Let the Light in From the Periphery

By Ariel Beery

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
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Much like the events that led up to Hanukkah more than 2,000 years ago, a new empire has arisen in our time, stamping the known world with its particular brand of world-encompassing universal philosophy. Unlike the Greeks and the Hellenistic age, America’s brand of humanist universalism is truly a global phenomenon — spreading through nongovernmental organizations to the deepest reaches of the East, and through McDonald’s and Starbucks to create consumers in the farthest regions of the South.

And the Jewish people, one of the few peoples to maintain their cultural identity while witnessing the rise and inevitable fall of empires past, are in search of the next “big idea” to illuminate the path ahead and maintain communal cohesion in this new era. We have come upon our own Hanukkah moment, and yearn to light the menorah, but have yet to find the oil with which to do so.

Searches for the magical oil of the big idea appear everywhere. Before United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly this year, Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal published an entire issue dedicated to the next wave. In New York, the Coalition for Advancement of Jewish Education hosted a panel discussion where representatives of various religious streams and educational ideologies put forward their thoughts on how to reinvigorate the Jewish people, and the Jewish Week dedicated its annual Directions magazine to the “Next Big Thing” — where, full disclosure, my own idea is published. And in Israel, following David Grossman’s piercing observation that “there is no king in Israel,” new visions are sought and think tanks pop up like wildflowers on the Gilboa Mountain in the winter.

Unfortunately, worse than there being no king in Israel, there seems to be no Moses among the Jewish people, and certainly no Mattityahu Maccabee. Much of this is due to our suffering from a significant brain drain, our best and brightest join think tanks and policy forums to discuss and envision futures for other nations and other international bodies. But even among those whose intellect is focused on Jewish matters, there is a clear effort to go beyond the community. In the words of author Rebecca Goldstein, upon receiving a Koret Book Award for “Betraying Spinoza,” “I would not write a book if only Jews would read it.”

Being a Jewish public intellectual is not a goal for most of the brilliant minds in my own generation, either, since many of our parents — those of Goldstein’s age — did not foster the commitment and obligation that spawned revolts or reinventions of Jewish identity. Instead, many of us non-Orthodox Jews have learned that being Jewish should be no more than fun and easy — a hobby to color our otherwise American lives, as opposed to a life purpose. It should not be a shock, therefore, that a recent American Jewish Committee study found that non-Orthodox youth aged 18 to 39 are significantly less dedicated to the Jewish people than preceding generations.

While Orthodoxy will not be the answer for most of us, there is something to be learned from the dedication and passion brought to bear by such groups as Chabad. Last month, thousands of Chabad shluchim, or emissaries, gathered from around the world in New Jersey to rededicate themselves to their personal quest: to spread their vision of Judaism across the world. Their sense of commitment is enviable. Each and every shaliach feels that he is the direct agent of their leader, the late rebbe Menachem Schneerson — in their words, as a candle lit by his flame, they feel personally tasked to light others.

Two thousand years ago, Judean sovereignty was such a light; 100 years ago, Zionists spread their vision with a zeal that more than matches Chabad’s own. Today, as we search for an organizing principle for our times, it could be a good idea to remember that the next “big idea” usually comes from the periphery — from the son of an idol-worshipping Aramean, from an Egyptian-raised Hebrew emigrant, from a family in Modi’in, from an assimilated journalist in Vienna.

Today, there are myriad Jewish communities on the outskirts — the Bukharans in Queens, the Ethiopians in Afula, the Persians in Los Angeles — each with their own insights to Jewish life. Allowing these ideas in is up to us.

It is openness to innovation from the outside that gives us strength as a united people. Those ideas that are the biggest of all provide an integrative way to live together, as one people: a single candelabra holding many individual flames, all lights shining as one light unto the nations.

Ariel Beery is editor and publisher of PresenTense Magazine and co-editor of BlogsofZion.com.

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