I wish to throw down the gauntlet, and ask a challenging question to the leadership of American and Israeli Jewry. America and Israel are the centres of the Jewish world in terms of the wealth of their resources, the level of the Jewish education in their schools and the number of Torah institutions that they have. However, it appears that if we talk about large scale, global, Jewish programs and education, these communities are being overtaken by other, smaller, Jewish communities.
Consider this. Most would agree that the most well known and respected Jewish voice in the world today is that of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – the former Chief Rabbi of England. Similarly, the most successful Jewish project of the last few years was the Shabbos Project – spearheaded by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa. And what may be the most ambitious Jewish learning program in recent years is being launched in the coming days – The United Synagogue`s 70 for 70 program, a 70 day learning program in memory of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, aiming to reach hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide. (The United Synagogue is a British organisation.)
So here is the question – How did a community without a strong tradition of Jewish learning and scholarship produce the most outstanding spokesperson for Judaism, and why did he not come from one of the two largest Jewish communities in the world? Why did the Shabbos Project come from South Africa, a community of around 90,000 Jews, rather than America or Israel, where the Jewish communities are each over 5 million people? And why did the most ambitious learning program in recent memory emerge from England, a community that has very few Yeshivot and institutions of Jewish learning, and not from America and Israel, where there are hundreds upon hundreds of Torah institutions?
I think this is a very serious question, and there are a few different components to the answer. Firstly, the communities of England and South Africa are predominantly Orthodox, and they do not have the depth of internal divisions that exist in Israel and America, that prevent community wide co-operation on projects. Secondly, both England and South Africa have centralised Rabbinates, and a Chief Rabbi who officially leads a large sector of the Jewish community – further facilitating large scale projects. (And thirdly, who in America can resist the English and South African accent………)
But I believe it is actually two things that are lacking in England and South Africa, which, paradoxically, are the reason that these communities have achieved these successes. These communities do not have institutions, and they do not have ideologies – and for all the drawbacks of this situation, this has been the key to their success at large scale Jewish projects.
Firstly, England and South Africa do not have many high level Torah institutions – Yeshivot, seminaries, or academic Jewish organisations and journals. Whereas in America and Israel, many of the most talented and gifted will become Rashei Yeshiva, Maggidei Shiurim and academics, in England and South Africa, there are few such opportunities. A man of Rabbi Sacks` brilliance was not part of an academic institution, or the head of a department of a university, but he was a community Rabbi. The fact that the most talented and knowledgeable of the community are unable to remain in institutions teaching scholars and advanced students, gaining “Talmidim”, but are “forced” to interact with the standard layman, mean that their programs and ideas are not focused on scholarly brilliance, but on their relevance to the average Jew.
But most importantly, the communities of England and South Africa have no Jewish ideologies per se. Modern Orthodox, Chareidi, Yeshivish, Torah im Derech Eretz, Chardal,Religious Zionist – these are all the creations of other, larger Jewish communities – and for all the benefits of ideologies, they also create tensions. A Rabbi in America is either Modern Orthodox or Yeshivish – and thus he is outside of a particular community. A Yeshiva in Israel either encourages it`s students to serve in the Israeli army or it doesn`t – and thus two communities are created. For every institution or Rabbi that runs on a “Modern Orthodox” platform, there are many Jews who do not wish to be modern and millions who do not wish to be Orthodox, and thus ideologies will always limit one to a specific community, and cut one off from others. Furthermore, ideologies do not provide a message that unaffiliated Jews can connect with. The average Jew will be largely unmoved by an opportunity to connect with “Torah Im Derech Eretz” or “the Yeshiva World” – two ideologies that to him are meaningless phrases, identities that are not his own. Specific Jewish ideologies, by definition, are divisive for affiliated Jews, and irrelevant for unaffiliated Jews.
Rabbi Sacks, Rabbi Goldstein and the 70 for 70 program run on no platform except for “Jewish”. True, these are all Orthodox organisations, and they have not compromised on their Orthodoxy. But their platform is Jewish – and therein lies their success. Rabbi Sacks does not teach an ideology, but talks about how Judaism can be meaningful in the 21st century, how Jewish ideas can be important in our lives, and how Judaism can be a positive force in the world – and which Jew wouldn`t want to hear about that? Hundreds of thousands of Jews are excited to keep Shabbat, when this is not sold as something that commits them to a certain ideology, but is something they do as an affirmation of their Jewish identity, and a way of connecting with Jews worldwide. And Jewish learning, when framed in terms as broad as “remembering the past to build the future,” as part of a program that commemorates the victims of the Holocaust, is seen as an opportunity for Jews to learn about their heritage, and enrich their Jewish lives. Almost by definition, only a program that seeks to connect people to “Judaism,” rather than a more specific ideology, can both be a rallying which will encourage unaffiliated Jews to participate, and will cut through the barriers that normally divide us.
Ideology is important – ultimately, one who is deeply immersed in Jewish life and texts will almost certainly commit to a certain ideology. Just as someone who takes his American citizenship seriously will be a “Democrat” or “Republican”, someone who is seriously committed to Judaism will choose a particular ideology to associate with. Rabbi Jakobowitz, a former Chief Rabbi of England, once penned a quite damning article, in which he railed against the lack of vision and energy in the Anglo Jewish community, which meant that Jews could exist in England for three hundred years without formulating any new ideology of Judaism. The Jewish ideologies in America and Israel are a sign of the spiritual maturity and intellectual energy that exist in those communities. However, an ideology will never provide a rallying call to the unaffiliated, nor provide a platform that will allow us to overcome our barriers. The programs emanating from England and South Africa, which without compromising on their Orthodoxy, seek to engage Jews, as Jews, with their Judaism, are a lesson to the larger Jewish communities. To engage the masses and to unify the Jewish people around common projects, we need to remember the importance of non-ideology, and reach out to all Jews – simply as Jews.