The “Crisis” of Jewry (Not Zionism)
Jews Without a Meaningful Connection to Their Own Religion, Heritage, and History Think Little of Disavowing Them.
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 200 years old, a gradual religious erosion which begins with the radical Reform movement of Samuel Holdheim in Germany and David Einhorn in the U.S., 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 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, the 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 founder of neo-Orthodoxy Shimshon Rifael Hirsch and others eschewed political Zionism. This myopia had highly negative repercussions for Jewry as a whole. Had more Jews been influenced by their leaders to forsake European and Muslim lands for what was then Ottoman Palestine, later casualties of the Holocaust and Arab pogroms would have been significantly lessened.
Still, an overemphasis has been placed upon political Zionism inside and outside of Jewry: the pragmatic manifestation of Zionism is less than 200 years old. The original Zionism – the millennia-old spiritual, psychological, and emotional yearning of Diaspora Jews to return to the Land of Israel – 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 emphasize political Zionism or the Holocaust, rather than our 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 – prolonged 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 was not meant to be fulfilled without the other.
This leads us to the second source of the crisis, the attenuation of religious observance. 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 well-meaning liberal, non-Orthodox Jews for purposes of social justice, yet the notion and the very wording derives from the religious phrase “L’takken olam bimalchut Sh-ddai” (‘to emend the world under the sovereignty of G-d’), the latter part of which is neglected. Similarly, some sentimental, unobservant Jews 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 norms of Orthodoxy still 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 foundational 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.
Thus, it is inconceivable 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 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. Who mourns what was never valued 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, despite the fact that these sites never belonged to their forebears, as 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. Surely the solution to the crisis lies in the hands of Judaism’s most knowledgeable teachers, sages and scholars steeped in their beliefs and traditions, who alone can shepherd the wayward flock back to its spiritual and historical origins.
Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli playwright and poet, and author of Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People and Judean Dreams.