The recent informational meeting for Tzedek Chicago was one of those rare moments when you know you are in the room with a very big, new idea. When you can hear the history book turning to a new chapter. I, like so many American Jews, have been feeling stuck, seeing little more than a dead-end. But Rabbi Brant Rosen sees a bold road forward that helps us reclaim our values as Jews. Interestingly, it looks forward, but it also draws from the long arc of Jewish history.
Rabbi Brant discussed how our concept of Jewish “tribes” must evolve so we may more effectively engage in the larger world. We may not identify certain Jews as being a part of our tribe based on the vast differences between their spiritual values and ours. And, conversely, we may identify non-Jews who have no Jewish partners as being members of our tribe based on their very similar spiritual values. We need to be a strong global community based on content of character, not accident of birth, and not on the necessity to pay large sums every year (or beg for financial assistance). What we are building is not a middle class member organization; rather, it is a community (a “tribe”) of shared values.
The rabbi then talked about how we must look hard at Jewish history with fresh eyes, keeping that which enables Jewish values, and shedding that which does not. The current “business plan” is the one most of us grew up with. Following the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, Jews had a simple view of the world, and it went something like this: It’s a dangerous world, so we need a country with a strong military in order to survive. Not surprisingly, our flag and the Israeli flag always are found in the front of the sanctuary – nationalist symbols that are there for a reason. We became obsessed with survival at any cost. We went from being the oppressed to being the oppressors. And we became little more than a global PR campaign for a nation we are not allowed to question, lest we face expulsion from the group.
Brant said we must reject that model. We are at a crossroads in 2015. WWII has been over 70 years. Israel is in its mid 60s. Given our thousands of years of history, our present approach to American Jewish practice is stunningly recent. It’s all we have known in our lifetimes, so we tend to forget that. What was Judaism like before then? When the Romans conquered us, we were able to get an upper hand by making clear that we prayed to one God who was even mightier than the Roman army. That concept of an almighty God kept us alive and distinct for a long time. We didn’t need an existing nationalistic entity to survive; the spiritual concept of Israel allowed us to feel what we chose to feel about it, it allowed us to question it, and it was an element of being Jewish rather than the overwhelming distraction it has become in recent generations. (“Distraction” because although the struggle for social justice continues in Israel/Palestine, no one would argue that the contant attention it receives has diminished our opportunity, ability and moral authority to address social justice in the rest of the world.)
We are creating a new narrative, although what is “new” is looking at the long arc of Jewish history, reclaiming our long-held values, and applying them to the demands of the 21st century global village. It is a narrative that is inevitably and unapologetically post-Zionist. A narrative based instead on social justice, that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. A narrative that liberates us to think freely, discuss openly (without exception) what is wrong in the world, and consider how we can work as a people to repair the world by organizing. I am very excited to contribute to this new chapter taking hold here in the United States and around the world. And I am grateful to have Brant Rosen as our spiritual leader and partner on this journey.