On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Archive for May, 2014

Chancellor Eisen and Dr. David Golinkin on Judaism’s Vital Religious Center

Having just celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’aut (State of Israel Independence Day), the importance of a vital religious center in Jewish life—both in Israel and the Diaspora—comes to the forefront. I would like to share a talk I gave a few months ago at The Schocken Institute for Jewish Research in Jerusalem, along with a response by Dr. David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

A Vital Religious Center in Our Days
Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen, JTS

It’s good to be in Israel again, in this library again, where a year ago Shmuel Glick opened the evening by instructing us about what to do if the sirens went off to warn of incoming Hamas missiles. A lot has changed in the world since then, including in this part of the world, even if peace remains elusive. I want to talk with you about whether recent changes in the Jewish world, both in Israel and in North America, should lead us to think differently about the labels by which Jews define ourselves and the boundaries that divide us from one another.

Specifically, I want to explore and encourage the emergence of a broad trans-denominational consensus that, for lack of a better term, I call the “vital religious center” of North American Jewish life. We have translated this term, after much back and forth, as the shvil ha-zahav ha-dati.

I believe that the concept of vital religious center is as relevant in Israel as it is in America. Indeed, the creation of this center may serve to bring our two communities closer together even while preserving denominational differences that remain important. I thank my friends David and Tovah for joining me at the speakers’ table this evening to begin a discussion that I hope and trust will continue to echo beyond this evening and beyond the walls of this institution.

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The Story of Israel

At least one thing has changed between last Yom Ha’atzma’ut and this one in the relationship between many American Jews and Israel: we have read and thought about two challenging and highly personal books that came out this year on the subject of the past, present, and possible futures of the Zionist project. Just before Passover, Ari Shavit discussed his groundbreaking book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, at a private meeting (cosponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) with rabbinical students of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Yossi Klein Halevi shared the thinking laid out in his award-winning book, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, at a public lecture at JTS one evening last fall. He also taught two courses about Israel and Zionism during that semester, one of them in Hebrew, to JTS undergraduate and rabbinical students. Both books have deeply affected me. I want to share two responses to them as we approach Israel’s 66th birthday. My hope is to add a small measure of optimism at a moment when yet another apparently failed peace process threatens to drown our celebration in despair for Israel’s future.

Shavit’s presentation to JTS students was far more about triumph than tragedy. He stressed the good that has been accomplished in Israel since its founding—and still is achieved daily—even while paying full attention to the existential threat that continues to hang over the State and the moral price paid at every stage of Israel’s history—including the present moment—in order to achieve and safeguard that accomplishment. No less important, in my view, Shavit put the emphasis on what needs to be done by Jews here and in Israel in order to secure the future of the Jewish State. “A new narrative is required,” he said again and again with real passion; a story about Israel’s past that points toward an inspiring future; a new way of talking about why the State came to be and why it is important (for Jews and for the world) that it continue to thrive. Exactly. Even as we continue to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and seek peace among the various sorts of Jews that make up Israeli society, let’s work on telling and retelling that story, to ourselves and others, of why Israel matters so much.

On this point, for all my admiration for Shavit’s book, I have to say that, in my view, it falls short. There is little room in Shavit’s narrative for any part of Diaspora Jewish history, except the history of assimilation in modern times and of anti-Semitism in all times. There is equally little place for Judaism in the story Shavit tells, except as the source of the language, values, and aspirations that fueled the return to Zion but now must be transmuted into a distinctly Israeli version of enlightened Western civilization. All too often, Shavit’s case for Israel—the reason why the State is needed, the cause that justifies the suffering and injustice inflicted as part of the effort to build and protect the State—comes down to the claim that ein makom acher (there is no other place). Diaspora existence, according to this version of Israel’s story, means anti-Semitism, persecution, expulsion, Holocaust, whenever it does not mean (outside of Orthodoxy) assimilation, intermarriage, disappearance. There is, of course, some truth in this standard Zionist argument. Much 20th-century Jewish history supports it. The Holocaust does make Israel’s existence essential to Jewish survival. The Pew Report does demonstrate, once again, that assimilation remains a clear and present danger to Diaspora Jewry. There is good reason to believe that if anti-Semitism does not “get” Jews, assimilation will. Over against both of those dangers, riding to the rescue of Jews and Judaism, there is Israel.

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