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  • Andres Spokoiny

Looking Past the Flames: Address to JFN 2019

The word focus comes from the Latin for “fire”. The “focus” was the fireplace in a Roman home.*

Fire draws our attention. It’s impossible to ignore.

Remember the story of the bush that burned but was not consumed? Well, there’s a midrash that says the burning bush had been in that desert since the Creation of the World, but nobody noticed it until Moses. When you look at a fireplace, your eyes go to the flames. You have to look deliberately, long and hard, to see the logs burning. So it’s not that nobody ever saw that burning bush, but that nobody ever looked past the flames.

In the Jewish world today, our attention is focused on the many fires we have to put out: from antisemitism to assimilation; from the breakdown of Israel-Diaspora relations to polarization in the Jewish community.

Those “fires” are serious problems. But if we’re focusing exclusively on fighting the flames, then we’re not looking at the fuel.

We have to ask the “Why” behind each of these phenomena. Why is assimilation so rampant? Why do we have these growing schisms in the Jewish world? Why are we having trouble motivating the next generation? What are the overarching and unique challenges we face, not this week or this year, but in the 21st century?

I want to suggest three:

First: as individuals, why do we remain Jewish in a world of radical free choice?

The choices we have in the 21st century are unprecedented in human history. Today we can choose anything, from religion to career to location, and in everything our options seem endless.

But it’s not just that we can make more choices; it’s that we must. When choice is the norm, there is no default, and that generates enormous freedom, but also endless anxiety. In the past we didn’t have freedom of choice; now we don’t have freedom from choice.

So in this world of radical free choice, why are we asking our young, and ourselves, to remain Jewish? Continuity for its own sake is not an answer. What is the unique value to us and to the world of being Jewish?

We tend to relate to assimilation and disaffiliation as a problem of marketing. If only we designed a new outreach program, the right “messaging”, a cooler smartphone app…

Marketing is important, but it can’t answer the question of “why”. We don’t have to agree on just one “why”—there can be many—but all the marketing in the world can’t succeed with zero.

Second: collectively, how do we remain a People?

For the first time in history it’s no longer clear what peoplehood or nationhood mean. What is a particular community for in a world with a globalized mass culture?

Group identity in ancient times was oppressive, but easy: nobody wondered what group they belonged to; the question wouldn’t have made sense. Today however, individual freedom weakens collective bonds. Ancient national and communal links dissolve and people find themselves in cultural insecurity.

How, then, do we define the Jewish Community and the Jewish People?

This is not an abstract question; it has concrete implications. If we don’t define the community, how can we determine who’s in and who’s out? How do we resolve thorny questions like conversion, citizenship in Israel, and more? Why, if at all, should we care more about poor Jews than about other poor people? How do we deal with those in the Jewish community who disagree with us about critical issues? Do we owe them solidarity, or is it legitimate to exclude them?

Within the Jewish community and beyond it, two common responses dominate the discussion: on one hand, destroy all borders; create a hyper-cosmopolitan world in which nobody belongs to any particular group smaller than humanity as a whole. On the other hand, we see a revival of ethnocentric nationalism and even outright fascism. For this group, any moral abuse is permitted in order to preserve a supposed “purity” of the nation. On one hand, “down with all borders”; on the other, “build that wall”.

The solution for Jews can’t be either. The hyper-cosmopolitan model demands that we empty out our culture. The ethnocentric paradigm demands that we treat everybody else as an enemy. For our people to survive, we need to articulate a third way.

The most important and biggest organ of the body is the skin. The skin is the limit between us and the world. It defines who we are, what’s inside, and what’s outside. But the skin is not a wall; it is porous and sensitive. It protects us from the world, but it is also the way we interact with the world, feeling heat or cold, pleasure or pain. Without skin, we would disintegrate, but if our skin were as impervious as stone, we would also die, or else live a lonely, empty life.

Together, we must heal and nurture a “new skin” for our People.

The third Jewish challenge unique to our century is power.

In the 12th century, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi wrote the Kuzari. In that book, a Jewish scholar answers the questions of the king of the Khazars, who’s trying to pick a religion. The Jew, of course, brilliantly answers all the King’s question except one: “You Jews,” says the king, “pride yourselves on never persecuting others. Yet, you’re like that only because you have no power. If you had power, you’d kill like other peoples.” Instead of defending Judaism, the scholar says, “You found my point of shame.”

Judaism as we know it was created by and for people without power. Where Jews were outsiders, they could criticize societies run by others. It’s easy to be a humanist when you are the dehumanized; it’s easy to be a pacifist when you have no army; it’s easy to invoke social justice when you don’t run a complex economy. In other words: talk is cheap.

Today, Jews have more power than ever before. We have a sovereign and, thank God, powerful state. Now we face the difficult opportunity of putting Jewish values into practice.

And, no, this dilemma isn’t just about the conflict with the Palestinians. It’s about how we treat insiders and outsiders alike now that we’re in the driver’s seat.

Unfortunately, our track record with power is not good. We had sovereign power twice before—and, to be crude but truthful, we messed it up spectacularly. Both times it ended in decadence, infighting, and exile. The challenge of the 21st century is to get it right, and, for that, we need to do a lot of work, both ideological and practical.

This challenge is not only relevant in Israel. In the Diaspora, too, we have unprecedented power. We are integrated into the world like never before. Yes, antisemitism is still a problem, and forever will be, but today we are in a position of strength against it. We need to shake off our self-image as victims. Think about this: both candidates in the 2016 U.S. elections had Jewish grandchildren. Yet, we still sometimes talk as if the Cossacks are coming. Of course, funders especially have unprecedented power in our communities. How are we using it?

So that’s three big challenges: making Judaism relevant in a world of radical free choice; defining peoplehood; and managing power.

These dilemmas aren’t as obvious as the flames of daily crises, but they are the conditions that allow many of these fires to spread. If we don’t recognize and address them, we’ll be too busy fighting fires to build anything new.

As funders, we can’t escape these questions. Knowingly or not, everything we do is an implicit response to them. Every time we make a grant or fund a project we should think: how is this program responding to the challenge of being Jewish in a world of free choice? How does the program define Jewishness and community? What vision of society does it advance? To what end does it use our community’s power?

None of these questions has an easy answer, or a single answer. So we need to give ourselves and others permission to innovate, experiment, challenge orthodoxies, and slaughter sacred cows (ideally in a kosher way). We, as funders, need to challenge ourselves to question the very basis of our work. If we don’t take these risks, nobody will.

My friends, we are at a historical crossroads. These are challenging but fascinating times, and we have the privilege of building the Jewish Community of the future. We can mobilize our collective resources to build a Jewish World that is vibrant, relevant, and meaningful; that sees beyond the hatred of hyper-tribalism and the cultural starvation of hyper-cosmopolitanism; a community in which Judaism is not a relic of the past but a response to humanity’s most pressing challenges. As funders, we have that power and that obligation.

As funders, we need to risk more than others think is safe, love our people more than others think is wise, dream more than others think is realistic, and expect more than others think is possible.

If we look past the dancing flames and notice what’s beneath them, then we may see the same miracle that Moses saw: an opportunity to bring our people into freedom, into community, and into responsibility.

* I first heard this from Rabbi David Wolpe.


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