- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Try Jewish literacy

Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 15, 1998

One key approach to repair of the fraying Israel-Diaspora relationship doesn’t find much of an echo on this week’s grand CJF/UJA General Assembly (GA) program. A renewed commitment to the study of Jewish heritage. Jewish literacy as the bond between Americans and Israelis.


To understand what I mean, take a look back at the roots of the widening gap between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.


American Jewish experts will explain that Israel is not the utopian dream of yesteryear; no longer romantic enough to capture the imagination of the masses, to serve as an identity builder for youth. The state’s politics have changed, grown complicated and darker. Sephardim, religious Jews and the Right have taken the drivers seat – and they don’t exactly share all the liberal values of American Jews. Israel’s rabbis, they’ll also tell you, effectively have impugned the Jewishness of American Jews.


Moreover, Israeli leaders themselves have taken the wind out of American Jewry’s Israel-identification sails by telling them that Israel no longer needs American Jewish communal lobbying (Rabin), hasbara efforts (Peres) or philanthropy (Beilin). Netanyahu welcomes the assistance mainly if it fits his political agenda. And in the final analysis, Israel is no longer ‘victim enough’ to appeal to the conscience of Diaspora Jewry. We’re too secure, too prosperous.


Turn the equation around, and the average Israeli only will be too glad to explain *his* inordinate cynicism about those well-off Jewish brothers in America.


They’re more American than Jewish, he’ll bluntly tell you. Intermarrying and assimilating away. American Jews hardly ever visit here, certainly not when there is even the slightest whiff of trouble. German Christians visit in far larger numbers. Even the communal *machers* know pathetically little about our home-grown culture, arts, and literature worlds.


American Jews don’t fight in our battles, don’t suffer through terrorism along with us, don’t pay our horrifically-high taxes. Most of the money they so-overwhelmingly pat themselves on the back for raising through ‘the magbit’ (UJA) — doesn’t even end-up in Israel.


That’s what the Israeli will say if you ask. But in general, Israelis don’t expend too much time getting cynical about American Jews – they’re too busy being cynical about everything at home in Israel. Busy battling for a share of the pot, on behalf of one or another sectoral interest — just like in the bad-old-days of tribalism described in the Book of Judges. American Jews don’t even figure into the calculation.


Consequently, the Hebrew media barely will cover the GA shindig. For the average Maariv or Yediot reader, all the talk about ‘rethinking partnership’, ‘renewing relationships’, and ‘strengthening Klal Yisrael’ is one big yawn.


So what to do? The GA programmers suggest developing ground-level people-to-people relationships, based on a wide spectrum of personal interest choices. If you’re an environmental activist from Phoenix, meet one from Ramat Hasharon; feminists from Halifax are to link-up with their counterparts in Haifa. This fits in well with the current trend in American religious congregations towards an agenda of personal meaning – a spiritualized, individualized, pick-what-you-feel-comfortable-with identity formula.


Wonderful, right? Not really. This personalist style makes Judaism irrelevant as an organized religion and guts the traditional Jewish emphases on community and nationality. “I fear that it is an unreliable, false and ultimately unsustainable approach to ensuring Jewish continuity”, says political sociologist Prof. Charles Liebman of Bar-Ilan University. “But in strengthening the fraying Israel-Diaspora relationship we have no choice at present but to play along with what American Jewry is interested in — which is themselves.”


I’ve got a more elemental idea, which unfortunately has little echo on the GA program. Study. Why shouldn’t Israelis and American Jews study together, plumbing the depths of centuries of rich Jewish scholarship. Start with the Bible, Talmud, Midrash and Maimonides, along with a little contemporary Buber, Heschel, Chafetz Chaim, S.R. Hirsch, Soleveitchik, even Agnon.


Imagine a joint American-Israeli global effort to study and teach Jewish business ethics, developing a curriculum to be taught in high schools. How about a global year of study focussing on Jewish philosophical approaches to human rights and their application in the modern, nationalistic world? Or, a series of international conferences on morality and family values in Jewish tradition. Internet and real-time distance learning technologies could be harnessed in this drive for shared and basic Jewish erudition.


A revived emphasis on literacy will not erase ideological or societal differences among Jews around the globe. What it will do is create a common language. A collective consciousness of Jewish wisdom.


Take for example the relationship between myself and my ultra-orthodox Chassidic relatives in America. We disagree significantly on core matters of Jewish authority, legitimacy, nationalism and personal autonomy. We belong to radically different communities. But intelligent, respectful argument between us about ethics, mitzvot, modernity, lifestyle and politics is possible because we speak the same language of Jewish literacy. We study the same Rashi and Kuzari. (If you’re not familiar with these two classic works – you’ve just proved my point).


As a result we care about each other, the Chareidi cousins and I, and will work to ensure that a shared Shabbat table always remains possible.


So how about that? Jewish literacy and learning as a unifying force for partnership and Jewish brotherhood.