Everyone understands the awkward potential of a large family gathering.
Maybe you bump into an aunt or uncle you haven't seen since your bar/bat Mitzvah and brace yourself for a barrage of comments about how much you’ve grown. Perhaps you meet some second cousins for the first time and are endlessly encouraged by older relatives to seem interested. Or maybe, just maybe, after hearing about how this person is the nephew of your grandfather - you let your thoughts wander to the point of “why should I care about meeting them?”
It’s no secret that Jews in America are growing apart from Israelis at an alarming rate. Polling has consistently shown us that in issues of politics, religious observance, and even questions regarding who has the right to an opinion about Israeli politics - there is a massive rift between the two communities. A rift which isn’t forecasted to change anytime in the near future. Many young American Jews have very few ties to their Israeli counterparts. Yes they are both members of this vague nation-like, familial religious tradition we call Judaism, but when introduced to their distant Israeli cousins, it’s hard for a common great-grandfather or historical narrative to bind them together.
But there is an interesting factor worth considering which, if employed, would perhaps change the social dynamics at any potentially awkward family gathering.
Imagine if one’s great-grandparent, one that they need not have ever actually met, was a famous writer. Or better yet was an ethicist and moral philosopher, one who revolutionized the field with hundreds of fascinating thought experiments. What if your great-grandparent was a prolific poet, artist, musician, one whose works were known across the community and whose meaning was a constant topic of discussion. Perhaps your great-grandparent kept meticulous historical records detailing the interesting family story - passed down through generations - each one adding their narrative to the collection.
I’d like to propose that if any of the above scenarios were actualized, your family gathering would immediately lose its awkwardness. You would have common ideas, texts, or work to explore. A basis for shared discussion and an instant point of connection. It would perhaps be even more interesting to meet your distant relatives as you would be curious how the very different life experience of your second cousin subsequently changed their views on your shared family heirloom.
Judaism has all of these things plus more. We have literature, ethics, poetry, art, and history all dating back thousands of years. We have the foundation for thousands upon thousands of discussions waiting to begin between American Jews and their Israeli cousins. The only problem is that we seemed to have forgotten this metaphorical work of our great-grandparent.
With a shared heritage it need not matter if you disagree about politics, religion, or other meta-issues. You now have the basis for a conversation. Or, more accurately, the basis for the continuation of a conversation that has already been occurring for thousands of years.
We have gone through this before. In the times of the Talmud there were two major Jewish population centers in Babylon and in Israel. There were certainly disagreements that arose between these two population centers, culminating in two different talmuds created by each community. The Talmud is chock full of references to debates between these two centers and there were frequent insults hurled from one to the other.
Yet, there was no attempt to devalue the Jewishness of the other.
Today we have American Jews, who privilege and cherry-pick simplistic slogans of social justice from a 3,000 year tradition of nuance, claiming that Israelis are continuously bastardizing these vague Jewish values. We have Israeli Jews, who privilege biblical texts of Jewish autonomy and strength while almost forgetting that most of Jewish history and literature has been created in exile, claiming that all the real, proud, and strong Jews live in Israel. The problem is that neither side seems to have any understanding of the Judaism of the other. (This is obviously a gross oversimplification of both sides but the general argument holds).
If we want to truly fix this problem the answer needs to be larger than Birthright or American summer camps labeling things in Hebrew. The Jewish world needs to reclaim our shared Jewish heritage. A heritage that is not limited to a certain time and place in history. A heritage that is irreducible to a single political or ethical viewpoint. And, most importantly, a heritage that for thousands of years of dispersion, has acted as the linchpin and cornerstone of Jewish inter-connectedness.
We need more Torah and Jewish literacy.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entries were selected as one of the three best for the third and fourth quarters of 5779. You can find them on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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