Liberal American Jewish youth's estrangement from Israel
Liberal American Jewish youth's estrangement from Israel

The Jewish Agency recently warned that young Jews are becoming estranged from Israel because of perceived conflict with their liberal values, and commentary on the subject suggests that instead of acknowledging its own responsibility, the mainstream establishment is questioning what Israel and her supporters must do to stem the tide.  

But the phenomenon is not a consequence of misdirected youthful exuberance or Israeli policies and is not a problem among the observant or politically conservative. Rather, it affects the progressive and culturally assimilated segments of American Jewish society and echoes the social priorities of an institutional leadership that has traded spirituality for secular political values.  

Many of those who claim to speak for American Jews – including communal lay leaders and nontraditional clergy – seem to express greater affinity for liberal politics than traditional Judaism.  In attempting to avoid the appearance of Jewish insularity which rankles so many on the left, they frequently rationalize unbalanced criticism of Israel, ignore the pervasiveness of left-wing anti-Semitism, and disregard classical Jewish tradition.  Though viewed as community role models, they are inculcating youth with a slanted message that glorifies secular partisan activism.

Often taking cues from the liberal pulpit, young adults from the nontraditional movements are drawn to J Street, the New Israel Fund, and other organizations that espouse progressive policies at odds with Israel’s sovereign integrity and continuity as a Jewish state.  They are also encouraged to pursue dialogue with Muslim advocacy groups, some of which reportedly have extremist ties or sympathies. Scions of liberal Judaism seem to believe that progressivism which undercuts Israel is somehow consistent with Jewish values, although Jewish tradition does not mandate the abdication of religious and national self-interest, the contextualization of Islamist radicalism, or the validation of revisionist propaganda that denies Jewish history.

The sanctification of progressivism attempts to fill a void created by years of shifting priorities and inadequate education.  For children reared in Reform and Conservative synagogues, religious instruction typically consists of a few hours a week in supplemental schools that teach little of traditional substance, and which are often abandoned by students following bar or bat mitzvah year.  After failing to provide sufficient primary education, the nontraditional movements attempt to keep adolescents and young adults engaged through programs that encourage liberal political activism, but which have little to do with traditional Judaism.

Progressive ideology characterized as Tikkun Olam

While eschewing time-honored ethics and mores, they seek to imbue progressive ideology with a veneer of spirituality by characterizing it as tikkun olam or Mussar.  However, reinterpreting these concepts to reflect mundane partisan ideals shows a lack of understanding regarding their essential meaning and application.

Though erroneously defined as “social action” by the non-Orthodox movements, the term tikkun olam is derived from the Mishnaic phrase mipnei tikkun ha-olam, which means “for the sake of the tikkun of the world.”  It refers not to progressive social programming, but to the promotion of communal harmony through halakhic observance, particularly of laws that ensure the proper workings of society (e.g., those concerning marriage and divorce, the enforcement of monetary damages, and the redemption of captives).  In mystical literature – particularly Lurianic Kabbalah – prayer and mitzvah observance are essential for liberating “divine sparks” said to have been dispersed throughout the universe during the period of chaos (tohu) after creation, and for ingathering these sparks and the souls that contain them to effectuate rectification (tikkun).

As with tikkun olam, true Mussar is premised on dedication to law and observance, not secular ideologies or progressive pop cultural values that are essentially extraneous to Judaism.  The Mussar movement begun by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter in 19th century Lithuania is characterized by the words of Mishlei (Proverbs), Chapter 1:2, which exhort followers to “know wisdom and discipline, to comprehend words of understanding.”  The purpose of Mussar is to improve character traits (middot) such as piety and humility, and to stimulate ethical growth through Torah study, commandment observance, and personal introspection.  Many Reform and Conservative Jews have adopted Mussar’s goal of ethical advancement but erroneously define it according to the political ideals adopted by their movements as guiding principles.  

Whatever else tikkun olam or Mussar might be, however, they are not forums for promoting climate change activism, same-sex marriage or transgenderism, for validating Palestinian revisionism, or for falsely accusing Israel of occupation and apartheid.  The sacralization of liberal politics cannot fill the spiritual abyss created by the abandonment of traditional education and observance.

Declining support for Israel should not be surprising among those for whom Jewish continuity itself is not a priority.

As has been widely reported, the intermarriage rate among American Jews since 2000 is 58% overall and a stunning 72% among the non-Orthodox. The nontraditional movements’ conflation of Jewishness with progressivism seems to have eroded their ability to enforce the most basic safeguard against assimilation, i.e., the unequivocal prohibition against intermarriage.  

Given that the Reform movement defines Jewish identity by patrilineal as well as matrilineal descent, that many Conservative rabbis are calling for institutional debate on the issue, and that many liberal rabbis perform mixed marriages (often in tandem with gentile clergy), the problem is likely to worsen.  

And this does not bode well for continued pro-Israel support among the non-Orthodox and unaffiliated.  If recasting Judaism in the insipid jargon of progressive social justice is insufficient to keep members of the ritually-liberal movements from assimilating through intermarriage, it is difficult to see how these movements can preserve a sense of loyalty to Judaism, Israel or the Jewish people going forward – particularly as the religious and ethnic identity of their congregants becomes increasingly attenuated over successive generations.   

Early secular Zionism had spiritual aspirations

The attempt to redefine spirituality in political terms wrapped in religious imagery clearly has not strengthened Jewish identity.  Moreover, it doesn’t even measure up to the ideological aspirations of those in earlier generations who attempted to shed traditional observance for other forms of Judaic expression, but who still defined Jewish identity within recognized spiritual parameters.  Many of those who were drawn to Haskalah (enlightenment) or political Zionism 150 years ago continued to maintain their faith in Jewish history and Israel’s mission as a “light unto the nations,” neither of which can truly be divorced from belief in G-d.   

Secular Zionists were obsessed early on with spiritual revival, not simply the reestablishment of sovereignty on ancestral Jewish soil, and it was this quest for spirituality that motivated even those who defined themselves as agnostic.  One of the leading Zionist intellectuals of his day, Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (a/k/a Ahad Ha-am), believed the goal of the movement was spiritual and cultural revival as expressed through language, literature, art and scholarship, and inspired by the Jews’ presence in their revitalized homeland.  

Although many Zionists at the time considered themselves secular, they could not suppress the belief that their political moment was the fulfillment of prophesy. And in this, they adhered to classical perceptions of the Jewish spirit.

Observant Jews always regarded themselves as a nation in exile and never ceased praying for the deliverance of their homeland.  The opposition of some to Zionism reflected not a rejection of nationhood, but fear that political regeneration would weaken belief in messianic redemption.  Nonetheless, many observant Jews and mystics supported Zionism from the start and were in fact some of its earliest proponents.

So-called “proto-Zionists,” including Rabbis Yehuda Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, preached national revival well before Herzl was born.  Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, later recognized holiness in the acts of secular Jews redeeming the land of their ancestors.

It seems many early Zionists and followers of Haskalah realized that Jewish identity without spiritual connection would succumb to assimilation and render Jews no different than Italians, Germans or Frenchmen.  Accordingly, they never rejected spirituality as doctrine, but sought to redefine it while staying within what they considered to be (rightly or wrongly) an organic Jewish framework.  One can debate their merits, successes or failures, but not their quest for Jewish authenticity.

Progressive Jews today differ in that they strain to define as “Jewish” ideals that are not organically so, and which often conflict with normative belief, practice and history.  Consequently, they lend their imprimatur to causes that are not intrinsically Jewish, and which are often hostile to Judaism, but which they nonetheless equate with Jewishness as a substitute for traditional observance.  

There are certainly ethnic and national components to Jewish identity, but without observance and spirituality, Jews are subject to assimilation like any other people outside their cultural milieu.

The Jewish Agency is right to sound the alarm regarding the rejection of Israel by liberal Jewish youth.  However, such trends don’t occur in a vacuum. If mainstream organizations want to address the problem, they should:

(a) acknowledge their culpability in elevating the progressive agenda over authentic Jewish tradition; and

(b) recognize the need to strengthen identity through traditional education and observance.  

They would also do well to engage in real Mussar, “to know wisdom and discipline, [and] to comprehend words of understanding.”

לָדַעַת חָכְמָה וּמוּסָר לְהָבִין, אִמְרֵי בִינָה