In her recent graduation speech at JTS, my boss Ruth Messinger called on us to “work for greater equity, for social justice, and for global citizenship.” For this, the New Jersey Jewish News called her out for being “insufficiently tribal.”
Excuse me?
It’s true, there was a time when tribalism was alive, and American Jews were defined primarily by our enemies and our blood. When, as the NJJN news puts it, “the classic communal concerns of the last century [were] anti-anti-Semitism, pro-Israel activity, and Holocaust remembrance.”
There was a time when tribalism was so alive that major Jewish denominations were reluctant to perform conversions at all, because Judaism resided “in the blood.” (See Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity for a fascinating exploration of this.)
There was a time when the negation of Hitler replaced the worship of God as the theological cornerstone of American Judaism. Thankfully, that time is coming to a close.
American Judaism is stronger now because thousands of Jews are reengaging and reinvigorating Jewish practice in a variety of exciting and dynamic ways. Some, like our friends at Hadar, Drisha and Pardes, are fostering an unprecedented breath and depth of traditional textual fluency; some, like the folks at Elat Chayyim, B’nai Jeshurun, and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are facilitating meaningful davening and meditative experiences; some are part of minyanim around the country which are building engaged communities in ways that are profoundly shaping peoples’ lives. Some, like the folks at the Six Points Fellowship, JDUB and Storahtelling are finding renewed power in the arts. And thankfully, there are organizations, like AVODAH, American Jewish World Service and Jewish Funds for Justice that are fighting for the human rights of all of God’s creatures, not just those who are Jewish.
The NJJN argues that “tribal identity” is a prerequisite for the pursuit of global justice. This couldn’t be further from the truth – the pursuit of justice is more accurately seen as a prerequisite for Jewish identity. Judaism is a system of practices – some ritual, some interpersonal – and to claim the “tribe” of Judaism, without claiming its practices, is to claim a hollow shell.
The Rambam says (in Issurei Biah 19.17): “Anyone who is brazen or cruel, and hates other people, and does not treat them kindly, is highly suspected of being a Gibeonite, for the characteristics of the holy nation of Israel is that they are humble and kindly.”
In other words, behavior defines identity – not the other way around. There are some, like Korach, who believe that the whole nation of Israel are holy, and it is a legitimate religious stance to be concnered only with the needs of this holy slice of God’s creation. To quote Yeshayahu Lelbowitz, that is nothing more than racist chauvinism.