Yehuda Kurtzer at Adas Israel – Are American Jews Turning Away From Israel?

Last night I attended a very interesting discussion/lecture by Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, at Adas Israel.  The subject was the (changing?) relationship between American Jews and Israel, and the lecture was the introduction to a series of programs to be held beginning in the fall on the general subject of American Jews and Israel, and it was a very good beginning.

Although a number of topics were raised concerning the perceived increasing disinterest in Israel by younger American Jews, with the participants raising a number of issues that could be causing this disconnection, perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the discussion led by Kurtzer on the Jewish religious narrative.  His position (and I am paraphrasing, of course) is that the Jewish narrative starts with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the continues as the Jewish people aspire to return to the Promised Land – it is a continuing trek, with many, many bumps in the road.

The creation of Israel, a result of the 20th century Zionist movement, can be seen in a religious sense as the culmination of this long, long trek (of course, it can be seen otherwise – as simply a political creation, with the eventual establishment of the religious state as waiting for the messiah or messianic age).  But here is where Jewish tradition (textual and otherwise) lets us down, according to Kurtzer, because the narrative tells about the path to the Promised Land, but does not tell us what to do when we get there.

Kurtzer provided a textual handout which gave both biblical and other citations showing varying concepts of what Israel should be.  He divided them into four groups:  (1) the idea of utopian universalism – Israel to be a light to the world, helping bring about progress for all people, (2)  the idea of messianic particularism – Israel as the God-given vehicle for the perfection of the Jewish people, (3) Israel as the vehicle for the survival of the Jewish people – religious or secular, it does not matter, and (4) Israel as giving the Jewish people opportunities to improve themselves, individually as well as collectively, in ways only possible in a Jewish state.  His sources included Martin Buber (1), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (2), Yeshayahu Leibowitz (3) and David Hartman (4).

Of course, Israel has not, at least to date, performed perfectly in any of these categories, and Kurtzer suggests that this imperfection leads some people – who might be highly supportive of Israel if it was viewed successfully in any of these categories – to turn away from Israel as a major, and perhaps shameful, disappointment.  And that this is particularly true of those younger Jews who have not lived through the creation of Israel in 1948 or the existential threats to Israel in the wars of 1967 or 1973.

The concepts were intriguing and we will see how the future programs deepen the discussion.

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