06 May 2011

No Man Is an Island--Yet

Today is one of those days that, if I could, I'd pick up the phone and call Arthur Hertzberg.  But I can't because he is no longer among the living. 

Arthur, I'm sure, would have a few choice words about the controversy that Gary Rosenblatt writes about in the Jewish Week this Shabbat--rabbinical students at HUC and JTS who chose to kvetch about their feelings of distance from Israel, while in Israel.  Daniel Gordis wrote about it in the Jerusalem Post as well.

I heard Arthur's voice right away, reading through Gary's piece, essentially charging this generation of "future leaders" with being self-absorbed and overly sensitive, concerned with their own "feelings" of distance or disillusionment while Israel struggles with real existential questions, perhaps the most profoundly real existential questions since 1948.

This is not to diminish very deep problems within Israeli society itself--the continued occupation of Palestinian territory; great disparities between rich and poor; inequities between Arab and Israeli citizens; rising tensions between Haredi and non-Haredi Jewish religious life; a struggling educational system from kindergarten through university level that is not adequately teaching and retaining the kind of intellectual base that the nation will need to thrive and survive on into the 21st century.  And then there are the potentially destabilizing external threats--a nuclear Iran and a vast unknown future wave of democratizing Arab states and what it will or will not mean for Israel.

All of which is to say:  Why the distance for American Jews studying in Israel to be Jewish leaders?  What's so troubling with an abundance of challenges around which one ought to feel privileged to work and seek solutions for?  Rip a page from Shammai, who famously said in Pirke Avot:  "Say little, do much."

Having spent a year in Israel on several occasions, I can say from personal experience that the worst part of those years occur when American Jews live inside of the bourgeois ghetto of their own fortunate existence and kvetch about their problems--to other Americans! 

On a personal level, I liked many of my classmates at both Hebrew University and then at Hebrew Union College.  I just didn't want to live with any of them.  I made this choice primarily because I could not be persuaded of the value in re-creating a kind of comfortable American Jewish paradigm inside of an Israeli Jewish democracy.  It seemed to miss the point of being there.  So I chose to live with Israelis, in order to better understand a reality different from that experienced by the 6 million Jews who live in the United States. 

One small step that the rabbinic schools could do to alleviate this problem would be to simply demand that the rabbinical students find Israeli roommates.  I did.  And I was really happy doing so.  A whole new world was opened up to me which quickly expanded my understanding of myself, my Jewishness, and my sense of connection to the ongoing project of the Jewish people.  And do you know what I fundamentally learned?  That "it" wasn't all about "me."

For me, this was always the allure of those years in Israel--living inside of a corporate Jewish entity that had yet been fully corrupted by the run-away individualism of our conveniently compartmentalized American Jewish identity and its overly concerned obsession with the self.  My family.  My values.  My community. 

The future leader who chose anonymity wrote to the Jewish Week, "The Israel I see does not seem to reflect so many of the Jewish values that my family and community raised me with." 

Hey, the America I've lived in for the past thirty-fives isn't the America I thought I'd grow up into and so I struggle mightily each day to change it.  And when I'm deeply disturbed by Israeli behavior, I struggle mightily against that too.  Because though we may not "finish the task" of changing the world, "neither are we free to desist."

This problem that Gary writes about is no flash in the pan.  The crisis, however, is not that they may opt out because Israel's problems are too insurmountable, or messy, or troubling for these future leaders.  The problem goes much deeper--that there is a rapidly growing rift in the narrative structure of the Jewish people that can even allow one to imagine a sense of separation from any deep responsibility for your brother or sister, regardless of your political, religious or ideological differences.  It's no different, in fact, from the growing partisan rift among Americans--an equally corrosive development in our own democracy, and therefore ought to be an object lesson for these future leaders choosing the cozy narrative of their American Jewish upbringing.

Be careful what you wish for.  Self-righteous isolation can be a lonely thing.

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