Center Field: Zionist ‘zugiyut’ – yes; Reverse Birthright – no!

Too often today, people seek depth by burrowing into the all-holy self, not building outward toward others.

June 26, 2019 09:21
4 minute read.
Center Field: Zionist ‘zugiyut’ –  yes; Reverse Birthright – no!

A new Zionism. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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June is wedding month – meeting pent-up demand after the pre-Shavuot Omer wedding ban. June also seems to be Jewish conference month. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv overflow with groups pondering the Jewish future, which this year means lamenting, exploring, and repairing the Israel-Diaspora divide.

A wise book just published by my sons’ extraordinary bar mitzvah teacher, David Lester, Jewish Marriage: The Ceremony, the First Year and the Journey That Follows, offers valuable advice for young couples that struck me as relevant to squabbling communities, too. Think of it as Zionist zugiyut – that wonderful Hebrew word from the word for couple, “zug,” but richer than mere bonding or coupledom, evoking a 24-7 commitment to cultivating your relationship, not just being in it.

Lester, a therapist and teacher who fuses Torah study with bibliotherapy and lives in Ma’aleh Gilboa, steers from the intimate to the communal, explaining: “Love places two people in relationship with one another. Marriage places two people in relationship with their community and religion.” It’s a profoundly Jewish insight. In establishing “a house in Israel,” marriage takes the private public and solidifies, because “the expansion of our home toward the outside deepens its roots.”

Too often today, people seek depth by burrowing into the all-holy self, not building outward toward others. The Jewish people survived by being stronger together, even remaining separately together. Reaching out across borders, thanks to eternal ties transcending space and time, is personally liberating and communally empowering.

So, if we remain united despite differences, it also helps to realize that some of today’s intracommunal bitterness reflects an unease with ourselves, not others. Lester notes that “when we feel more complete with our decisions, the opinions of others feel less intrusive.” It doesn’t take a statistical whiz to see how synagogues are closing, communities are aging, populations are shrinking in the Diaspora – as Israel grows. At the same time, you need not be a lefty-peacenik to note the coarsening in Israeli culture that comes from some of the tough decisions Israelis are forced to make, no matter how justified.

How much does encountering Israel remind Diaspora Jews, religious and secular, that their communities are shrinking? How much do Diaspora Jews remind Israelis, from Left to Right, of the ethical-spiritual price of controlling Palestinian lives? And how much do those uncomfortable truths our brothers and sisters trigger annoy us?

Lester offers three steps to healing. “Empathy,” embedded in a total commitment to perpetuating the relationship, “builds trust and security.” Then battling out differences can reflect “authenticity,” a calming sense of security because we can express our emotions candidly. Finally, we must turn that honesty inward because “through self-reflection we become wiser and more humble.”

Those traits explain why “marriage makes our dreams grow” – and, I would add, a sense of community expands our world. Hijacking his analysis attributes some of today’s Israel-Diaspora tensions to the narcissism of our era, the cowardice within each community about facing our fears, and our growing trust only in carbon copies of one another, not friends and neighbors who might be sympathetic, compatible, yet different. “Commitment does not rest upon knowing the future,” Lester advises; “it rests upon choosing to be with one another within the unknown.”

READING THE world through Lester’s sagacious eyes confirms my assessment of the latest silver bullet – “Reverse Birthright”: intriguing idea, dumb name. Sending Israelis on fact-finding and friend-finding trips abroad fosters people-to-people ties along with an empathy and trust that can help reconcile the differing Jewish worlds in the Middle East and the West.

But “Reverse Birthright” rejects the fundamental assumption of real Birthright and a guiding tenet of Jewish history: fostering strong ties between Israelis and Diaspora Jews should not come at the cost of denying Israel’s centrality in Jewish history, Jewish ideology and the Jewish future.

This is particularly important for building the American Jewish community, which has not recently been known for its humility. Despite the many Jewish phenomena flourishing there, for all the nice pluralistic Jewish expressions Israelis could learn there, New York ain’t Babylon.

Many modern American Jews are forgetting their parents’ Judaism, which was more Zionist, meaning Israel-centered, while sophisticated Israeli Zionists are realizing they must start relating to a Jewish world wherein being Israel-centered doesn’t mean being Israel-dominated. Negating the Diaspora is foolish, but so is negating Jerusalem’s centrality, a trend reflected in the growing American rabbinic tendency to connect the smashing of the glass ending the wedding ceremony to New Agey, universalistic “brokenness,” creating “shards of healing,” rather than to a particular national disaster – Jerusalem’s destruction. Add interpretations if you wish, but denying this ritual’s origins denies just how the Jewish universe is ordered.

So let a thousand trips and Diaspora-Israel bonding initiatives flourish, but not at the cost of the worldview that has kept us alive through millennia. Zionist zugiyut, then, reminds couples of their greater communal responsibility while teaching communities about the intimate eternal values and commitments that can heal us, bond us, as a people.

Zionist couple-cultivation keeps our relationships and our world in proportion, which is why so many of these conferences hashing out our Jewish future convene in Israel, cooperating with partners from all over the Jewish world, in the Jewish homeland. That dynamic embraces our birthright, our heritage, our past, without reversing it, negating it, distorting it. That Zen balance can heal us with the empathy, authenticity and self-scrutiny we need in both our private and public lives.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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