American Jews (like other organized subgroups in American society) do some things superbly well and fail at others. Where we are strong, there is our weakness. When I consider the mistakes we American Jews make, these simple truths explain much. By “mistakes,” I refer to enormous, fundamental errors of public policy: the management of Jewish community affairs. Let me point to five, in descending order of importance, all of them effects of a single cause: our excessive admiration for wealth at the expense of all other human virtues.
The greatest mistake we have made is to create a community so expensive that only rich people can play an active role. There is no space for the poor but virtuous or pious person. We have not only priced our community life out of the market of ordinary Jews; we also have imposed upon ourselves the dictatorship of wealth. We have built costly institutions of religion and culture. We have undertaken huge fiscal responsibilities to world Jewry and especially to the state of Israel, and we have therefore defined ourselves as financiers of world Judaism. Heavy financial commitments to overseas causes is natural to Americans who, after World War II, undertook responsibility to finance the reconstruction of much of the world and the industrialization of the rest. So the American Jewish community undertook its own Marshall Plan. The combination of expensive local institutions and a massive commitment to overseas Jewries defined the answers to all the questions of virtue and morality that people must answer for themselves. And that meant that the only Jews who would make a difference, who could realize the goals of American Jewry, would be the very richest ones.
The second greatest mistake we have made is to create a community more impressed by style than by substance, by procedure than by program. Everything flows from our generative mistake about the primacy of money. Just as, in our society, people watch out for whom they can sue or be sued by, so in our community people pay more attention to form than content. They build impressive synagogues, which stand empty most of the time. They pay rabbis more money than attention. They hold meetings to discuss holding meetings. They issue press releases and then believe every word. They do this because, in the end, what matters most is money. Given the current President, who can wonder why?
The third greatest mistake we have made is to stop arguing with one another. We paper over differences and no longer try to persuade others through reasoned discourse. Here I refer to the range of Judaisms among us and how they relate. Why make a desert of desiccated discourse and call it consensus? If all that matters is raising this year’s budget and next year’s increment, we cannot allow differences to intervene. We have to gloss over points subject to controversy and dispute. So within organized Jewry, we place under administrative excommunication whomever passionately believes anything other than the conventional wisdom. By contrast, the Catholic community makes a place for all kinds of people and their aspirations, from those who want to pray from dawn to dusk to those who want to engage in demonstrations on issues of public policy (on pro-life issues, for instance). American Jewry has a place for a single type only—the one who gives and gets others to give—and cannot imagine any other type. For example, if you don’t like going to meetings and fining chairs, don’t try to participate in American Jewry, which even defines a career in Jewish public life as “sitting in the chairs.” This is the Jewish counterpart to the “national conversations” that Washington revels in.
The fourth greatest mistake we have made is to treat “being Jewish” as a personal decision, not as one’s engagement and responsibility in a public enterprise. We have privatized Judaism and allowed “Jewish” to refer to merely individual traits and predilections. The “I” replaces the “we.” This again derives from the tyranny of the annual campaign for money. Even while undertaking public responsibilities, the Jewish community has defined Jewish norms as personal and private—how much you choose to give —and not as public and communal. Because we do not debate public policy, there is no sense of polity and community, and, as a result, everything is treated as personal and individual. When people sign checks for the Jewish federation, they use the language of “giving,” not (as with the Mormons) paying their religious taxes, their tithe; “to give” in our society is to act out of one’s own volition. American Jews do not form a voluntary community at all but a collection of individuals who give money to the same causes.
The fifth greatest mistake we have made is to identify the Jewish community with issues of secular politics, so that being a Jew means adopting a certain political agenda. That is to say, when we have finished with the campaign for money, we begin writing letters to our senators and representatives in Congress and finding “Jewish issues” in matters of public policy that have no particular bearing upon our community—pro-abortion, gay rights, and other shibboleths of hard-core radicalism. To state matters differently, among all the many things we can do when we want to “do Jewish,” the thing we have chosen, beyond fundraising, is political action. The list of issues to which American Jews commit themselves includes many causes without a particularly Jewish or Judaic foundation at all, and some of the issues on which Jews take positions “as Jews” contradict the commandments of the Torah.
To state the matter as clearly as I can: a far higher proportion of the Jewish community votes for the Democratic Party than observes the Sabbath of Judaism by celebrating light on Friday at sunset. So to be Jewish involves what takes place in public, and not what takes place at home or in private. At the beginning of this century a Russian Jew advised, “Be a Jew at home, and a human being away from home.” We American Jews have turned it around: we are Jews in public, and undifferentiated Americans in private.
Why do I think anyone not engaged by Jewry should care about our failings? Because we form a mirror of America. The mistakes we have made are profoundly American; they are the mistakes we Americans generally make. The earliest critic of American culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, picked out the same qualities in his journey through early republican America: practicality, contentiousness in matters of law and procedure, a preference for fact over theory and consensus over contention, individualism, and a preoccupation with politics.
So make no mistake—our weaknesses point to our strengths. These contradictory yet complementary qualities form the vices of a free people working in an open society and a free economy. Quite naturally, we Jewish Americans have made these Jewish vices too. But the same traits stand also for our distinctively American (and particularly Jewish) virtues, the ones that we have learned in the American context. Our vices and their counterpart virtues—generosity, efficiency, practicality, initiative, organizational effectiveness—define how we are both American and Jewish. We are the Jewish species of the American genus, Jewish Americans, much more than we are the American species of the Jewish genus, American Jews.
We have made Jewish—deeply, characteristically, quintessentially Jewish—some of the finest virtues of our country and its culture. In our Jewishness and in our distinctively American Judaism, we embody America. In other words, our pathos is our power, our virtue defines our vice. And it explains why I am proud to be who and what I am: part of a free and generous nation, which knows how to change the world.
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