Yehudah Mirsky
Featured Post

How do we want to live‭?‬ The meanings of Jewish belonging in our time

Reflections on identity‭, ‬solidarity‭ ‬and faith after the collapse of traditional frameworks in‭ ‬the modern era‭

Pre-modern Jewish life was structured around the organized community, the kehillah. Then, beginning in the late eighteenth century, and with growing speed and scale through the nineteenth, a variety of factors — the rise of the European nation-state and its difficulty integrating national and religious minorities, and the rise of modern philosophy and science and their undermining of religious tradition — together undid the frameworks of meaningful belief and belonging that had long been inescapable for Jew and gentile alike. With this steady collapse, fundamental questions of both organization and existence were blown wide open. Much of modern Jewish life has been an attempt to recreate the kehillah in which Jewish life was embedded and intuitively made sense.

Writing in 1897 and in response to the First Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha-Am put his finger on the problem with characteristic elegance (the Jewish question so preoccupying Europe was really two questions) — that of securing Jewish physical, social and economic survival and well-being, and of providing a new foundation for the meaning of Jewish existence; as he put it: the problem of the Jews, and the problem of Judaism. And, he pointedly asserted, while the new political Zionism put forth by Theodor Herzl was perhaps an answer to the first, it neglected the second.

Today we are all living different answers — political, religious, cultural — to the problem of the Jews and of Judaism and the new forms of belief and community that they called into being. The tensions within and among these answers and their proponents were reshaped and even radicalized by two once-unimaginable events: the Holocaust, and the creation of the State of Israel. Whatever one thinks of the State of Israel, it has taken many unexpected turns and stirred as many questions as answers. The debates surrounding it are not only arguments over politics and power, but also about how to live as Jews, as Israelis, as members of humanity.

Israel, by definition, figures prominently in the various permutations of Jewish belonging and in very different ways. For Diaspora Jews, Israel is one possible component of their Jewishness; for some it is central and even at times the core element of their Jewishness, while for others it can range from less central to irrelevant or even serve as a reference point for a Jewish identity defined by anti-Zionism. Similarly, while for Israeli Jews, Jewishness frames their lives overall, their relationships to Jewish religion or historical culture are often complex. (And Israel’s Jewishness figures very differently for its non-Jewish citizens.) Like Israel for Diaspora Jews, Jewishness for Israeli Jews varies from central to not figuring at all, while others define themselves as avowedly un- or anti-Jewish (at least, staunchly unidentified with Judaism as a religion).

And one more thing: Diaspora Jews (at least the organized Jewish community) need Israel for their cultural — and, perhaps physical — survival in ways that Israeli Jews simply do not. Meanwhile, the meaning of Jewishness is as contested in Israel as it is anywhere, and the stakes are very high, for Jewish and non-Jewish Israelis, for Jews around the world, and for those on the receiving end of Israeli power.

It’s all such a complicated and thorny thing, this sifting through of Jewish meaning and belonging in our time.

Why do we persist in it? Because in the end we all have to come from, and build our lives, somewhere, on the ground, and in our minds and hearts. The free-floating, unattached individual is a myth, dangerous and seductive. To deny that we are all born into experiences and language shaped by others is foolishness — although to deny the reality of our abilities to choose is a dangerous illusion. If we do not take hold of and choose how we navigate our belongings — of ethnicity and kin, of civic engagement, of transcendent belief, value and longing — others will be happy to deny them to us, or to manage them for profit or power.

If choosing an identity seems like a contradiction in terms, that is because in many ways it is.

Indeed, “Jewish identity” is in some ways a kind of ghost, a marker of things left behind — halakha, community, God. Or at least God encountered, experienced, revered, obeyed or denied through the inescapable framework of a community. Yet God, or at least theology, is inescapable, since we need some kind of grounding, some kind of ultimacy, to shape our choices and commitments over time. This is hard to say in the wake of the Holocaust — indeed it often seems as though one reason that the Holocaust looms so large in contemporary thought is precisely because its sheer immensity and incomprehensibility and loss, as terrifying as they are, make it the only thing large enough to take the place of God.

* * *‭

‬God is, of course, larger than us all, than our questions or our answers, or our theologies. To commit to a life lived in and with God is a choice everyone must make for him or herself. The meaning of that choice is not saying “yes” or “no” to abstract propositions, but of choosing to live in relation to Him and to communities, of the living and the dead, and to do all that living in communities entails.

* * *‭‬

What sort of community is a Jewish community? It is a curious mix of family, society and the cosmos. It is a large family, with all the familial reality of flesh and blood and birth and death, of hard love and hard obligation. It is a family that fosters its own kind of society. And it is a family living for universal truths – of ethics, of the fact of our created-ness, the creatureliness of our being – that aim to speak to, and heal, all of humankind.

This thinking of Jewishness as family has many implications. Families offer shelter and they confer responsibility. In the case of conversion, for example, one becomes part of a new family, and in so doing takes responsibility for the new family’s members, and they take responsibility for him or her.

Thinking of Jewishness as a universally-minded family also sets the terms for many of the crucial theological dilemmas arising from the complicated marriage of the universal and the particular. I can indeed care more in some ways about the immediate welfare of my own family than that of another — but nobody would imagine that I am thus relieved of my responsibility for the welfare of the members of other families.
In Israel, the danger to Judaism is that the particular will overwhelm the universal, by virtue of Jewish majority, and through the military conflicts besetting the state, becoming bitterly or even proudly chauvinistic. In America, it’s the reverse: the universal overwhelming the particular, with Jewishness becoming synonymous with middle-class life, even to the vanishing point. The possibility of dissolution, of becoming just one more set of tiles in the great American mosaic, poses the danger of idolatry, of losing the possibility of judgments standing outside and beyond ourselves. And in Israel, the possibility of chauvinism is itself a temptation of idolatry, the absolutization of blood and ethnicity and kinship in their own terms instead of ethical values which of necessity point beyond all our affective ties and our lives.‭

* * *‭

How to think all this through in a fast-changing and bewildering present? To borrow a line from the rock group R.E.M.: “Talk about the passion.”

When we look back at the fierce ideological struggles that marked Jewry up until the Holocaust, one thing becomes clear: the protagonists who mattered most, whose words are still worth reading whatever the historical verdict — cared passionately about Jewish physical and cultural survival, and staked their lives on their visions of how to secure it.

That passion served to anchor the reflections of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), founder of the modern Chief Rabbinate of Israel and one of the greatest Jewish leaders and thinkers of modern times, who, among many other things, thought through the meaning of Jewish argumentation to its foundations.

In a justly famous set of reflections written around 1912-13, Rav Kook points to three distinct dimensions of Jewish identity: nation (group, ethnicity or peoplehood), universal ethics, and the sacred. In pre-modern Jewish life, these all clustered together and reinforced each other. In modern times they split apart, each becoming the property of a specific party; in Kook’s day, respectively, Zionists, Socialists, and Orthodoxy. These “camps” were not just different ways of addressing problems practically, they were vehicles of identity, of articulating and living different visions of Jewishness. But the one thing that they shared — to me, still the indispensable prerequisite to being part of the Jewish conversation today — was a passionate commitment to Jewish physical and cultural survival, each by its own lights.

For Rav Kook, the true meaning of the “sacred” is the ultimate unity of all three: Jewish peoplehood at once particular and universal and thus enacting God’s being universal and particular, transcendent, and immanent.

The task in the meantime is to assert one’s own vision of Jewishness, expressing the deepest stirrings of one’s own soul, while recognizing the ultimate partiality of one’s own perspective and the inescapable need for the strivings of other Jews — including those with whom we disagree.

Something additional emerges from Rav Kook’s ideas here, a workable sketch of what we mean by Jewishness, this thing we know in our bones yet struggle so hard to understand. It is an amalgam of 1) our primal ties to one another as a large family that loves to argue, but stays committed to one another’s physical and sociocultural survival and well-being; 2) our commitments to the realization of our ideals in practice, and to ethics and justice, within the Jewish world, and in our relations to human society as a whole. This includes enlightened self-interest with self-criticism of our own potential chauvinism, the bitter fruits of historical experience as a persecuted minority, and at the same time, recognition of our shared existence on the planet with other citizens of an evolving global society, and, for some, our beliefs in God as creator of humanity as a whole; and 3) our trying to live in the presence of the sacred, God, the spirit, that which ultimately vouchsafes the authenticity and meaning of our existence and our struggles — paradoxically, by pointing beyond it towards a distant horizon, never reachable, but nonetheless one whose silhouette gives us an orienting place to stand, a direction in which to move, and frames the rhythms of light and darkness in our world.

Moving to our day, Jewishness simultaneously affirms the global and the local, the universal and the particular, while lodging a permanent protest against the idea that any one particular identity, and any one — even universalist — ideology is the one-size-fits-all God-like answer to the human condition in all its diversity.

Jewish global responsibility in our time, then, means preserving and protecting Jewish collective and individual flourishing (physical and cultural) alongside a commitment to human flourishing overall, with humility, and the recognition that we are ultimately serving ends larger than ourselves. Crucially, it means finding some way to manage and, ideally, benefit from, inevitable and deeply felt disagreements within the Jewish world.

And it necessitates hope — not as a passive wistfulness, or aesthetic pose, but as an active motive force in human history. It is the conviction that the things that we work for are worth working for — and that our struggles themselves have meaning.

Religion is how we approach people, things, and being. The key feature of monotheism is that you turn to the universe in the second person singular and say, “You.”

That is a real leap of faith and one that does not suit everyone. But no matter what, there still abides the question of how best to live in a human world and face one another, and say, as fully and richly and as morally as we can, “You.” How do we live in common as full human beings and in light of our ultimate values? And how do we do so with the humility that saves us from fanaticism and its violence?

* * *‭

Faith or fanaticism?

Abba Kovner, the poet, leader of the partisans of the Vilna Ghetto, and Israeli cultural luminary, once pointed out in the torturous conversations following the 1973 Yom Kippur War that history is made not by intellectuals but by men of faith. There is, he said, but a footstep’s worth of difference between faith and fanaticism, but it is on that one step that the Jewish people built all that they have built in the Land of Israel (and, I would add, in the Diaspora, too). The problem today, he said, is that we are too intellectual (in the original Hebrew, hakhamim) to believe.

Are we? Perhaps it depends on the meaning of faith, which we can define as that on which one can build.

What is the difference between faith and fanaticism? Both the faithful and the fanatic ask themselves whether they are living up to their ideals. The difference is that the fanatic knows that his ideals are perfect as they are. The person of faith, by contrast, is willing to question his or her own ideals in light of other, competing, or even superior ideals, and to question the form of life to which he or she is committed – and never assumes that the fact of commitment makes him or her qualitatively better than all the rest.

Faith is indeed a narrow step, or, if you will, a very narrow bridge. Kovner pointed out that on one side of the gorge lies fanaticism; I would add that nihilism occupies the gorge’s other side. Nihilism and fanaticism are, each in its own way, equally capable of crushing life. What keeps the person of faith from fanaticism is questioning; what keeps him or her from nihilism is the willingness to commit oneself and to act, in the teeth of questioning and doubt.

Again, the fundamental question is, as always, how do we want to live? In trying to answer, we dig down to our deepest commitments — moral, social, political, communal — the commitments and the institutions without which we cannot live and for which we may indeed be willing to die. I believe that in this post-metaphysical age, where even if God is still with us, nobody can claim with a clear conscience to be His designated representative or spokesman — if indeed He could even have such a thing; it is by digging into those commitments that we can find the footing, the courage to look at one another and at the universe and say, “You.”

That is where our commitments, our willingness to take responsibility, will begin. That is where Judaism will begin, and that is where the dialogue of Judaisms between Israel and America and the rest of the Diaspora will begin, if it can begin at all. . . But then again, if we want to endure, it must.

This article is one of 17 important perspectives on the current state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship published in a special issue of Eretz Acheret magazine, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and available free of charge to Times of Israel readers. Access the full digital edition at:
Come let us reason together
[alternate link]

About the Author
Yehudah Mirsky is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University and the author of 'Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.' He served in the Clinton administration as special advisor in the US State Department's human rights bureau. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem where he lives with his family. He tweets @YehudahMirsky.
Related Topics
Related Posts