November 17, 2018

Tradition, Tikkun Olam Are Not an Either/Or

As a Conservative Jew, I suppose it was not surprising that I found myself agreeing in part with both Gil Troy in his July 20 Jewish Journal cover story about the book by Jonathan Neumann that he approvingly cites, and with Jonathan Klein. After all, the very essence of the ideal Conservative Jew, as defined by “Emet Ve-Emunah,” the only official statement of the philosophy of Conservative Judaism, is “Nothing human or Jewish is alien to me.”

I thus wrote this in the preface of my 2005 book, “The Way Into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World)”:

“Surveys show that even Jews who doubt the existence or significance of God, who are not involved much in Judaism’s prayers, rituals, or holiday celebrations, who violate Judaism’s restrictions on diet and work on holy days, and/or who do not know much about their heritage or devote any time as adults to studying it nevertheless feel in their bones that they have a duty as Jews to make this a better world, that this is the essence of what it means to be a Jew. As a religious Jew, I would say that it is sad that so many people, by their own description, are “not very religious,” for such people are missing out on a virtual treasure trove of meaning, joy, intellectual ferment, and communal connections that the Jewish tradition offers us in all these other expressions of the Jewish tradition. Still, such Jews are not wrong in identifying “social action” as a key component of what it means to be Jewish, for much of the tradition is devoted to it.”

So, on one hand, Gil Troy and Jonathan Neumann are correct, in my view, that transforming Judaism into universal humanism seriously truncates its scope and message. Seeing tikkun olam as the sum total of Judaism also leads to the view that specific Jewish identity is not necessary. Therefore, all of the following fall by the wayside: marrying another Jew; continuing your learning about Judaism throughout your adult life; raising your children to become serious Jews; joining a synagogue and becoming involved in its worship and activities; supporting other Jewish communal institutions; and advocating for the State of Israel. Those are very serious losses for the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community, and it is anything but clear that either can survive on the basis of tikkun olam alone. They are also serious losses for individual Jews, for seeing tikkun olam as the sum and substance of being Jewish robs them of a whole treasure house of meaning and growth that a more serious and widespread involvement in our heritage and community would give them.

On the other hand, Jonathan Klein is clearly right when he points out that taking care of the poor, the sick and the needy in other ways is fundamental to the Jewish tradition.

On the other hand, Jonathan Klein is clearly right when he points out that taking care of the poor, the sick and the needy in other ways is fundamental to the Jewish tradition. Contrary to Neumann, this part of Judaism is not tangential or based on misreading of a few texts. Rabbi Klein cites just a few of the many texts that depict God as sustaining the needs of the destitute, and that demand of us as a matter of law that we do so likewise. As I point out in my book, tikkun olam also requires that we be there for our family and friends when they need us, that we fulfill very specific responsibilities to them. Any form of Judaism that ignores this, that focuses exclusively on Jewish rituals and prayer, is also a severely truncated form of Judaism, robbing its followers of much of its message and meaning.

Thus, the Jewish tradition itself includes demands that we engage in acts of tikkun olam for our fellow Jews, for people of other faiths, and for our environment — and if that is liberalism, so be it — but it also requires us to study and practice the tradition and to support synagogues and other Jewish institutions as well as the State of Israel. It is that kind of demanding but rich, textured and meaningful Judaism to which Gil Troy calls us, and with which Conservative Judaism has gifted me.

I hope that all of us can find our way into a Judaism that is not either/or but both … and … and … and …


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is a rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at American Jewish University.

Gil Troy: Is there more than one Zionism?

Historian Gil Troy discusses his new book, The Zionist Ideas, which makes the case for Zionism as a multi-dimensional work in progress. He also weighs in on the Natalie Portman controversy.

Check out this episode!

Zionism at the Center of the Conversation

Gil Troy.

Gil Troy, author of “The Zionist Ideas,” spoke with the Jewish Journal by phone from Jerusalem.

Jewish Journal: The late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg was the editor of the first edition of a collection of essays titled “The Zionist Idea,” which was published in 1959. Whose idea was it to revise and republish the book, and whose idea was it to pluralize the last word in the title?

Gil Troy: I give 150 percent of the credit to the extraordinary, visionary leader of the Jewish Publication Society. I would never have had the nerve to fill Arthur Hertzberg’s huge shoes, but Rabbi [Barry] Schwartz came to me in 2012 and asked me to do it. I wasn’t sure that the world needed another Zionist anthology, but “The Zionist Idea” had been such an influential text — it was the bible for me and for multiple generations of English-speaking lovers of Israel — that I thought it deserved an update. The more I got into it, the more I realized that we have to invite more and more people into the Zionist conversation, from left to right, from religious to nonreligious. Now that we have a Jewish state, the question remains: How do we perfect it?

JJ: How many of the entries in “The Zionist Ideas” are carried forward from the first edition, and how many are new to this edition?

GT: Arthur Hertzberg had 240,000 words for 38 thinkers. I ended up with 180,000 words, but I was able to bring the total number of entries to 169. So it was a matter of cutting while keeping his core, and then bringing other voices into the conversation — the Mizrachi voice, the poetic voice, the female voice. For example, Henrietta Szold did not appear in the original edition, which was an outrageous act of omission even in 1959, and including her in the new edition is not affirmative action but a matter of historical justice.

“Of all the countries in the world, the only country that was voted into existence by the United Nations is now singled out for a campaign of delegitimization.” — Gil Troy

JJ: How would you sum up the changes in what Zionism means over the six decades since “The Zionist Idea” was first published?

GT: There’s a lot of nostalgia these days about “our grandfather’s Israel,” as Thomas Friedman puts it. But here’s the great irony: Israel in 1959 was a fragile place, but the Zionist conversation was robust. In 2018, Israel is remarkably robust, but the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Of all the countries in the world, the only country that was voted into existence by the United Nations is now singled out for a campaign of delegitimization. On the other hand, and unfortunately, the fragility is also due to a vast and unacceptable intolerance on the part of both the left and the right in the Jewish community. Like the American conversation, the Zionist conversation should be driven by ideas about how we can bring out the best in us. That’s why the book is not just about Jews and the Jewish state. It’s a profound statement about the values and possibilities of liberal nationalism.

JJ: I fear that many readers will acknowledge that there is more than one idea of what constitutes Zionism but will refuse to acknowledge that any idea but their own is the right one. Are you concerned about the hardening of positions within the Zionist movement and the Jewish world?

GT: Again, that’s why I added the “s” to the title of the book. I was trying to say, yes, there are different ways for Zionists to understand Zionism, but we are all standing in the same tent. One of the most difficult tasks was to decide not only who’s in the book but also who’s out. There was one delicious day I had in Jerusalem when I sat down with two people I respect and asked: Should I include Meir Kahane? One said absolutely yes, and one said absolutely no. At the end of the day, I said no, because Zionism is ultimately a movement about democracy and decency. The Knesset itself voted out Kahane’s party, and that made the decision easier. And I asked the same question about how far left to go? Peter Beinart is in the tent, but another thinker who lives in Israel but calls himself a “post-Zionist” is out. You can be a good person, I’ll have a lunch with you, but if you deny the essential rationale for the existence of Israel, then you don’t fit in a Zionist anthology.

JJ: You identify six schools of thought about Zionism, one of which you call “Diaspora Zionism,” that is, Zionism for Jews who stay in America but support Israel. Some ardent Zionists of my acquaintance insist that you cannot call yourself a Zionist at all if you choose to remain in the galut. And there are those who suggest that the younger generation of American Jews no longer feel a strong sense of solidarity with Israel at all. How do you envision the future of Diaspora Zionism and the relationship between American Jews and Israel?

GT: [David] Ben-Gurion [co-founder of Israel and first prime minister] assumed that once there was a Jewish state, Jews in the Diaspora would either go there or disappear, but the fact is that millions of Jews came to America and stayed there, and only a very small number went to Palestine. I am an optimist, however, and that’s what motivated me stay up all night working on this book. Because I really do believe we are at a cusp — we can use the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel to either distance ourselves from Israel, or we can use it to double-down on Israel. The Jewish state builds my Jewish identity even if I spend my whole life in Los Angeles or New York or Miami. Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora have something to teach each other. With that realization of identity Zionism, we can learn from each other. That’s the hope of “The Zionist Ideas” — we can give people the tools to have a conversation that isn’t just from the gut but also from the brain, and we can learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

‘ZIONIST IDEAS’: Re-examining Visions for the Jewish Homeland

Today, as we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, it is all too easy to forget how long the Jewish people longed for a homeland and how unattainable it seemed, even on the eve of statehood in 1948. To put it another way, the history of modern Israel is measured in decades, but the idea of Zionism is measured in millennia.

Israel was only 21 years old when Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg’s “The Zionist Idea” was first published. Now the Jewish Publication Society has published what it calls a “renewal” of Hertzberg’s classic text, that is, a new and expanded anthology of writings titled “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow,” ably edited by Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of 12 books, including, “Why I Am a Zionist.”

Ironically, perhaps the single most significant difference between Hertzberg’s book and Troy’s book is the addition of an “s” to the title, thus making explicit the notion that Zionism must be — and is — a pluralistic enterprise rather than an article of faith.

“We need a modern book celebrating, as Professor Gil Troy notes, the Zionist ideas: the many ways to make Israel great — and the many ways individuals can find fulfillment by affiliating with the Jewish people and building the Jewish state,” writes Natan Sharansky, one of the modern heroes of the Zionist movement, in his introduction to the book. “A revived Zionist conversation, a renewed Zionist vision, can create a Jewish state that reaffirms meaning for those already committed to it while addressing the needs of Jews physically separated from their ancestral homeland, along with those who feel spiritually detached from their people.”

As Troy explained in an interview with the Jewish Journal (see page 22), “The Zionist Ideas” is something more and something different from the original text, and for more than one reason. Troy managed to reduce the length of the book while, at the same time, expanding the number of contributors (or “thinkers,” as he calls them) and the breadth of the conversation. So we hear more voices, and more varied voices, in “The Zionist Ideas” than we did in the 1959 edition.

Ironically, perhaps the single most significant difference between Hertzberg’s book and Troy’s book is the addition of an “s” to the title, thus making explicit the notion that Zionism must be — and is — a pluralistic enterprise rather than an article of faith.

It’s a project that required not only Troy’s own deep knowledge of Jewish history, politics and culture, but also a healthy dose of chutzpah. “Since 1959, ‘The Zionist Idea’ has been the English speaker’s Zionist bible, the defining text for anyone interested in studying the Jewish national movement,” Troy explains. “To some academics and activists, Hertzberg’s tome was such a foundational work that any update is like digitizing the Mona Lisa or colorizing ‘Casablanca.’ ”

But an update was urgently needed, if only because Zionist conversation has changed from the simple question of whether a Jewish homeland could be achieved — “History’s affirmative answer [is] ‘Yes!’,” writes Troy — to the far more complex question of what the Jewish homeland should aspire to be. “Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War triumph stirred questions Hertzberg never imagined, especially how Israel and the Jewish people should understand Zionism when the world perceives Israel as Goliath, not David.”

Troy helpfully divides the Zionist movement into six “schools” — Political, Labor, Revisionist, Religious, Cultural and Diaspora Zionism — and he divides the contributors into three categories: the “Pioneers” (including Herzl, Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha’am), the “Builders” (including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin) and the “Torchbearers,” ranging from Peter Beinart to Leon Wieseltier, whose article on the concept of bitzu’ism (which he translates as “implementationism”) transformed my understanding of the Zionist saga history when I first read it in the New Republic in 1985: “The bitzu’ist is the builder, the irrigator, the pilot, the gunrunner, the settler.”

Troy is vividly aware — and wants his readers to be aware — that Zionism is a work in progress rather than a set of commandments carved in stone.

Of course, the very idea of Zionism has always had its nay-sayers, who once included both the Reform movement and the most observant strands of Judaism. Nowadays, Israel is a benchmark of Jewish identity in all branches of Judaism, except a few Chasidic courts. Even so, Troy is vividly aware — and wants his readers to be aware — that Zionism is a work in progress rather than a set of commandments carved in stone.

“Like Abraham’s welcoming shelter, the book’s Big Tent Zionism is open to all sides, yet defined by certain boundaries,” he writes. “Looking left, staunch critics of Israeli policies belong — but not anti-Zionists who reject the Jewish state, universalists who reject nationalism, or post-Zionists who reject Zionism. Looking right, Religious Zionists who have declared a culture war today against secular Zionists fit. However, the self-styled ‘Canaanite’ Yonatan Ratosh … who allied with Revisionist Zionists but then claimed Jews who didn’t live in Israel abandoned the Jewish people, failed Zionism’s peoplehood test.”

And so, like Tevyah, there are limits to his open-mindedness, and the exclusions say as much about the diversity of thought in the Jewish community. “Sadly, the most frequent question non-Israeli Jews have asked me about this book is, ‘Will you include anti-Zionists, too?’ ” he muses. “When feminist anthologies include sexists, LGBT anthologists include homophobes, and civil rights anthologies include racists, I will consider anti-Zionists.”

Troy points out that Abraham’s tent has always been capable of accommodating a Jewish community of remarkable diversity and vitality. Zionism has changed over time, as Troy repeatedly reminds us, starting when Herzl was repudiated by his fellow Zionists for famously proposing Uganda as the site of the Jewish homeland, and continuing without pause as Zionism wrote itself into world history. But Troy also insists that its core values include not only the land of Israel but also the democratic character of the Jewish state itself.

Significantly, one of the documents in “The Zionist Ideas” is the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organization as proclaimed in 1951 and reissued in 2004. The two versions are different in many details, but one aspiration appears in both versions — “a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure State of Israel.”

To which Zionists, one and all, are surely able to say: Amen!


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Counterpoint: What work must be done on our college campuses?

Jay Sanderson, president and chief executive officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, fears Israel’s government is “stoking the flames” with heavy-handed counterattacks against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campuses. Judy Maltz wrote in Haaretz, as “it is unusual” for Jewish Federation officials to criticize Israel’s government publicly, Sanderson knew his comments might “get me in trouble.”

I’m fine with Sanderson criticizing Israel; it will survive. He’s right that fighting the boycott demands subtlety — although he shouldn’t blame Israel for all those kaffiyeh-clad, terrorist-enabling, sanctimonious Israel-bashers demonizing the democratic Jewish state. And I reject Sanderson’s other claims, that, “In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity. … But it’s not going to be anymore in the same way. Israel’s too complicated.” Sanderson’s data are incorrect, his ideology misguided and his solutions wrongheaded. As today’s greatest Jewish peoplehood project, Israel remains one of the Jewish world’s most exciting, inspiring phenomena, presenting a more dynamic, three-dimensional, 24/7 version of living, breathing Judaism than the pale suburban careerist ancestor worship peddled in too many American Jewish homes — and often rejected.

True, Jews often overreact to BDS, exaggerating its importance. Tens of thousands of Jewish students visit Israel via Birthright Israel annually, but 20 Jewish kids yelling about BDS terrifies us. And let’s face it, student politics is to serious governance as Cheez Whiz is to real food.  

As a result, having the government of Israel — or the Federations — fighting campus BDS risks backfiring. Students, especially thin-skinned, politically correct, striving, student-government types, resent adult intrusions. If Jewish students need help, let’s coach them quietly. Jewish students should build coalitions and lobby independently, championing academic freedom, defending their dignity and denouncing a movement that targets Israel obsessively, disproportionately, following leaders who traffic in anti-Semitic images and seek Israel’s destruction.

Here’s where Sanderson lost me. He asserts: “The vast majority of Jewish students … about 75 percent … are ‘disinterested and disconnected’ from Israel.” He fears partisan screaming about Israel alienates this “soft middle.”

His “75 percent” figure seems plucked out of thin air. It ignores the Israel Experience phenomenon, the hundreds of thousands of Jewish students who have bonded with Israel, happily.

Sanderson then builds a non-Zionist house of cards on this faulty foundation. He confuses all-Israel-advocacy-all-the-time, which often doesn’t work, with positive Israel experiences that do. And he denies Israel’s centrality in modern Jewish identity-building. Deeming Israel “too complicated,” he wants “to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel. In other words, first feel good about your Jewish self and then learn about Israel.”

The Cohen Center at Brandeis University’s recent report, “Anti-Semitism on the College Campus,” uncovered an epidemic of campus Jew hatred, with nearly three-quarters of Jewish students experiencing some hostility last year. Yet — thank you, BDS — support for Israel increased. One-third “report feeling ‘very much’ connected to Israel. Another third report feeling ‘somewhat’ connected.” These figures reflect a 16-year trend, whereby 20-somethings connect to Israel more than 30-somethings, thanks to the Birthright bounce.

Israel experiences transform Jewish lives by fostering Identity Zionism, not Israel advocacy. The positive 24/7 Jewish communal life in Israel with “no strings attached” invites young Jews to launch their own Jewish journeys. There are no dictates regarding where to go, simply a “Welcome Home” sign encouraging the once-alienated and those who already feel at home Jewishly to explore.

During high school in Israel, backpacking there, Birthright, Masa, young non-Orthodox millennials, increasingly skeptical about God, connect with their tradition through Jewish peoplehood. They meet a dynamic Israeli Judaism they missed at home. They also appreciate encountering the real, multidimensional, often less-politicized Israel that’s invisible on their Facebook feeds.

By contrast, Sanderson’s labeling Israel as “too complicated” is doubly offensive. It internalizes our oppressors’ contempt. Israel bashers have spent decades trying to make Israel “too complicated,” making Israel all about Palestinians, making Zionism all about occupation. You can criticize Israel’s actions. And yes, some American Jews see Israel only through this Palestinian prism. But I reject it categorically as a distorted educational launch pad. I won’t give our enemies this undeserved victory.

Second, pardon my bluntness, but I smell American Jewish triumphalism’s sanctimonious perfume. Despite its strengths, one could equally call American Jewry, er, “complicated.” Intermarriage is so ubiquitous that it’s not politically correct to call it a problem anymore. The Pew study shows a Jewish identity rooted in — sorry, Hollywood friends — Borscht Belt jokes, toadying ghetto wisecracks and Holocaust angst. The institutional landscape is dotted with hulking, garishly decorated cathedrals empty Shabbat after Shabbat, filled three times a year by the overdressed, underwhelmed masses for High Holy Days that leave many feeling low, drowning in superficiality, materialism, competitiveness and spiritual emptiness. And our ignorance is vast. Despite all our advanced secular degrees, our first-grade Jewish educations make us unable to distinguish Maimonides from Nahmanides, or a dayan, a judge, from the Dayan named Moshe.

Of course, we don’t only define American Jewry by its failures, just like we shouldn’t only define Israel by its shortcomings. Our kids are lucky. They can synthesize the best of both Jewish communities, tempered by liberal Western insights.

Zionism never entailed simply state-building. It always sought to build a new Jew by renegotiating a new, invigorated relationship with our heritage, our people, our land and the world, steeped in strength, dignity and pride.

Beware: Much of this rhetoric, on all sides, risks objectifying our kids. Fellow Jews are neither cattle to herd in particular ideological directions nor tribal trophies to collect. We should engage one another as humans and Jews. And all, young and old, should be owners, not consumers, shaping our own birthrights.  

Ideally, we would all have our minds sharpened, our hearts enlarged, our souls stretched, our lives made more moral and meaningful by serious encounters with our people — both spiritually, meaning our Jewish heritage in all its multidimensionality, and practically, meaning Jewish friends, relatives, teachers, heroes, from Los Angeles to Kiryat Malachi, Israel’s City of Angels.

Paralleling Sanderson, I hope my pushback doesn’t “get me in trouble.” I thank him for triggering what we need: a robust, respectful debate about who we are, who our kids are, and where we are going. I look forward to continuing this in the spirit of our ancestors, who built a Talmud on disputations and question marks, not just exhortations and exclamation points. 

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of the recently published “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.” Other books include the award-winning “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” and the best-selling “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.” He is the voluntary chair of the Birthright Israel education committee. All the views expressed here are his own.