Seeing fully in the New Year

Much work remains to be done, but much good should be recognized, too.

A young man plays the shofar during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration  (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
A young man plays the shofar during the Nashuva Spiritual Community Jewish New Year celebration
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
Future historians might pronounce 5778 “the year of living arrhythmically.” Usually, when things misfire politically, they misfire personally. Currently, many Jews are thriving individually while acting miserable politically – worldwide and in Israel.
This year, markets boomed while liberals sagged – in Donald Trump’s America and Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel. Our dyspeptic politics makes us underestimate democracy’s resilience. Viewed in historical perspective and global context, democracies continue to mass produce a high quality of life for most citizens.
Last year, I urged: “Listen generously” – not listening to take offense or refute but to engage, learn, grow – even with those who dare disagree with us. This year’s Rosh Hashana plea is: “See fully.” Those in opposition should see what’s good even when they deem a country’s leader “bad,” while those in power should recognize – and fix – what’s bad, even when they deem their country’s leader “good.”
In his insightful new book, Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals, my friend Rabbi Nathan Laufer takes a holistic “unified field theory” approach to the Jewish holidays. Rather than “a series of fragmented ritual acts,” he sees these integrated experiences retelling our “foundational stories” over the year, “infus[ing] collective meaning and joy into our individual, everyday existence.”
If Shavuot celebrates God giving the Torah, Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish people’s accepting the Torah – as a package. The holiday’s broad popularity and the shofar’s call stir the “unconscious memory of standing as a single, united community-nation before God.”
Integrity and proportionality require skill, generosity and vision – resisting this age of Twitter-bursts and headline-driven hysteria. Try seeing the bigger picture, not just particular triggers. Judge comprehensively. Listen for the melody and lyrics, don’t just read the words.
And try using inviting language, encouraging language, not just distancing or demonizing language.
There’s an American Jewish leader who, in the High Holiday spirit, I won’t name. When he looks in the mirror he sees a pro-Israel patriot. But in his half-dozen Israel-related quotations in The New York Times last year, he only bashed Israel, often in an unhinged, apocalyptic way. He could justify each frustration. But what is the message he’s broadcasting? Israel’s a catastrophe, a burden teetering toward theocracy? It’s not.
There’s an Israeli leader I also won’t name. When he looks in the mirror he sees a defender of democracy. But this year, he often demeaned opponents in an unhinged, apocalyptic way. He could justify each case. His opponents were equally vicious. But what is his ultimate message? Rivals are traitors? Israel cannot tolerate dissent? There’s no room for fair, honest disagreement? That’s not true either.
Viewing American, Israeli and Jewish communal politics through this prism should calm the Israelis and American Jews demanding a “divorce.” Tensions exist, but, seen fully, historically and in context, both communities remain constructively intertwined.
Using that relationship as a model for all relationships – personal and political – consider Ethics of the Fathers, 1:6. “Find yourself a rav, a teacher.” That makes us more humble, wary of being too-quick-to-judge know-it-alls. Israelis could learn about pluralism, democracy and tolerance from their liberal American siblings, just as American Jews could learn about patriotism, loyalty and tradition from their Israeli ones.
Then, “win yourself a friend.” This transcends our toxic judgmentalism, constantly being disappointed in one another and forever looking down on one another. We need a calmer, more mutual relationship.
And finally, judging et kol hadam – “the whole person or community” – generously should silence these cries of catastrophe. Apocalypse Now is a movie, not the way to build community. In his indispensable sage advice on Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that those who give others the benefit of the doubt “will be better people themselves and will more likely evoke the best possible behavior from others.”
MUCH WORK remains to be done, but much good should be recognized, too.
I worry about assimilation, about intermarriage, about the false God of universalism seducing American Jewry. But American Jews remain 42% of world Jewry and they are not going to disappear tomorrow.
American Jewry reflects a historical pattern – the core flourishes as the periphery drifts off. Over the centuries, millions of Jews abandoned Judaism voluntarily, dwarfing the number of Jews martyred.
Judge American Jewry by its institutional power, its intellectual outputs, its intense pockets of Jewish living, its thriving Jewish day schools, its munificent federation system, its openness to interventions like Birthright – not just by its intermarriage rate. Think of how robust of a Jewish experience one can have living as a Jew – and a free citizen – in dozens of American cities – and appreciate how rare an occurrence that has been in Jewish history.
Similarly, while fighting zealously to maintain an Israeli democratic culture of pluralism, openness and tolerance, compare Israel today to Israel in the 1990s, 1970s and 1950s. I’d much rather be an intellectual or lifestyle iconoclast in Israel 2018 than in Israel 1998. I’d much rather be a Mizrahi or a capitalist in Israel 2018 than in Israel 1978 – even after Menachem Begin’s 1977 election victory. And I’d much rather be an Israeli Arab in Israel 2018 than in Israel 1958 – when Israeli Arabs were under a military rule that lasted until 1966.
Being a historian and comparing life today to life decades, centuries and millennia ago, helps me sleep at night. Seeing fully and judging comprehensively is better than popping tranquilizers. It fosters a genuine, reality-based generosity, reciprocity and tranquility that have long been the key to Jewish success, Zionist achievement and liberal democratic living.
The writer is the author of the The Zionist Ideas, an updated expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea, (Jewish Publication Society). He is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.