David Hoffman

American Jews Need the Next Stage of Zionism

In May 1956 General Moshe Dayan’s sixteen-year-old daughter sent Martin Buber – who was seventy-eight years old and living in Jerusalem – the following letter:

After having read your writings and attempting to understand them, and because we are dissatisfied with our environment, with its scientific creed, and the conventions of the society in which we live, we have decided to turn to you.

The central problem we face is basically simple: Is it possible for human beings, young people like ourselves, fully recognizing the need to have faith and the need to feel life, can we attain self-perfection based on faith and feeling, on knowledge and love of Jewish culture and the Bible?

We were raised in a secular, non-religious environment that deified science and its laws. This year we shall graduate secondary school with rather considerable store of scientific knowledge and general knowledge, but where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

Yael Dayan, who grew up in the newly emerging Israeli society committed to the secular values of socialist Zionism, wanted something more. Science and secular knowledge were important, but she wanted an additional lens to experience life.  She wanted to enter into a transcendent story that had the power to help her and her peers live with more intensity, intention and connection.

She wanted to know if Judaism had something to say, some way to help meaningfully navigate the great existential questions that arise when one considers how to live life well.

Having read some of Buber’s work trying to reclaim the spiritual sensibilities that had birthed Jewish religiosity, Yael Dayan wondered: Might Jewish spirituality and culture offer her and her peers a meaningful framework to explore life’s most important questions? Would Torah and Jewish culture allow her to feel more connected to herself, her community, and the world?

Her question- “Where do we go from here? has only gained intensity over the last decades in Israel particularly as many Israelis – like many of us Americans – question life’s purpose beyond newly found material success.

However, too many Israelis – by their own admission – feel like strangers within Jewish culture and learning. But many are spiritual seekers and want options for returning “home,” on their own terms, to a Judaism that speaks authentically and meaningfully to the lives they live. Israelis are increasingly seeking diverse and local communities that help them rebuild a relationship to Judaism in keeping with their personal values. They want to forge new conversations with Jewish learning in order to create a Jewish future for Israel.

This revolutionary reorientation towards Judaism in broad swaths of Israeli society is absolutely breathtaking and it needs to be more widely publicized. It’s occurring across the spectrum of Jewish communities – from secular to Orthodox. And most excitingly, this effervescence of cultural and religious activity is organic to the Israeli scene. It’s not imported from America or elsewhere in the Diaspora. This Israeli renaissance is occurring on a grass roots level; inspired by local spiritual entrepreneurs working outside the State system of centrally controlled and authorized religion.

Music, art, literature and liturgy are all mediums for this Jewish spiritual revival thoroughly embedded in Israeli culture.

We are witnessing a new stage of Zionism for the Jewish people.

Ahad Ha-am dreamed it. Gershom Scholem was sour that it had never taken root in the country’s early years. But today, we are witnessing the creative reengagement of Jewish spiritual activity in the State of Israel that has the power to inspire and welcome a new generation of Jews into Jewish conversations of meaning.

This revolution is helping to create an Israeli society that is more open, connected and reflective of our Jewish values.

And as important, this Zionist project has the potential to bring American and Israeli Jews closer together at a moment when these communities are drifting apart.

It has the power to inspire American Jewish creativity at a moment when we are in desperate need of new spiritual energy and collective global Jewish projects for the betterment of the entire Jewish people.

It takes Israeli and world Jewry beyond the debates about the “conflict.” It offers us a new door into world-wide conversations about the State of Israel in which Jews on the left, right and center can engage.

The urgent questions for both Israeli and American Jews – each wrestling with the same fundamental dilemmas, against the similar backdrop of the tremendous blessings and challenges of modernity are: Can Judaism help us meaningfully engage questions of ultimate meaning? And, can we use Jewish living and learning to help us build face-to-face, joyous communities where people feel truly seen and deeply connected?

This Zionist project of today and tomorrow responds to these questions. This Zionism can excite, bring us together and infuse American and Israeli Jews with a joint sense of purpose.

Let’s all recommit in a new way to the Zionist project. Our Jewish future depends upon it.

About the Author
Rabbi David Hoffman is President of the Honey Foundation for Israel. The Honey Foundation for Israel invests in the growing field of Israeli communal rabbinic and spiritual leadership, around the entire country and across the broad spectrum of religious expression, providing financial and professional resources that allow these talented leaders to build robust and engaged communities.
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