This past week I had an extremely disturbing conversation. I was attending a dinner in support of the FIDF, the Friends of the Israeli Defense Force. It was a beautiful and moving event that highlighted the amazing work this organization does in supporting Israeli soldiers. I was talking to one of the event organizers who was thanking me for being there. I rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders, “Thank me? C’mon, of course I’d be here. It’s in support of the IDF – it’s a no-brainer.” Besides, someone paid for my seat…
But he disagreed and said it was a big deal that I was there. He explained that over the past couple of years, fewer and fewer rabbis were willing to attend their events and partner with them. First it was in the Reform movement and now, he told me, in the Conservative shuls as well. They cannot afford – politically – to align themselves with the IDF.
If that wasn’t bad enough, a few minutes later, someone who is heavily invested in Israel Bonds told me that fewer and fewer non-Orthodox shuls are willing to make campaigns for Israel Bonds. Israel Bonds?! Israel Bonds is the most classical Jewish cause. That’s like saying you don’t want bagels and lox! Israel Bonds, for the record, does not send any funds to Israel’s defense. 100% of the funds go to national infrastructure. But in too many circles, affiliation with Israel is out of vogue.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
A month or so ago we had an event here in conjunction with BZD and Stand with Us. One of the speakers got up and pointed out that the average age in the room was closer to 50, maybe 60. Where are the young supporters of Israel? She asked.
We know where they are. They are on college campuses which by and large paint support of Israel as evil. That’s where they are. They are indoctrinated by messages that equate support of Israel with support of Nazism. They are surrounded by peers who see the Israeli government, be it a liberal or conservative Israeli government, as anti-democratic and evil. Of course, they’re not showing up to FIDF events. Of course, they’re not supporting Israel.
So what do we do? How do we respond?
What we’ve done so far is create campaigns that show the world how multi-cultural and democratic Israel is. We teach people history so that they understand that Israel is far from perfect and yet has attempted to make peace many times and has been rejected. And with those who share our belief in G-d, we speak to the Biblical promises and their unbelievable fulfilment.
But clearly, it doesn’t work. We’re still told that Israel is an apartheid state. We are still told that Jews are colonizers who stole Palestinian land. We are still singled out time and time again despite a decent human rights track record, certainly in comparison to other nations. Why don’t these talking points resonate? Why don’t they make a difference?
We could chalk it up to antisemitism and that would undoubtedly be true. Not antisemitism in the secular sense, but a mystical idea of antisemitism, that no matter what, the Jewish People will be despised. Anyone with a basic knowledge of history cannot escape this truth.
However, there is something else here that I think we’re missing. When we try our talking points – speaking to Jewish and Israeli history, making logical arguments proving how Israelis are, for the most part “good guys”, we fail to realize that we are speaking a different language than your typical kid on campus. And when I say, typical kid on campus I mean our kids – too many of the young adults giving voice to the most anti-Israel sentiments are Jews. We do not speak the same language as a good portion of our society. We do not think the same way.
The most prevalent mode of thought in this day and age is something called, post-modernism. I am no expert on philosophy, but the basic gist of post-modernism is that there are no objective truths, that my lived experience is true, and I don’t have to defend it or prove it. This is why if you ask a teenager to share their opinion on something they will say, “I feel XYZ” whereas you and I would say, “I think…” Their reality is a feeling, a sense; logic, in its classical form, is dead. You cannot prove anything. No religion is more correct than any other. Every opinion is valid. Try explaining to my grandfather that a boy is a girl. That only makes sense in a postmodern world, where my lived experience is a reality. Argument, in such a reality, is futile. Everyone has been lamenting the death of discourse. But how can you talk to one another when there are no shared truths? When I see black, and you see white? And we’re both right.
It’s very hard to change someone’s mind on Israel in a postmodern reality. It’s not to say we should not try; we should, and we must. It’s not to say that everyone under 35 thinks this way. But it’s worth noting the generational divide is vast and that we, us old ones (and yes, I am old in this regard), and the younger generation are talking different languages.
We could tsk tsk this new way of thinking or throw up our arms in despair. Or – we could recognize how deeply this way of thinking has impacted all of us. As I alluded to, the challenge of postmodernism impacts not only our connection to Israel, or social issues, it impacts our connection to our faith. If all religions are created equal, why should I do this? Because it feels good?! Well, what if it doesn’t feel good? Because you believe in it? Prove it! I ‘feel’ differently.
Though the philosophy of post-modernism dates back to the 80’s, maybe the 50’s, but us Jews have been grappling with post-modernism since the beginning of our history. The prophets of ancient Israel lambast the Jewish People not for serving idols, but for serving idols and Hashem. In the words of Eliyahu Hanavi, עַד־מָתַ֞י אַתֶּ֣ם פֹּסְחִים֮ עַל־שְׁתֵּ֣י הַסְּעִפִּים֒ אִם־יְהֹוָ֤ה הָאֱלֹהִים֙ לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְאִם־הַבַּ֖עַל לְכ֣וּ אַחֲרָ֑יו “How long will you continue to skip between two opinions? If you want to go after Hashem, do so, and if you want to go after Baal, then go after him!”
We may not be chasing Baal, but we’re also skipping between the options. How many of us believe and how many of us believe – sort of? How many of us observe and how many of us observe – unless it’s really inconvenient? Too many mistakenly confuse this way of life as Modern-Orthodoxy. It’s not. It’s Post-Modern-Orthodoxy.
The Maharal (I believe?) explains that the reason the Jewish People, as opposed to any other nation, embraced such a large pantheon of gods, the reason Jews have always gravitated to so many diverse ideas, is because we recognized the slivers of truth that existed within each ideology. There is something good to be found everywhere! There is some truth in every faith! But you cannot live a life holding on to everything at the same time. It does not work, and it certainly does not last. Those Jews that Eliyahu railed against, they were lost to history. They didn’t make it.
You see, the greatest casualty of postmodernism is the lack of conviction that comes in its wake. The greatest threat to Orthodoxy, and Modern-Orthodoxy in particular, is this lack of conviction. (See the theme for this year’s Torah Umesorah convention and the take-aways from the most recent Pew report in Jewish Action). If our connection to Judaism is lukewarm, then our children’s connection will likely be cold, and their children… they likely won’t be Jewish.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. On the contrary, our community is most well-positioned for the exact opposite. We, who are not afraid of the outside world, we, who like the Maharal writes can see the good in the cultures and philosophies that surround us, we, who can take the good from the bad, and come back and say, we’ve seen it all and we choose to embrace Judaism, that’s a most powerful statement. There is one language that cuts through the apathy and the relativism and the confusion, the language of conviction and of passion. Because if our connection to Judaism is hot, then our children’s connection will be boiling, and their children – off the charts.
As B’nei Yisrael prepared to enter the land of Egypt, Yaakov and Yosef were concerned – how would the family survive? How would they make it out of this land with their faith intact?
Yosef’s strategy was to send his family to live in Goshen, away from the center of Egypt, away from the competing views. This, he believed, was to be their salvation – the very first self-imposed ghetto, shielding them from the foreign world around them. But there was a certain naiveté that Yosef had, thinking that distance or walls would shield his family from the seductive ideas of Egyptian culture.
Yaakov took a very different approach. אֶת־יְהוּדָ֞ה שָׁלַ֤ח לְפָנָיו֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף לְהוֹרֹ֥ת And Yaakov sent Yehuda ahead of him l’horos, to show the way. To show the way?! Did Yaakov need directions? Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains: לְתַקֵּן לוֹ בֵּית תַּלְמוּד שֶׁמִּשָּׁם תֵּצֵא הוֹרָאָה He sent him ahead to establish a school, an academy, from which hor’ah, or Torah will come forth.
Yaakov recognized that you cannot run away from the draw of Egypt just like you cannot run away from the draw of Western civilization. Yaakov recognized that his descendants would thrive not by ignoring the world around them, nor by arguing with those around them, but by steeping themselves in what they believe. Then and only then did they have a chance to survive.
Our answers may not always resonate with everyone around us. Our answers may not always resonate with ourselves!! But apathy and lukewarm commitment is not a viable option. If we want to ensure that our values are passed on to the next generation, they need to be hot, they need to be on fire! What that means is not just getting by Jewishly, checking off the boxes. It means developing a deeper faith, deeper belief and constantly expressing that in action. More Torah study! More Mitzvos! more Tefilah! More Israel! It means passionate engagement with our faith, and it means sacrifice. It means cherishing ideas that are not so popular like the notion that not all beliefs are created equal, that not all truths are true. It means telling our children and telling ourselves, in word and in deed, that in a world of many gods, we can, and we will choose one.