February 26, 2020

Embrace Ancient Wisdom, Not Modern Politics

Let’s escalate the “Tikkun Olam and American Judaism” debate by elbowing tikkun olam aside and targeting American Judaism directly. The issue isn’t really tikkun olam pro or con — everyone wants a better world. Debating “tikkun olamism” — making a value the value — risks getting pedantic. 

What’s problematic is BlueJews blurring liberal American Judaism and liberal Democratic politics. It’s rabbis politicizing their pulpits, educators politicizing their schools. The real issue is American Judaism’s hyper-Americanization. We are where we live. As that Incredible Cheapening Ray called American pop culture degrades civilization, vulgarizes language, sexualizes interactions, corrodes family ties, coarsens ethics, polarizes politics, ramps up hysteria, its black magic warps American Judaism, too.

Alas, the thoughtful debate these issues require has degenerated into another blue-red, liberal-conservative duel — meaning Reform, Conservative, Renewal and “just Jewish” versus mostly Orthodox. A young Brit, Jonathan Neumann, helped jump-start this overdue debate in his recent book, “To Heal the World? How the Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” David Seidenberg’s erudite but irrelevant rebuttal proves that tikkun olam is becoming a red (or blue) herring. Seidenberg’s interesting history of the value’s value in Religious Zionism sidesteps Neumann’s real critique of American Jewry. Seidenberg sounds like a surgeon admiring his handiwork at the patient’s funeral. It doesn’t matter how tikkun olam functioned before — beware the dysfunctional way liberal politics is hijacking Judaism now.

You know you’re a BlueJew if:

• You’re viscerally more pro-choice and anti-Donald Trump than pro-Israel.

• You applauded Barack Obama’s Iran deal but couldn’t cheer Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move.

• Trump gives you more agita than the Ayatollahs, Nasrallah, Abbas, Hamas or Pharaoh.

• You get why the liberal Jewish agenda tracks Democratic Party politics.

• The to-march-or-not-to-march Woman’s March mess distressed you more than a Palestinian terrorist’s recent rape and butchering of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, and you mourned the 17 people killed in the Parkland shooting while ignoring the 13 Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists last year.

• Your rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon bashed Trump or Israel instead of challenging your congregation spiritually.

• Your synagogue supports asylum seekers more generously than poor Jews.

• You know more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg than the Book of Ruth or Asher Ginsberg — aka Ahad Ha’am, the Zionist thinker.

• You get virtue-signaled when you attend Jewish events, with the speaker making some obvious crack establishing “us” in the room as enlightened, unlike the boobs beyond, be they Trumpistas, Republicans or the Orthodox.

• No pro-Trump Republican would be comfortable in your synagogue or your seder.

This is a vision test, not a loyalty test, asking what do you see, what really makes you see red?

Most American Jews’ deep-blue hues make sense. People are like pasta: We absorb the flavors of the sauces we swim in. Living in Blue America steeps BlueJews in the concerns of their place at this time. Hurricane Trump is like a Category 5 storm that lingers, creating a perma-conversation topic, especially among his critics — about 80 percent of American Jewry.

Here’s the culture clash everyone fears debating. America threatens Judaism by not threatening Jews, while Jews often fail as Jews by succeeding as Americans.

We made it. We fit in. So even when we “do Jewish” — with those ever-dwindling time dollops we devote to being Jewish — our Jewish spaces, conversation topics, accents and obsessions are thoroughly Americanized. Earlier generations were illiterate (when you know you should know something but you don’t know it); today, we’re Jewishly a-literate (when you don’t even know or care what you don’t know).

“Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism.” 

Injecting a legitimate passion for liberal Democratic politics into all facets of an ever-thinning Jewish life at least gives us something to talk about — and our rabbis to rile up congregants about. Yet it’s hypocritical when American Jews who advocate separating church and state blur their Jewish and political identities. If it’s arrogant to assume God is pro-life or pro-settlements, how can you assume God is anti-Trump and pro-Dreamers?

Constantly form-fitting our 3,500-year-old tradition to the ever-shifting progressive platform will strip Judaism of its own distinct shape. Neumann notes that in the 1960s, the haggadah had to be pro-civil rights, then anti-nukes, then green. Now, it better be immigrant-friendly. Beyond barring anyone from your seder who dares to disagree with you politically, what do we gain by reducing timeless documents to political tracts, christening Democratic Party orthodoxy as Jewish theology?  It certainly inhibits many BlueJews from confronting liberal allies who bash Israel or endorse anti-Semites.

Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg emblazons “Justice, justice you shall pursue” on her Supreme Court chambers, she’s headed in the right direction, integrating her Jewish values into her worldview. But if we emblazoned her partisan statements, such as “He [Trump] is a faker,” on our synagogue walls, our temples wouldn’t be sanctuaries. Our eternal tradition should transcend a prosaic political agenda.

As a way of life, Judaism is in constant conversation with politics, but it requires nuance, proportion. Sometimes, as when Rabbi Richard Hirsch gave Martin Luther King Jr. free office space in Washington, Jews should take moral-political stands as Jews. But in our era, when so much gets politicized, couldn’t we all benefit from sabbaticals — er, cease-fires — from our constant battles? Keep politics relevant, not dominant.

We’re debating our identity’s gravitational center: Is it theological or political, Jewish or liberal, tradition-enriched or headline-driven? Those Jewishly-centered view the world through blue-and-white-colored glasses, not all-blue partisan prisms. When you visit an Israel awash in guns, instead of railing about gun control, can you respect a society that can control its guns? When you see an Orthodox rabbi dressed in black and white, can you see the grays, appreciating aspects of his traditional life, rather than just disdaining him through your black-and-white lens? When you read the Bible, can you appreciate its deeper meanings without judging every word by the editorial line of The New York Times? And when you read about Birthright’s donors, rather than resenting Sheldon Adelson’s conservatism, can you marvel how he and liberals like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman check their politics — temporarily — to cooperate for our Jewish future?

I’m not proposing Jewish blinders to replace liberal blinders. And I don’t fear a creative, confusing mashup — just, please, respect boundaries, proportionality, directionality, keeping politics in the voting booth and religion in the synagogue whenever possible. Dismissing Michael Chabon’s slur against intramarriage as a ghetto of two, let’s embrace our time-traveling, big-question-asking kosher honeycomb of millions of people interconnected with one another and with beautiful values and stories streaming across millennia. Keep Judaism rooted in yesterday’s big ideas, unpolluted by today’s partisan poisons.

Finally, a reality check. How are we doing by treating our pulpits as political platforms and our synagogues as big-chandeliered, high-ceilinged cathedrals of the Democratic Party? Seems to me we’re driving young Jews away in droves. Maybe they’re seeking some respite, some ancient wisdom, some thoughts deeper than our kneejerk reactions, some perspectives wider than our increasingly narrow and narrow-minded partisan positions. Rather than grumbling how the next generation is letting us down, maybe TooBlueJudaism blew it and is letting them down.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”