Jews Without a Deep Understanding of Their Own Religion, Heritage, and History Think Little of Disavowing Them

            August 2012    
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The "Crisis" of Jewry, Not Zionism

By Brandon Marlon

The recently highlighted "crisis of Zionism" is in fact a quandary in Jewry, and no new phenomenon. Rather, it has two sources, each centuries old.

One source is the exile and dispersion of a majority of Jewry from its native Land of Israel by Emperor Hadrian in the year 135 C.E., and its deep-seated and long-lasting consequences on the Jewish psyche over the course of the ensuing 1,813 years; the other source is about 300 years old, a gradual religious erosion which begins with the radical Reform movement in Germany, continues with Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism in America, and culminates in the mass Jewish assimilation throughout the Western world in contemporary times.

Expelled and wandering over many centuries, the Jewish People assumed new nationalities, adopted and formed new languages, and evolved from an eastern, Oriental people embedded in its homeland to a nomadic mass settling amid the western vistas of Europe, and ultimately the Occident of the Americas. While ties to Israel were never severed, collective recollection of the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt and subsequent messianic pretenders caused many even among Jewry's leadership to believe that the foretold ingathering of exiles required the coming of the true Messiah and nothing less.

Despite the earliest political Zionism of far-sighted rabbis Yehudah Alkalai, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Shmuel Mohilever, the great rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch and others eschewed political Zionism. This myopia had negative repercussions for Jewry as a whole. Had more Jews been influenced by their leaders to forsake Europe and Muslim lands for what was then Ottoman Palestine, later losses in the Holocaust and in Arab riots and pogroms might have been significantly lessened.

Still, an overemphasis has been placed upon political Zionism inside and outside of Jewry: the pragmatic manifestation of Zionism - the millennia-old spiritual, psychological, and emotional yearning of Diaspora Jews to return to the Land of Israel - is less than 200 years old. The original Zionism is itself only one aspect of Judaism; to dwell on political Zionism, therefore, is to abstract an aspect of an aspect of Judaism, as if it equates to Judaism as a whole.

When Jewish and Israeli leaders speak of why the Jewish People belong in Israel, they err when they refer to and rely upon political Zionism or the Holocaust, rather than their religious, historical, and civilizational identity. Whether or not a Herzl or a Hitler had ever lived, the people and land of Israel would still have belonged to one another. They form two halves of a binary 4,000 years old and counting.

Notably, the two sources of the Judaic crisis - exile, and secularization of religion - exist in parallel to the dual heritage of Jewry: both the Land of Israel and the Torah form the Hebraic inheritance. One cannot be, and was not meant to be, fulfilled without the other.

This leads us to the second source of our crisis, the attenuation of religious observance. Factually speaking, modern Jewry, especially North American Jewry, has a predilection for dispensing with religious components of ideas they find otherwise useful. Most notably, the concept of "tikkun olam" has been co-opted ad infinitum by liberal, non-Orthodox Jews for purposes of social justice and reform, yet the notion and the very wording itself derives from the uniquely religious phrase "L'takken olam bimalchut Sh-ddai" ('to emend the world under the sovereignty of G-d'), the latter part of which is expediently ignored. Similarly, some nominally sentimental, unobservant Jews nonetheless pride themselves on maintaining that they eat "kosher-style" if not actually keeping kosher (akin to being "pregnant-style" rather than pregnant), and some Jews who do not adhere to the accepted standards of Orthodoxy nevertheless claim with satisfaction to be "Modern Orthodox".

Likewise, when discussing the State of Israel and its founding declaration of independence, liberal North American Jews underscore the "democratic" element while downplaying the "Jewish" element mentioned therein. For them, the state is Jewish by virtue of its Jewish inhabitants; the state is Jewish the same way they are, automatically. Whether the state's collective character, morals, ethics, values, and principles are traditionally Jewish is of little interest to them, because it is of little interest to them as individuals who are either irreligious or part of the diluted modern-era movements for which the essential laws of Kashrut and Shabbat are not binding, the scripture is creatively reinterpreted in light of secular humanism, the distinctive roles of men and women are overturned, and faith in the divine is obsolete. Such Jews prefer their Judaism, and State of Israel, at a tolerable minimum.

It is thus nonsensical to think that most modern North American Jews - numbering around 7 million - would hold any attachment to the State of Israel if as assimilated persons they never held any special attachment to the Land of Israel. It is fatuous to imagine they would care one iota about dividing Jerusalem when they have not daily longed and prayed for the Holy City as did their predecessors. It is far-fetched to believe they would think twice about ceding Schechem, Samaria, Shiloh, Beit El, Jericho, Hebron, and Bethlehem without knowing how much these seminal sites meant to their ancestors, and without being able to readily locate these sites on a map. No one mourns what was never valued or appreciated in the first place. But pressure North American Jewry to relinquish New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Miami, Toronto, and Montreal to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and its resistance is certain to be enormous, ironically, despite the fact that those areas never belonged to their own forebears, as is the case in Israel.

And so this newly-discovered crisis, the long-standing devolution of historical identity and disintegration of religious integrity among Jewry, creeps forward with the march of time. The solution to the crisis lies in the hands of Judaism's most knowledgeable teachers, the sages and scholars steeped in their beliefs and traditions, who alone can shepherd the wayward flock back to its natural roots and faithful origins.


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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