Liberal Judaism and Zionism Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute

July 16, 2019

Remarks prepared for a panel discussion at the Shalom Hartman Institute with T’ruah Executive Director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs.

Good evening.  Let me begin by thanking Donniel, Yehuda and Lauren for inviting me to address you this evening on the topic of Liberal Judaism and Zionism today.  As the former CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, I have been singularly impressed by the Hartman Institute’s commitment to deepening ongoing Jewish education for professionals and Jewish communities.  And I am glad to see five participants from my former city here with you: Rabbis Michael Alper, Daniel Bogard, Karen Bogard (all alumni of HUC) as well as Rabbi Mark Fasman and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss.

In my talk tonight I have been asked to put forth a vision of a liberal American Judaism in which Zionism is a component, and to do so in 20 minutes.  Donniel, Yehuda and Lauren, I am flattered at your confidence that I can do this—not so much offer a view of liberal Judaism or to offer a view of Zionism, but your confidence that I can do this in 20 minutes! Which is simply a way of saying that I hope you will treat what follows as a merely a sketch. I will try do my best to be brief but also want to say something of value.

Let me begin by asking what precisely is the problem that the vision is seeking to address or solve?  And here, I would say that I don’t think it is BDS on the left nor the “Israel right or wrong” on the right.  Nor do I even think the lack of civil discourse in our communities is the biggest challenge, though it is a significant one.  I think, along with many others, that the biggest challenge we face is disengagement with Israel.  And I think that this problem arises from the underlying philosophical rejection of the value of Judaism as a particularistic religious approach and concomitantly, a rejection of the value of being part of the Jewish People as a distinct people.  And that challenge is closely related to the challenges of understanding particularity within a philosophical tradition of liberal Judaism, a tradition that emphasizes the universal over the particular.   The answers to this problem of disengagement will ultimately be a set of practices, but those practices must be developed on the foundation of ideas.  And it is those ideas that I want to explore this evening, for I think that disengagement with Zionism and Israel is in fact a significant abrogation of what liberal Judaism requires.

Now a couple of caveats before I start.  “Liberal Judaism” refers to a set of ideas from which multiple movements and communities have emerged.   Of course the multiple institutions of the Reform Movement are founded upon liberal Judaism.  But so are streams that identify themselves with the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, as well as increasingly some that we might call Orthodox.

Second, the disengagement I am speaking of is absolutely not disengagement by the main institutions or the leadership of the Reform Movement, and certainly not disengagement by Hebrew Union College.  My predecessor President Nelson Glueck continuing the Zionism of President Stephen Wise before him, made a commitment to Israel, Zionism and Jerusalem decades ago.  It is an investment that we as a College-Institute continue to value grow as we invest in our Taube Family Campus on King David Street.  Israel and Zionism are and will remain central to the training and education of our Reform Rabbis, Cantors, Jewish educators and non-profit managers—and we have almost 350 currently enrolled.

What I am expressing is my own conception of liberal Judaism that can help explain why this commitment is so important to liberal Judaism and how to address the challenges that we face as particularity and universality remain in tension.

My talk tonight is structured in four parts.

First, I will outline what I take to be the distinctive philosophical underpinnings of liberal Judaism—the primacy of reason that instrumentally deploys Jewish religious practice to achieve the Good or the Holy, the Right and the Just.  I should add that I will not be saying anything original, but rather providing what I hope will be a helpful summary of a version of this tradition.

Second, I want to explain why a broader understanding would be helpful to develop a sense of authenticity about their own liberal Judaism that as a Jew in the pew I often found lacking among liberal Jews in North America.

Third, I want to explain how these principles can help shape an instrumentalist approach to Jewish Peoplehood, Zionism, and Israel.

Finally, I will close with some thoughts particularly for rabbis who are wary of addressing these issues head on in their congregations.

A summary conception of Liberal Judaism.

As a philosophical ideal, I view Liberal Judaism as captured by three core ideas:
Commitment to the primacy of Reason as that which makes us distinctly human and b’tzelem Elohim.  Liberal Judaism begins with a reflection of who we are in relation to the Divine, that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim in terms of the distinctive features that sets us apart from other creatures.  These key attributes would include:  reason; free will; imagination; self-awareness and consciousness; the capacity for empathy, joy and suffering;  and an appreciation of beauty. Of these, as a liberal theory, Liberal Judaism places reason above all else as our ship’s captain, guiding our other capacities, whether for joy, beauty, or our exercise of free will, thus does reason set the terms for our encounter with the world and, ultimately, our struggle with the Divine.

Committed to the practices of Torah, Avodah, and Israel as instrumentally valuable:  Second, liberal Judaism in my view recognizes the instrumental importance of engaging in the practices associated with Torah, Avodah, and Yisrael expressed in these ways
Torah: Liberal Judaism understands, creates and confronts our textual tradition as a living and dynamic tradition, providing a specific shared language to understand our moral responsibilities, to make meaning of our existential place in the world.
Avodah:  Liberal Judaism is committed to meaningful ritual practice that causes us to reflect on the Source of All Being; developing our capacity for awe; enhancing our appreciation for beauty; reinforcing our capacity for empathy; and fostering both individual discipline and strong associative bonds required for collective moral action.

Yisrael:  Liberal Judaism is committed to building and sustaining the Jewish People through Jewish communities of practice and association for the expression of these shared practices, practices that connect through generations of history, and reinforce individual Jewish identity.

Instrumental value of Judaism to achieve The Good, the Right, and the Just.  Using reason as our guide,Liberal Judaism recognizes that the specific Jewish practices of Torah, Avodah, and Yisrael are one of multiple paths towards the True.  We engage in these practices not for their own sake; but because we believe they are instrumentally valuable to achieving universal values, causing us to look upwards towards the Good; sideways towards each other to achieve the highest ethical ideals (the Right); and towards the communal foundations upon which we stand: justice structurally, institutionally, and by ensuring the high moral character of our leadership.  In short: The Good (or the Holy), the Right, and the Just.

In short, liberal Judaism emphasizes is built upon the primacy of reason, that embraces Torah Avodah and Israel—in the sense of the importance of Jewish community—for their instrumental value in achieving the Good, the Right and the Just.
This articulation is a view of what I believe a compelling and justifiable explanation for Liberal Judaism entails.  The ideas expressed are not particularly original as a matter of theology or philosophy or theology.   And I recognize that not all liberal Jews or accounts of liberal Judaism will agree on all aspects.  But this is central to my vision, at any rate, for what Liberal Judaism is and entails. [1]

The need to articulate a public conception of Liberal Judaism.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people who practice liberal Judaism, who call themselves liberal Jews—let alone those of you who do the sacred work of leading congregations and Jewish communities may not be as interested as a political theorist is with articulating a clear philosophical foundation for what we do!   So whatever one’s view of liberal Judaism is, let me explain why having a clear and relatively simple public conception of first principles might be helpful.

First, fundamentals ground us, they give our practices meaning and purpose.  And I also believe they create a sense of authenticity that in my experience is often lacking among those who identify as liberal Jews, who don’t always feel secure in the very practices in which they come to engage.

Now to be clear, I don’t mean that Rabbis or organizational leadership lack this sense of philosophical core, or sense of authenticity.  And a great many individual scholars and movements that have articulated what they take to be as a particular manifestation of liberal Judaism.  I just mean that many of us who are not Rabbis, those of us who make up American Jewish communities, don’t always have a clear view of what it means to be a liberal Jew.

And one thing is for sure:  most of us in the pews don’t always say: “I engage in Torah, Avodah and Yisrael because I value the primacy of reason, and I understand that those practices are instrumentally and reliably important to achieving the Good, the Right and the Just!”

But now compare that, by contrast, to many halachic Jews, who, despite the great range of ideologies and movements of halachic Judaism, ultimately all rest on a very clear and different underlying philosophical view.  Halachic Judaism is based on a particular view of Revelation grounded the claim that God in factgave Torah to Moses at Sinai, and thus that Moses was a real historic character, Sinai a real place, and the transmission through revelation to Moses a real event.  Even when they are not practicing halachic Judaism, I would argue that the reason halachic Jews have a sense of authenticity is because they have a very clear sense of a the core philosophical idea that underlies the Judaism that they may not even be practicing:  that God gave Torah to Moses at Sinai.

By contrast—again this is for many, perhaps most of us Jews in the pews and not necessarily reflective of the leadership of our congregations and institutions—I think that many, if not most, who call themselves “liberal Jews,” who often will refer to themselves as “Reform Jews,”  define themselves in terms of what they are not.  They don’t keep Kosher, because they are Reform Jews.  They don’t keep Shabbat because they are liberal Jews.  They don’t fast on Yom Kippur because they are Reform.  In common parlance, “Reform Judaism” becomes simply a rejection of halachic practices.  But because there is no underlying philosophical basis to replace God-Torah-Moses-Sinai, it produces a sense by many that it is “Judaism light”.  By defining their own identity through the negation of halachic practices, without replacing its philosophical basis, many Reform Jews wind up reinforcing the primacy of the halachic world view.  That may thus lead them to the unfortunate conclusion that liberal Judaism is not authentic Judaism, because there is no philosophical core to which their practices attach beyond nostalgia, familiarity and loose sense of connection to the past.

The lack of a readily available positive statement of liberal Judaism to ground its practices also likely impedes our ability to build vibrant Jewish communities:  it is hard to mobilize and inspire people to act based on a negative.

So, even for non-philosophers, I think there is some significant urgency to developing this kind of basic core statement about liberal Judaism, about its foundations, in the simplest way possible about the “why.”

And so again, here is my view of the core of Liberal Judaism:  Based on the primacy of Reason as that which makes us human, we are committed to Torah (study), Avodah (ritual practice) and Yisrael (building Jewsh community), in order to achieve Justice in our world (the Good or the Holy, the Right and the Just).

Where does Zionism fit into this vision of Liberal American Judaism?

So let me now turn to the place of Zionism within this vision.

By Zionism, I mean a commitment to the control of state power by the Jewish people in order to secure their self-defense and promote their flourishing.  Zionism is a form of Ethno-Cultural nationalism that aims to put the apparatus of state in service to a particular culture.  That exercise of power should, as a matter of Justice, be limited by the same limits that apply to all governments (respect for justice, human rights, political equality, etc.). [2]

As with any ethno-cultural national state, governments of Israel are structurally in danger of overstepping the justifiable exercise of that power in favor of the privileged group.

I also would also add that Zionism since the early 20th Century entails the exercise of power within the boundaries of where the State of Israel today actually exercises its power, though with the precise borders of course open for negotiation as any number of Zionist governments of Israel have done and expressed their willingness to do.

So, what is the place of such a concept within liberal Judaism?

In my view, liberal Judaism requires us to engage with Zionism for moral and religious reasons.

Morally, it is because group affiliation is instrumentally important to generating feelings of sympathy to those who are not close by, and thus critically important to any conception of how one develops the capacity to do Justice.  And religiously, that is specifically to liberal Judaism, Zionism is required because of the value and ease of Jews imagining themselves part of the Jewish People, and recognizing the historic necessity of a Jewish state.

The treatment of Zionism as instrumentally important is consistent with most conceptions of Zionism as a modern political movement.  It was, as Herzl put it, not an end in itself but the solution to the Jewish Question—this after he played with the idea of promoting mass conversion to Christianity.  The strongest defense of Zionism as instrumentally important may come form halachic Jews have articulated a diversity of views, including Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s comment that the definition of fascism is when the state itself becomes an end in itself.

The good news is that valuing Zionism—Jewish control of state power—is fully consistent with the conception of Liberal Judaism that I just articulated.  Framed in this way, the question I have been asked to answer tonight might be restated:

Since religious life for liberal Judaism is instrumentally valuable to help us achieve moral universals of the Good or the Holy, the Right and the Just, what is the moral problem that Zionism is instrumentally important to help us achieve?

And there are three that I think we can clearly articulate

Self Defense: Instrumentally important to the self-defense of the Jewish people as a specific target of injustice.

Jewish Flourishing;

Development of the “strong chords of Sympathy” that are required to motivate action on behalf of those far away.

I believe each is important, but the first two face some limitations.

A. Argument from Self-Defense.

Admittedly the argument from self-defense is no longer as compelling as it was 70 years ago: the Jewish people today are not facing extinction, even as anti-Semitism is on the rise.

But to demand that Jewish control of state power needs to be justified only when its existence is threatened, is to create a solution that is impossible to redeem when we, or any people, needs it the most.  (This is not a new observation).

Michael Walzer does a great job on the general principle in his classic Just and Unjust wars.  But it is surprising to me the extent to which folks on the political left will not appreciate that argument.  And it is also equally as surprising to me how often those on the right won’t recognize the very fact of a changed situation—Israel today is not Israel of 1948, 67 or 73.  So one can and I believe should assert the self-defense argument in the absence of the immediate need of State Power but given the lack of immediate existential threats, ethno-cultural particularism within the state may limit the exercise of Justice only to the extent that it can be reclaimed easily in a future time, and not as a limit on the free exercise of political rights of all.

B. Argument based on Zionism’s role in promoting Jewish Flourishing.
If liberal Judaism accepts that Torah, Avodah, and Israel are important and necessary to the achievement of universal values, then the development of more robust forms of these practices must be also seen as valuable.  And here, the history of the last 70 years is a demonstration of the realization of the value of the State to foster a renaissance that many-Donniel and Yehuda in particular—have noted is simply unprecedented in our 3000 years of history.

Now the problem with both the arguments from self-defense in a time of great strength and the problem with Jewish flourishing at anytime as moral justifications for state power, is that they are significantly bounded by the limits of the Just use of state power over others.  That is absent existential threats the exercise of power over other for the sake of self defense is and must always be significantly limited by normal rules of democratic justice (in which all citizens enjoy equal political rights.)

Similarly because Jewish flourishing is instrumentally important to the achievement of moral values, one cannot violate those values in order to secure more Jewish flourishing!  To justify moral harm to others in order to secure greater Jewish flourishing thus violates the very understanding of the instrumental value of Jewish life I am suggesting is a core component of liberal Judaism.  And it also explains why it is entirely consistent to develop a robust liberal Jewish response to any exercise of power, by any State, including Israel as a matter demanded by the obligations of Justice.

C. Zionism’s ability to foster strong chords of sympathy:

Now there is a more promising instrumental argument that requires us to cultivate a strong sense of connection to the Jewish People and thus to the State of Israel, based on arguments that were first fully worked out in the 18th Century, particularly associated with the Scottish Enlightenment–David Hume and Adam Smith, and later receiving institutional expression by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  And that is the observation, supported by significant research, that our capacity for justice as human beings requires us to develop strong chords of sympathy with others in order to be empathetic and compassionate.

This is where the idea of Jewish Peoplehood is particularly powerful. As Jews we have a ready made story that can inspire people to act on behalf of those experiencing injustice thousands of miles away.  Liberal Jews who choose to turn their backs on Israel and Zionism are not only turning their backs on their heritage, sacred inheritance…they are foreclosing a powerful way to mobilize people for action for the sake of others.

And this is ultimately why I believe it is an abrogation of Liberal Judaism to disengage with Zionism and the State of Israel:  it is instrumentally important to the achievement of justice.

We should be fostering our imagined sense of connected-ness (as Benedict Anderson had framed it) in order to create fellow-feeling (as David Hume had put it) to those very far away, as a means of mobilizing our achievement of justice.

During the 20th century, it was this sense of connectedness that allowed us to support the defense and rescue of literally millions of people whether during the migrations of the early century, the founding of the State of Israel, or the rescue of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews.   Empty calls to “connect” need to be grounded in our philosophical, moral, and religious commitments to the value of the instrumentality of our particular tradition to the achievement of justice.  Those who say they are de-prioritizing Israel because they don’t feel connected, are illustrating precisely this problem: to run from injustice is easier when people don’t feel connected to them.

What Jewish leaders can do about disengagement: Teaching versus Preaching

So those are the reasons that I believe Zionism and the Jewish People are important to liberal Judaism and fit fully and necessarily within the rubric of a rationalist and instrumentalist approach to Torah, Avodah and Israel, to achieving the Good or the Holy, the Right and the Just. Again, I don’t claim that any of what I am saying is particularly original.

Now if it’s not original, and let’s just presume it is more or less correct as far as it goes, why then are we disengaging from Zionism and Israel?

First, I know many younger people are alienated from Israel in part because so many institutions have put up rules of engagement that limit the content of what we can discuss or the terms we use.  That is a mistake in my view, and more importantly it is a violation of our commitment to the use of reason.  The truth is that once you agree that any state has to respect moral limits on the use of power, if you expect to engage with people on a rational basis in pursuit of justice you are going to have to allow the government of Israel—its policies and leadership—to be the focus of both praise and blame, of support and criticism.  (I’m sort of suspecting this will be the focus of Rabbi Jacobs’s remarks so we can explore that later.)

More troubling is that we are seeing community leaders, particularly rabbis in the pulpits, disengaging from talking and teaching about Israel because of the charged nature of the discourse and dialogue.

I have spoken to so many Rabbis in the last decade particularly who have told me they do not feel prepared to speak out on the issues of greatest concern to them about Israel.  They have a point of view but they worry that articulating it they will alienate their congregations, cause distress by opening up factions who disagree with them, or even worse, lose their jobs and their ability to support their families.
This is real.

And the threats to their livelihood and congregations are not insignificant.  And for others, quite frankly, they are still trying to work through the complexity of the multiple issues, the history, the international politics, the politicians, the activists on the ground, in order to develop their own positions.

So instead of Preaching about Israel, more rabbis are disengaging.  But I think there is a third option to Preaching  and that is Teaching.

Preaching and Teaching require different skill sets.  Of course, the best Preaching involves teaching of a certain kind, but not the kind of teaching that I mean to emphasize.  Because preaching involves articulating a view and pressing for it with passion, inspiring people to action. That kind of Preaching is critically important particularly for the pursuit of Justice in our world.  But we have to recognize that it often comes at the very personal and communal costs I just described, including disengagement of others who are alienated or disagree with the leadership’s view.

The kind of Teaching that I mean is the kind whose very goal is engagement and thoughtfulness.  It is the kind that likely defines the best kinds of teachers you have encountered, and many of you already are.

It is the kind of teaching that inspires individuals to care deeply about subject matter they never thought they could care about because they are infected by your passion for the subject matter, not the particular views you have.

It is teaching that inspires people to reconsider their own ideas by challenging them not because they disagree with you, but because the implications of what they believe may not have been fully thought through.

How does this happen?

Well I can tell you it does not happen by Preaching to a class about what they should believe.

It happens by creating the environment that uses ideas—and your passion about them—to cause them to care.  To see from your passion that the topic you are passionate about is deserving of commitment.  And most often it is the passion for the TOPIC not for any particular view about the topic that drives their interest.  (And Good Lord, it does not happen by devoting time and energy to working through civil discourse…without actually engaging in discourse).

So let me end.

So in my remarks I have set out to do three things:

1.  Articulate a view of Liberal Judaism based on the primacy of reason to instrumentally engage in Jewish practice as a way to achieve The Good or the Holy, the Right and the Just.

2.  I explained why think a clearer view of these fundamental principles is important to creating a deeper understanding and sense of authenticity;

3.  Expressed how Zionism fits into this vision of liberal Judaism as an instrumentally important area.

4.  Suggested the role that Teaching, rather than Preaching may provide a path to reengagement for so many who are simply opting out.

I look forward to our discussion.

[1] This public lecture is part of a larger research project that provides specific references for the historic sources from which this instrumentalist account of liberal Judaism is drawn, and the differentiation of this view from other accounts.

[2] I understand the importance of Zionism (defined as the control of a state by the Jewish people) based on its commitment to three distinct ends:  the defense of the Jewish People; the commitment to the flourishing of Jewish culture (including but not limited to religion); the use of state power in a manner that comports to universal standards of justice, human rights and political equality.  For an earlier statement of the value of Zionism based on these three ends, see my essay, “What it means to be a Zionist.”  Like all ethno-cultural states that structurally favor a specific people, Israel faces the challenge of achieving Justice for all under the rule of its government.  The justification for its particular existence is based primarily on the historical fact of the relentless existential persecution of the Jewish People which can justify some unequal treatment of all.  For a compelling account of these issues, see Chaim Gans, Just Zionism  (Oxford University Press, 2011).