I Do Not Know What Jewish Values Are

I do not know what Jewish values are.

No, this is not the Wicked Son of the Four Questions, speaking in the affirmative voice. I suppose I was once rather evil, long ago, a furiously alienated product of too much American Orthodoxy shoved down my throat. But now I’m well into my sixties, not uneducated, not inexperienced, not unacquainted with life’s harsher realities, conversant with death. And I still don’t know.

This is not a rejection. It’s a simple statement. Or perhaps I do have some idea of what Jewish values are. Perhaps they simply fail to speak to me.

Or perhaps the gap between Jewish values and Jewish practice has grown so great that the values themselves have been perverted, perhaps beyond redemption or repair.

I do not know.

I’m no scholar of these matters. But from time to time I’ve listened, I’ve studied, I’ve read. Over the years, I’ve raised this perplexity with various rabbis and others. Some couldn’t close out the conversation fast enough. Others merely glared. A couple gave me reading suggestions that proved predictably unavailing.

None, thankfully, threw Hillel’s dictum at me. You know, the one about the Gentile who asked to be taught the wisdom of the Torah while standing on one foot. The answer: something about “Do not . . .” A trope from Leviticus, perhaps. Or perhaps it was an answer that had nothing to do with the Torah, but told the Gentile, “If you don’t care to be asked impertinent, disrespectful, idiotic questions, don’t ask them.”

Or did Hillel get it from Confucius? In the Analects: “Tsze-kung said, ‘What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men,’ The Master said, ‘Ts’ze, you have not attained to that.”

No matter, although I’ve always been fascinated by the religious flux of the Hellenistic Era and Second Temple Judaism.

I do not presume to know, speculate or inquire into what goes on inside any individual’s mind and heart. Their values and how they live them are their own affair. I do wonder whether Jewish values, however defined, are adequate to build a 21st century Jewish civilization that offers great gifts to the world.

Yes, a civilization. In Amos Oz’ masterful portrait of various Israeli types, In the Land of Israel – published in the early 1980’s but still utterly on-target, so little has changed – he defines Judaism as a civilization. It certainly was during the shtetl centuries. But no more. Can it become a distinctive civilization again, this time neither isolated nor self-isolated, but close to what Herzl envisioned?

Neither a Light unto the Nations nor an App unto the Same – just a worthwhile, perhaps compelling creation that the world accepts, admires and needs.

Is that what this election’s about? Can Judaism become a genuine civilization? Or must it remain forever chained to . . . Jewish values?

I don’t know. But I know we’ve entered into a very strange time. The old Israel of We Get Away with It no longer avails. Slowly, slowly, the enmity is closing in, while those who don’t hate us grow weary of the trademark Israeli combination of arrogance and kvetching.

So what’s this election about?

Many things, obviously. Many things, messy and complex. But other things, rather simple. What kind of nation, what kind of people, what kind of civilization, do we wish to be? And the world will be watching.

Consider the recent tsunami of verbiage regarding those proposals to declare Israel the State of the Jewish People. The only State of the Jewish People, PM Netanyahu reminded us. (Was he worried, maybe, that other Jews somewhere were getting ready to go into competition?) How many of us have no problem with Israel as a Jewish State – that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? – but fear the values that other Jews might inflict upon them, should the matter go Basic Law/constitutional? Others hold that such a declaration of the obvious would denigrate and degrade other values, the democratic ones. But how many of us would really care to grant democratic values, however defined, primacy over Jewish values, whatever they are?

All I know is, when a man as right-wing as Moshe Arens (May he live to be a hundred and fly a production-model Lavi) says it’s a lousy idea, it’s likely a lousy idea.

So here we are, entering a carnival superimposed upon a deadly serious matter. Once more: What kind of people, what kind of nation do we want to be? And if there are those among us who desire to participate in the creation of a 21st century civilization . . . to borrow a line from one of my favorite long-ago rock stars:

What to leave in. What to leave out.

About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
Related Topics
Related Posts