Can These Bold Ideas Shape The Jewish Future? Can They Even Work?
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Tal Keinan, an American-born Israeli fighter pilot turned financial entrepreneur turned author, has written a provocative book called “God Is in the Crowd.” It was officially published Tuesday, and I predict you will hear a lot about it. Keinan cuts a dashing figure in the two spheres — military and finance — that many Americans swoon over when it comes to Israelis.
And he’s well connected enough to, for instance, have Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks provide a glowing blurb on the cover of this, his very first book.
The book is part memoir, part blueprint for the Jewish future, and it’s the latter that most interested me. Keinan’s ideas are bold, even outlandish, but we need bold and outlandish ideas to address the growing chasm between Israeli and American Jews, and the challenge of maintaining a Judaism that can both evolve and retain its core, valuable substance.
His fresh approach is to apply the language of the market to Jewish history, noting that “The Crowd” can come closer to truth than even the best individual guessers. This is how Judaism was able to evolve: “The Jewish Crowd in Diaspora did not receive dogma from above. It wrestled with its own moral governance. It reached conflicting conclusions and reconciled them over time.”
He offers three ways to use this “wisdom” to strengthen 21st century Judaism. The first is to create a technology platform enabling Jews the world over to express their Jewish values, a dynamic “moving average” of what’s important and relevant to the Jewish communal voice.
Secondly, he proposes a Jewish World Endowment — essentially a self-imposed income tax whose proceeds would fund Jewish education, summer camps, university scholarships and volunteer opportunities for Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.
Administering that endowment, and doing so much more, would be the responsibility of the greatly expanded role of President of Israel, Keinan’s third suggestion. While the Israeli prime minister would remain in charge of governing Israel, the president would be charged with maintaining “the nation-state of the Jews,” elected by any Jew anywhere who wants to vote.
These ideas shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed just because they seem so unlikely to happen. (And Keinan doesn’t explain much about how to overcome the many obvious obstacles.) I especially appreciate his emphasis on education and service, and his recognition that providing those opportunities is out of reach for too many Jewish families.
But there are two glaring problems with his approach: a logical inconsistency and an omission, both of which speak volumes about this and other contemporary ideas to address what ails modern Jewry.
The inconsistency is central. Keinan writes again and again that Jews have no pope, no central authority, and yet he proposes investing enormous financial and political power in a single person, a president. Do Jews today really want to submit to that centralization, even if he or she is democratically elected? Even if the president’s domain is supposedly only religious? The religious is political in Israel. A president with authority over the Law of Return is a president with authority over national immigration policy.
For all the talk about Jewish peoplehood, Jews today seemed less inclined to feel bound to one another. That is something Keinan is trying to address, I understand. But this gigantic leap seems to defy the very decentralization that has arguably kept Judaism alive.
The omission: Given the fact that Keinan’s blueprint is Israel-centric, I was dismayed that there was no serious discussion about Palestinians. A few pages of perfunctory political analysis, but no real grappling with what half a century of occupation has done to our “moral code” and no real acknowledgement that if the Jewish Diaspora can vote for Israel’s president, why shouldn’t the Palestinian Diaspora be able to vote for their leaders?
Indeed, why would a Jew living in Brooklyn or Belgium have more right to influence Israeli immigration policy than a Palestinian whose family goes back generations in East Jerusalem?
Keinan is making the rounds of guest appearances in all sorts of Jewish venues. Maybe someone will ask him these questions. We also need to ask them of ourselves.
What else I’m reading. The fact that casino magnate and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam are mega-donors to Republican causes is not news. But I didn’t appreciate the scope of their buying power until I read in Sunday’s New York Times that they are, according to publicly available campaign finance data, “the biggest spenders in federal elections in all of American politics.”
And what have they achieved? The United States embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The decimation of the Iran nuclear deal. The most irresponsible tax cut imaginable.
As a letter writer in today’s Times noted, “It is deeply disturbing that in our representative democracy wealthy people can use their money to buy a president and have their foreign policy wishes granted.” Domestic policy wishes, too.
Fare Thee Well, Joan Baez. Along with Hillary and Bill Clinton and, it seems, half my synagogue, I reveled in listening to Joan Baez before a rapt audience at Manhattan’s historic Beacon Theater on Saturday night. Her voice is raspy and deeper, her range more limited — she is, after all, 77 years old and has toured for 60 years, contributing to an era in American life when music, politics and the search for justice were inextricably intertwined.
But this was not merely an evening of nostalgia. Baez exudes a modesty, simplicity and graciousness that can serve as a model for any performer. And, for me, one of the most moving moments in a night full of them was when she sang a brand new song, “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” by Zoe Mulford, a reminder of what America was and still can be.
Looking forward. If you’re in the neighborhood on Thursday evening, join my colleague Dan Friedman at the JCC MidWestchester in Scarsdale for Scotch in the Sukkah Forward readers get a discount!
And to all who are celebrating Sukkot, may your holiday be joyous. A reminder that next week Jane Looking Forward will again appear on Tuesday evening. Chag sameach!
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