Can America become the new Jewish Babylonia?
Much can be said about the tumult going on in Israel because of this Knesset’s proposed legislation to neuter the Supreme Court. But I would suggest that the tumult has brought a reality into the light — a reality that is negative on the surface but can be turned into a boon for American Jewry.
It is a well-known and much bemoaned reality that the majority of American Jews, excluding the modern Orthodox, have moved away from Israel, beyond a somewhat perfunctory “I am proud of Israel” that does not translate into deep attachment to the State. This is the result of Israel’s turn to political conservatism and its 75-plus year, view held by most non-observant Israeli Jews, that “the Orthodox shul is the authentic one I don’t attend.”
Neither of these positions align with the thinking of the rank-and-file of American Jews.
Now, add to this what has been the watchword of the American Jewish and Israel relationship — “Support Israel, but don’t tell it what to do, because we don’t live there, and it’s not we and our children on the line.” Among American Jews and their representative organizations, this got translated into, “Give Israel your money, but don’t even so much as suggest to it what its social, religious, or political policies should be.”
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It is exactly this position that has distanced American Jews from Israel, because for all Israel’s talk about Israel being the homeland of the entire Jewish people and the nation-state of all Jews, it is the homeland only of Israelis and only their nation-state. There is not much interest in the voice or opinions from the Diaspora. And why should it be otherwise, when Zionism, except for cultural Zionism, believed and believes even today in the disappearance of the Diaspora, through either aliyah or assimilation?
But I said that all this could be turned to the good. As the tradition tells us, “If God gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And even if the tradition didn’t quite say that, over and over again Jews have turned adversity into hopeful possibility throughout our history.
What was Jewish Babylonia?
Eretz Israel did not become empty of Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple. Eretz Israel, from 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed, until the 5th century, saw one of the most productive periods in Jewish history. It was then that the foundations of the Judaism we practice were laid, with the compilation of the Mishnah and its expansion in the Jerusalem Talmud.
Side by side with the developments in Eretz Israel, Babylonia, which is what Jews called the Sassanian Persian empire, was also developing its own rabbinic tradition. In Eretz Israel and Jewish Babylonia there were other Judaisms that competed with rabbinic Judaism, but for reason too many to enumerate here, rabbinic Judaism was victorious, and the Babylonian Talmud became the constitution of worldwide Jewry until the modern period.
At a certain point, Eretz Israel and Babylonia became competitors for hegemony in the Jewish world. Despite the traditional view that Eretz Israel was the holy promised land, the rabbinic scholars of Babylonia and their followers declared themselves superior to the Jews of Eretz Israel in both scholarship and fealty to the tradition. Backed by the Sassanian government and its power and geographical reach, Jewish Babylonia became the center of the Jewish world.
Why does this matter?
This short and oversimplified history of Jewish Babylonia and its Jews indicates that Jews of a diaspora community can be more Jewishly identified and Jewishly knowledgeable than the Jews of Eretz Israel.
Affiliated American Jewry in the past and present has built its identity on the State of Israel. However, between the values gulf that exists between American Jews and Israelis, and in the worst-case scenario of an Israel that is not a democracy, that buttress holding up Jewish identity all by itself will not hold.
Israel made it possible for a Jew not to be knowledgeable about our literature and thought. Israel made it possible to be non-observant and yet be a “good Jew” through support of Israel. But what if neither the dream of Israel nor its reality is available?
The challenge and the good news
The distance between Israel, Israelis, and American Jews actually opens the way for American Jews to develop an American Jewish Babylonia.
Yes, it is a challenge. It would mean that we would have to become much more Jewishly educated. Those of us who have never studied a Jewish text or regularly observed even as little as lighting a Shabbat candle will have to ask two questions of themselves —What do I know about my Jewish identity? And is there anything important about finding out?
So I’m going to give a shout out to some of the resources that can help answer those two questions.
The Melton Program is a one-year adult education program that will boost anyone’s Jewish literacy exponentially. Frequently, people love the program so much they ask for its extension into another year or several years more. Check Google for one that might be nearby.
Me’ah is a 10-week program sponsored by Hebrew College in Boston. The program offers outstanding faculty and a comprehensive curriculum of Jewish studies. Since it is an online program, it offers flexibility in terms of personal schedule. It is coordinated by Professor Mar Brettler, a world-renowned Bible scholar. You join a cohort of 25, so you can make new friends as you increase your Jewish learning.
My Jewish Learning is the leading trans-denominational website for Jewish information and education. Offering articles and resources on all aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, the site is geared toward adults of all ages and backgrounds.
Jewbelong.com helps you make Judaism your own. It’s filled with easy-to-follow, fun, touching, humorous, and always non-intimidating content.
Many more programs exist, and a search on Google under Adult Jewish Education Programs will help you find them.
In addition, I also recommend a book that will make you more Jewishly savvy and whet your appetite for more Jewish knowledge: “Jewish Literacy” by Joseph Telushkin.
All these are paths to becoming a knowledgeable Jew, someone who can help create the New American Jewish Babylonia.
A call for much-needed prayer for the State of Israel
Those of us who love Israel with all its warts and with all our hearts, who have thrown in our lot with it by becoming citizens, are heartbroken witnessing our brothers and sisters tearing the fabric of Israeli society apart. Readers, please pray for us, and pray for the peace of Zion. May we create a New American Jewish Babylonia, and build it side by side with an Israel that is “a light unto the nations.”
Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick of Teaneck is professor emeritus at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. He received his doctorate from the Bernard Revel Graduate School and rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.