Rabbi David Ellenson's Address on "Jewish Identity and National Strength" Presented at the Herzliya Conference January 23, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organizers of this conference for inviting me to be here with you today. Our topic, “Jewish Identity as National Strength,” is hardly one of academic interest only. It is of existential import for our people as we confront the 21st century, a century in which the challenges to the content and character of Jewish collective existence are considerable in both the Diaspora and Israel. While, for reasons I will explain in this presentation, the nature of these challenges is different in both Israel and the Diaspora, there are dilemmas that merit our attention in both cases. Indeed, I would like to emphasize that the destiny and strength of our people depends upon our ability to address and resolve those distinct yet overlapping challenges, for the internalization of a concept of Jewish peoplehood among our people in both Israel and the Diaspora is a prerequisite for Jewish national strength and unity in the years ahead.

In order to address this issue, it is necessary at the outset to define the notion of “identity” itself, for such definition provides a framework for understanding the issue before us. Sociologists routinely note that the notion of “identity” involves at least three components – 1) personal — a subjective judgment that reflects how the individual defines him-/herself; 2) communal — how members of a given group regard the individual, i.e., does the group regard the individual as a member of the group? It should also be noted that given the modern situation of Jewish pluralism and religious movements, it is impossible for an absolute “communal consensus” to be achieved on this component; 3) external – how do persons outside the group regard the individual. Prior to the advent of the modern world, these three components of “identity” were seldom in tension with one another. In our day, they sometimes appear to be on a collision course. Hence, the very issue we are addressing in this presentation is, essentially a modern one.

After all, within the context of a pre-modern feudal political order the Jewish community was either politically autonomous or semi-autonomous in governing the lives of its members and it provided these members with a sense of cultural and religious identity. The structures of the larger medieval Gentile world only reinforced this sense of Jewish identity for both the individual Jew and the Jewish community. The halachic definition of Jewishness, where one is defined as a Jew by virtue of birth to a Jewish mother or conversion into Judaism through the agency of a qualified beit din (rabbinical court), was determinative in a world where modern notion of individualism did not enjoy much currency. There was thus little or no dissonance between public and private spheres, individual and collective realms, regarding Jewish identity.

With the advent of “modernity” in the West, the situation began to change and this has led to the challenges confronting the matter of “Jewish identity” we confront today. With the coming of the French and the American Revolutions, the modern nation-state was born and the political authority of the Jewish community was subsequently dismantled. These political changes granted the individual the right to participate in the community and affirm her identity as a Jew or, if she chose, elect not to participate in it. In a significant sense, modernity fostered a situation where factors of individual subjective judgment became central in determining how Jewish identity was to be demarcated. The effects of this can be seen particularly in the United States.

Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen, in their book, The Jew Within, have captured this direction in American Jewish life and identity through their coinage of the phrase, “the sovereign self,” to describe how American Jews view their identity. They claim that the reality of individual choice is the most decisive element that informs American Jews as they construct their identity. It is a sense of individual autonomy, not shared traditional commitments, that is decisive in defining their relation to the Jewish community. The Jew Within argues that the notion of Jewish identity in the modern situation has transformed Jewish identity from one of membership in and commitment to a people to one of partial and eclectic individual choices regarding a religious tradition. How to reconstruct a communal sense of Jewish identity and responsibility to the Jewish people in light of this reality is a grave challenge that faces Judaism in the United States today. Indeed, this is why I have insisted that no rabbi can be ordained at the Hebrew Union College who does not spend at least one year studying in Israel. Our graduates must understand that their religious journey is not simply a personal quest. Rather, they are part of a people and an encounter with the reality of the Jewish state as well as visits of services to places of Jewish renewal like the Former Soviet Union are the only way they can appropriately understand and then transmit to other American Jews a sense of Jewish peoplehood and Klal yisrael.

In Israel the situation is, to be sure, different. As the late Professor Charles Liebman and Steven Cohen explained long ago in their work, Two Worlds of Judaism, which deals with concepts of Jewish identity among Jews in Israel and the United States, Jews in Israel and the United Sates have “reinterpreted their heritage differently.” In Israel – most particularly in what may be termed the “secular domain” – Jewish identity is embraced in collective-national terms, while in the United States there is a much greater emphasis upon the individual-religious categories. After all, in 1948 Ben-Gurion did not declare the sovereignty of the self, but rather the sovereignty of the State.

By suggesting this difference between Israel and the Diaspora, I do not mean to imply that there are no religious expressions within Israel. I am keenly aware of movements and denominations, halakhic decisors and giants of scholarship, as well as political ideologies with deep religious roots. But it appears that these expressions do not serve to strengthen the Jewish identity of Israelis who are not prepared to define themselves as Orthodox. They may even weaken them.

Problems that confront Jews in the Diaspora play out differently here in Israel. For example, persons who lack halakhic status as Jews because they are born of non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers nevertheless view themselves and are often viewed by others as Jews when they share in collective Jewish destiny by living in the State of Israel and serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. Is it possible or desirable to bridge the divide between Israel and the Diaspora?

I come to this discussion as an “informed outsider.” I come often to Israel as an academic, as a rabbi, as the President of an institution with a campus in the heart of Jerusalem, an institution which trains Jews from North America and from Israel. I read the Israeli press and speak with Israeli friends about matters of Israeli identity and Jewish fate constantly. I have no intention of “preaching” to you, and I hope that my remarks do not sound over-critical or over-pious.

The socialist Zionists who dominated the early years of the yishuv and the State saw Zionism – the return of our people to our ancient homeland of Eretz yisrael — as the actualization of the central element in the Jewish tradition. The dream of Shivat tziyon had sustained our people throughout centuries of Galut, and these Zionist founders of the State saw the modern period of Jewish history as one that provided the opportunity for the fulfillment of the age-old dream of return to Zion. They viewed the essence of Jewish tradition in secular-nationalistic terms and stripped the Bible and the Hebrew language of their religious significance as the content and medium of God’s revelation. They believed the Bible legitimated Jewish historical claims to the Land of Israel and they regarded Hebrew language as a major source of Jewish identity. Theirs was a Judaism that looked to the Bible and an era when our people lived in our land for inspiration. Even when they regarded Orthodox Judaism as “authentic,” they did little more than tolerate it and they actually tended to dismiss religion as a significant element in Jewish life. They saw themselves as representatives of the future, and the religious camp often seemed to them shadows of the past.

They were successful in creating a nation and we who love the State of Israel are profoundly in their debt. However, they also forged a new type of Jewish identity that discarded rabbinic Judaism because of its political passivity and its seeming irrelevance to modern life. This ethos was regarded as antithetical to a belief that the people Israel must become responsible for its own destiny, and a national form of Jewish identity as opposed to a religious one came to dominate in Israel. I want to suggest that the kulturkampf in Israel did not help strengthen Jewish identity in the secular domain. Sadly, it gave rise to anger, alienation, disenfranchisement and distance.

In my opinion, such a construction of Jewish identity along national as opposed to religious lines is no more adequate than a Diasporan Jewish identity that elevates individual choice and religious voluntarism above peoplehood and nationality. I do not think that this argument for the primacy of the nation is a sufficient end in itself and while this trajectory has promoted a certain type of secular Jewish identity, I fear that this approach has been unable to provide adequate grounds for sustaining Jewish character in the meaningful way. One cannot truncate two thousand years of memory and construct a mature modern Jewish identity that will link Jews in Israel together with their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. In my opinion as an “outsider” who cares deeply, Jewish Israelis in the so-called “secular” domain should strive to widen the parameters of their Jewish identity. The fact that so many young Israelis look to the East for spiritual fulfillment testifies to the crisis in Jewish identity here in Israel.

As I observe Israeli society, forced as it is to struggle with so many challenges and threats, I am of course filled with concern. But I am also very optimistic. There is extraordinary potential here for Jewish cultural renewal. The Hebrew language, perhaps the pre-eminent key to unlocking the literature and thought of our people, the connection here with the Land and People of Israel, the impressive outpouring of cultural creativity – all these give much reason to be positive. I attach great significance to the meeting of different Diaspora traditions here in Israel, and to the richness and depth of varied iterations of Jewish identity to be found here. I look upon all these developments with wonder and hope. The fact that all this is unfolding at a time of military risk demonstrates that this search for identity is not a luxury. It is an existential need.

As the President of the College, I can bring an example from the movement I know best. I am witness to a new generation of Israeli men and women, mostly natives of Israel but also some immigrants whose mother tongues are Russian, Spanish and English. These are men and women of very high quality who turn to us to receive training and Ordination. By so doing, they take part in a wider movement of Jewish renewal taking place in Israel, in institutions of the Israel Movement of Progressive Judaism and in many other institutions.

In order to build a firm link between Israel and the Diaspora, Jewish identity must be built upon both religious and national grounds. The book of Ruth captures the twofold nature of Jewish existence and identity quite well when Ruth says to Naomi, at the moment she decides to convert to Judaism, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” An authentic Jewish identity must be constructed upon both of these poles, and all of us must do all in our power to foster programs and movements that promote these dual notions. Otherwise, if efforts to promote healthy manifestations of Jewish identity are not encouraged, distinct forms of identity that separate Israeli and Diasporan Jews will permanently divide our people. I am concerned that my grandchildren and yours may not have a common language. If this were to happen, our strength and ability to confront the modern world would weaken and dissipate. This is an outcome I fervently wish to avoid.

My message is not denominational, even though I represent one of the denominations. As a historian of the modern period, I learn that Judaisms of various kinds can flourish when they relate both to changing realities and to enduring traditions. Internalizing the values of modernity and democracy will not weaken Jewish identity. Indeed, such internalization makes Jewish identity viable and vibrant.

Without presuming to tell you how to live your lives, I want to call on those forces working for the renewal and strengthening of Jewish identity to act with vigor. Jews in the Diaspora support you – and maybe the time has come for more sectors within Israeli society to support your work as well. It seems to me that the Israeli who may have described herself as Secular in the past, is less involved these days in seeking an external measure of identity, and more involved in a genuine search. The sheer fact of living here will no longer suffice for Israeli Jews, and involvement in religious concerns alone will no longer suffice for Diaspora Jews. Instead, our joint efforts must be directed at forging a meaningful sense of Jewish identity established on both national and religious foundations. Only if you find the way to deepen your Jewish identity, in the secular and religious domains, only then will you be able to help us shape our Jewish identity with depth and seriousness of purpose. Only in this way can our people come to fulfill the rabbinic tradition that asserts, “All Israel is responsible for one another.” Only then can a common Jewish destiny, a sense of Ahavat yisrael in which Jews come to love and respect one another, be realized.