In a column a few weeks back, I started out writing about guns, and soon realized I was writing about Jewish boundaries. The gun debate was only a framework on which to hang an argument between those who insist that halachic Judaism is the only “authentic” expression of Judaism, and those who believe that along with Halacha, Jewish ethnic and cultural tendencies, even at their most secular, are also our birthright.
Our Jewish expressions are the sum total of our history, religion, sociology, geography, and pathologies (and we have a few). To say something isn’t Jewish because it doesn’t follow the Halacha is a convenient way to negate hundreds if not thousands of years of Jewish self-understanding.
For example, liberalism hasn’t “superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right,” as Norman Podhoretz insists. Jewish liberalism, even where it disagrees with Halacha, is one of many authentic expressions of Jewish history and culture.
In my column I used guns as an example of the persistent notion of “goyishe naches” — that is, something Jews understand to be a “gentile thing.” I don’t mean to imply anything negative about gentiles or guns. I mean that throughout our history of exclusion and assimilation, Jews often defined themselves in opposition to the behaviors of “others.” That’s true of kashrut, but it is also true of a host of cultural markers. I suspect that the Jewish aversion to alcohol developed as a response to the behaviors of “The Other.” So did our allergy to Wonder Bread.
(Yes, yes, these are stereotypes. More than one reader has pointed that out. But sometimes stereotypes develop because they are grounded in truth. Not every Jew favors gun control, and there was tippling in the old country. But there are strong tendencies in every group that shouldn’t be denied out of fear what “others” might say.)
I insist that these sorts of folk behaviors are every bit as “Jewish” as the 613 mitzvot — maybe not in the ledger as recorded by Moses and maintained by the rabbis, but in the “cultural DNA” that has created a sense of shared Jewish experience that also includes ritual and the law.
At least one reader — a rabbi — got my point: “I have no problem with gun ownership,” he wrote. “I do have a problem with those who decide that they and they alone determine who is authentically Jewish.”
This discussion is bound to get more heated the closer we get to November. The polls are probably going to show a marked decline in Jewish support for Obama, but not the huge paradigm shift some Republicans are predicting. Disappointed Republicans will say that a lot of those Jewish voters are Jews In Name Only, and that the only “Jewish vote” that counts is among the most religious or most pro-Israel Jews. (The flip side of liberals who say “Jews don’t vote Republican.”)
And yet, what Steven M. Cohen calls the “collective aspect of Jewish identity and community” (which I think is pretty close to my notion of “cultural DNA”) is clearly on the decline. This “social tissue” (as opposed to religious conviction) is what tied together many of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations as Jews, even as they drifted away from religion. These days, it’s hard to pass on the Jewish gene if you aren’t surrounded by Jewish influences or making proactive Jewish choices. If current trends aren’t disrupted or prove unsustainable, you will see American Jewry becoming smaller, more religious, and probably more conservative.
Nevertheless, if ethnic Judaism is not up to the challenges of freedom and modernity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t Jewish.
Yitzhak Shamir attracted as many critics as he did friends in his long career, but all of world Jewry came together this past week to note the passing of one of the last survivors of Israel’s founding generation.
In 1997, my wife, oldest son, our baby daughter, and I were visiting the Museum of Underground Prisoners at the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. The fact that you may never have heard of it explains why we seemed to be the only visitors, except for a film crew flanking a tiny old man. It turned out to be Shamir, who as a member of the militant Stern Gang was thrown into the prison in 1941 by the British.
We paused in front of one of the cells as the former prime minister approached us, and we exchanged greetings in Hebrew (my wife was mortified that she mistakenly addressed him in the feminine tense). Deliberate and grandfatherly, the former underground commander, Mossad operative, and fierce Revisionist patted my then-six-year-old son on the head and said “yeled tov” — good boy.
I remember thinking at the moment — and repeating over the years — that in 2048, when, kinahore, Israel celebrates its 100th anniversary and my son has kids of his own, he can tell them that he had a moment with one of the very founders of Israel.
Two decades later, I find myself hoping that my son will also be celebrating an Israel where Shamir’s legacy is remembered with gratitude, and where fighters like him are no longer necessary.