click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

Why A.B.Yehoshua Is Wrong

Why A.B.Yehoshua Is Wrong

Maybe, just maybe, Judaism -- Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition -- is the key to Jewish continuity.


Quite a stir ensued at a recent American Jewish Committee symposium in Washington when Israeli novelist A.B.Yehoshua called the hosting organization's 100-year record "a great failure" and opined that Jews in the United States cannot live genuinely Jewish lives. Only in Israel, the celebrated writer asserted, can a truly Jewish life be expressed, and only the Jewish state can ensure the survival of the Jewish people.

Reaction was quick and spirited. Many of Yehoshua's American listeners were scandalized -- New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier accused him of "insist[ing] on narrowing [Jewish religion, culture and literature] down to Israeliness." And Israeli commentators took Yehoshua to task as well for, what the Jerusalem Post's Uri Dan characterized as, "the stupidity" of the novelist's remarks.

Citing the work of Israel Democracy Institute's Professor Aryeh Carmon, Forward editor J.J. Goldberg perceptively framed the brouhaha as the yield of a conceptual divide. With the destruction of Jewish Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, asserts Carmon, Israeli Jews "inherited" the Jewish identity expressed through daily life in an identifiably Jewish environment; and American Jews, the experience of Jewishness as a "way of looking at things."

Writes Goldberg: "It ought to be obvious... that Israelis are not wrong in their way of being Jewish, any more than Americans are wrong in their way -- joining organizations, attending events, giving to charities and trying to live by what they understand as Jewish values. The two ways are merely different."

Different, to be sure, but "merely" may not do justice to the yawning gulf between the two. More critical, though, the suggestion that either expression of Jewishness has lasting power is highly arguable.

Speaking Hebrew, having a Jewish army and living where the winter holiday is Chanuka and the spring one Passover are fine things, but to imagine they have the power to fuel Jewish continuity is to imagine that a shiny car without a motor can get you across town.

It doesn't take rocket science, only social science, to spy the implications of the large and increasing number of Israelis, mostly young, who have chosen in recent decades to emigrate. (New York and Los Angeles have particularly sizable Israeli expatriate communities, but most large American and European cities have their own healthy shares of once-Israeli residents.) Hebrew and army service are apparently insufficient to keep Israeli Jews in Israel; can they be expected to keep them vibrantly Jewish? And if Hebrew fluency is itself somehow the measure of Jewishness, the definition is as meaningless as it is tautological.

Nor is "American-style" Jewish cultural identity a bridge to our people's future. Not only is Hebrew Greek to most American Jews, but so are the most basic Jewish beliefs and concepts. Asked to name a Jewish tenet, the average American Jew is likely to respond "pluralism" or "repairing the world," even though his understandings of those concepts are bizarre expansions of how they are used in the Talmud. The true fundamentals of Jewish belief are books as closed to Joe Q. Jewish as the Talmud itself. Such obliviousness is hardly the stuff of generational continuity.

But continuity is attainable. The key is to recognize that there is a third heir to the Eastern European Jewish world that perished last century. It is neither Israel nor America, yet it resides, in fact thrives, in both countries -- as it does on other continents. It is the world of Jews who live neither Israeliness nor liberal idealism but Judaism – in the word's original sense: Jewish belief and practice as prescribed by the Jewish religious tradition.

Every Jew stood at Mt. Sinai, and every Jew today can return to it.

Not only is affirming and observing Torah and halacha the most authentic expression of Jewish nationhood, it is the one -- and only one -- proven to have empowered Jewish continuity in the past. And it is clearly poised to empower it in the future. The recent American Jewish Committee study showing a steep rise in the Orthodox percentage of young American Jews (and predicting a continuation of Orthodox growth) could not have come as a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the multi-generational vibrancy of Jewish life in the many Orthodox Jewish enclaves across America.

The truism that Judaism underlies the Jews is often greeted with the blithe retort that observance simply "isn't for everyone." The Tel Avivian needs his nightlife, and the New York Jew his cultural relativism. How easily we turn wants into needs. And how easily we dismiss our past and forfeit our future out of fear that our styles may be cramped.

One need only enter almost any Orthodox synagogue to meet Jews from the most unusual backgrounds who, through force of determination and conviction, came to Jewish observance as adults. Every Jew stood at Mt. Sinai, and every Jew today can return to it. And all Jews -- in Israel, America, Europe and elsewhere -- who do so return, will, along with their children and descendents, become pulsating parts of the Jewish future.


May 20, 2006

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 31

(31) Anonymous, May 30, 2006 12:00 AM

An addendum to Mr. Moishe Berg

It's very nice to have an inspiring idea that Israel is our home. However, the Midrash states that G-d created the land and He gives it to whom He decides. Sadly, our nation sinned and we were sent into Galus. Galus is not just the Diaspora, a place outside the borders of the holy land. Galus is a concept; one that will only end when G-d sends His Moshiach. Until then, we are to fulfill the commandments as best we can, and deal with the anti-semitism the best that we can. IT IS THE LAW THAT KEEPS THE PEOPLE, not the land.

(30) Moishe Berg, May 26, 2006 12:00 AM

It's not level of observance, it is the observence itself.

Orthodox Jews are a small part of being a Yid. The Torah is the proper guide to follow and it is simple and not meant to be encumbered with the additional rules the Orthodox put in. This place Israel was given to us for all time and we were meant to be there. It really doesn't matter whether your cumfy in the U.S.A. or elsewhere, Israel is our home. Do we not say every Pesach, next year in Israel. We are the apple of Gd's eye and we will endure as long as we keep the faith and that also means returning home. Throughout history those places that had a free Jewish society flourished well, then they decided to take what was ours. Since then they are existing alright but nowhere near their potential. Look at the U.S.A., how much better would it be if it were not for the large amount of anti-Semitism. How much stronger and better off would we all be if we were home. Then we could remove all that holds us back and truly be a light for the whole world. Gd's people united,canyou imagine?

(29) anonymous, May 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Don't even try to compare America to israel

I have lived half of my life in New york and half of my life in south america. There is so much pritzus here,(as there is in America) yet the orthodox community here is so warm and loving, tznius is tznius and Lubavitch and satmer and sfardim live together peacefully.
Children from different schools spend time together, and all of our children have wonderful midos. None of that in New york where Satmer and Lubavitch don't get along and Sfardim live "over there"
Children are spoiled and materialistic and parents push their kids to be like
them, otherwise "the neighbors will talk"
have to love each other no matter where
they come from or how frum they are.
Where is ahavas yisroel?
Even more so, we must love and help
non religious people come close to us.
People in their own communities dislike
people in other communities if they are different.

In Israel,however, everyone is your brother and sister and
there is a tremendous love of the land and of the people. I know the religious and non-religious don't get along, but loving your homeland,fighting for your homeland,
is something every Jew in Israel feels.
Davening at the kosel REALLY DAVENING,
and feeling close to Hash-m Yisborach,
can only happen in Israel.

(28) Abraham Grossmann, May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

One more Meshuggener in the Jewish State

There is no lack of arrogance prevailing in our midts People have to learn to choose their words and not with ease insult and abuse. Kamsa and Bar Kamsa That why we lost Jerusalem 2x

(27) Avi, May 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Judaism is our glue but Israel is our home

I agree with Rabbi Shafran that authentic Judaism - Shabbat, halacha and kashrut are essential components to following a true Jewish life - but we as Jews must remember how important eretz yisrael is to our people - it is not only a physical location but a spiritual sanctuary. It is the only place we as Jews can grow as a nation and flourish. I made aliyah here because this land was promised to my people. We have returned to the land of Israel after 2000 years with hashems assistance - take a note from G-d and join us!

See All Comments

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment