundation does it rest?

What is it that connects one Jew to another? And what connects the two largest communities of Jews, here in America and there in Israel, to one another? Is their bond merely the residue of an earlier time, a characteristic of people “of a certain age” whose lives began in a world without a Jewish state and who themselves witnessed the extraordinary transformation that the creation of Israel embodied? Is that bond significantly reciprocal, or does it come down to our dependence on them for psychic needs and theirs on us for financial and political contributions?

Israel, of course, represents a radical change in the historic Jewish condition. That change is so profound that we tend to pay less attention to the radical changes the American Jewish experience involves. Those changes include both a much keener appreciation of pluralism than was available to Jews of an earlier time, as well as a quiet revolution in our sense of “home.”

Most of us are very much at home in America. That is how it is, and I dare say how it should be. It would be strange, indeed, if we sat in Los Angeles or Chicago or Teaneck and pined for Jerusalem, much less for Zichron Ya’akov (and still less for Ariel). It is America’s mountains and America’s rivers and America’s cities that frame our sense of place, and America’s politics, for all the turmoil they involve, that command our attention.

That will doubtless offend the Zionist sensibility. Classic Zionism taught that outside the Land, Jews would either assimilate, losing their distinctive identity, or be slaughtered; seduction or rape. There are still some Zionists who see our prospect that way, whose standard response to our high rates of intermarriage and to such antisemitic acts as sometimes happen here is, “We told you so.”

So let me try to deflect their irritation with anyone who celebrates American Jewish life, as it is and as it may yet be, by acknowledging that Israel is by far the most important project of the Jewish people in our time. Yet it does not weaken that acknowledgment to observe that we here are the children of the American Jewish experience, as the Israelis are the children of their very different experience.

That makes the relationship between America’s Jews and Israel’s an inherently complex story. We share some holidays and some memories, but the rest of the relationship is pretty much an act of will rather than natural or organic. But willed kinship is not an easy thing to wrap the mind around, still more difficult to promote as our experiences pull us farther and farther apart. We feel neither loss nor shame that we do not speak their language, which is, of course, our language, too; they feel no need nor even desire to comprehend who we are and what we are about.

On what foundation, then, can the idea of peoplehood rest? One can glibly say “shared values,” but beyond a few slogans, we get tongue-tied when we try to name them. As to Hebrew, I would be thrilled — really — were America’s Jews to acquire fluency in our language, but I see no reason whatever to suppose that will happen.

Religious understanding? Surely not so long as Israel’s religious system is the exclusive domain of a sect. A residue of ethnic affinity? Nostalgia for the shtetl?

Ah, it will be said: What of our enemies? What of the persistent hatred of the Jews, the pervasiveness of antisemitism? And what of the chronic threat to Israel’s safety, the ongoing challenge to its legitimacy?

Excuse me, but the fact of others’ enmity is hardly a worthy motive for Jewish life. In America, we use it to rouse Jews and to promote Jewish identity — witness the barrage of fundraising mail we get telling us how imminent is the danger we face, how vicious our enemies. And yes, there are times, though not nearly as frequent as we are encouraged to believe, when the call to mobilize is justified. But as motive? Be an educated Jew out of spite?

The threat plays very differently in Israel, although there, too, it is often misconstrued and exploited for political advantage. But that is for another time. Here, my concern is with laying a persuasive foundation for the idea of Jewish peoplehood, and for the effort that preserving and enhancing the kinship requires.

What is it that warrants the effort? Again and again, here and in Israel as well, we need to find a compelling way to finish the sentence that begins with the words, “It is important that the Jewish people survive in order to…” In order to what?

There is, I believe, one core idea that defines us and could, perhaps, bring us together, make of us one people. To be a Jew is to know, fundamentally, that this world is not working the way it was meant to, or the way it is supposed to. It is badly broken.

In that sense, we are all — all of us — in exile, whether we live in Jerusalem or in New York. Exile is not a place; it is an existential condition. And the meta-understanding that Jews bring to that condition is that we are implicated in the world’s repair.

The most obvious challenge to such a formulation is, simply, “What’s so Jewish about that?” After all, you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye or to be passionate about tikkun olam. (Given our paltry numbers, that’s good news for both the Levy’s people and for our compoundly fractured world.) The good news is that the challenge can be met.

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