Shared values and the American Jewish future



American Jews are a fractious lot.  Our religious differences are real and important.  Our community, after all, is known for its passionate pluralism, which in many ways is a blessing and a source of strength. 

I recently read an interesting take on these differences in a blog post by David Strulowitz published on the Wexner Foundation site.  Mr. Strulowitz provides a fascinating and out-of-the-ordinary point of view.  Still, it occurred to me that it is a mistake to focus overly much on our differences.   For all the divisions between right and left in our religious world, we still share certain religious values drawn from our tradition—and these values provide us with the possibility of a shared Jewish future.


In my mind, there are 6 values that make up the American Jewish consensus.


First, we can agree that Judaism is a religious civilization.  In the absence of religious belief, Judaism forfeits all meaning, coherence, and possibility of survival.  In America, at least, I would argue that there is agreement on the religious foundation of Jewish life, even among those who do not feel bound by a sense of religious obligation.


Second, we can agree on Talmud Torah—the study of Torah.  Even if we disagree on the subject of revelation, and therefore on the precise nature of what it is that we are studying, there remains remarkably broad agreement among Jews of all sorts on the priority that we need to give to studying our sources.  There is something interesting, inspiring, and perhaps a little surprising about the enthusiasm that has developed among all elements of the community, including the most assertively non-religious ones, about the importance of study—and study here means direct immersion in sacred texts.  While we sometimes exaggerate how well we have done and how far we have come, the shared commitment is there.


Third, we can agree on Avodah—a commitment to Jewish practice, to prayer, and to the rituals of our tradition.  For some, their practice is rooted in a commitment to halakhah (the body of Jewish law), for some in a commitment to mitzvah (specific divine commandments), for some in a commitment to Jewish folkways, and for some in a rather vague sense of nostalgia or ethnic identification.  But the commitment is there, and a basic respect is there, even though the extent of observance varies enormously from Jew to Jew and community to community.


Fourth, we can agree on gemilut hasadim and tikkun olam—commitment to compassion and to bringing repair and wholeness both to other Jews and to all of humankind.  Perhaps we have lost sight of this a bit; growing anti-Semitism and the shift to the right in some elements of our community have led to some turning inward and to a larger measure of self-absorption in our ranks.  But these factors are much exaggerated in my view.   Look at not only what the surveys say but at what our community does, with our activism on immigration being a recent example.  And of course, our tradition could not be clearer:  The Jewish voice is a moral voice, and the Jew is someone who is touched by other people’s pain.  The same God who commands us to observe Torah requires us to be aware of human suffering and to bring the fundamental values of Torah to the world.  Among these values, surely, are the belief that human life is sacred, that justice is a supreme value, and that freedom is the touchstone of civilization.


Fifth, we can agree on the importance of Israel.  Yes, I know, countless studies tell us that Jews are losing interest and drifting away from Israel.  And yes, we must always be vigilant.  But concern for Israel remains remarkably strong and remarkably resilient, as we saw once again during the recent war in Gaza.  For virtually all Jews, the State of Israel still has a special hold on their soul—either because Torah binds them to a land, or because Israel has restored power to Jewish hands and given the Jewish people control over their own destiny. 


And sixth, we can agree on the importance of the Jewish people.  I admit that commitment to Jewish peoplehood has eroded among the Jewish masses, as scholars such as Dr. Steven M. Cohen have documented.  But among Jewish leadership of all stripes a sense of Jewish peoplehood remains strong, and this means broad agreement on some very specific things:  that we must concern ourselves with the quality of Jewish life not only here, but throughout the Diaspora; that we must see it as our task to advance the partnership of the Jewish people and insist that all Jews who care must view the Jewish people as a single entity, however diverse; and that we must accept our responsibility to renew Judaism for Jews everywhere, and to help them recover their commitment to Torah as the constitution of the Jewish people.


These, then, are the consensus values as I understand them of America’s Jewish religious community.  And while each religious denomination will argue forcefully for its own approach and point of view, these values should make it possible for us to do more together—learning, giving, articulating shared goals, and looking always for opportunities to build coalitions rather than simply coming together to respond to crisis.   


What we might be unable to do alone we might succeed in doing collectively, reinforcing our common destiny, and—in the process—renewing Judaism and Jewish life.