March 7, 2002
Whatever Happened to Jewish Unity?
Theological perspective is the only one that really links the Jewish people.
"We are one," "One people" and the like are the perennial slogans of Jewish federation fundraising. The slogans are meant to arouse feelings of nostalgia for bygone days when most Jews still possessed a strong sense of connection to one another.
Occasionally, one still meets Jews with that instinctive bond to all other Jews. In the pages of Hadassah Magazine, for instance, if it's Jewish, it's good. From Jews rediscovering Orthodoxy to lesbian couples making a brit milah for "their" son, all is cause for celebration.
On a plane returning to Israel a few years back, I met Jack Stromfeld, a Florida retiree. He travels several times a year to Israel volunteering at a residential educational facility for children from underprivileged backgrounds. Back home, he raises money for the facility. Stromfeld only has to say the words "Jewish children" and his eyes begin to glisten.
I both admire and envy Stromfeld and the good ladies of Hadassah marching under the banner "Jewish is beautiful." Unfortunately, however, they represent a disappearing breed.
All surveys show a rapidly declining sense of ethnic identity among American Jews. And the same processes are at work in Israeli society as well. What little unity still exists in the latter is largely a function of the external security threat, not of any profound identification of most Israelis with their Jewishness.
We are a long way from the Lower East Side, in which hundreds of thousands of Jews of all types -- from religious traditionalists to Bundists making annual Yom Kippur balls -- were crammed together. Today religious and nonreligious Jews live in separate neighborhoods.
When even the most modern of the Orthodox move into largely Jewish suburbs like Beachwood, Ohio, or Tenafly, N.J., sparks fly. The Israeli Supreme Court has taken judicial notice of the "fact" that religious and nonreligious Jews cannot live in proximity to one another (even in cities where they have done so for 100 years).
Among those things that no longer bind Jews is a common religion. Senators and congressmen have long become used to hearing Jewish spokesmen proclaim in the name of Judaism both that abortion on demand and homosexual rights represent the apex of "Jewish values" and that they are abominations. For the Orthodox, existence begins with God's binding command and a Jew's task in life is to enter into a relationship with Him by doing His will. For Reform, however, nothing is given, and "individual autonomy" remains the ultimate value.
Once Jews shared common sacred texts. That, too, is a vanishing phenomenon. Talmud, and even Chumash, are closed texts to most secular Jews, even in Israel.
Nor do common issues any longer bind us. Israel is increasingly irrelevant to American Jews, the vast majority of whom have never even visited. And even among those for whom Israel is important, there exists nothing remotely resembling a consensus about proper Israeli policy.
The struggle to free Jews in the Soviet Union, which used to unify a wide spectrum of Jewry, is over. There is virtually no country in the world today from which Jews are not free to immigrate. Even anti-Semitism, the great standby, has become too peripheral to the lives of most Jews to still bind us together.
The only perspective from which it is still possible to speak about one Jewish people is the theological -- the perspective of Sinai. In traditional Jewish thought, all those whose ancestors stood at Sinai, or who join themselves to the community of Israel by accepting the yoke of Torah in the same fashion as those who stood at Sinai, are charged with a common mission by God Himself. It is a mission that cannot be accomplished by individuals, but only by klal Yisrael, for it requires the establishment of a society that proclaims God's existence to the entire world.
Needless to say, this is a perspective subscribed to today almost exclusively by the Orthodox. Yet even for the Orthodox, maintaining a klal Yisrael consciousness is no easy matter; klal Yisrael too often becomes merely theoretical construct. As the lifestyles of religious and nonreligious Jews, and the values underlying those lifestyles, radically diverge, religious Jews are torn between an urge to reach out and an opposing urge to withdraw from contact to avoid contamination by alien values.
The challenge confronting Orthodox parents today is somehow to teach their children that every Jew is a brother, as well as a partner in a common mission, without losing sight of the mission itself. It is a daunting task. But if it is not done, the last source of Jewish unity will also become the stuff of nostalgia.
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