On being one of the tribe in America

If we squirm because we feel that we are being inconvenienced by a “tribal” history of a “chosen” nation, I must ask why we continue to exist.

TOURISTS STROLL around the memorial to former US president Thomas Jefferson in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)
TOURISTS STROLL around the memorial to former US president Thomas Jefferson in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I wrote these words as an American celebrating the first day of the year 2015 in the Christian Gregorian calendar. I wrote these words as a Jew mourning the preparation for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians 2,500 years ago on the Tenth of Tevet.
I commemorate the disaster in the year 5775 of the Hebrew calendar. I am an American. I am a Jew. Rarely do these two identities conflict. On this day, they do.
Perhaps the answer to my dilemma would have been to get drunk at a New Year’s Eve party, wake up early for minyan for the minor fast day, and read the Torah with a hangover and a splitting headache for my congregation.
Then I could go home and wait till half-time of the football games, daven a quick minhah, and break my fast in the early evening. For some Jews, Jeremiah meets the Rose Bowl is what is called “synthesis.” Of course, there are other options – forget your past and dismiss the fires that raged through Jerusalem thousands of years ago, or make believe that the “secular” world does not exist and that life in a self-imposed ghetto is the key to survival. None of these choices is for me. Feasting or fasting? Are they mutually exclusive? I will explore that issue in this essay.
The words of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson haunt and trouble me. These men are my heroes. The founded a nation that, despite the stains and shame of slavery and Jim Crow, has been a beacon of freedom to the world. I am honored that my ancestors were able to settle in this country over a century ago, escaping the poverty and pogroms of the Old World. My father served this nation, fighting a holy war against an evil that threatened to destroy our civilization. Adams and Jefferson were ardent supporters of religious freedom for all – I have reaped the benefits tenfold of their vision. But the words they wrote do not disappear.
Adams praised Judaism often as a civilizing force in the world. At the same time, in a letter written to a prominent American Jew in 1819, this Founding Father supported a Jewish state in the Land of Israel in the hope that Jews “would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and become liberal Unitarian Christians for your Jehovah & your God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God.”
Was this the grand bargain that Jews coming to America were supposed to agree to in order to be citizens of this great nation? The notion that Jews would “see the light” and embrace Christianity is personally insulting, even coming from a great man who likely thought that his ideas about Judaism were totally complementary and rational. Sorry, Mr. Adams – my ancestors did not arrive at these shores to jettison their past and abandon their identity. I will certainly read your writings, those of Jefferson, those of Emerson and those of Hemingway and William James. I will integrate into American society and be loyal to the laws by which we are governed and by the Constitution.
The First Amendment for me will be the hope that I can live in two worlds without conflict and not have to apologize for who I am – as an American and as a Jew.
This is my vision for America.
Then there are the words of Thomas Jefferson. Rarely does he refer to Judaism in his private writings, but when he does, it wounds me. In a letter written to fellow revolutionary William Short, this great Founding Father tears my faith and my heritage to shreds. Jefferson refers to Judaism as “that sect... that presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” Who was it that reformed Judaism? For Jefferson, this was Jesus, who exposed the “futility and insignificance” of the “many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances” of Jews, who were a “blood thirsty race” that was “cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.”
Perhaps we argue that Jefferson was a typical son of the European Enlightenment and was highly critical of any “religion of revelation.” Perhaps as a believer in a “religion of reason” Jefferson was offended by my tribal God and my anti-social particularism. I make no excuses to the Founding Fathers for my nation. I am proud to be a son of the Pharisees, the forerunners of the rabbis. Civil and legal equality as an American should not force me into the position of leveling the playing field and abandoning the traditional Jewish sense of being a member of people chosen by God as a “treasured people” with a mission to fulfill in the eyes of my “tribal” and “cruel” God.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, otherwise a genius of 20th-century American Judaism, made a fatal error when he erased the inconvenient Jewish sense of being chosen by God – and even erased from theology the belief in a personal Deity. Yes, I admit it is difficult to live as an equal citizen in a democracy and claim any merit of superiority. But to simply abandon central components of Jewish identity and faith because they make us uncomfortable is not the answer. We should thrive in this democracy. We should not fall on our own sword.
Let us never forget: America was a nation founded by Christians. This is no way deprives American Jews of a stake in our nation’s experience and destiny. But let us stop all the whitewashing of the past in order to make us feel better about ourselves and “fit in.” I acknowledge that Moses was an important figure in American history as a prophet and visionary who inspired many Americans of different faiths. At the same time, the Exodus as embodied in the Hebrew Bible was not the only inspiration to revolution and the struggle against tyranny. If Moses was the “American Prophet,” Jesus was the “American Savior” and for many Americans continues to be a source of ultimate salvation. The American Revolution for many of the Americans who fought it, this war against England, was a holy battle against the forces of Satan. That Jews participated in this battle for freedom in no way diminishes Jews or Christians. In fact, Jewish participation in almost all of America’s wars is a mark of pride for our Jewry.
The commitment that most American Jews had to the State of Israel – a support that has waned with decline of American Jewry and the loss of Jewish identity – was a reflection of the discomfort and psychological vulnerability of Jews in the US knowing that they were living in a “Golden Land” and, for the most part, were latecomers in the great Jewish immigration from Russia and Romania more than a century ago. The utter reliance on Israel that has become the hallmark of Jewish life in America – smashing the myth of an independent and self-reliant “American Judaism” – should provide all of us with insight into the dynamics of assimilation and the utter futility of trying to sustain a community in a multicultural nation in which ethnicity trumps faith.
If we squirm because we feel that we are being inconvenienced by a “tribal” history of a “chosen” nation, I must ask why we continue to exist. The leveling of the playing field and the failure of American Jews to articulate why we are who we are should be a lesson to an America that cannot articulate why this country is a beacon of freedom in the world. To remain mute and to make life as comfortable as possible is simply not the answer.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami in Boca Raton, Florida.