Todd Berman

The Call Of Jewish Tradition: A Response To Michael Koplow

Recently in the Jewish Week, Dr. Michael Koplow explained what he sees as America Judaism to Israelis in general to Israel’s Minister of Education in particular.

Responding to Minister Rafi Peretz’s retracted formulation that intermarriage between Jews and gentiles in the United States is creating a second Holocaust, Koplow suggests that American Jews define Judaism differently than Israelis do.

American Jews tend to view Jewish identity differently. American Judaism is more a cultural identity and a value system than it is a religious or ethnic identity. The prominence that American Jews place on ‘Jewish values’ is what binds many American Jews together, rather than a genetic connection, religious compatriotism or a strong sense of a shared religious heritage. For many American Jews, intermarriage and secular assimilation do not threaten this identity because one can still cling just as strongly to a value system that prioritizes repairing the world or social activism and express one’s Judaism in that way. This is a version of Judaism that would be unfamiliar to Peretz and to most Israelis, but will be immediately familiar to many American Jews.

I don’t know if this represents Koplow’s personal worldview. Full disclosure, I remember Michael from the Orthodox minyan at Brandeis when I was the JLIC (Orthodox) rabbi there. Whether or not this reflects his approach to Judaism, he gives eloquent expression to a viewpoint appearing in numerous population studies. Indeed, many American Jews define Judaism outside the framework of ethnicity and religion. Judaism, in their view, consists of a package of values more or less following liberal political lines: basically, a cluster of social viewpoints. And herein lies the tragedy.

From time immemorial, Judaism offered the world a radical message: Man is not alone, the world has a creator, and the Jewish people are a family with a Divine mission. Our story is one of peoplehood on the one hand and religion on the other. As the Torah teaches, “Now the LORD said, ‘…Abraham is to become a great and populous nation…For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right…” (Genesis 18:18)

Abraham was chosen to create a nation who would be a conduit for the ways of God.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik popularized this idea in the following way,

The unity of the Jewish people as a community [is] based upon the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life as practiced by us – a Torah existence. What ties the Yeminite water carrier in the streets of Tel Aviv to the Jews of Boston? A uniform Orah Hayyim, the Shema Yisrael, Shabbat, Kol Nidrei night, the Seder night, kashrut, tefillin… unity [also] manifests itself in our unique political-historical lot as a nation. We are unique not only in our way of life, but also on our historical transmigrations and in our paradoxical fate. Our history would not fit into a different historical framework, and our fate is incomprehensible… No Jew can renounce his part of unity, which is based upon a fate of loneliness of the Jewish people as a nation. Religious Jews or irreligious Jews…all are included in one nation…The Hebrew word am, nation, is identical to the Hebrew word, im, with. Our fate of unity manifests itself through a historical indispensable union.” (Community, Covenant and Commitment, p. 144.)

For Rabbi Soloveitchik, Judaism consists of Jewish tradition and Jewish peoplehood. There is no other way to define it.

One need not turn to Israelis or the Orthodox to highlight this double identification of Judaism. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggests,

The decisive event in the spiritual history of our people was the act that occurred at Sinai. It had a twofold significance. One in the opening up a new relationship of God to man, in engaging Him intimately to the people of Israel; and second in Israel’s accepting that relationship, that engagement to God. It was an event in which both God and Israel were partners. God gave His work to the people, and the people gave its word to honor God.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 15.)

Judaism for both Rabbis Heschel and Soloveitchik include a peoplehood component and a covenantal-religious one. Rejecting both the ethnic-tribal people aspect and the religious-theological one creates a Judaism not even in name only. Rabbinic tradition pictures peoplehood through unique Torah focused lens, “Moses received the Torah on Sinai, he passed on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders [of the people of Israel], the Elders passed it on the Members of the Great Assembly” (Pirkei Avot 1:1)

From Abraham to Moses to Maimonides to Jews today, what has made Judaism meaningful were the people as an ethnic group and their covenantal relationship with God. To postulate a form of Judaism bereft of Jews and Jewish tradition leaves nothing in its place.

Such a hollowed-out Judaism was the focus of Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’s keen analysis in his classic investigation into the contours of Jewish thought, “What is Jewish Philosophy?” After conceding that, “All Jewish philosophies are subjective. They make sense in a certain time, in a certain situation, for a certain people. They are always the words of men not of God.” Berkovits goes on to declare, “If we wish to list the events which, because of their centrality, might be considered the constants of Judaism we could well make use of the traditional formula…God, [the people of] Israel, and Torah.” Any Judaism, suggests Berkovits, which does not put these three notions at is core, no matter what other aspects or values it contains, lacks the authentic vision of what Judaism is.

These same notions even dominate the Reform movement’s 1999 statement of principles, “This ‘Statement of Principles’ affirms the central tenets of Judaism – God, Torah and Israel – even as it acknowledges the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices.”

This is not an Israeli idea but the very definition of Judaism as understood by Jewish thinkers for millennia.

Judaism offers a beautiful and meaningful way to view the world and to participate in its wonders. At some point, the metamorphosis into something different goes so far as to stop being Judaism at all. Without a sense of nationhood, mission, and destiny, Judaism loses its heart and soul.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Solomon Schechter, the revolutionary of the Conservative Movement, knew this danger well. In an almost prescient passage, he declares,

It must, however, be remarked that this satisfying the needs of anybody and everybody is not the highest aim which Judaism set before itself.

Altogether, one might venture to express the opinion that the now fashionable test of determining the worth of a religion by its capability to supply the various demands of the great market of the believers has something low and mercenary about it. Nothing less than a good old honest heathen pantheon would satisfy the crazes and cravings of our present pampered humanity, with its pagan reminiscences, its metaphysical confusion of languages and theological idiosyncrasies.

True religion is above these demands.

It is not a Jack-of-all-trades, meaning monotheism to the philosopher, pluralism to the crowd, some mysterious Nothing to the agnostic, Pantheism to the poet, service of man to the hero-worshipper.

Its mission is just as much to teach the world that there are false gods as to bring it nearer to the true one. Abraham, the friend of God, who was destined to become the first winner of souls, began his career, according to the legend, with breaking idols, and it is his particular glory to have been in opposition to the whole world.

Judaism means to convert the world, not to convert itself. It will not die in order not to live. It disdains a victory by defeating itself in giving up its essential doctrines and its most vital teaching. It has confidence in the world; it hopes, it prays, and waits patiently for the great day when the world will be ripe for its acceptance.” (Aspects of Rabbinic Theology pp. 76-77)

Michael Koplow might be right; many American Jews have forgotten their people and their religion. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our family and tradition have so many riches to offer. Its time for the family to get back together. In a few short weeks, according to that tradition, Jews will commemorate the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Two months or so later we will celebrate the new year with the High Holy Days. Maybe it’s time to come home to our people and our tradition.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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