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August 17, 2018 6:23 am

Liberal Jews Can Be Committed to Nationalism and Judaism

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that the choice between Jewish nationalism and Jewish liberalism is the crucial issue facing American Jewry today. He wondered how we can reconcile universal, humanist values with the nationalism of Jewish identity. He concluded with a question: If these two positions are so divergent, can this be “good for the Jews”? He added, “That’s a question this Gentile columnist leaves to the chosen people to debate.”

To me, as a practicing Jew — yet one who is intellectually and politically liberal — there is no question whatsoever that it is good for Jews to be committed to the Jewish people and Israel. At the same time, I believe in the importance of liberalism to counterbalance fanaticism. Indeed, Judaism has survived precisely because we (or at least some of us) chose to remain loyal to our people while also integrating other ideas.

We had this issue with the Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, and the Muslims. What comes first? Jewish identity or the values of the outside world? It’s a no-brainer, as the Americans like to say. From the time of Shmuel in the Persian Empire, we always accepted “the Law of the Land” in civil matters. But at the same time, we retained our own Jewish value system.

One should not confuse citizenship with identity. After all, that was once the testing point in what I would call primitive, neanderthal nationalism. The sort I detest.

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Today, many of us in the West live in a post-nationalist world, where a variety of people of different religions and cultures share equal citizenship. Nationalism, in most cases (not all of course), has become less rigid and dogmatic.

We all have different ideas, literature, and cultures. Within these different loyalties we will disagree as well — sometimes acrimoniously. A free society allows for people to disagree, argue, and even despise each other. But we can all still be part of a whole. The US does not have a state religion. That is one of the reasons why Jews of all shades have found it so comfortable. Britain does. The Queen is the Head of the Church and bishops sit in the House of Lords. France, though secular, recognizes a special relationship with Catholicism, Japan with Taoism, and China with Maoism. Egypt and all the other Islamic states with Islam. To object to Jews or Israelis doing the same makes no sense. But then, prejudice never did.

The blind hatred towards nationalism espoused by the academic world and the idealistic left (except, it seems, when it comes to Palestinians or left-wing dictators and murderers) throws the baby out with the bathwater. It makes no distinction between positive nationalism and negative.

The Torah is my priority, even if I also include other views and cultures in my decision-making process, which I think is crucial to being “good and just” — an oft-repeated theme in the Torah.

I made a decision early on to dedicate myself to Jewish survival. On the other hand, I detest compulsion. This freedom of choice and practice is one reason that I so strongly believe in the separation of state and religion. But here comes the crunch: I believe the laws of a country should serve the whole country civilly, but in terms of one’s own morality and loyalties, one should give priority to one’s own.

The obvious, inescapable fact is that the only way to guarantee cultural survival is by being committed to it. If someone tells me that most American Jews cannot identify with a Jewish religious life anymore, or with the right of Jews to have a homeland of their own, I am sad. But they are usually far removed from Jewish practice and therefore peripheral to Judaism’s survival. That’s their choice, and good luck to them.

Douthat is worried that Jews such as Michael Chabon or Ayelet Waldman are distancing themselves from Jewish practice because they say that they can no longer feel comfortable being associated with such narrow perspectives. Well, good for them. They won’t be the ones keeping Judaism alive. Jewish affiliation is indeed rapidly declining among those who eschew Jewish nationalism to the point of no return. Diaspora Jewry has always been divided between those who were Jews first and citizens second, and those who were citizens first of the Jewish persuasion. 

There is a current fear of asserting a religious, cultural, national identity in polite left-wing society. I regret this, but it is the reality. This is why I am in favor of states asserting a nation’s religious priorities, if that is the will of the majority. I have never been in favor of strong, right-wing nationalism. But a softer one of loyalty is another matter. It is more cultural than political. 

But it is Douthat’s parting shot that contains a hint of prejudice and explains why I feel the need to defend my cultural, nationalist integrity. To refer to us as the “chosen people” — almost tongue-in-cheek — imputes to the user of this phrase a certain disdain. How dare the Jews think they are better than anyone else? Of course, we don’t (or if some do, they are betraying our holy texts). It is the trope of the antisemite who likes to imply that we do. 

We only claim that we have been privileged, or burdened, to have inherited a profound religious way of life, which if adhered to correctly should make us good, God-fearing people. But the same source constantly reminds us that we ourselves, stiff-necked as we are, have deserved nothing. The opportunities we have taken advantage of have been the failures of others. And our failures have been the failures of the rest of the world too. The response should not be to abandon what makes us different, but to reinforce it.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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