Israel and the possibilities of Jewish loyalty today

Rethinking Jewish Life: From biblical times to the present, definitions of Jewish identity and loyalty have shifted dramatically.

Boy wears Spider Man kippa 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Boy wears Spider Man kippa 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Who passes the tests of Jewish loyalty today? In this unprecedented era of fluidity and multiplicity of identity, the answer to this question is far from clear and hardly singular. What should define Jewish loyalty in our context and who decides? From biblical times to the present, definitions of Jewish identity and loyalty have shifted dramatically. While the family-oriented definitions of loyalty prevailed in early biblical narratives, national definitions of membership begin to emerge in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.
But does one have to be committed to the Land of Israel and to defending the State of Israel in order to pass a test of loyalty today? And what does that mean? This week’s Torah portion emphasizes a nationalist and landed definition of loyalty, indicating that the debate is as old as the Bible itself. As a narrative of the hopes and fears of the Israelites as they prepare to enter the land in Deuteronomy, some tribes want to settle outside – not in Israel. As though predicting an eternity of debate about Israel-Diaspora relations, the text affirms the legitimacy of such a choice but insists that these tribes, Reuben and Gad, be the first to engage in battle to protect the land. Loyalty in this case means readiness to sacrifice oneself even if one doesn’t live in the land. This is the loyalty test of knowing that we have a shared fate.
It isn’t until the Book of Ruth the Moabite that a very different – and more complete – narrative of Jewish loyalty and identity emerges. Encouraged to return to her father’s house after the death of her husband, Ruth insists on “clinging” to Naomi, her mother-in-law, and becoming part of the Israelite nation, as the two women journey to Bethlehem and toward the future. Ruth makes the quintessential and familiar declaration of Jewish loyalty: “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell. Your people shall be my people and your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16). The multiple levels of Ruth’s statement of commitment, belonging and an expansive notion of peoplehood continues to characterize the unique nature of the Jewish people to this day. It also serves many thinkers as the basis for their understanding of membership, conversion and loyalty to Jewish peoplehood.
David Hartman, who passed away five months ago this week, radically expanded the ancient idea of covenant and argued for an even broader new covenantal set of possibilities of the Third Jewish Commonwealth. For 40 years, Hartman wrote and taught and built an institution that sought to demonstrate the radically wide and challenging possibilities that Israel offers the Jewish people. Among the possibilities that the State of Israel enables is the “broader range of covenantal responsibility” and the context in which to “fully evaluate the claims of Judaism.” Hartman argued that Israel provides a more expansive set of possibilities for the Jewish people both inside and outside the land.
But most strikingly, Hartman maintained that Israel should “provide a new moral and religious agenda for the world, because it will show how a society can be both religiously informed and not fundamentalist; that it can be absolutely democratic and not lose its sense of religious identity” (David Hartman, A Living Covenant).
Whether the State of Israel always fulfills these covenantal possibilities or whether we miss the opportunity does not diminish the significance of the opportunity and our responsibility to strive to fulfill it. Perhaps today this is an even more essential kind of Jewish loyalty: the willingness to engage in the challenges and dilemmas of Israel, from within and without, regardless of whether, at any given time, it succeeds in living up to its eternal standards. Loyalty means not abandoning one’s commitment to the covenantal possibilities always before us.
Loyalty comes, as Ruth’s model demonstrates, in many forms. Today we can characterize Jewish loyalty quite clearly in the following three ways: (1) sharing the fate of the Jewish people; (2) commitment to the Land of Israel and its centrality for our future; and (3) engagement with the challenges, dilemmas, rituals, ideas, texts and culture of the Jewish people in the past, present and future.
What remains an unfulfilled aspect of a covenant of destiny, especially in the State of Israel, is the modern democratic value of allowing each community the authority to define how it applies these standards and to determine its boundaries – an essential aspect of testing the covenantal possibilities of a Jewish-democratic state. Loyalty to the covenantal possibilities of our time demands a willingness to engage in these complex issues with a sense, that like Reuben, Gad and Ruth, we share in the fate of our collective failures and successes as we strive to fulfill a new level of covenantal demands.
The writer is the national director of recruitment and admissions and president’s scholar of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and teaches at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.