"Jerusalem and Babylon"
Bernard Reisman, Ph.D.
Klutznick Professor in Contemporary Jewish Studies
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
I am most grateful to Hebrew Union College for choosing me to receive an honorary doctorate. It is especially meaningful to me now, as I wind up my academic career. That this honor should come from this institution is particularly apt. My first major professional project was a collaboration with Dr. Leonard Fein some 32 years ago on a national study of the American Reform Movement. The final report was titled, "Reform is a Verb". This title indicates that you are obliged to take action -to assume a leadership and advocacy role in the American Jewish community and to foster a good relationship between that community and American society at large. I extend that meaning here to the possibilities for the Reform Movement to assume a leadership role -a modern Babylon, and co-partner with Israel, in transmitting Jewish ideals and values to the world at large.
My audience today came to this Seminary from more than one source and with a variety of expectations for the future. Some of you are preparing for the rabbinate; some are studying to serve the Jewish community in secular capacities; some are attracted to the values and ideas incorporated in Jewish history and traditions, but will utilize those principles in the wider society found in America and beyond. I will refer to this wider venue as "Babylon" to reflect the fact that it was in that country that the first great Jewish community arose after the expulsion of the Jews from Palestine in the early centuries of the Common Era.
Mostly we think of the diaspora as the physical dispersion of Jews and the establishment of Jewish communities throughout the world. For good reason, the difficulties attendant on leaving the original homeland, the often hostile (and worse) reception suffered after the exodus and the slow and fragile assumption of a place of respect in the non-Jewish world dominate our thinking about these events. Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Israel has been seen by Jews around the world as the primary leadership focus for world Jewry. American Jews are in the forefront of concern and support for that still-beleagured nation. The relationship between Israel and American Jewry has, however, been a struggle throughout history. America is now, and for some time past, the most important part of the Jewish diaspora. My thoughts on this subject have been greatly influenced by the essay by Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957) with the same title as the present talk. Is the American Jewish community of today comparable to the historic Babylon? If America is a viable center for Jewish life, what is and should be the pattern of communication and relationship with Israel, the other center? Certainly, both Israel and America are great communities. We, American Jews are the new Babylon and should collaborate as partners with Israel so as to benefit not only the Jewish community but the world at large.
The American Jewish community of today is thriving and healthy. Some may call this view naive at best. Skeptics may point to the high rate of intermarriage: more than half of American Jews today are marrying non-Jews. This is indicative of the reality that Jews no longer live in ghettos or homogeneous communities. I respond that intermarriage is not automatically a sign that a Jew is not serious about his or her religion. These marriages may in fact reflect the level of respect and acceptance between Jews and non-Jews; a contact point between Jerusalem and Babylon. With respect to intermarriage, what appears to be a threat to Jewish continuity can be transformed into an asset, both in terms of numbers and new perspectives. The typical response of the leaders of the American Jewish community has been to demean or exclude intermarried couples. Instead, we should reach out and welcome them. We should recognize that many of the Jewish partners are uncomfortable with some traditional religious practices, but retain strong positive feelings toward being Jewish. We should recognize as well that many of their non-Jewish mates find Jewishness appealing and would be receptive to maintaining a Jewish household and rearing their children as Jews.
The Reform movement is especially well positioned in regard to an outreach to "Babylon." Reform Judaism has become the largest denomination in the U.S. and is growing in numbers beyond the U.S. as well. I had the opportunity to address the national Reform convention in Boston last year and to meet many of its delegates. I was impressed not only by the depth of these men and women's Jewish education but by their high levels of interest and involvement in issues concerning the wider society. Some of those issues have particular resonance in the Jewish community but are decidedly not restricted to that community. For example, the conflicts Americans face in addressing problems related to diversity and multiculturalism (in education, employment, immigration policy) are resonant with questions about the continuity of Jewishness in the face of the high rates of intermarriage. The Reform movement has great potential and responsibility for reaching out and welcoming these families. And the Reform movement has the capacity to look beyond a narrow definition of what it means to hold Jewish values in helping both Jews and non-Jews to a life in which choices are informed by moral awareness and to some measure of the inner contentment that all human beings aspire to.
As Americans, you have additional responsibilities toward the principles embedded in the education you have received in this Seminary. I suggest that the American diaspora can also provide leadership for the spread of some of the basic tenets of Judaism: respect for others who differ from us; the dignity of the individual, the priority of the family; the importance of education; an awareness of history; and the sense of community that makes us willing to work to benefit others rather than ourselves. Jews are not alone in holding these values, nor are some, if unfortunately not all, Americans.
At the beginning of the 21st century, this is the significant challenge to the American Jewish community.