Judaism vs Americanism: An oasis of ideals

In the great, century-long love affair between America and the Jews, it’s tempting to assume that Jewish and American values are perfectly aligned. 

While there’s certainly some truth to that idea — especially with values such as the striving for human freedom — it’s also true that there are important differences between Judaism and Americanism.

I thought about those differences when I read a somewhat depressing article in Slate magazine by a clever Jewish writer, Gabriel Roth, titled, “American Jews Are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated,” with this glowing subhead: “Great news!”

Roth, a novelist and humorous food critic, was quoting the now infamous Pew study and ’fessing up that he represents, as he calls it, “the problem.”

“As an intermarried Jewish non-believer,” he writes, “I think it’s time we anxious Jews stopped worrying and learned to love our assimilated condition — even if it means that our children call themselves half-Jewish and our grandchildren don’t consider themselves Jews at all.”

This “loss of Jewishness as a meaningful identity,” Roth believes, “is the kind of loss that occurs when individuals are free to engage in the pursuit of happiness.”

In other words, the delicious freedom to pursue one’s happiness — a freedom so often denied to Jews throughout their long history — has become a meaningful identity in itself. I am free, therefore I am. This is understandable and shouldn’t surprise any of us.

The problem is that this unbridled American freedom is so intoxicating that it can easily blind us to other Jewish values that are no less important.

If Jewish identity is seen only through the lens of freedom, and unbridled freedom is the value you crave, then who needs Judaism when you already have Americanism?

It’s only when you expand the terrain of values that Judaism comes alive. There are at least three examples I can think of where Judaism contributes to Americanism by placing a higher emphasis on certain values. 

One, while Americanism celebrates the individual, Judaism celebrates community. Two, while Americanism enshrines the pursuit of happiness, Judaism enshrines the pursuit of meaning. And three, while Americanism places a premium on human rights, Judaism places a premium on human obligations.

Three solid American values, three even higher Jewish ideals. In striving to balance them all, the Jewish way is not to downplay values but to err on the side of ideals. Even the value of freedom in Judaism is very much defined by its ideal — the freedom to seek meaning and do good deeds.

When Roth predicts that “over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end,” he overlooks the fact that great values and ideals never come to an end. They are relevant for all time.

And, while other faith traditions may value similar ideals, it is the extraordinary and unique Jewish story behind these ideals that needs, above all, to be told and brought to life.

Those ideals and the continuation of that unique story represent the ultimate Jewish contributions to America. They are the Jewish answer to that most noble of American questions: What gifts will you bring us when you land on our shores?

Jews who can fully appreciate these gifts never need to question the value of their Jewish identity. These are Jews for whom continuing the Jewish story is a way of living and a way of striving.

They are Jews who are secure enough in their Jewish identity to gladly share their Judaism with the world while embracing the diversity of humanity. They look for that Godly space where all humans can find comfort and dignity.

They are Jews like my friend, Uri Herscher, who hosted a glittering event last Saturday night to celebrate the 18-year journey of the cultural masterpiece he founded, an oasis of Jewish and American ideals at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The genius of the Skirball is that it seamlessly marries the notions of culture and human ideals. They are inseparable. The culture — as expressed through art, music, poetry, film, drama, storytelling, events and so on — is the instrument for those ideals, which include the miraculous story of the Jewish people and of Israel.

It is this very marriage that will stand the test of time.

My friend Uri is probably too humble and subtle to ever bluntly declare that Jewish ideals can contribute so much to American values; he’s more comfortable speaking thoughtfully about the cultural intersection of these values, and about his immeasurable gratitude for the countless blessings that America has bestowed upon the Jews.

But his actions have already spoken, and they speak from his Jewish-American heart. His cultural oasis is, among other things, a supreme homage to the Jewish ideals that he himself embodies and that America surely welcomes.

So, I hope he will indulge me when I say that the Skirball is even more than the “Thank You America” cultural center.

It is also, in so many ways, the “Thank You Judaism” cultural center, one that encourages even assimilated Jews like Gabriel Roth to embrace that eternal Jewish ideal — to write your own chapter in the great Jewish story.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.