Notes from the new Diaspora

The recurrent debates concerning “Who is a Jew?” only serve to highlight the reality that the Jews of the US and the Jews of Israel are going their separate ways.

American, Israeli flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)
American, Israeli flags.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
All is not well in the “special relationship” between America and the State of Israel. By extension, this has affected the relationship between American Jews and Israel. The tension in this relationship between Jews in different countries is not just political – whether the Obama administration is the worst enemy or the best friend Israel has ever had. The crisis of the Jewish Diaspora in America is systemic.
The recurrent debates concerning “Who is a Jew?” only serve to highlight the reality that the Jews of the US and the Jews of Israel are going their separate ways.
The recent debacle involving the Chief Rabbinate’s attempt to delegitimize American Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss is a sign of what is ahead. American destiny in the “Age of Obama” is not Israeli destiny. This should not be news to anyone – nor should the president bear all the blame for this state of affairs.
This reflects the contrast of two Diasporas – that of the past, and that of today.
Twenty-five years ago, Israeli historian of Zionism David Vital predicted a permanent rift between American Jewry and the Jewish state. Vital wrote in 1990 that “fundamental unity has now collapsed” in the Jewish world. We can no longer speak of an American Jewry like ancient Babylonia, a Diaspora of old that took precedence in leading global Jewry, dominant over a smaller rabbinic establishment in the Land of Israel.
America is not Babylonia.”
The tension over supremacy in the Jewish world is not a new phenomenon.
In 922, Aaron Ben-Meir, head of the Jerusalem academy, announced that Passover would fall on Sunday, and not on Tuesday as accepted according to the calendar of the Jews in the dominant community of Babylonia. Saadiah, the Jew from Egypt who was the greatest gaon in the history of the Babylonian yeshivas, found himself in the middle of what threatened to be a major schism in the Jewish world. Little information exists on how the dispute was resolved.
It seems that Saadiah and the Babylonians were the victors in the battle over the calendar. That this issue is still explosive centuries after the Jewish liturgical calendar had been fixed is a reflection of the power of who controls the setting of the calendar. Authority over the calendar meant ultimate authority over the Jewish people.
We would like to believe that nothing has changed since the calendar dispute of over 1,000 years ago. We in the US announce to the world that we are partners with the State of Israel in promoting Jewish identity, pride, religion, history and culture. But the partnership is crumbling under the weight of history and the separate political, social and religious development of two Jewries.
The issue is not just that Israel has emerged as a dominant center of Jewish life that has confidence and needs to dictate the ground rules of Jewish life to world Jewry and exert authority, sometimes recklessly. There is much more to all of this.
We, as American Jews, refuse to admit that the politics of modernity – beginning with citizenship granted through the American and French Revolutions – has fundamentally transformed who we are. We forget that in the Diaspora of the ancient and medieval periods, there were no “French Jews” or “English Jews” or “German Jews.” Before the advent of modernity, there were autonomous Jewish communities in France, England, and the Germanic states – as well as in Arab and Islamic lands.
Yes, there were external non-Jewish cultural influences on Jews in the Diaspora.
But these influences did not plunge the Jewish communities into the abyss of assimilation and marriages out of the faith. Jews were acculturated.
But they knew that they were Jews.
As Jews in America, we are “American Jews.” We are all grateful that our passports do not indicate our religious beliefs and we are proud of the accomplishments of our country. Yet, our identity is divided very unevenly. Our American identity is our legal and public identity. Our Jewish identity, on the other hand, is voluntary, a matter of personal choice, even if based in God’s commandments. Perhaps this is one reason that American Jewish life is eroding so quickly – there is no coercive Jewish body to enforce following the laws of Judaism. But that cannot be the whole answer.
I would argue that for most young Jews today, the Jewish ethnicity – embodied in multiculturalism – lacks meaning and depth. Zionism cannot always fill this void of a community of “Americans of the Mosaic persuasion.”
Jewish identity is not all-encompassing.
It is compartmentalized into a narrow zone of ethnicity and politics. The sense of community is voluntary and weak.
American Jewry is not the new Babylonia.
While our Jewish community has produced Jewish thinkers and artists and poets of genius, American Jewry will never have the power of our ancestors in Babylonia. We will not produce an intellectual and religious edifice like the Talmud and we are, for the most part, failing to provide a lasting infrastructure for the continuity of our people and the continuity of Jewish knowledge and practice.
We delude ourselves if we think that we can dictate to the State of Israel the norms of Jewish identity as did our ancestors in ancient and medieval Babylonia.
The victory for Rabbi Avi Weiss with the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s recognition is a temporary phenomenon. We are living not in the Diaspora of old – a Diaspora of autonomy, creativity and authority. We live in the New Diaspora.
At day’s end, as Americans our destiny is an American destiny that we share with African-Americans in Chicago, Latino- Americans in Miami and Evangelical Christians in Des Moines. As Americans, public legal status is competing with our Jewish family ties to Jews living throughout the Diaspora and Israel. In the end, legal and national status must be the winner. We are first and foremost Americans.
Perhaps Zionism and Judaism – and a strong sense of community – can provide a replication of corporate identity that can strengthen American Jewry, maintain Jewish unity, and not compromise national allegiance. This is the model that has been successful in many Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States. Identification with the Torah and Israel is a likely key to remaining united as a people. Jewish day schools are a last line of defense – and a successful one – in stemming the tide of Jewish assimilation. I have seen what dedicated teachers and enthusiastic students can do – it is rather remarkable but needs to be replicated on a much larger scale.
The State of Israel is the legitimate heir to the corporate existence of Jews in the Diaspora. America nullifies this legal and public corporate identity through American citizenship. If the recent Pew Research Center Study poll is correct, many of America’s Jews will meet the fate of the denizens of the ancient Northern Kingdom. We will simply be the New Samaritans. Our destiny is American destiny – if not today, then tomorrow or 50 years down the road.
Bethel and Dan were not Jerusalem.
Berlin of the Reformers was not Jerusalem.
New York is not Jerusalem. Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Riverdale and Des Moines are not Jerusalem.
This is not Zionist propaganda or a call for the coming of the Messiah. It is the reality of the transformation of the Diaspora. We must confront this reality of America’s “lost tribes.” That is the modern Diaspora. If we understand that reality, we can begin to salvage the unity of one Jewish people.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.