Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

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“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-28-12

There they go again. Over 600 liberal American rabbis have ignored their usual concerns about religion invading politics, climbed the wall separating church and state, disregarded the feelings of conservative congregants, and joined “Rabbis for Obama.” As I said when criticizing the original initiative four years ago, I do not object to individual rabbis joining “Jewish Americans for Obama” and expressing themselves as Jews and Americans. However, by building this organization around their job titles, they seek to apply their spiritual authority in an inappropriately secular and partisan way.  What’s next: Ministers for Microsoft to counter Apple’s disciples, or Priests for Pilates to bless one particular form of exercise? Just as the Hatch Act barred federal civil servants from campaigning, just as reporters – not columnists – are discouraged from partisan politicking, just as I as a professor would never endorse one slate of student politicians, rabbis as rabbis should refrain from crass electoral politics — and yes, I especially wish such professional restraint constrained the Israeli rabbinate too.

Whereas courage involves risk, these hypocrites-for-Obama took an easy position. A liberal American Jewish rabbi needs little nerve to endorse a liberal Democratic president against a budget-busting, conservative Republican. Liberalism remains American Jewry’s dominant theology, with the Democratic Party the most popular affiliation even as more Jews label themselves religiously “unaffiliated.”  Increasingly, the American Jewish community is filled with evangeliberals – liberals with evangelical zeal. And despite Israel’s general popularity among American Jews, most are more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Therefore, it is annoying that these rabbis choose this cause as the reason for overriding their usual desire to separate politics and religion – while still condemning evangelical ministers or ultra-orthodox rabbis who politick, of course. Instead, we need these rabbis to make other, harder, principled stands collectively.  Those rabbis should do their jobs by confronting their congregants’ sacred cows more directly. How about rabbis for more ethical business practices? Or rabbis for less materialism? Rabbis for cheaper, less luxurious, more meaningful, bar mitzvahs?  Or rabbis for less libertinism? Rabbis for less careerism? Rabbis against family breakup? Or rabbis against excessive reliance on electronics? Rabbis for less toxic gossip, exhibitionism and voyeurism on the Internet? Rabbis for a community which judges people on the depth of their souls or the quality of their mitzvoth not their net worth or charitable giving?  Or let’s get bold. How about rabbis for God? Rabbis for Halacha, Jewish law? Rabbis for Shabbat observance? Rabbis for more Jewish learning? Rabbis for musar — moral living?

But no, better to grandstand, better to play politics with the big shots than to risk roiling American Jews’ famous complacency.

Unfortunately, we see a similar dynamic with much rabbinic intrusion in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All those American rabbis rushing to join the J Street rabbinic cabinet, all those rabbinical students moralizing about Israel’s West Bank and Gaza sins, should scrutinize their own society, their own neighborhoods. To reach the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from the Philadelphia airport, I drive through miles of urban moonscape, home to tens of thousands of broken lives finding refuge in cheap liquor stores, whittling away endless hours on park benches, before reaching suburban Wyncotte. As a native New Yorker, I notice it less when I visit the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary just below Harlem, but it does seem so much easier to preach about how others should solve intractable inter-group problems without tackling those closer to home.

Moreover, in our era of gotcha politics, it would be naïve for the Rabbis for Obama to expect to be so hallowed that Republicans would ignore an anti-Israel critic who advocates boycotting the Jewish state on their membership list. One of this political season’s buzz words  is “optics” – obsessing about how things look — and it counts for rabbis too. Politicians are often held responsible for their allies, with the test coming from the ugliest and most controversial associations not the many safe and obvious relationships.

Of course, that does not make every Rabbi for Obama “anti-Israel” as critics charge. Sloppiness is not collaboration. Still, as a professor, I try to avoid signing petitions with those who policies I abhor, be they from the left or the right.  Rabbis for and against Obama should beware unwelcome bedfellows too.

This harsh approach some rabbis and rabbinical students take toward Israel has become such an emotional issue for three reasons. First, is what I call the IAF – just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a modern flashpoint that magically escalates discussions into shouting matches, especially among Jews. And in an age of delegitimization, when Iran can host dozens of nations at a non-aligned conference this week while advocating Israel’s destruction, when criticism of Israel often degenerates into demonization, internal Jewish criticism stings intensely – and frequently legitimizes the delegitmizers. Finally, Israel remains the largest, most ambitious, collective Jewish project of the modern age.  The most extreme liberal rabbis are turning into nouveau Haredim, aping the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism of yesterday and today.

This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism from Jews or rabbis. But assessing the optics, sensitive to the fragility of the situation, acknowledging the conflict’s complexity, anticipating how criticisms will be perceived, would calm debates not inflame them.

The backlash against Rabbis for Obama should be instructive. I hope it does not lead to Rabbis for Romney. I hope it does lead to rabbis, especially during their High Holiday sermons, building on positive visions and serious challenges, pushing their congregants spiritually, morally, religiously, rather than pandering to partisan sensibilities, no matter how compelling the heated presidential campaign might be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-18-12

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

iEngage Evening Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute Summer 2012 Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem, June 28, 2012, featuring Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone, Gil Troy

The Magic of Keeping Kippot On in Europe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-11

On our trip to Spain this Hanukkah, my two sons debated whether they should wear their kippot openly, as they usually do, or cover them with baseball caps. The ensuing family debate stirred many compelling Jewish identity dilemmas. Ultimately, their decision worked for them and us.  Wandering around Christmas-time Barcelona with their kippot naturally, proudly, perched on their heads added Jewish magic to our family vacation.

As an American and a Jew I have long been ambivalent about Europe. As an American, I often feel judged by Europeans as a loud, crude, grasping cowboy.  In return, I confess, I can be a bit judgmental myself, wandering around Venice, Florence or other sites, dazzled by their medieval majesty, but wondering, “what have they done lately?” Of course, as a Jew I am all too aware of what some Europeans did lately, both six decades ago with the Holocaust and most recently with their New anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet, as a Jew I also acknowledge how modern Judaism benefited from its creative symbiosis with Europe. I feel positive resonances of Jewish history throughout Europe, even the relatively Jew-free zone called Spain. And, as a human, I appreciate how much of the cultural, intellectual, and ideological forces I most cherish in Western civilization bear Europe’s imprint.

As a modern Jew I also have my issues with kippa-wearing. Reared as an achievement-oriented Queens-boy in 1970’s New York, I was raised to fit in. Fitting in was America’s great welcoming gift to us, the European Enlightenment’s promise finally fulfilled in the New World. Fitting in was also the key to getting ahead, the Holy Grail for all us middle class wannabes — and a kippa did not fit the plan. It was always about standing out.

Blessed with a name like Gil Troy, I could get great service at Greek restaurants – balancing out all the jokes about whether my mother was Helen-of…. and, joy of joys, I sometimes was even mistaken for a WASP. When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1980s, a real White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who like me had a last name that also can function as a first name, said to me: “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard nowadays.” Putting on my thickest “New Yawk” accent, I retorted: “even fewer than ya think!” Enjoying my malleability, I joined the kippa-ba-kis, the kippa-ever-present-in-the-pocket, crowd — keeping it rolled not folded to avoid telltale creases, but ready to don it for religious ceremonies and in more 24-7-like Jewish contexts.
By contrast, my two sons have a delightfully healthy and natural relationship with the kippa. They wear it all the time. Whereas their dad might feel uncomfortable if “caught” wearing it in the “wrong” context, outside the Jewish bubble and frankly in more secular Jewish contexts too, they feel uncomfortable if they don’t wear it. My son Yoni, now 14, started wearing a kippa fulltime when he decided at the age of four that he was “awthodox.” He didn’t have his “r”s yet but he had his theology intact. For Aviv, 11, it has always been a part of his daily uniform, like wearing a shirt and pants.
We visited Italy in October 2001 just weeks after 9-11 and at the height of Arafat’s war of terror.  In those tense days, when people told us we were crazy even to fly, our hosts in Italy were so uncomfortable, they did not want Yoni wearing his kippa under his baseball cap, lest he somehow be exposed. I felt terrible having to explain to my four-year-old and his six-year-old sister about anti-Semitism and terrorism, initiating them into the ancient Jewish neurosis based in the reality of unfair targeting and enduring vulnerability.
Ten years later, the day we left for Spain, I received an email singling it out as Europe’s most anti-Israel country last year. I told my kids. We had a short to-cap-or-not-to-cap debate. But the boys decided quickly and definitively that they were who they were. They would do the Jewish Full Monty in Spain without cowering behind a Yankee logo.
I am thrilled to report that their kippot served as a friend magnet, bringing out the best in Barcelonans and serving as a homing signal for fellow Members of the Tribe. Aviv did feel stared at once or twice but, the first time, he said “I stared right back, and their super-gelled hair was much weirder than my kippa.” The second time, he just imagined them wondering, “Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we got rid of you in 1492.”
“You see the kippa’s magic,” Yoni said. “It made us new friends. It  attracted one rapper who rapped to us about Jewish-Christian friendship, two mah nishmas -whats up -from non-Jews, three chag sameachs from Jews, and four Israelis who said ‘hi.”” Yoni also noted that, thanks to their kippot, we were able to steer a French family who asked us, to the kosher market.
The Zionist revolution promised normalcy. My sons and I experience normalcy differently. To me, normalcy is the ability, after centuries of ghettoization, to blend in, to pass, to be accepted. To them, normalcy is the ability, despite the enduring curse of anti-Semitism, to stand out, but to feel completely at home about their uniqueness.
Not all European adventures for kippa-wearers end happily. But the few disasters make the headlines while the many magical moments don’t. When I told Aviv that Yoni found the kippot magical, he corrected me – “they are not magical, they are holy.” Then, pushing his dad, he asked: “After this, maybe you’ll consider wearing one all the time too?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”

A Rosh Hashanah lesson

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-15-11

On July 15, Ronnie Cahana, the 57-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal’s Town of Mount Royal, suffered a massive stroke in his brainstem. He now lies immobilized in the Montreal Neurological Institute, unable to talk, walk or even wave.

Yet, his mind is intact and his spirit is soaring, and from his hospital bed, Rabbi Cahana is teaching his devoted congregants, his loving family and the rest of us, about the soul’s power and Judaism’s deeper meaning, even when we lose the physical, the material. “I live in a broken place,” he said when stricken, “but there’s holy work to do.”

Rabbi Cahana’s body is in trouble. A ventilator and other tubes do for him what most of us do naturally. Nevertheless, he may be the healthiest – and happiest – person I know. “Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis,” he preaches. “To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Before the stroke, this gangly, 6’2 Houston-born rabbi was the least Texan Texan, and the most unconventional Conservative rabbi, I knew – I befriended Ronnie and his amazing wife, Karen, decades ago in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement.

A dazzling personality, both vital and ethereal, as well as a passionate Jew and perpetual seeker, Rabbi Cahana has never done small talk. He makes even the most casual interaction intense and intimate. Watching him with his congregants and his family is wondrous. His “How are you?” is never perfunctory. Rather, it’s a sincere probe, asking whether you’re getting the most out of your life, nurturing fulfilling relationships while benefiting from the kind of profound interaction he enjoys with Judaism and God.

Visiting the bedridden rabbi, you brace for heartbreak and emerge uplifted. He mouths words – or laboriously blinks them out. When no one can read his lips, he closes his eyes, and someone starts reciting “a, b, c…” He opens his eyes at the desired letter. The “Blinkischer Rebbe,” as Karen calls him, blinks out stirring weekly sermons, greeting congregants from his “subterranean world,” urging them to use the blow he sustained to experience life and Judaism in new dimensions.

“I know the end will be good,” this rabbinic Stephen Hawking insists. “I did not lose anything. I gained.”

All summer, Rabbi Cahana has bathed in his extraordinary family’s love and laughter – he and Karen have five fabulous children, ages 14 to 23. Karen says it’s hard to despair when he’s so positive, when he delights in “feeling” every prayer for him, “visiting” with his late father, renewing his relationship to Judaism and God by painstakingly re-learning each mitzvah, bringing new meaning to each commandment.

On Tisha b’Av he fasted, demanding that his feeding tube be shut down. Every weekday morning, he puts on tfillin at the same time his congregants do.

“Finding spiritual paths in the hospital while vulnerable and fragile,” he blinked to them, provides “a great delight of the day… I hear the tone, rhythm, the light banter, music and join you. I know our sounds and I listen to your voices. Our prayers are good and honest, and God looks favourably on the kind.”

Currently, he can only wear the head phylacteries. This, he calls “the most healing of privileges. The retzuot [straps] course through the whole body… from the mind. Crown encircles the cranium. In the holiest of holies, the kesher, which we believe lies contiguously off of Hashem’s holy kesher knot, sits on the brainstem to heal, to repair, to purify the world.”

This year, I witnessed the miracles that can occur despite catastrophic brain trauma after my father took a serious fall and recovered remarkably. Rabbi Cahana has already progressed much faster than the doctors predicted. This Rosh Hashanah – as those who can rally around the Cahana family, bombarding them with the love and support they need – we should also learn from the Blinkischer Rebbe’s teaching.

Let us follow him, temporarily, voluntarily, into the realm of the purely spiritual, the world of the soul, his transcendent universe of pure Jewish thought and emotion. And let us return less complacent and more compassionate, less tense and more intense, less alone and more loving, learning that whatever this next year brings, “the end will be good.”

A Zionist advocacy timetable for the next five weeks

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We can turn the UN’s “Palestine Season” into another empty victory for the Palestinians. We should stop dreading this fall

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-23-11

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem.

The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, and the Fall of the UN.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations Photo by: REUTERS/Chip East

As Palestinians prepare to try bypassing negotiations and dodging compromise by unilaterally declaring independence this September, Zionist activists and educators are prepping too. If the General Assembly votes, Israel will lose, as the UN’s anti-Israel bias will continue feeding Palestinian extremism. But just as the UN’s 1975 declaration that Zionism is Racism backfired, harming the world body more than it hurt the Jewish state, we who support Israel’s survival and seek a genuine peace can win this September. By using the calendar wisely, and remembering what we are for not just what we are against, we can turn the UN’s Palestine Season into another empty victory for the Palestinians, trumping the votes of dictators and their dupes with the outrage of freedom-loving people, along with renewed appreciation for Israel among Jews and non-Jews.

We should stop dreading this fall. The calendar is our friend.  For each of the five weeks starting with Sunday August 28, Zionist activists and educators should pick a theme or two – conceptualizing the conversation about Israel as a double helix linking education and advocacy, the purely positive and the necessarily defensive, the aspirational with the historical.  We should affirm Zionism’s continuing relevance and power for Jews today, along with Israel’s continuing search for peace.  The advocacy piece should link Palestinians’ destructive – and self-destructive – hatred of Israel with the Durban debacle, 9/11-style terrorism, al Qaeda anti-Americanism, and the UN’s corruption– all on full display this coming September.

I would love just to celebrate Israel, welcoming college freshmen and others to the Zionist conversation solely with affirmations about Jewish nationhood’s idealistic potential and payoffs. Unfortunately, the real world demands a more muscular and political approach. If we do not advocate for Israel passionately, our enemies – and they are enemies – will fill that void with subtle distortions and new big lies. Of course, if we only advocate for Israel without delighting in it too, we accept the Palestinian paradigm, which makes everything about Israel be about them, framing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people, and humanity.

The first week, August 28th to September 3, we should Affirm Zionism – and Fight the Racism Lie. For too long, too many pro-Israel activists have avoided calling themselves “Zionist,” unconsciously internalizing the systematic, Arab-fueled campaign to delegitimize Jewish nationalism and the Jewish homeland. On campus, in synagogues, on Facebook, and beyond, we should reintroduce the term, championing Identity Zionism by understanding Zionism as modern Jewry’s great peoplehood project.   Zionism acknowledges that Judaism is not just a religion, but has a national peoplehood component now expressed through our traditional homeland Israel. Simultaneously, with August 31 through September 8 marking ten years since the Durban fiasco, when an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001 degenerated into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic hatefest, we should explain that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. Calling Zionism racism or comparing Israel to the discredited South African apartheid regime is the Big Red Lie, a falsehood the Soviet Union peddled. Now, it has become the Big Red-Green Lie, uniting too many on the left blindly, inconsistently, with Islamists.

September 4 through 10, we should build up to 9/11’s tenth anniversary by emphasizing Shared Values and Common Pain in an Age of Terrorism.  We should remember the victims, telling the stories of the many Israelis and Westerners murdered ruthlessly for political reasons in the last decade. We also should think about what unites Israel and the United States as sister democracies, focusing on the values that Islamists and dictators abhor, as well as the resulting security vulnerabilities evildoers exploit.

The next week should begin by concentrating on the United States. September 11 is sacred to Americans. That day we should commemorate that tragedy. The rest of the week can explore the ugly nexus between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Americanism, which became so clear on September 12. The world was shocked by the footage showing Palestinians in Gaza distributing candies to celebrate the Twin Towers’ fall, one of the few places where 9/11 triggered open celebrations.  Osama bin Laden, sensing that his mass murders were broadly unpopular, tried popularizing his anti-Americanism by converting suddenly to anti-Zionism. Before 9/11, al Qaeda rarely mentioned Israel. Subsequently Osama, like his dictator friends in Iran and elsewhere, integrated his hatred for America and Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel as a thriving liberal democracy.

September 18 through 24, the focus should be on the United Nations, with the General Assembly opening on September 13, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planning to speak on the twentieth and the Durban III review of the original anti-racism conference beginning September 21. Hosting a Durban review conference in New York City, ten days after 9/11, when the ugliness at Durban also helped bridge anti-Zionism with anti-Americanism, juxtaposes the UN’s call for Palestinian independence with the UN’s anti-Semitic and anti-peace bias.  The pro-peace Zionist left should be heard here, challenging the Palestinians to negotiate rather than posture while criticizing the UN and the Palestinians for undermining the search for peace by trying to delegitimize Israel rather than seeking a two-state solution. Since 1975, it has been impossible to write a history of the movement to delegitimize Israel without discussing the UN but all too easy to write about attempts at Middle East peacemaking without mentioning the UN.”

Finally, we should end September by making September 29 and September 30 a Zionist Rosh Hashanah. Nations, like people, make mistakes – and can seek redemption. Just as true love of family involves accepting imperfections, we have to take Israel off probation, pushing it to improve where necessary while celebrating this exciting experiment in national redemption and Western democracy called Israel, which embodies noble democratic and Jewish values, enriching our lives as Jews and as lovers of freedom.

Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

Jerusalem’s magical mix of old and new, East and West

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-12-11

I am tired of Israelis complaining that Jerusalem turned “black” – the dismissive shorthand for ultra-Orthodox. And I am tired of visitors on missions visiting Jerusalem on the “seam” – only viewing the real city through the prism of conflicts – between Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – then waxing poetic about its spirituality, reducing it to a Jewish theme park. The real Jerusalem magically mixes old and new, East and West. This modern metropolis is also a living repository of history and holiness. It struggles with challenges but is also uniquely positioned as the Jewish people’s capital, and a world class city where modern, entrepreneurial, democratic values meet traditional, communitarian sensibilities.

Jerusalem does what cities should do, centralize and synthesize as well as symbolize. The sociologist Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man says a city is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” The words “city” and “citizen” share common roots. Linking these two ideas, cities work when they unite different people through a shared sense of responsibility. Cities become great when a critical mass of creativity and community feeling develops, so these newly-bonded citizens can express their accomplishments individually, institutionally, monumentally.

In this reading, Jerusalem’s diversity enhances the city. Visitors should watch Jerusalemites cooperate, rather than assuming differences always cause conflict. We could define Jerusalem by the few ultra-Orthodox fanatics who desecrated the Sabbath last week by stoning drivers just outside their neighborhoods. Or, we could define Jerusalem by the vast majority who prayed peacefully in one of the most exciting living laboratories in Jewish history, South-Central Jerusalem. There, every Shabbat, thousands of learned, pious Jews live tradition amid modernity, balancing continuity and change. This quest is best exemplified by the many creative experiments involving women in prayer, but goes much further. And it flourishes in a spirit of acceptance, with open dialogues and even, believe it or not, socializing between women who cover their hair and those who bare their shoulders, between men who always wear kippot and those who keep a kippah conveniently rolled in their pockets – folding leaves creases.

This Sunday, my wife and I again experienced Jerusalem’s breathtaking range. Our evening began on the Israel Museum’s magnificent terrace, viewing vistas of modern monumental Jerusalem, especially the Knesset, symbolizing Israeli democracy. We attended the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy’s (CIJA) reception celebrating Canada Day and Canada-Israel relations. In true Jerusalem style, the Director of CIJA’s Israel office, David Weinberg, toasted Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, with the perfect Biblical allusion, comparing Harper’s warmth toward Israel with “the magnificent, unique friendship” King David and King Solomon both enjoyed with Chiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre in Lebanon – who helped build the Temple.

The Canadian Ambassador Paul Hunt, the Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein and MK Yochanan Plesner celebrated the common values of innovation and democracy, freedom and multicultural tolerance, uniting the two nations. Illustrating Jerusalem’s role as Israel’s capital, Ambassador Hunt and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman then signed the latest bilateral agreement encouraging Canadian-Israeli research and development.

We then dashed across town to the Talpiot industrial zone, a gritty corner of the real-life city, to a fabulous Henna ceremony celebrating the marriage of my friend Moshe’s daughter, Shelly. Moshe is one of those storied cab driver-philosophers brought to life – memorialized in the line from Tel Aviv Taxi, the 1956 Israeli film classic by Larry Frisch featured this week at Jerusalem’s Film Festival that Israeli cabbies are like all cabbies, except they are better story tellers.

Moshe immigrated to Israel from Algeria in 1948 when he was a toddler and has grown up with the state. His delightfully peppery mother Miriam told us that when he served in a legendary Golani combat unit during the 1967 Six Day War – which was B.C., before cell phones — she wandered the Golan Heights looking for him, shouting his name, until she found him.

Henna is a gloopy, chocolatey plant extract pressed into guests’ palms, dying the skin orange temporarily – for lasting good luck. This ancient Middle Eastern custom provides a great excuse for a pre-wedding party. Minutes after leaving our subdued, sophisticated Canadian-Israeli cocktail, we were bobbing on the Club Kazablanka’s dance floor, rhythmically pumping beautifully wrapped and beribboned trays over our heads filled with Sephardic delicacies. I had doffed my sports jacket and, at Moshe’s insistence, donned a fez and a djellaba, the flowing, Arabic robe – mine, poetically, was blue and white.

While dancing with the joyous Mediterranean abandon for which Israelis are so famous, we were moved by the reverence for their elders and their heritage the young revelers displayed. The throbbing crowd parted to let the parents and grandparents advance to the front and bestow gifts on the couple. The parents and children all wore Moroccan dress and headdresses. Unlike me, they pulled off the feat without looking ridiculous, feeling thoroughly at home – even as their traditional costumes covered cell phones and our usual digital gadgetry.

The two contrasting parties were actually in concert with each other. City Councilor Rachel Azaria insists that Jerusalem must feature affordable housing, flowing traffic, and great schools, as well as accessible monuments, a splendid story and an alluring aura. Jerusalem’s salvation will come from what has emerged as this characteristic Zionist mix.

Great accomplishments will result from the kind of tomorrow-oriented innovative spirit and democratic values the Canada-Israel evening celebrated. But deep meaning still derives from the poetry of everyday life, preserving traditions and imbuing them with the youthful passion we experienced at the Henna. Jerusalem itself should become the ultimate model of urban renewal, demonstrating the old and new magic stored in any great city but particularly defining this ancient yet still evolving metropolis.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

Rabbi Hartman’s heartfelt answer to the heartless rabbis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-5-11

Anyone who doubts the importance of protecting freedom of speech should watch the farce unfolding in Jerusalem over that despicable book Torat HaMelekh, which misreads Jewish texts to justify killing non-Jews during wartime. By summoning the leading rabbis who vouched for the book to deny allegations of incitement, the police gave the book a publicity bonanza. Hundreds of young Yeshiva hooligans protested – sometimes violently. The media confused this defense of the rabbis with a defense of that hateful book, further publicizing it. Meanwhile, rightists wondered why their rabbis get interrogated while leftists advocating terrorism are undisturbed. The police should ignore them all.

Freedom of speech reflects faith in the people along with distrust of the authorities. I trust the people – and the free marketplace of ideas – to reject the book’s ugly lies. And I doubt the Israeli police’s ability to handle this complex halakhic argument effectively.

Silly me. I want the police preventing burglaries, solving murders, untangling traffic, crushing the underworld – while avoiding politics and intellectual life. Especially considering that officers felt compelled to interrogate Avigdor Lieberman the day after he became foreign minister, yet 27 months later the case remains open, I confess to trust issues with the Israeli police – or any police force – regarding delicate political or intellectual matters.

We should remember Natan Sharansky’s “public square test” for healthy democracies, asking if citizens can denounce their government publicly – and even say hateful things – without fearing arrest or bodily harm. We also should remember that in today’s media-ocracy, conflict rules, making this hysterical media circus predictable – and best avoided.

Israel – led by religious Zionists – needs a strong chorus refuting the book. Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa – a renowned Maimonides scholar who learned at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva – is one of many religious scholars disgusted by the book. Claiming the authors spend more than 200 pages “misusing Maimonides” to support their “twisted conclusions,” Kellner calls the book biased, “intellectually dishonest,” “seriously anti-Zionist,” guilty of “conceptual confusion” in failing to “distinguish among gentiles, Noachides, and idolaters.” The book makes “the “astounding (and wholly unsupported in the halakhic tradition) assumption that the lives of Gentiles who are not ‘resident aliens’ have no meaning and no legitimacy.” The authors, Kellner concludes, are “either evil, or idiots, or both.”

Rabbi Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, urged Orthodox rabbis worldwide, especially Israel’s chief rabbis, to denounce the text “as a perversion of Judaism, cloaking itself as an authoritative interpretation of Jewish biblical law.” And the “Twelfth of Heshvan,” a coalition of Religious Zionist organizations recalling the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, petitioned the Supreme Court seeking to confiscate the work and arrest the authors. While rejecting these methods, I am glad to see religious forces fighting this evil.

Fortunately, one of the world’s leading philosophers and rabbinic authorities, Rabbi David Hartman, just published a powerful book criticizing the underlying culture which spawned these perversions. Hartman’s concerns are tamer – issues of conversion, women in Judaism, and the need for Haredi and religious Jews to embrace Israel’s great moral potential as a modern Jewish state. But his vision of what he calls a “God-intoxicated Halakha,” Jewish law consecrated by God and tradition yet responsive to the developing wonders of the world God created, implicitly counters the petty, insular, immoral, ideological cesspools where distorted readings of Jewish tradition fester.

Rabbi Hartman’s “meta-Halakhic” approach spurns modern Orthodoxy’s rigidity, as articulated by Hartman’s beloved mentor, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. Hartman rejects Soloveitchik’s “theology of halakhic permanence” for freezing Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time,” neglecting “the shifting of culture,” and sometimes snubbing Jews the rabbis originally discounted, especially women and converts. Hartman believes that The God Who Hates Lies – the book’s title – would never want halakha taken “out of history and out of human experience.”

Instead, Hartman builds his “theology of response” on the Talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” Having created humans in His own image, God wants us to “incorporate” experiences, moral imperatives, new insights “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Mixing human needs and moral development into the midrash’s “living waters” of tradition will create a more vital, humane, and authentic halakha.

Hartman seeks this individually and collectively, excited as he is by the theological possibilities offered by the great political revolution of re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel. He wants to explore the “religious significance of Israel’s experiment in building a total Jewish society.” And he wants an “Israel where we could witness the ethical spirit of Torah manifested in a sovereign Jewish society.”

Hartman’s relationship to God is intense, personal. His book brims with passion while being embedded in substance. Religious and non-religious Jews should answer his call. This is one formidable Jew whose Judaism throbs with the sensuality of Yehudah HaLevi, the rigor of Maimonides, the depth of the Vilna Gaon, the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the moral “musar” of Israel Salanter — leavened and actually more fully realized by the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the idealism of Martin Luther King, the humanism of Betty Friedan – many of whose ideas, of course, stemmed from the Bible.

Alas, this important, challenging, spiritually-stretching and rich text is not making headlines. I would prefer to see Israelis debating Rabbi Hartman’s grand ideas than those of the hateful little rabbis. I would prefer to see Israel, Zionism, and Judaism judged by Hartman’s pluralism and openness than by the provincial Yeshiva hooligans swarming the Supreme Court. While I am sure his publisher and the Shalom Hartman Institute he founded – where I have a research fellowship – have a publicity plan, maybe someone knows an overzealous police captain who wants to ban the book, and help it sell?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

Next year: Let’s end consumerist Judaism by becoming Jewishly ambitious

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-7-10

Two of the most traumatic cataclysms Westerners endured this past decade coincided with Rosh Hashanah. September 11, 2001 fell one week before the Jewish New Year. Some religious Jews who normally would have been in the Twin Towers when the planes hit were delayed because of the slichot, repentance, hymns which extend the morning service in Elul. Then, two years ago, the financial system melted down during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some synagogues in New York, rabbis had to implore their congregants to turn off their Blackberries as the constant buzzing with market updates interfered with the PA system.

Alas, to echo White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, we collectively have wasted these crises. The high anxiety experienced around the High Holidays did not propel us collectively to greater spiritual or moral heights. Traditionally, wars and economic crises have triggered geysers of self-sacrifice, streams of idealism, pools of communal concern, amid waves of revulsion against the complacency that often accompanies peace and prosperity. After 9/11 some regretted not having done more good works during the good times. Americans considered making September 11 a national day of voluntarism. But most of us followed President George W. Bush’s advice to get back to normal, to return to the malls. The opportunity for mass reckonings or dramatic reform vanished.

Instead, an unchecked consumerism continues to pervert our politics, our culture, our intimate relations, even our spiritual lives. Consumerist Judaism distorts across the religious spectrum. Consumerist Judaism reduces our profound link in the chain of Jewish civilization to another take-it-or-leave consumption choice. It fosters a paradoxical sense of harsh judgmentalism and enervating passivity. We scrutinize Judaism hyper-critically, picking and choosing whatever fragments work for us, if and when it is convenient.

Rather than using our critical faculties as springboards to transform modern Judaism, we take it as it is. We behave like shoppers not owners, an audience to be lured not empowered agents of change and renewal, rarely taking responsibility to make Judaism better, richer, deeper, more meaningful.

As a result, a corrupting materialism has too many focusing on what they will wear to synagogue rather than how they will grow by going; too many rites of passage showcasing the fancy “bar” not the meaningful mitzvah; too many community leaders selected because of their net worth not their Jewish values; too many communal decisions driven by the bottom line not a transcendent vision. We risk turning our Etz Chayim, our ever growing and flourishing Tree of Life, into an elaborate icon, frozen in time, evoking the past but not heralding an appealing future.

To start acting like concerned Jewish citizens not lazy Jewish shoppers, we must become Jewishly ambitious. The awkwardness of the phrase reflects the rarity of the phenomenon. This goes way beyond a few New Year’s Resolutions, treating Rosh Hashanah like a second January first. We should set ambitious goals for ourselves as Jews, individually and communally. Rather than simply pressuring our kids to do well in school, to achieve materially, we should start inspiring them – and ourselves – to grow spiritually and communally. And our institutions must start becoming more dynamic and visionary, taking risks to accomplish great missions not just trying to survive.

Religious Jews need less humility regarding Judaism as a system while modern Jews need more. Too many religious Jews confuse the current religious status quo with God’s vision. Halachic Jews need to distinguish between Torah-based essentials and cultural adaptations that should change. Too many modern Jews fail to appreciate Judaism as a way of life, a worldview, a moral vision, not simply a catalogue of traditional rites, stories and superstitions.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would involve the religious world – in Israel and the Diaspora – rising up against the Rabbinate’s torpor, corruption and heavy-handedness – understanding that religion thrives from internal impulses reinforced by communal norms not government coercion.  It would involve remembering that mitzvot are means to morality and meaning, not chits to accumulate competitively or yardsticks for feeling superior vis a vis one’s fellow Jews. It would mean ensuring that Religious Zionism is more concerned with people than with land while building a state that showcases Judaism’s best values and Jews’ better selves.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would also involve secular Jews refusing to allow themselves to be turned off by letting the rabbinate or ineffective rabbis define Judaism. Instead, we need ways to turn on to a vital, substantive Jewish identity that is historic, authentic and challenging – not simply a quaint ethnic or ancestral ritual or two. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society not a slave to the latest trends.

To be Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life, we must take ownership. Individual happiness comes from taking responsibility for your own actions, for your destiny. Jews from across the religious spectrum can feel more fulfilled Jewishly by investing enough, learning enough, caring enough, committing enough, to make Judaism their own – and make the community better.

We forget how lucky we are. Never before have so many Jews lived with such freedom, with such prosperity. And for 2000 years we lacked a state that could serve as a point of pride, a source for protection, and, most important of all, home to half of world Jewry – even more if they choose to come. These gifts offer tremendous opportunities. This New Year let’s celebrate our good fortune with a mass Jewish revival, setting sweeping goals, taking more responsibility, pushing toward a Jewish community that thrives and a Judaism that sings an old-new song of revival and redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at giltroy@gmail.com

Chelsea Clinton’s Jew “ish” wedding contrasts American Jewish vastness with Israeli Jewish density

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-5-10

This week, Chelsea Clinton was married under a chupah, during Shabbat, to a Jew, Marc Mezvinsky. That Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter married a Jew has thrilled many Jews craving acceptance as further proof that American Jews have “made it.” That this intermarriage was adorned with some ritualistic Jewish touches has appalled many Jews defending tradition as further proof that American Jews have diluted Judaism, making it Jew-ish, a more digestible Judaism-lite. I am surprised either camp is surprised.

North America is defined by its vastness. Whenever I travel around America, I am struck by the expanse that defines the New World. Irving Berlin was not just whistling Dixie when he praised America’s spacious skies.

By contrast, Israel is defined by its density. First time pilgrims and veteran Israelis are equally impressed by all the history, humanity, and hysteria often packed into every square kilometer. Israel’s greatest national songwriter Naomi Shemer got it right when she channeled the great medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by writing “for ALL of your songs I am your violin” (or lute) – lechol shiriech ani kinor. Especially in Jerusalem, it seems that every stone has multiple stories, nothing is simple; everything is multilayered, multidimensional.

Parked in a land so vast and free, American Jewry has developed a culture of expansiveness. American Jewry is justly celebrated for its openness, to others and to new ideas. The creativity and accessibility make American Jewry hip, dynamic, and welcoming. Most American Jews seem to shout out “Shalom Aleichem,” or “y’all come on in,” to fresh initiatives for achieving gender equality, to liturgical updating, to new rituals, to syntheses with modern culture, to new bridges beckoning to those who show interest in Judaism, regardless of their halachic legal status.

Alas, the vastness also leads to porousness, the creativity flirts with superficiality, constantly being demeaned by trendiness. Judaism, traditionally defined as the Etz Haim, the solid, steadfast Tree of Life, risks becoming a will o’ the wisp.

Living in the land of possibility, existing in a state of mobility, blessed by so much space, Americans and American Jews often view identity as malleable, relationships as disposable, change as the only constant. With surveys showing that American Jews are among the most cosmopolitan Americans, this next generation of American Jews is particularly wired to roam intellectually, ideologically, spiritually, existentially. And in the age of prolonged adolescence, all this searching, all this pondering, all this comparing and contrasting, sifting and synthesizing, can persist for decades.

At the same time, Israel’s density roots Israeli Judaism in more traditional anchors, in tremendous depth and passion. Committed Israeli Jews are justly celebrated for their literacy, their intensity, their zeal. Israeli Jews are more likely to mutter “take it or leave it,” relating to the legend about the Shalom Aleichem hymn that if all is prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel who accompanies every Jew back from synagogue prays “may it be the same next week,” and the bad angel must mutter “amen”; but if all is chaotic at home the bad angel prays for a repeat the next week to which the good angel must mutter “amen.”

This approach treats Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, as unyielding, unchanging, stone-like in its reliability and impermeability. It risks being unwelcoming, unaccommodating, unresponsive, unable to adjust, paralyzed when facing great change. It makes Jewish education less about the American-style exploration and process but more of a knowledge-transfer. It sets Judaism in opposition to the modern world, come hell or high water, for better or worse.

These general characteristics were on display during the recent conversion controversy. The Israeli Jewish establishment appeared particularly foreboding, hidebound, medieval, insensitive both to the Russian Jews who are Israeli cititzens but are not halachically, legally, Jewish and to the sensibilities of American Jews who value klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.

At the same time, too many American Jewish leaders approached the problem emotionally, even demagogically. Many railed about “Israel” delegitimizing them, Israel invalidating all American conversions, when no law passed, no such sweeping move even was proposed, and, beyond all the politicking, a complex problem needed solving.

Judaism has survived all these years by having clearly defined boundaries, making it clear who is and is not a Jew. But Judaism has thrived all these years by being humane, by improvising solutions to new, unanticipated problems.

The original idea behind the David Rotem conversion bill of empowering municipal rabbis to manage conversions would have brought more lenient rabbis into a broken, unduly strict process. Tragically, ugly coalition politics produced a proposed bill that would have formalized and centralized conversion power in the Chief Rabbinate, despite its terrible track record of not being sufficiently welcoming to aspiring Jews.

However, the headline among North American Jews should be that their voices were heard, leaders like Natan Sharansky stood tall for Jewish unity. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu most recently vowed to kill the bill.

More broadly, day by day, week after week, we see too many pockets of American Jewry that are vapid and need deeper rooting along with too many expressions of Israeli Jewry that are too dense and need some reforming. Israelis could use some of the North American vastness – not only for breathing room but to facilitate the kind of change that perpetually renewed Judaism as it evolved from Abraham to Abraham Joshua Heschel. And American Jews, in many realms, desperately needs more density, more depth, more anchoring.

So, yes, Chelsea Clinton will find whatever American Judaism her husband exposes her to far more user friendly than most modern Israeli varieties.  But whether it has the depth to grab either of them remains unclear, just as whether their yuppie peers will ever feel welcomed by Israeli-style Judaism remains equally unclear.

Only a Revitalized Religious Zionism Can Fight the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism

Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-14-10

As Yisrael Beiteinu’s controversial conversion bill advances, the movement most suited to mediate is stymied. Religious Zionists should have the Halachic standing to forge a suitable Jewish solution to the problem along with the nationalist commitment to avoid alienating many fellow Jews, in Israel and abroad.  Yet rather than being bold visionaries like Caleb and Joshua, too many Religious Zionist Rabbis are exhibiting the ten sniveling spies’ conventional cowardice.

In fairness, the proposed law is not all bad. Some of Israel’s most open-minded rabbis would be empowered as city rabbis to do conversions. But by making the Chief Rabbinate Israel’s dominant authority in conversions, the law rejects Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, risks alienating Diaspora Jews, and rewards a failing institution.

Unfortunately, the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate is the Black Hole of Israeli Judaism.  Necessary initiatives to free Israeli Judaism from the twin curses of state coercion and fetishistic ritualism often get sucked into the Chief Rabbinate’s toxic vacuum, never to be seen again. The Chief Rabbinate – along with the broader Israeli religious establishment – has a catastrophic track record, having alienated generations of Israeli Jews with all-or-nothing, heavy-handed, polarizing, pedantic, narrow-minded, authoritarianism.  The Chief Rabbinate’s arrogance and failure demonstrate why separation of church and state protects the synagogue AND the state.

Religious Zionism is in crisis. Religious Zionists feel betrayed by the state over the Gaza disengagement, outflanked by ultra-Orthodox haredim who call them too soft religiously and too tied to the State politically, yet harassed by the left for being too harsh religiously and politically. Religious Zionism’s stilted silence has harmed Israel. The absence of its moral might in denouncing those settler hooligans who prey on Palestinians, its political impotence despite an increasingly aggressive, anti-Zionist haredi rabbinate, and its failure to find common ground with the Zionist center, let alone the left, has left a gaping ideological vacuum in an increasingly fragmented society.

Last week, an inspiring gathering at Bet Morasha in Jerusalem launching its Israel Institute for Conversion Policy demonstrated the kind of Zionist idealism and moral grandeur that could redeem Religious Zionism – and revitalize Israel.  Approximately 320,000 Israelis from the former Soviet Union live in Halachic purgatory, with Rabbis questioning whether they are legally Jewish. By making conversions increasingly difficult, the Chief Rabbinate keeps hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens in Halachic hell, unable to marry within the existing legal framework. The new center will promote a more flexible, humane, and Halachic conversion process, especially welcoming young people into the Jewish people.

“The Russian Aliyah of more than one million people is a jewel in our crown, bringing glory to Israel,” Professor Benjamin Ish-Shalom, Beit Morasha’s leader, proclaimed when opening the conference. “We must find a solution to make them feel at home.”

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, insisted we must “welcome every individual who wants to belong to the Jewish people.”  In a tough talk, Sharansky blasted those politicians and rabbis using the crisis to undermine Conservative and Reform conversions.  “Conservative and Reform Jews ask, ‘Why when we are fighting against Israel’s delegitimization abroad, is Israel considering delegitimizing us?’”  Israel’s government should facilitate Jewish unity, not spark denominational civil wars.

In one panel, three leading lights of Religious Zionism embraced this conversion crisis as an opportunity to welcome more Jews, save Religious Zionism, and strengthen Israel. Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar Rabbinical organization warned that by “failing to address this great challenge, Israel risks creating five distinct people within one country of seven million”: the questionably Jewish, secular Jews, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Arabs.  Rabbi Benjamin Lau, also of Bet Morasha, blasted the Chief Rabbinate for creating a culture whereby “Rabbis boast about not making any conversions in a given year.” Instead, “we need a national movement to push conversion,” to incorporate these Jews.

Finally, defining the conversion issue as one of basic “social justice,” as well as essential to Zionism’s future, Maj-Gen (res.) Elazar Stern identified the underlying metastasizing, political cancer few Religious Zionists will confront directly. “Israel has given the keys to its kingdom to people who question its very existence,” Stern declared, assailing the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox grip on the Chief Rabbinate. To Stern, Religious Zionists who accept this absurdity are betraying Israel.  How can Jews, how can Zionists, fail to protect the weak, the marginalized, Stern asked, demanding that a mass movement of Religious Zionists embrace these people.

It was great hearing some righteous indignation from Religious Zionists about a compelling moral question that could unite most Israelis and most Jews. “Religious Zionism has been too concerned with land and not enough with people – it is changing now,” Rabbi Barry Gelman, of United Orthodox Synagogues, Houston, Texas, subsequently explained. Rabbi Gelman, who is President of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, put the issue in historical context, saying: “Haredim still treat Halacha like a private matter – which is the Diaspora approach. In a Jewish state, Halacha is a matter of public concern. Therefore, approaches to Halacha should consider national realities, such as applying well-known broader approaches to conversion.”  This broader approach includes asking converts about Judaism’s moral principles and fundamental values, not just what the correct blessing is over an olive or cheese.

Sometimes movements, like individuals, get stuck. If they can find their voice in one area, it frequently returns elsewhere too. Taking a nationalist, humane, welcoming yet traditionally Jewish approach to the conversion crisis could galvanize Religious Zionism.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must demonstrate political leadership not coalition stewardship here, Religious Zionists have the standing to liberate the rabbinate – and Israel – from the grip of non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Some Religious Zionists have a vision that could unite religious and non-religious Israeli Jews in a compelling, quality-of-life issue central to the Jewish people.  Ethics of the Fathers teaches: “say little, do much.” These Religious Zionists have said a lot. They must do even more, including defeating this harmful, divisive, anti-Zionist conversion bill – and pioneering new solutions.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

This Hannukkah, Let’s Teach Our Children How to Give

By Gil Troy, 2009

For the last few years I have lamented that Jews were preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. I am happy to say that this year was actually pretty good. Yes, the Iranian nuclear threat – to the United States not just to Israel – still looms. Yes, the crash, recession, and Madoff scheme crushed many individuals – and charitable foundations that do holy work. Yes, the high unemployment rate in the United States is a reminder of the misery many individuals are experiencing even during this holiday season. Yes, Islamic extremists declare war on the West, yet many Westerners, deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. And yes, Palestinian rejectionists get a free pass in the world court of public opinion while Israel is condemned for engaging in self-defense.

Still, today, the markets have recovered and what was supposed to be the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” may turn out to be simply part of the historical, boom and bust cycle of capitalism. More important, Israel ’s counter-offensive in Gaza worked. The good people of Sderot and the Western Negev seem set to celebrate their quietest Hanukkah in years. Even Mahmoud Abbas admitted this year that the West Bank is thriving, deviating from the Western narrative claiming the Palestinians are suffering under the world’s worst conditions. And while the shadow of terror still darkens the planet, with the families mourning the slaughtered soldiers of Fort Hood joining a long worldwide list of families stricken by this blight, the West and Israel endured far fewer attacks than the dark days of 2001, 2002, and 2003.

So we should celebrate this year, mindful of the troubles and appreciative of all our blessings.  Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current challenges in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists still trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.

Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the “oy.” Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.

While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel ’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In that spirit, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.

At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of “freedom” resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.

As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.

In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.

Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become “Festivals of Consumption,” in the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.

Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?

The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.

This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:

On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War and Gaza operation, and most especially the still-traumatized citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Just because a story fades from the headlines does not mean trouble has disappeared. Families of the murdered still miss their loved ones, year after year. Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hezbollah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot and the Western Negev .  We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. We should still focus on helping out the people of Sderot, who endured so much for so long. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through http://sderotmedia.com/?cat=5

Also, support Camp Koby, a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims.

On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Gilad Shalit, honoring his heroism and that of his family. On June 25, 2006, Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza . His pain – and his families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until he comes home – and we have not done enough for him. His family shares a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Buy Gilad’s book “When The Fish and the Shark first Met.” Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit  http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html or add your wishes to http://giladshalit.blogspot.com/

On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel , who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but even before the global financial crisis began there was far too much poverty in Israel . The gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever.  We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel ‘s Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools.

On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, Hadassah continues to modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli “Red Cross”) serves all people in Israel under trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. To honor their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa as well, as part of the rebuilding effort, which continues.

On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to taking back the night, to undoing some of the evil that was done this year. We can through our good deeds exorcise some of the bad deeds that have been done.  In that spirit, donate to UN Watch which has been a powerful force calling attention to the hypocrisy of the human rights community when it demonizes Israel .  Alternatively, to remember the good people the Islamic terrorists in Mumbai killed just over a year ago, support your local Chabad house showing that we, too, will target them, but with love.

On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. In the Diaspora and in Israel , if we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees.  This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better.  More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering and to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another:: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season.  Wherever we stand on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , we should all stand united in support of the American troops, those idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free or sending messages of support.  Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others’ inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader in this, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving.

On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.

The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely.

For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: “What did you get last night?” This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: “What did you give?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

 

How to defend, and delight in, Judaism and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-17-09


As an academic, I like that my work year and the Jewish New Year begin together. As Jewish professors, administrators and students return to campus for a new academic year (and as some start afresh on their academic adventure), we should set some goals for effective pro-Israel advocacy and satisfying Jewish living.These truly are the best and the worst of times on campus for Jews. There have never been so many Jewish students and staffers, or so many Jewish studies programs and vital Hillels. Unfortunately, this Golden Age is also an era of systematic demonization of Israel on campus. The challenge here is to keep perspective. Our delight in the comfort Jews have in the academic world should not blind us to the ugliness of the anti-Israel assault. Our bitterness at the attacks’ toxicity should not sour us on the joys of academic life. Neither complacency nor paranoia works. We must celebrate Israel as well as defend Israel. We must focus on Jewish life and not let our enemies set the agenda.

In forging an effective campus strategy to defend and delight in Judaism and Zionism, consider the following guidelines:

• Israel’s culture is vital and infectious, an appealing mix of the East and the West. We should change the stereotype of “Israel the warrior state.” Students – and professors – should see the Israel that Madonna recently saw, the Israel of a modern rock beat and of ancient wisdom, the Israel of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

• Never attack academic freedom, but never tolerate educational malpractice. I wholeheartedly support professors’ freedoms to draw whatever conclusions they can from their assessment of evidence, but I reject the way too many professors abuse their podiums. If a professor refuses to air opposing views, mocks students who disagree, or turns the lecturer’s stand into a political soapbox, students should document it carefully, get corroborating witnesses, ask the professor to stop and contact administrators, parents, alumni and community leaders if the complaints are ignored.

• Let’s delegitimize the delegitimizers. For too long, we have allowed those using the “racism” and “apartheid” slanders to carry the day. We must be proactive, pointing out that singling out Israel, rationalizing Palestinian terrorism, drawing false analogies with the evil South African regime and making libelous comparisons to Nazis puts Israel’s critics in league with Arab anti-Semites and outdated Soviet propagandists. The moral onus is on them to prove they are not anti-Semitic or abetting anti-Semitism by distancing themselves from the exterminationists and hate-mongers.

• Don’t fear the Z-word. Too many Jews on campus have internalized the critics’ lies and fear using the word “Zionism.” Those who have visited Israel on Birthright Israel or other programs should learn that Zionism is another name for all those warm glowy feelings they have about Israel – that sense of peoplehood and appreciation for a Jewish state.

• We need a big-tent Zionism. Our anger at the unreason of too many of Israel’s accusers shouldn’t shut our minds down. We should welcome a wide spectrum of opinions and voices, making it clear that we can disagree graciously about settlements, boundaries, strategies, even values, without demonizing or delegitimizing. There is a rich Israeli and Jewish tradition of dissent that should not be squelched. Only when people start attacking Israel disproportionately, inaccurately and with the language of those who seek its extermination should we react strongly. Beyond that, our Jewish centres should be centres of creative, vital and diverse thought and argument.

• Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing or singing or learning or praying or enjoying…). Outside the closed Dolphinarium, the Tel Aviv disco where a terrorist – later glorified by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat – slaughtered 21 teenagers and wounded 120, a simple monument promises defiantly: “Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing).” Our enemies cannot defeat us or demoralize us.

Universities should be centres of Jewish revival, places where students and professors discover the spiritual, intellectual, ideological depth of the Jewish experience. We should embrace Judaism, engage Israel, learn Torah, appreciate Jewish civilization and never, ever stop singing and dancing. Shanah tovah.

Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Our Exotic Grandparents

By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, September 4, 2008

Some of us belong to a secret society in North America . Although we look like everybody else and pass for normal, we share an unspoken bond, a hidden birthmark, which imparts an enduring sense of otherness. In the Jewish community, our numbers are dwindling, although they are replenished regularly. We are the League of People with Exotic Grandparents.

Not so long ago, almost every North American Jew had one — an immigrant parent or grandparent with a thick accent and foreign manners, comically clueless about the American way of life. Today, as the heroic generation of Eastern European immigrants that built the American Jewish community dies out, our third and fourth generation Americanized children lack this living link to the past. Moreover, many with exotic parents or grandparents are embarrassed by them.

To be fair, being ashamed of “greenhorn” elders is a longstanding North American – and Jewish – tradition. It is a staple of the American dream literature of yesteryear wherein the plucky hero rises up from impoverished surroundings and displaced, overworked and impotent parents. But, today, watching a thoroughly assimilated, frequently privileged “Millennial” squirm at the foreignness of his or her forbears, it is the youngster who appears impoverished.

I feel blessed by my intimate association with my late Polish-born maternal grandfather who lived to be 100 years old, and by my Romanian-born in-laws. My wife and I, and, now, our children, are lucky to have that visceral connection with European Jewry’s lost world. In fact, this connection only makes us more American, more Canadian, for what could be more all-American than the immigrant experience of building a life in the New World ?

Living in Montreal has connected me far more intensely – and intimately – to this immigrant generation. Growing up in New York , most of my friends’ parents were American-born, products of the Eastern European migration that began in the 1880s and ended with the immigration restrictions of the 1920s. Most of my Jewish peers had parents who spoke a flawless – if New-York-inflected — English. In Montreal – where the Jewish community grew substantially after the Holocaust, I met more peers with immigrant parents, meaning our children can join the League of People with Exotic Grandparents. Of course, many of the immigrants are Sephardic and, yes, grandparents like my parents – and parents like my wife and me – can pass on Jewish identity just fine, thank you very much. Still, those heavily-accented European refugees add a delicious spice, a deeper sense of ethnic connection, and often a more tragic but dramatic and inspiring history.

I recently addressed a leadership conference for Jewish leaders 45 and younger. Some participants bemoaned what they called the today’s “non-Jewish Jews.” I usually avoid this phrase, as being too judgmental, too final, too heavy-handed. But I knew exactly what these young leaders meant.

The lures of America and Canada are so great, it is easy to “pass” as “normal,” to become North American pagans. Whereas previous generations of Jews struggle to join the social mainstream, our peers – and certainly our juniors – join effortlessly. In fact, it often takes a lot more work, a lot more gumption, to “do Jewish.” It is hard to follow tradition in a world of the here and now. It is hard to believe in God in a society that mocks believers. It is hard to embrace abstractions in a culture of consumerism and materialism.

Yet, who are if we have no memory, no links to the past, no guidance from our heritage? What kind of people are we if we abandon core beliefs because they are not fashionable? And what will become of us if we lack deeper values, transcendent visions, soaring ideals?

Our exotic grandparents help remind us of another world, of a rich past, of our tribal connection. They happily left that world because of its rampant anti-Semitism and epidemic poverty. And even in their hamhanded way, they embraced the American and Canadian way of life. As their heirs – whether or not we ever met that generation – we need to honor their sacrifices, appreciate their achievements, and champion their legacies, even as we delight in the broad acceptance we feel in this most welcoming corner of the world.