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The Choosing People

[Last week, Ha’aretz Chief U.S. Correspondent Shmuel Rosner featured Jewcy editor in chief Tahl Raz as a guest on his site. Rosner and Raz e-mailed about the future of Judaism, Jewish peoplehood in America, and the volume of debate about Israel in the U.S, among other topics. Here’s how the discussion went down.]

Dear Tahl,

In your introductory letter to the readers of Jewcy you wrote that "In the thick, messy context of contemporary American life, it's a remarkable moment to be a Jew. There is unparalleled opportunity for people hell-bent on making a meaningful difference with their lives, but also an unprecedented uncertainty about the relevance of old traditions and institutions."

To be honest with you, I wonder if this is not the kind of language that every young generation uses as it evaluates the state of Judaismthere's always an opportunity, there's always uncertainty. So let's try to be more specific and I'll do it by throwing some commonly used words and phrases at youand ask you to give me your quick assessment of the significance and meaning they have in contemporary Jewish life:

1. Jewish Peoplehood 2. Tikkun Olam 3. Intermarriage 4. Jewish Renaissance 5. Jewish organizations 6. Hebrew

Best, Rosner


First, as for whether what I said in the Jewcy Welcome Letter is true of every generation of young Jews: For the vast majority of Jewish history it hasn't been true at all. There was little freedom to reevaluate old traditions and institutions when, for example, European monarchs empowered rabbis to administer Jewish communities like religious mini-states. But as Jewish communities were emancipated from rabbinic rule, sure, I think yes, young Jews have tended to similar language to describe what they were experiencing, because the progressive dissolution of the Jewish world by the solvent of modernity has presented each generation with similar challenges. But in the United States since World War II, the process has drastically accelerated, and no generation in Jewish history has been as free to define the nature of their Jewishness as are today's young American Jews. We're not just Jews by choice, we're Jews whose every single Jewish decision is a choice.

1. Jewish Peoplehood:

No significance, and too muddled a term to say that it has any concrete meaning. When the Jews of pre-WWI Poland didn't speak the language of their own country, occupied a distinctive economic and social niche, and had virtually no social interaction with non-Jews, it made sense to talk of them as a people. But American life has annihilated Jewish Peoplehood.

2. Tikkun Olam:

Essential. If Judaism can't inform Jews as to how to navigate the universal ethical dilemmas of modern life, then the religion isn't worth keeping. We're better off all converting to Quakerism. Tikkun olam will have to be a vastly more significant and better elaborated component of Judaism than it has historically been.

3. Intermarriage:

Significant in that it's crucial that we figure out how to overcome this anachronistic tribal obsession with endogamy. If Judaism and Jewishness are of value in the modern world, they will survive. If not, they won't. Intermarriage will ultimately have little to do with it. In any case, it's a natural feature of modern life, just as endogamy was a natural feature of shtetl life. People who think otherwise are tilting at windmills.

4. Jewish Renaissance:

The optimism is admirableI'm not so sure we're seeing a 'Jewish Renaissance' right now. We're certainly seeing all sorts of exciting behavior, but we don't yet know whether this is the rebirth of Jewish culture or the eccentric senescence of a patient with Alzheimers.

The journalist in me says check back in a hundred years. The meddling sophist in me says I'm going to take a crack at arguing, yes, you're damn right it's a renaissance.

The seminal Jewish experience marking the past two centuries has been a flight from particularity. Being Jewish got us pogroms, the Holocaust, an alienating sense of otherness and so we converted, outmarried, or wherever possible, attempted to assimilate to the point of religionlessness. The way different Jewish denominations have approached this flight have produced the biggest schisms.

Until recently, the discussion of these schisms were dominated by an either/or proposition. The religious-minded and racialists called for a return to particularity and invested their time and money in strengthening the establishment and trying to eliminate things like intermarriage. They turned a lot of us off: We were Americans, part of the melting pot, and we had no intention of returning to the shtetl. The secularists and humanists, on the other hand, argued that Judaic particularity was outmoded and railed against what they considered a destructive nostalgia for ethnic purity. For these people, Jewish was cultural thing, not a God thing, so give us our bagel and Thomas Friedman and an Oprah-infused vision of the spiritual life, and leave us alone with your rules and demands. They also turned a lot of us off: it smacked of the hippie-yippie culture of narcissism, with its extremes of individualism and secularism, allowing Boomers to free themselves from the restrictive confines of family, religious, social, and political obligation so as to spend ever greater amounts of time on self-care and self-improvement.

Part of what might be called a Jewish Renaissance is an attempt at reconciliation. We're throwing the either/or out the window. A generation of Jews is emerging that has a less damaged, less complicated sense of Jewish identity. We want to be both particularly Jewish and particularly American and particularly of the world at large. The establishment wasn't built to handle that sort of nuance, and so we have a trend away from centralization toward denominationalism. If your institutions can't contain our multitudes, we're screaming, we'll build our own. And so you have this explosion of neighborhood minyans and innovative organizations and ad hoc digital communities that have no need for the strict divisions between “in” and “out.”

Whatever the outcome, it's not bad jokes and dance music on one side and Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasidim on the other. It's not either hip and cool or sacred and pious. It won't work. The real progress of any potential movement or renaissance will be its resistance to primitive polarities; its detestation of closed milieus and empty edicts.

There's really nothing new here. As my friend Rabbi Andy Bachman likes to say, "If Judaism is anything, it's countercultural."

5. Jewish Organizations:

There was a report on Jewish identity issued last year that said essentially, “Traditionally, young Jews rebelled against mainstream Jewish organizations; today, they no longer rebel, because they don't even know the organizations exist.” That's about the score.

6. Hebrew:

All of what I've said is perfectly compatible with the fact that I'm deeply pro-Israel, and to make an uncomfortable admission publicly, I grit my teeth whenever I hear Jewish liturgy done in English. Intellectually the rationales are compelling for such alternative services; emotionally I can't help but feel they're lacking.

Anyone who wants access to the primary language of Jewish worship needs to learn Hebrew, and so does anyone who wants to understand Israeli society.

Tahl Raz

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