Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, a great Hassidic master, believed that the worst human
trait was that of self-deception.
When asked by his disciples to reflect
on the state of the Jewish people, the rebbe told his students that it was bad
for his flock to be in exile.
But worse, said Menahem Mendel, was for
Jews to be in exile and not to know that they were in exile.
Rebbe of Kotzk, exile was a spiritual state of alienation from God.
exile is primarily a phenomenon of geography, politics and history. For the
first time in 2,000 years, Jews have returned to their home in the Land of
Israel and are sovereign in a Jewish state. We have realized the dream of living
in the Jerusalem of our ancestors. The Zionist movement revived Hebrew as a
living tongue and has presented to the world a Jew who fights the enemies of the
Jewish people. If I were to deny these truths, I would be violating the mandate
of the Rebbe of Kotzk.
Is America simply another stop on the Jewish
journey through the Diaspora? No. America offered opportunity, freedom and a
dream to my ancestors who came to this country from the pogroms and poverty of
the Czarist Russian Pale of Settlement. I am the grandson of a Yiddish-speaking
house painter barely making a living on the Lower East Side of
How is it that only two generations later I would be the Phi
Beta Kappa graduate of an Ivy League school that only a generation earlier would
have not accepted me as a student because I am a Jew? America is unique and
But as I celebrate my nation’s independence, the voice of the
Kotzker Rebbe is warning me not to be intoxicated by the story of American
Jewry’s success. Is America a second “Promised Land” or is it just a glorified
“nachtasyl” – an asylum for the night and a temporary but important stop on my
people’s wanderings? We are not the Uganda of Theodor Herzl’s scheme of 1903.
But let us be honest – all the organizations, publications and kosher sushi
restaurants cannot make us forget that Jews in America are leaving Judaism at an
alarming rate. The Birthright program does not send young Jews to the Upper West
Side of Manhattan or Crown Heights to inspire them to remain Jewish. While the
20th century was the “American Century” – and the “American-Jewish Century” –
the 21st century will be the “Israeli Century.”
We all know that the
Jewish future depends on the State of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land
American Jewry rivals the ancient Jewish community of
Babylonia. In all areas of endeavor – from science to sports – American Jews
have made their mark. Our literary and intellectual creativity is a marvel. The
figures of 20th century Judaism in America were formidable—such rabbis as
Schechter, Kaplan, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Soloveitchik, Heshchel, Finkelstein,
Wise and Silver. But those days are over.
American Judaism is still a
vital force in the Jewish world. But we have no one to replace the titans of the
past century. We must now look to Israel for our leadership. Once Israel’s
senior partner, we have become the junior partner.
This is exile – a
comfortable and unique exile – that is unprecedented in our history.
let us not fool ourselves. By the end of this century, our Diaspora will not be
“Babylonia West” – it will be Birobidzhan.
Stalin offered this territory
in Eurasia as an autonomous Jewish republic 75 years ago. In Birobidzhan, there
were Yiddish-language schools, streets named after Sholem Aleichem and Peretz
Smolenskin, and Jewish newspapers.
But the territory was a
Jews never made up the majority in Birobidzhan. It was a
“poignant footnote” in Jewish history.
American Jewry has transcended
footnote status and will be remembered for many great achievements.
those who believe that the growth of Orthodox Judaism alone will save American
Jewry are making a terrible mistake. American Jewry’s survival will depend on
Jews creating self-imposed ghettos to survive. This is a Judaism besieged – not
the Judaism of Philo, Sadya, Maimonides or Judah Halevi.
The Battle of
Gettysburg was fought 150 years ago. Jews fought in both the Union and
Confederate armies. But not my ancestors – studying Talmud in the shtetl, they
probably did not even know who Abraham Lincoln was. I am an American, proud of
Lincoln, Jefferson and Emerson – I am thoroughly acculturated and do not regret
it. Yet, my Jewish identity is 4,000 years old. My link to America is one
century old. At the end of my Passover seder, I will not shout out, “Next Year
in Des Moines!”
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton,