Thursday, December 1, 2011

Protestant Jews and Catholic Jews -- why Israelis and American Jews Don't Understand Each Other

A new blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg (with whom I almost always agree) called attention to a current campaign to get Israelis living in the United States to return home. You can read the Goldberg blog post here.

A couple of years ago I gave a sermon addressing a somewhat similar campaign and used it is a starting point for a discussion of the differences in Jewish identity between Israeli Jews and American Jews. Here it is, for your reading pleasure:

  Some years ago, during the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, a gunman broke into the home of one of the few Jewish families in Belfast. He proceeded to ask the inhabitants of the home whether they were Protestant or Catholic. They of course did not know whether the gunman was Protestant and would kill them if they said they were Catholic, or if the gunman was Catholic and would kill them if they said they were Protestant. So they decided that the safest course of action was probably just to tell the truth and say they were Jewish.

    The gunman seemed stumped, but not for long. "OK," he said, "but are you Protestant Jews or Catholic Jews?"

    I used to think that joke was kind of silly, but in the last couple of weeks I am beginning to think that there are indeed Protestant Jews and Catholic Jews.

   Project Masa is an Israeli-government funded project which works in conjunction with birthright Israel to connect young Diaspora Jews to Israel and presumably through that, to Judaism. Birthright brings Jews 25 and under to Israel for a free ten day trip; those who want to come back for a longer period, from three months to a year, are offered support and volunteer placement through Masa.

     At the beginning of September, a TV commercial for Masa ran a few times on Israeli television, sparked a crisis  between Israeli and American Jewish leaders and merited coverage on CNN and in the British newspaperThe Guardian, among others. Since it's a holiday I can't actually show you the commercial, but I'll describe it to you. The first thing you see -- in sepia tones -- is a railroad bridge with a train running underneath it. Taped to the bridge's guardrail is a poster with a picture of a young man and it says LOST -- Joel Fine. There is mournful music in the background. Then the commercial cuts to another lost poster taped to a wall. LOST -- Nathan Jacobs. Then several more such posters, in various locations, most in English but one in Russian and one in French. Then the commercial cuts to a subway station with a train running through it. More posters and a voice-over in Hebrew which says "more than 50 percent of young Diaspora Jews assimilate and are lost to us. Do you know a young Jew from abroad? Call Project Masa, and together we will strengthen his ties to Israel. Project Masa -- a year in Israel, a life-long love."

    Thanks to Youtube, of course, you need not be in Israel to watch Israeli commercials, and I will send the link out so you can see it yourself after the holiday.  When I saw the commercial with the mournful music and the flyers, I thought of Manhattan in the days and week after 9/11. For JJ Goldberg, editor of the weekly Jewish newspaper The Forward, the images of trains reminded him of the Holocaust.

    And so American Jews -- and some Israelis who are more familiar than most with the Diaspora -- protested to Project Masa that the commercial was inappropriate and offensive. At first Masa officials defended the ad as aimed at Israelis, not Diaspora Jews. They pointed out, correctly, that roughly a third of Jews in the United States have relatives in Israel with whom they are in contact (many more no doubt have relatives that they don't know or with whom they have lost contact), and the purpose of the ad, after all, was to get Israelis to recruit their Diaspora relatives for Masa. Eventually, however, the advertisement was taken off the air and replaced with one touting the virtues of Project Masa in strengthening the ties between Israel and Diaspora Jews.

    What I found most interesting was the utter bafflement of the Israelis who put together the ad campaign. But I think I understand the reason for their bafflement. Yes, for those of us with ties to New York the "Lost" posters reminded us of 9/11 -- and that was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that the commercial began running in early September, when the tragic events of eight years ago were already on people's minds. I don't think the commercial was intended to stir thoughts of 9/11 or of the Holocaust, but that is what it did.

    But there is something deeper at work here than just unintentionally offensive imagery. This commercial and the responses to it exposed a fault line between Israel and Diaspora Jews, one that is deep and growing.  What this controversy reveals, I think, is that American and Israeli Jews see the fundamental nature of Jewish identity in radically different ways.

    What does it mean to say, as the Masa commercial does, that fifty percent of Diaspora Jews "assimilate" and are "lost to us?" How does one measure assimilation? The commercial makes several assumptions, all of them questionable. First, that assimilation is something which can be defined and measured. Second, that it is an either/or situation -- a particular person can be defined and quantified as "assimilated and lost to us" or not. And third, that several months or a year in Israel are able to prevent assimilation, however defined.
    A young Jerusalem Post reporter named Haviv Rettig Gur, who covers the Jewish world for that English-language Israeli newspaper, wrote an excellent analysis of the whole debacle. I am proud and at the same time a bit astonished to tell you that I knew Haviv when he was in pre-school in Israel. Both of his parents are American-born but made aliyah with their entire families in their late teens. Both his parents had American elementary and high school educations but then served in the Israeli army and went to the Hebrew University. When Haviv and his brothers were pre-teens and teens, the family spent several years in the United States while their father, now Rabbi Edward Rettig, went to rabbinical school and then briefly worked as a rabbi in this country. Today, Rabbi Rettig is a Jerusalem-based expert on American Jewry for the American Jewish Committee, while his wife, Haviv's mother Martha, works as an Israeli tour guide. This is by way of saying that both father and son are among the very few who are capable of understanding American Jewry as American Jews but also understanding Israel as Israelis.

    His analysis was entitled "Masa is clueless, but is not alone." And in it, he helped me to understand that the joke with which I began this sermon has some reality behind it. There really are Catholic Jews and Protestant Jews. American Jews are mostly Protestant, while Israeli Jews are mostly Catholic -- or even Muslim.

    Haviv writes that "Israelis are a product of their heritage and experience. The vast majority of Israelis hail from countries untouched by the Protestant Reformation and the identity-shifting aspects of modernity. In both Eastern Europe and the Muslim world, religious identities are fundamentally collective and couched in familial terms. Meanwhile, for 60 years incessant wars and hostile borders have added an element of collective fate to that Middle Eastern and East European structure of identifying." In other words, for Israelis being Jewish is not a choice, it is an immutable fact. It is about the family, the tribe, the collective that one belongs to because one is born into it. 

    "American Jews, too," he writes, "are products of their broader environment. Like their surrounding culture, they are radically individualistic, believing that the source of authentic identity, of religious authority and of life decisions, lies within the individual. Where Israelis are profoundly Eastern in the overarching structure of their Jewishness, Americans understand identity in radically individualistic and essentially American ways."

    There is an old joke that says there are two types of people in the world; those who say there are two types of people in the world, and those who do not. But what Haviv is saying -- and I think he is right -- is that for Israelis as a rule there are indeed two types of people in the world; "us" and "them". They tend to see identity mostly as innate, given, fixed, and collective. This is because most Israelis have roots tracing back to Muslim, Orthodox Christian, or Catholic countries which see identity in this way. You are born into a tribe and you identify with that tribe. To do anything else is an act of betrayal.

    The American Jewish view of identity is radically different. Frankly, it has more to do with the fact that we are Americans than that we are Jews. In America, and in other countries shaped by the Protestant reformation, identity is not a given, it is chosen. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, just over 40 percent of Americans currently belong to a different religious group than the one in which they were raised. Slightly under half -- 47% -- are members of the religion in which they were raised and never left it, while about 10% of Americans left their birth religion for another one but then came back to the group in which they are raised. 

    What I have said about religion-changing in America simply describes a situation, it takes no position for or against. But I think it is fair to say that most Americans believe that it is everyone's right to choose their own religion -- not just legally, but morally as well. So it is not just the questionable images in the commercial which are problematic. As Haviv writes in the Jerusalem Post: "For Americans, it is hard to hear the campaign (which the Masa ad was for) as anything more than a denial of individual autonomy and personal authenticity. The core assumptions behind the campaign seem, in an American cultural context, appalling."

    It is this American cultural context which makes us Protestant Jews while Israelis are Catholic Jews. But it is not just for Jews that this dichotomy exists. American Catholics, as strange as it may sound, are in this sense Protestant Catholics. The Catholic hierarchy is in constant conflict with Catholic universities, because the hierarchy wants to make sure that theology professors don't teach heresy, while the universities believe in academic freedom. The hierarchy doesn't want condoms available on campus, but the dormitory directors and student health center do. Notre Dame University gave an honorary degree this past spring to President Obama, despite his pro-choice beliefs. The majority of American bishops signed a statement asking Notre Dame to rescind the invitation, and the bishop of the diocese in which Notre Dame is located boycotted the commencement ceremony, but the university went ahead with its plans. All available data is that Catholics have abortions at the same rate or higher as non-Catholics, and they use birth control at the same rate as non-Catholics. Less than five percent of American Catholics under thirty agree with their church's official teaching on birth control. 
    While this is often referred to as a split between "liberal" and "conservative" Catholics, I don't think this is really the case. I think rather that the Pope -- and most bishops that he or his predecessor appointed -- believe it is enough to simply lay down the law and the people should follow. But that is just not the American way. We may, in the end, choose to do as our clergy would like us to -- but we insist that is our choice whether to do so or not.

    The roots of this "rugged individualism" are Protestant. Before the Protestant Reformation, the authority for religious practice was as much the tradition of the Church as it was the Bible. For Catholic theologians, the Bible is "the Church's book" and is understood in the context of its history of interpretation. Or to put it more simply, the Bible means what the Church says the Bible means. Sound familiar? To a knowledgeable Jew, it should. The interpretations differ, of course, but the insistence that it is the community which determines the meaning of Scripture is very similar in both Judaism and Catholicism.

    But Luther and his followers sought to strip away what they considered man-made accretions. They wanted to get back to "sola Scriptura" -- the Bible alone. The meaning of Scripture was no longer determined by the community but by the individual and his or her personal, subjective religious experience. This is one of the reasons why there are so many different Protestant denominations, because there are endless disagreements over points of scriptural interpretation. And thus, for example, in Reno Nevada, down the street from the Conservative synagogue, a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church are right across the street from each other.

    Protestants in America can afford this kind of fragmentation, perhaps, since there are over 150 million of them. Nobody is worried that the American Protestant community will cease to exist because of assimilation, and nobody is saying that it's no longer economically viable to have several Protestant churches of different denominations in the same town or county. The same is not true of the American Jewish community.

    Birthright Israel and its siblings like Project Masa are one response to the fears that the American Jewish community is crumbling before our eyes. The thought is that by offering a free trip to Israel for any Jewish young person under 25 who hasn't already been to Israel on a peer educational program -- the tide of assimilation can be reversed. 

    These programs are relatively new, and it is not yet possible to measure their long term effects. Anecdotally, it does seem that birthright participants come back from Israel more connected to their Jewishness. Haviv writes in the Post: "What is it about Israel that makes young Americans, who are utterly and proudly American and sometimes only conditionally Jewish, react so positively? Americans, too, are befuddled by this gap. Americans fund and encourage their children to go to Israel by the hundreds of thousands, but rarely consider clearly and rationally why a mere ten days in a foreign country can so affect the identity and lifelong affiliation of an ordinary 19-year-old.
    Here's a theory: Israeli society has a profoundly different and deeply moving way of defining the very notion of Jewishness. . . It is that organic, rooted nationhood, a radically different notion of what it means to be a Jew from anything Americans have ever experienced, that so impresses young American Jews, and makes programs such as Masa and birthright Israel transformative experiences for Americans. The vast majority do not become Israeli or adopt Israeli identity structures, but do seem to come away with a more complex Jewishness; an understanding that there are aspects and layers to Jewish affiliation which they had not experienced before."

    The question is how we translate this "more complex Jewishness" to the American scene. It's not an easy task, and if it is to be accomplished at all, it won't be through attempts to define who is "lost" and who is "found", who is "in" and who is "out." And it won't be accomplished by Israelis mobilizing to "save" their "lost" American brethren  as they did for the Ethiopian and years before the Yemenite and Iraqi Jewish communities. 

    The solution to the "crisis of Jewish continuity" won't come only from Israel, and it surely won't come from defining the majority of American Jews as "lost" to their people. As Haviv writes: "Speak to the Americans, whose existential crisis is indeed assimilation, but who understand this as a call to fashion new worlds of personal meaning and individualistic affiliation, and you'll find real anger at the callous Israeli attempt to define who is "lost" and who is "found." 

    The real solution to the crisis of continuity, I believe, will be achieved in a synthesis of the "American" and "Israeli", or, if you will, Protestant and Catholic notions of identity. In today's world, Jewishness is not something that is taken for granted just because you were born into a Jewish family. Yes, Judaism may be our "birthright" but we stubbornly insist it is our choice whether or not to claim it. But ultimately, while we insist on our right to fashion our own identity, what we most lack in American society is a sense of community. This Israel provides in abundance, but very few American Jews will choose to live in Israel, even as we care deeply about her.

   The source of Jewish connection in the fragmented society in which we live is the community. I go to shul because someone else is saying kaddish, and they can't do so without a minyan. I go to shul because my friends expect to see me. I have a kosher home so that other people will be comfortable eating there or attending my simcha. I come to synagogue programs that don’t necessarily interest me so much, so that they will be successful. Our challenge is not to convince more Jews that God wants them to live a certain way. Our challenge is not to denigrate those Jews who make different choices than we do about how they are "assimilated" and "lost." Our challenge is to show more Jews the joy of our tradition and the meaning they can find by participating in our community.

    In an address to Rabbinical Assembly Convention in 2000, Chancellor Eisen – at the time a professor at Stanford and a lay leader of his Conservative synagogue – said: “Our shared life together -- the meaning we hold and are held by inside a framework of palpable community -- is all we need in order to face the future with confidence. And this we have. All of us encounter people fairly often who sap our energies by painting incredibly bleak pictures of what awaits us in that future. We resist their gloomy forecasts, in large part, thanks to the counterexperiences of encounters with Jews of all ages newly excited by their Judaism and alert to its transformative possibilities. Such people, young or not so young, constitute a human spiritual resource of immense importance and potential. We best draw forth that potential, I think, if we approach them with transcendent meaning unavailable elsewhere, translated without loss of authenticity into the language in which they speak and work and dream -- and offer them this meaning inside a community which need not be preached or exhorted because it is palpably experienced.
If we do so, we have nothing to fear from the unpredictable challenges that undoubtedly will beset us in coming decades, and we will have the added comfort of doing what Jews in any generation are meant to be doing. The work and the reward will be more than sufficient.”
    What will enable us, then, to build a stronger and more vibrant community? The idea that Judaism represents an opportunity to bring us closer to each other – and through being closer to each other, we become closer to God as well. Our obligations to each other are no less sacred than our obligations to God; and in discovering our connection to each other, we discover our connection to God and to our people. 

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