A Judaism Beyond Politics
By Rabbi Kohn

Rabbi Chaim Kohn re-examines the effects of the Israeli peace process on Jews in the diaspora.

The metaphor of the half full, half empty glass is usually taken to connote two outlooks on an issue -- one positive and the other negative. In American Jewry today we are dealing with a glass that is both half full and half empty, and both aspects are a virtue.

The half full aspect is that we still identify ourselves as Jews. The half empty aspect is that we don't know what that means. That is also positive.

The promise inherent in this pivotal stage of American Jewish life was brought home to me hy a Sept. 14, 1994 article in The Wall Street Journal. The article, which ran the day before Yom Kippur, chronicled the fact that American Jews are fumbling for a basis and a definition for their Judaism, now that the Israeli peace process has, temporarily at least, obviated many Jews' concern for Israel's security.

Israelis are telling American Jews they don't need their charity anymore, and American Jews are looking at each other and asking: What now? What makes us Jews? What brings us together as Jews'?

As The Journal reported, different Jewish groups are coming up with different answers. Some have united to help the homeless and the hungry. Some are rallying around social issues like the environment. A thousand Jews at an affluent temple in Cleveland came together to pick up tires from land fills. But as The Journal reporter Amy Dockser Marcus so aptly pointed out, "None of the social issues the Jewish community is embracing...are unique to Judaism the way the Israel cause was. And none have had quite the unifying power of Israel."

It appears we Jews are madly in search of a new cause. It is no surprise. The Talmud tells us that the desire to do good for others is one of three traits by which Jews can be identified, and which we have been known for historically. (The other traits are mercifulness and an innate tendency to be embarrassed by indecency -- Tractate Yevamos 79a).

Israel filled our people's deep need for a cause for 70 years. And yet, although Israel's trials and tribulations provided a wonderful focus for worldwide Jewry's need to give, it was not without significant cost. The heaviest cost was that many of us began to equate political support of Israel with Judaism. They are not only not the same, but Judaism is in fact the antithesis of politics.

Politics rarely deals with inner values, politics deals with representing one's own interests and negotiating or fighting with competing interests. Judaism is a commitment to God expressed in a way of life. Judaism does not exist to represent interests, but to enhance and illuminate the inner values of life.

When I was 15 and living in Vienna, I made a comment to a couple who were Holocaust survivors. Their response was so strong I remember it to this day. I told them that the state of Israel needs the Jewish people, but the Jewish people don't necessarily need the state of Israel. They looked like they wanted to kill me, they were so upset. They identified Israel as their safe harbor, their anchor in a dangerous world.

Yes, Israel with all its foibles, and with all its political ills, was and perhaps still is a very powerful enhancer of Jewish identity. But to say that the state of Israel is Judaism's lifeblood is to misunderstand what Judaism is all about. And if we substitute the values of the state for the values of Judaism, we are bankrupting Judaism (and ourselves) criminally.

Judaism - in its origins and its essence till today - has no political character at all. The only type of nationhood Judaism recognizes is one which serves as a conduit for the principles of Judaism: the belief in God and the keeping of Torah.

The Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century sage who founded the Chassidic movement in Judaism (a spiritual movement within Judaism that has had a profound influence on Jewish life and thought), said that every day, there is a yearning in the Jewish soul, a crying out for its source.

Jews are rapidly assimilating into the general public. Yet, many of us still have an inexplicable yearning to be Jews. And, as the Baal Shem Tov said, it is a yearning whose source is beyond the intellect. While many of us are well developed intellectuals in many fields, we can't say our ties to Judaism are rational, because we don't know Judaism on an intellectual level.

If this yearning ever is to grow beyond the state of a mere wistfulness, we need to use our intellects. We need to find out what Judaism is all about, on a level that satisfies us deeply. If The Wall Street Journal is correct, we are truly fortunate. Because we no longer have the option of being absorbed with the politics of Judaism, we can at last occupy ourselves with the essence of Judaism.

The Journal article mentions that Jewish federations today are engaging in lengthy debates about how to spend the ample funds they've accumulated which formerly were funnelled to Israel. Perhaps thought should be given to channeling those funds to Jewish educational programs that convey the Judaism that always existed and is waiting to be discovered anew -- the Judaism beyond politics.

Anyone interested in discussing ways to do this can reach me at the Jewish Renaissance Center's offices at (212) 580-9666 fax (212) 799-1355.

Sample Lectures: Self Esteem; Feminine Trait; Intimate Road; Parenting; Politics


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