The World & Judaism

Imaginary dangers and genuine opportunities.

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The following working paper was written in 2008 for the Bronfman Vision Forum's Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. The paper was part of a panel discussion on “Between Religious Extremism and Secularism: The State of Global Jewish Identity.” It was translated from the Hebrew by Orr Scharf.

A People That Shall Not Dwell Alone

In certain paintings the background and depth are as important as the subjects at the foreground: Van Gogh's distant wheat fields, Monet's gardens and ponds, Pollock's canvas and color splashes. This is true for nature, art, and also for Jewish existence.

monet's pond jewish For many long years we have isolated the issues of modern Jewish identity from their broader human and cultural contexts. We have constructed for ourselves an oppositionary identity, a spiteful identity. We were always the Hebrews--literally, "those who live across"--the entire world on the one side and us across from it.

We have emphasized the hatred against the People of Israel and have turned it into the primary and constitutive factor of historical Jewish identity. We have developed a negative identity that legitimizes austerity, suspicion, and seclusion, focusing on the internal dynamics that befall the Jewish people as though they were uniquely and especially ours; as though no world surrounds us, as though nothing happens in this world, as though we do not belong there.

We were the picture's subject that had separated itself from all of its backgrounds and we have sanctified the rift from the all-human fabric on the pretext of a wronged interpretation of the verse "It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations." Since then, alone, we delve into phenomena related to our crisis of faith.

We have never cared whether the abandonment of synagogues is similar to or reminiscent of God's abandonment by modern man: a phenomenon that should also frame the abandonment of churches and mosques by "their" young generation. We never genuinely thought that we could learn from others' lessons or that we could share our conclusions with them.

Only amongst ourselves were we appalled by the constant rise in intermarriage rates; entrenched in our built-in aloofness we were convinced that a Jew who marries out is a spiritual defector whereas the gentiles who marry us excel and better themselves. We were oblivious to the considerable crisis of faith undergone by the parents of the non-Jew who marries into Judaism. And we have not yet spoken about the millions of marriages and holy matrimonies between individuals of different color, race, faith, and descent, taking place every moment everywhere around the world. They are not as bad as they might seem.

We have never really wished to understand or learn the contexts and links between the rise of our fundamentalism and the intensification and rise of fundamentalist movements in the greater monotheistic space. We ascribe the rise of fundamentalist Islam to the axis of hatred of Israel and the string of immediate threats on the existence of the Jewish state, repressing and even denying the similarities that tie this phenomenon with the embarrassing phenomenon of religious radicalism within the Jewish public.

We prefer to ignore and deny any link and context in which Jewish movements that are deeply religious and are equally messianic believe in the immortality of a dead rabbi who is buried six feet under, and a nearly identical Christian theology. Both believe in the divinity and eternality of a mortal and the differences between the two can hardly be excused and explained.

This is also true for the immediate and not coincidental association between the Amish who refuse to part with their centuries'-old appearance, and the residents of Bnei Brak and Monsey who look like Polish aristocrats from past centuries. On that and more the Babylonian Talmud says "a single foundation joins the entire world." Everything is similar, the same things occur in all places and in any event we are not that exceptional and unique as we'd like to believe and to persuade others that we are.

My acquaintance with the histories, trends, and global processes leads me to maintain that the theme defined for this discussion: "World Jewry: Between Religious Extremism and Secularism: The State of Global Jewish Identity," makes an assumption that I find unacceptable. The assumption being that we must only discuss ourselves amongst ourselves, or in the words of the Hebrew poet: "Only about myself have I known to tell, my world is constricted as that of an ant."

But since it is our designated theme I cannot avoid discussing it, although I do not think that it is in fact the axis along which Jewish life runs. I believe that the life of world Jewry stretches, almost to a breaking point, between the poles of many other axes: tradition and modernity, East and West, polity and national soul and spirit, church-state and theocracy-democracy, ruthless capitalism and merciful Judaism, between sovereignty and independence and the rebirth of diasporism.

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Avraham Burg

Avraham Burg was a member of Israel's Knesset, former Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and former Speaker of the Knesset.