One in Destiny: The Future of the Jewish People

One of the joys of being the Dean of a rabbinical school is that I get to fly to Israel once a year.  Every January, I get on a plane, travel to Jerusalem, and meet with our students who study in Jerusalem during their third year in the program. The trip is also a recruitment trip – an irony of rabbinic life in North America is that if you want to meet young people who want to become Conservative rabbis the best place in the world to do that is on the streets of Jerusalem.  On the flight this year I noticed that the plane is composed of two separate groups.  There are the people who are very visibly secular, and the people who are very visibly observant. What is true of both groups is that everybody is wearing a uniform that identifies whether they’re members of Group A or Group B. In Israel, you can also see how people identify based on what they’re wearing, how they’re standing, and where they’re hanging out.  Being in Israel this year gave me a chance to think about the dynamics of Jewish community.  It’s my belief that the Jewish community in the United States and the Jewish community in Israel share a common malady.  The malady is that we have outlived the story that created and guided us, and we don’t yet have a new story to replace it. 

Israel is a miracle, and it is the product of a Zionist dream.  That dream articulated a common version of the Jewish story – about our wanderings in diaspora, weak and dispersed for two thousand years, always yearning to return to our home. In the lands of other peoples, we were despised, and our culture, while it kept us a people, was distorted by our powerlessness. Restored to our land, we would become a living people once more. The new Jew would be the opposite of the diaspora Jew. The new Jew would be strong, self-reliant, creative and whole. The key for Zionism was about getting the Jews to move to the land of Israel, where they could then be a nation like every other nation.  So what is left for Zionism to accomplish after the Jews have already moved there and we already have a State? 

It is ironic that the first generation of Zionists made their aliyas out of an identification with the Zionist story, but their children are Israeli because that’s where they were born and not because of any ideological commitment or narrative context.  Israel is a value for a first generation. It is a fact for those who follow. Values can motivate and inspire; facts, by themselves, rarely do.

Israel suffers now not exclusively because of the acts of terrorists on its borders and in its midst, but also because there is a malaise that has afflicted almost the entire Israeli Jewish community – they no longer identify with a compelling story.  Many don’t know why they’re there.  Why should they be putting up with all of the danger?  Why should they put up with the hardship?  Why should they be objects of attack incessantly? They were just born there!  A concrete example can illustrate this new reality: the Israeli economy is so bad that taxi cab drivers in Israel will now give you their business card and say, “Call me if you need to go anywhere.”  We can tell that Israel is floundering politically because even the taxi cab drivers don’t have a solution to the problems of the Middle East.  One cabbie who picked me up the first time (and gave me his card) became more or less my private driver for the week I was there.  He is a great person, willing to let me speak in Hebrew, open to sharing his opinions and to answering my questions. His name is Moshe.  Moshe tells me he’s a third generation Jerusalemite.  Not only did his grandparents live in Jerusalem, but his children and his grandchildren now live in Jerusalem as well. I said to him, “How wonderful!  What a privilege to be in Jerusalem with your family!”  And he responded, “No, you’re better off in Los Angeles.”  That response, that reality, makes me heartsick.  But that’s a measure of the fact that for a large number of Israelis, they don’t know why they’re Israeli.  They are Israeli, and they don’t reject that identity. Moshe’s not planning to leave, but for other Israelis the reason for being an Israeli is no longer so clear. One exception is  the relatively small group of religiously intense Jews who vary significantly among themselves, but are lumped by the general populations as either dati or haredi. They have a clear sense of who they are and why they’re there.  Paradoxically, a few of the fervently Orthodox are anti-Zionist, believing that only the Messiah should have and one day will create the real Israel.. Their self-understanding doesn’t support the vitality or mission of the current State of Israel, yet their story does still works for them.

The loss of purpose or context of the Israeli majority is true of American Jewry as well.  Our founding story is that our ancestors came to America seeking two benefits: an end to religious persecution and an access to economic opportunity.  Consequently, the first non-synagogue organizations of American Jewish life – the Federations, the agencies, the committees, the congresses – these organizations were secular defense agencies. They were designed to provide economic assistance, to take care of each other, and to oppose those people in America who sought to prevent Jews from achieving the American dream in its many, varied forms.  What’s left for the organized American Jewish community to do when American anti-Semitism is more or less a fringe essentially irrelevant minor annoyance?

Jews can move into any neighborhood, go to any school, pursue any activity or vocation.  Ask any Jew under fifty whether they feel that they can’t mingle with their non-Jewish neighbors or if anti-Semitism plays even a minor role in their day to day lives. Be prepared to be looked at strangely for such a far out question. To the degree that our institutions were established to make room for us to participate in American culture, we don’t need that help anymore. 

In North America today, the ones who are on the defensive are the bigots.  Recall that the United States had a Secretary-of-State of Jewish ancestry, we had a woman run for the Senate in New York who discovered a Jewish relative, and won after that.  We had a Jewish candidate run for Vice-President and it wasn’t even an issue.  Nobody got up at a George Bush rally and said, ‘don’t vote for the Jew.’  Nobody cast nasty aspersions about the Jew, at least in public.  Even his opposition and the members of the other party liked him and still do. 

If Jews are that at home in America, then what’s a Federation to do?  And who are we, then?  Here – in America - and there – in Israel – Jews face the same underlying problem: we can’t answer the basic question of who we are, why we exist, what our purpose is as a group.

For Jews who are fundamentalists in their religion, this problem does not exist.  The old story is still working fine for them. And they represent about ten percent of the Jewish people in North America, and about the same percentage in Israel.  For the whatever percent (it’s a matter of some debate but the percentage is large whatever it is) who don’t want to be Jewish anymore and seek to blend into general society, this is not a problem either.  But for the majority of identifying non-Orthodox Jews in America and Israel, we have the odd circumstance of wanting to be Jewish yet not really knowing why. 

How can we best address this gap – the gap between our desire to be Jews and our confusion about what being Jewish means, confusion about our journey and our destiny as a people? Part of our problem is that we so worship the mind and its skepticism that we are mistrustful of the urgings of our hearts. Our hearts embrace what our minds don’t yet know. This is one of those moments that, as Jews, we need to tell our brains to stop the incessant and corrosive skepticism.  I suggest that we start listening to the whispering of our souls – to the fact that we do get misty-eyed when we hear Ha-Tikvah, when we hear a Bat-Mitzvah chanting her Haftarah, when allow ourselves to feel the power of a Passover seder or a Yom Kippur fast. However disaffected, so many nevertheless do know when the holy days are, so many keep up with the latest disasters and horrors in Israel. We wait with anticipation about Senator Lieberman’s possible candidacy for the Presidency next time not only because he’s qualified and popular, but because he’s Jewish. Our hearts tell us that we care very much about being Jewish; that the fullness of our identity cannot leave out that piece of us.

Who we are is inextricably connected to where we have come from, and the people who have brought us to this moment.  Who we are is linked to a destiny yet to unfold. And if that’s so, we need to locate ourselves in a story large enough, worthy enough to embrace our past and encompass our future. 

What makes people different from animals is that animals have to re-invent themselves with each new generation, but people transmit the experiences and insights of the generations that have gone before them into the future.  Education is about telling the narrative you can be a part of.  Before sharing this story – our story – we need to recall a few guidelines: when looking for a story in which to situate our lives, we need to be sure that it is a story sufficiently grand to have room for our highest aspirations, our craziest hopes, our wildest dreams.  We need to be sure, in searching for this master story, that it is one that will not constrain us, but will allow us to reach deep within and find our truest selves -- a story that sets us free. 

Jews have such a story.  It’s a tale that starts with the beginning. It’s a story about a Source of blessing who so wanted to shower love that God created the world without having to, and then selected a people – a minuscule, obscure, stubborn and (frankly) aggravating group of people. God chose a little people, taught us to stand up to Pharaoh, and to march out to freedom. Not a freedom of abandon, of fads, or of whims, but a freedom hallowed by laws of justice and transformed by teachings of truth. That is a story big enough to fashion any life. It provides a life that is devoted to translating the wonder of that radical freedom and of the need to share love with future generations and with others around the world.  That is a story big enough to inspire a people. It’s what unites us with each other even though we don’t agree on very much else.  It’s what unites us with our brothers and sisters in Buenos Aires and Budapest and Jerusalem even though we often do not agree on much.  We are linked by a common history – not a history that is simply the accumulation of years and dates and facts – but a history that begins at the cosmic level with a gratuitous act of freedom in creating a world suitable for life and happiness.  Then there came the re-enactment of creation by taking a group of slaves and bringing them out of their slavery.  In the light of such a story, our job is to become allies in the creation of new worlds, to be standing ever vigilant in the vanguard of liberty. 

But here’s the catch: human beings often fear freedom. We spend most of our adult lives running away from liberty.  And so we seek a master who will tell us what’s okay and what we’re supposed to do. That master can be wealth, or prominence, or looks, or youth. We each know our own masters. The problem with those masters is that they ultimately turn upon their own servants.  It is impossible ever to satisfy those masters because none of them seek our good.  The rabbis of old taught that there is no freedom save in a life of Torah.  It is in a life of Torah, broadly understood and lovingly practiced, that true freedom abides.

A year ago, I decided that my eight-year-old twins were old enough to introduce them to snow.  We packed up the car, we drove out of Los Angeles towards Big Bear.  My son and my wife fell asleep, leaving Shira and me to talk.  First she told me to turn on the radio and to which station. Lo and behold, I hear the words of my own father coming from out of my lips: “This isn’t music!”  I was horrified.  Not only did she know every single lyric to all of these so-called songs, but she knew the names of the artists, and named each and every one of them.  I drove in silence; well, not silence, rather cacophony -- these Beastie people and others of their ilk. At that moment the generation gap that separated me from my daughter was nearly total. Clearly, in her aesthetic judgments, in the way she moves in the world, she and I don’t live in the same world. 

Then Shira said to me, “Abba, the boys in my class play a game in which they pretend that they are kings.”  (Okay, now I have to explain men to my daughter! And I told her that they don’t stop doing that until well into their 90's, if ever.)

Shira says to me, “Abba, would you like to be a king?”  And I said, “No.” 

“Why not?” she asked. 

“Because kings always have to go to banquets, and they have to be at meetings all the time, and they have no real power and they’re always in public.”

“Well, I’d like to have the money of king,” she said  That set me thinking, here we go with this generation gap again.  So I said, “What would you do if you had the money of a king?”  Here’s where the story gets amazing: “If I had the money of a king, I would give it to tzedakah.  And I would use the money to build schools and to build shuls and to make sure that poor people had food to eat. And I’d build a pool big enough for dolphins to swim in.”

Because Torah is at the center of my family’s life, the generation gap is only a matter of style. When it comes to what’s really important in life, there is not a smidgen of difference between my great great-grandparents, my daughter, and me.  That’s why Jews refuse to abandon being Jewish, even when they don’t quite remember the reason.  There is a spark in the heart that knows that when it comes to what truly matters, we are all here together.  And we are here together by virtue of the Torah, in service of the God who gave it to us, and in league with each other and with those who are not yet here today. 

This is our story.  This is our freedom. This is our destiny.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson ( is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President of American Jewish University. He is the author of THE BEDSIDE TORAH: WISDOM, DREAMS, & VISIONS (McGraw Hill) and JEWISH ANSWERS TO REAL-LIFE QUESTIONS (Alef Design).