America is no Babylonia

As Orthodoxy moves to extremes, all that will be left for US Jews is piety.

lubavtich rebbe 88 (photo credit: )
lubavtich rebbe 88
(photo credit: )
Simon Rawidowicz was one of world Jewry's seminal thinkers of the 20th century. A driving force behind the creation of Brandeis University, Rawidowicz was a prolific writer and scholar, a master of the Hebrew language, and the founder of two Jewish publishing houses. Although an early supporter of Zionism as a student in Berlin in the 1920s, Rawidowicz broke with the movement's ideology of "the negation of the Diaspora." Rawidowicz was right on target in his criticism of Zionism's relegation of 2000 years of Diaspora history into a black hole of persecution, pogroms, and exiles. Until the modern period, Jewish life in the lands outside of Israel was usually one of stability, economic success, and flourishing cultural and religious life. Zionist ideologists certainly presented a prejudiced, monotone, and lachrymose view of the Jewish Diaspora. The confinement today of Diaspora history in Israel to a museum in Tel Aviv is a cultural tragedy. As Jews, we all owe a great debt to the exile of the past from which we emerged. I CAN AGREE with Simon Rawidowicz on the importance of Diaspora to Jewish history and Jewish continuity in the past. I would argue, however, that this great scholar's understanding of the Diaspora in the post-Shoah epoch was misguided. Rawidowicz objected to David Ben-Gurion's giving the name "Israel" to the emerging Jewish State in 1948. The reason he objected to that name was that it arrogantly assumed that Israel was the sole center of world Jewry, ignoring the Jewries of the Diaspora as important religious and cultural centers of Jewish life. Rawidowicz's greatest Hebrew work - with the provocative title translated into English as Babylon and Jerusalem - is a sincere and brilliant argument for the acceptance of the Diaspora as producing communities of equal importance and caliber to those in the State of Israel. America would be to the Jewish world in the modern epoch what Babylonia was to the Jews in late antiquity - a thriving Jewish voice and center of authority on equal footing with the other center of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. In fact, Rawidowicz actually underestimated the authority and centrality of Babylonian Jewry in the ancient world. Babylonia, by the time of the Geonic period, surpassed the Land of Israel in political importance and religious stature. While the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael declined with the Christianizing of Rome and the Roman Empire's economic woes, the Jewish community in Babylonia thrived under Persian rule. We all know that the authoritative version of the Talmud is that of Babylonia, not that of Israel. Even Saadya Gaon argued for the supremacy of the Babylonian academies over those in Jerusalem in his polemics. No doubt, the Babylonian center was greater than the center of declining Jewish life in the Land of Israel. To deny the importance of the Babylonian Diaspora - or any other Jewish center outside of the Land of Israel - would be a distortion of history and the product of the dictates of political ideology. Does that mean, however, that American Jewry today has the clout, the vitality and the cultural and religious authority of the Jewish community in Babylonia more than 1500 years ago? IT DOES NOT. Zionist ideology expressed a truth about the modern Diaspora that Rawidowicz did not acknowledge. The Diaspora of today is not the Diaspora of the pre-modern past. Emancipation - the granting of citizenship to Jews in America and in the modern nation states of Western and Central Europe - transformed the nature of the Diaspora, for the good and for the bad. Emancipation stripped the Jews of their national and legal identity as Jews, leaving only the private matter of religion to determine the course of the Jewish future. The Jews were granted everything as individuals and nothing as a nation. Since there could be no state within a state, Jewish national identity withered, to be replaced by a new American or European identity. The crisis in Europe was clear to Herzl - emancipation failed in its attempt to integrate Jews into the modern nation-states of Europe. The issue was not only one of anti-Semitism. As Max Nordau elucidated in his brilliant speech to the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the crisis of emancipated Jewry was the nature of their emancipation. Nordau stated: "The emancipation of the Jews was not the result of a conviction that grave injury had been done to a people, that it had been shockingly treated, and that it was time to atone for the injustice of a thousand years; it was solely the result of a geometrical mode of thought of French rationalism of the eighteenth century." Was it any different in America? Did our Founding Fathers separate Church and State in order that the United States would become an important center of world Jewry? Even John Adams, who wrote positively of Jews in his private correspondence, looked forward to the day when American Hebrews would see the light and become "liberal Unitarian Christians." WHY DOES the skyrocketing rate of Jewish marriage to non-Jews shock those of us living in America? Why are we obsessed with "Jewish continuity" when the odds seem so highly stacked against our survival as a Jewish community here? Citizenship forces us to repress an integral part of our identity and pay lip service to a universalism that abolishes three millennia of Jewish self-understanding. Why would a young Jewish adult in America today want to embrace an "ethnicity" that, for most, seems an anachronism in the modern world? I say this as an educator of American Jews, both young and old. I am in the trenches for the battle for the hearts and minds of American Jewry. As a bar-and bat-miztvah instructor, I work with Jewish teenagers and do my best to inculcate many of these intelligent young people with a sense of Jewish history and pride. As a teacher in adult education programs, I encounter seniors who bring a lifetime of experience to their understanding of Jewish faith, life, and culture. In many ways, the fight to imbue American Jews with Jewish identity is an uphill battle. Whether I, along with thousands of other educators, can succeed is an open question that is challenged by the alarming statistics. For all their condemnation of the Lubavitchers for believing the Rebbe was the Messiah, many American Jews have the messianic conception that Chabad will be the savior of American Jewry after the last alienated Jew marries out of the faith. This is a grave mistake. As Orthodoxy moves to the extremes of rejecting modernity, all that will be left for American Jews is a piety that will seem irrelevant to the reality of the world. Humanism and universalism, as well, seem a sham in the epoch after Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot and in our own post-9/11 world. As more and more young American Jews feel less and less a connection to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel, Zionism proves to be an inadequate locus for American-Jewish identity. Judaism is a civilization. Jewish identity must be all encompassing, spanning every aspect of human endeavor. No one wants to return to a pre-modern world of ghettos and prejudice. But in that world, Jews knew who they were. A Jew in Yemen had more in common with a Jew in Poland than he had with a Muslim in Yemen. There were no "Yemenite Jews" or "Polish Jews." There were Jews living as a corporate national entity in Yemen and Poland. This national bond in the Diaspora is now gone. Glatt Kosher sushi bars and Hollywood Kabbalists will not ensure Jewish continuity in America. Jewish national identity alone will not sustain Jewish life - but it is a necessary component for Jewish life and culture to thrive. Simon Rawidowicz died at the age of 60 in 1957. If he were alive today, could he really argue that American Jewry - a post-Emancipation religious community of Americans of Mosaic faith and culture - is a modern Babylonia that fired Jewish imagination and created a living Jewish society in the same way as a Jewish nation called "Israel"?