The war for the soul of the American Jews

There is an old joke: A ship rescues a Jew from a desert island, and the captain notices he’s built two synagogues there. Don’t you need only one? asks the bemused seaman. That one I go to, the Jew replies. The other is the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in!

Our fair city of Fresno, the fifth largest in California, has three shuls: the big Reform one (with Friday evening services but no Shabbat morning ones), the much smaller Conservative one (which struggles to assemble a minyan on Shabbat), and mine. I go to the Chabad one, since I’m a fairly conservative, kippa-wearing kind of guy who likes a full, traditional service in Hebrew. My Mom’s side of the family is Sephardic (Salonica and Morocco); Dad’s side are your left-wing, Americanized Ashkenazim, ranging from secular to militant atheist, but with Hasidic roots (the Piaseczner Rebbe is an ancestor).

When the history of the American diaspora is finally written, Chabad is likely to figure as the movement that overwhelmed the other forms of traditional Judaism in this country— modern Orthodox, Satmar, the lot. The other side of the American Jewish experience would be Allen Ginsberg and his Kaddish, Bob Dylan, Philip Roth, Mark Rothko, Emma Goldman, Bernie Sanders— the very many creative, dynamic, revolutionary Jewish women and men who shared in the shaping of a forward-looking and diverse American culture. These secular Jews, the ones intensely engaged in the world around us, will have been for the most part Democrats. The traditionalists, who circled the wagons around unquestioning support for any policy of the Israeli government no matter what it was, who refused to accept the reality of climate change, and so on, will have been Republicans. What does this make the Jews? Typical Americans, split down the middle and from top to bottom, riven by mutual mistrust. This is the shul I go to, that’s the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in, etc. So, what else is new?

Maybe nothing is new. But along with the full Rabbanan Kaddish, Hasidic storytelling, nice Kiddush meals, and diverse congregations with real human warmth, Chabad also carries some baggage that may go through security (to coin a metaphor on the spot) but that I don’t want to carry, that isn’t mine, doesn’t bear my name, and would not have borne the identification tag, in flowery Hebrew and Yiddish, of any of my Hasidic ancestors either. Yes, Chabad is a welcoming place for traditional Jews to come in from the cold. Its publications are excellent, its outreach programs are amazing, its on-line educational facilities are superb, and the original and authentic roots of Chabad in the writings and teachings of its line of Rebbes are profound. But it’s become also a very slick, canny multinational corporation with a deeply disturbing political agenda, some of which can justly be called extremist.

The most obvious example is the deification of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe as Moshiach— the Messiah. Visitors to Brooklyn and to Chabad centers elsewhere will have seen the yellow banners with the Messiah’s crown, the slogans in Hebrew declaring “Long live the Messiah forever” and so on. We’ve seen this before. Josephus in his Antiquities mentions a number of trouble-maker messiahs who enlivened the already-turbulent Jerusalem scene on the even of the destruction of the Second Temple. In the 17th century, there was Shabbetai Tsvi, the false messiah, and the fascinating detritus of his disastrous movement: the Frankists and Dönmes. There’s another Jew whose followers decided was the Messiah… we’ll get to Him presently.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe is not the Messiah. He was a charismatic teacher, a great soul whose spirit and teachings speak to us from beyond the grave, like the Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. But he is not the messiah. If his followers want to think he is, fine— but that’s not traditional Judaism anymore, it’s different. Some would call it a cult or a heresy, but I find such inherently disparaging terms unhelpful. I’m content to say it’s baggage I won’t carry.

As the commercials say: But wait, there’s more! Alas, there is. On the eve of the birthday of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, who in my humble but sincere opinion was the greatest American who ever lived, we read the first portion of Shemot, the Book of Exodus. It’s about liberation, sneered our sermonizer from his pulpit, but “it has nothing to do with ‘civil rights'”. Actually nothing could be more wrong than that dismissive jibe. Black slavery in America was an evil as great as that of the Nazi Holocaust. Slave-owners who converted Africans to Christianity to make them docile printed Bibles from which the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt had been carefully excised. But when the Black Church sought freedom, it was entirely, and rightly, in the terms of the Hebrew Bible. Have you ever heard the spiritual “Let My People Go”? If you haven’t, have your doctor check you for deafness. But then it is the position of the same pulpit that Jewish children should not attend public schools, so presumably in the self-constructed walls of new, spiritual Warsaw Ghettos our kids will never learn about Nat Turner, Rosa Parks, about I Have A Dream. They probably also will not find out what I am to tell my class in Jewish Civilization here at Fresno State this week: that Ben Franklin proposed as the first Great Seal of the United States an engraving of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt with the motto, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

Chabad champions prayer in schools. That is as wrong as can be. The Constitution of the United States separates church and state, and that is the essential foundation of our country. It means that Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and, yes, atheist children are equal and that the state has absolutely no right whatsoever to interfere in their beliefs, beyond classes in what we used to call civics. And civics isn’t ideological indoctrination or metaphysics, it’s discussion and argument. There is a word for that. Democracy.

Pericles in his funeral oration in The Peloponnesian War of Thucydides extols the participatory character of Athenian democracy and declares that those who would not engage themselves in all its aspects do not belong in Athens at all. A Chabad friend said to me not long ago that the upcoming elections in Israel are a contest “between Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) and democracy”. Well, let the best man win there— I’m not an Israeli and if Israel wants to become a theocracy, it’s none of my business. But if you live in America and you’re against democracy, then I have to agree with Pericles: you don’t belong here. But I think the soul of American Jewry should be here, in the democracy whose spirit and culture we enrich.

And finally, a few weeks back the pulpit declared— to a young gentile who attends our services, no less— that one must risk one’s life to save another human being, only if that other human being is a Jew. Really? Sitting in the congregation that Shabbat were two physicians who do everything they possibly can, 24/7 (not 24/6), to save other people. One of them will make house calls at midnight if necessary, and knows how to say “Does it hurt?” in Russian, Persian, Spanish, and Hmong. The other was a medic in the United States Marine Corps. That pronouncement, which may have some halakhic support (but authentic halakha on such ethical issues is all about argument and debate), goes against everything I was ever taught that Judaism means.

It’s been heard before: there was a peripatetic Jewish teacher once upon a time who expounded his midrashim on Torah to folks in the Land of Israel. He was a healer, too; and it annoyed some people that he healed gentiles, and violated some rules of Shabbat to do so. He replied that the Sabbath was made for man; not man, for the Sabbath. And as to helping non-Jews, he told a story about a certain good Samaritan. Yes, you guessed it. His name is Jesus Christ. His followers believed Him to be the Messiah; and He now has quite a following. I am not a Christian; but many of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount seem to me to be much closer to the true soul of my faith and my people than what I’ve been hearing lately. There’s a war on for the soul of the Jewish people, maybe the soul of humanity. As the old Soviet World War II poster says: Родина-Мать зовет! The Motherland summons you! And as Allen Ginsberg responded as he signed up for this war we’re in: I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel. Count me in.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University (semi-retired), Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; and he taught Ancient Iranian languages and religions at Columbia University from 1982-1992.
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