Self-Image and the Non-Orthodox World: The Case For Auto-Emancipation 2012

If you’ve spent any serious time in Israel and have traveled to its major cities, you will undoubtedly have noticed that virtually all of them have streets named after famous, deceased Zionist leaders and thinkers. There are countless boulevards, highways and avenues named after Herzl, Ahad-Ha’am, Ben-Gurion, Rothschild, Begin, Rabin, Ussishkin, Arlozorov… you get the picture.

My sister, who lives in Rehovot, lives on Rehov Pinsker, named after yet another great early Zionist. Yehudah Leib Pinsker was an assimilationist Russian Jew who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, and believed that the way to “solve the Jewish problem” was to become a part of the surrounding native culture and “blend in.” With the brutal pogroms of 1881, Pinsker’s thinking changed. With anti-Semitism so obviously deeply entrenched not only in the Russian peasants but also in academic circles, Pinsker came to the realization that the only way for Jews to be genuinely emancipated was to emancipate themselves, and they needed to do it in their own land. Waiting for the Gentile world to embrace them was not only a questionably realizable goal. It was also too dangerous to justify. And so it was that Yehudah Leib Pinsker became the leader of the Hovevei Zion movement (yet another street name!). And so it is that his name is found on street signs in cities all over Israel.

I have always regarded Pinsker’s epiphany about the Zionist enterprise to be an important turning point in the history of modern Zionism. It must have been terribly painful for him to despair so thoroughly of the promise of European Emancipation. But the realization that he came to was, I think, a timeless one that transcends the particular circumstances of the Russia of his time.

When all is said and done, if you want to be truly free, you have to declare yourself free, and live your life accordingly. Waiting for others to declare Pinsker and his fellow Russian Jews emancipated only brought violence and disappointment. The Zionist idea redeemed his faith in the possibilities of modernity for the Jew. Let us declare ourselves free, Pinsker said, and free we shall indeed be…

Fast forward into the twenty-first century…

As a Conservative rabbi for over thirty years, and now as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I think that Pinsker has a lot to say to today’s non-Orthodox Jewish world, both here and in Israel. I often wonder whether, in our longstanding, difficult and arguably quixotic quest for equity and respect in the eyes of the Orthodox world, we are not missing the very point that Pinsker was making for the Jews of his time. If you want to be emancipated, emancipate yourselves. Waiting for others to tell us that we are legitimate, or worthy of respect, is unlikely to bring any fruitful results, especially in today’s strident religious climate. But more to the point, depending on other’s to declare us legitimate is reflective of a lack of respect by us, for ourselves, and for the religious lives that we lead. And if that is indeed the case, then the fault lies with us as much as anyone else.

I am not saying that the political struggle is unimportant, nor am I talking about funding issues. There is no subjective element to those discussions. Either you’re getting a fair and equitable share of available monies, and the respect that you deserve, or you’re not. The sad truth is that, in Israel, the systemic inequities that are built into the way the government handles religious affairs basically obligates the non-Orthodox Jewish world to rely on litigation and unending political pressure to try and gain equity in these important areas. Though we differ substantively with the Reform movement on many significant issues, we share the burden of seemingly endless back and forth with the recalcitrant religious establishment. It is demeaning, and often dispiriting.

But when it comes to the religious and spiritual lives that we lead, it is, ultimately, we who determine what the quality and quantity of those experiences will be. If, as Conservative Jews, we are comfortable and secure in our own religious sense of self- if we truly believe that the Jewish life that we are living is authentic, impactful and grounded in beliefs and practices that we are committed not only to celebrating but also to passing on to a next generation- well, if that’s the case, then we shouldn’t need anyone else’s approval, or, if you will, hekhsher. It is annoying and unfair to have to be fighting constantly for respect and recognition, but the recognition that ultimately matters the most is that which flows from within.

That is what, to me, auto-emancipation is all about.

When Yehudah Leib Pinsker said to the dispirited Jews of late nineteenth century Russia was that they could redeem themselves from the horrors of their particularly brutal Diaspora by reclaiming their homeland and making it their own. He used the power of the Zionist idea to empower them.

In the twenty-first century, the idea of self-empowerment– auto-emancipation, if you will­– is no less compelling. The struggle for fairness and equity will go on, because it must. But the struggle for legitimacy is, ultimately, ours to win, if we choose. We are the ultimate arbiters of our own legitimacy…

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.