Sunday, June 28, 2009

Independence Day 2008

And so we come to another Fourth of July, the 232nd anniversary of American independence. For all of us, it is a day to celebrate and to feel proud of all our country has accomplished, but it is also more than that in that the Fourth is also an occasion formally to rededicate ourselves to the many great and virtuous ideals that serve collectively as the foundation upon which our founders expected that the republic would rest and which, to a great extent, it still does rest.

For Jewish Americans, the issue of dual loyalty has largely been put to rest. Indeed, from a historical perspective, it is fascinating how little anyone worries about deflecting such charges in advance, say, by not having an Israeli flag on our bimah across from our American one, or by not singing Hatikvah immediately after The Star Spangled Banner at formal dinners or assemblies of different sorts. We barely even understand the issue these days…which is fairly amazing given the degree to which American Jews fretted and fussed over it almost from the beginning of Jewish emigration to this country until relatively recently.

Partially, I think we are all at peace with the place Israel occupies in our thinking and in our hearts precisely because we are so comfortable in our American patriotism. Indeed, when John F. Kennedy affirmed publicly that a Catholic could feel deep ties to the Vatican without that sense of allegiance constituting an irremediable affront to his loyalty to America and to its Constitution, he was merely affirming a truth that American Jews had long since embraced and continue to embrace. And so our position of our unwavering support for Israel has come to feel natural (and to exist calmly within us and our worldview) in a way that seems almost unrelated to the degree to which we feel wholly American, and wholly devoted to the welfare of the country of which we are all citizens.

It wasn’t always so. Lately, I’ve been reading Naomi W. Cohen’s very interesting book, What the Rabbis Said: The Public Discourse of Nineteenth Century American Rabbis, which was published earlier this year by the New York University Press. It’s a masterful study—she’s a masterful historian—and one of the things that made the strongest impression on me was precisely the degree to which my forebears in the rabbinate seem to have found it almost self-evident that they could not possibly be unconflicted Americans without totally rejecting the Zionist ideal as something that the Jewish people could possibly endorse wholeheartedly, let alone actually realize.

The following passage, taken from a sermon delivered on the Fourth of July in 1885 by Kaufman Kohler, then one of America’s leading Reform rabbis, is highly illustrative:

We cannot afford any longer to pray for a return to Jerusalem. It is a blasphemy and a lie upon the lips of every American Jew…We love Jerusalem as the cradle of our national existence, but we do not long for a return. We behold in Jerusalem’s overthrow, not a fall, but a rise to higher glory. For us Zion stands for the fulfillment of humanity’s keenest hopes and loftiest ideas…and “every city of Brother Love” forms a part and link of the same. Consequently, we perceive in the jubilant tocsin peals of American liberty the mighty resonance of Sinai’s thunder. We recognize in the Fourth of July the offspring of the Sixth of Sivan (the date of Shavuot, anniversary of the bestowing of the Torah upon the Israelites camped at Sinai). We behold in the glorious sway of man’s sovereignty throughout this blessed land the foundation stone for the temple of humanity we hope and pray for (Cohen, What the Rabbis Said, pp. 124-125).

It’s hard to imagine hearing a rabbi of any denominational affiliation deliver those words today. In one short paragraph, Kohler dismisses Herzl’s great idea as a fantasy wholly inimical to American dream, describes the exile of Israel from its land (which debacle we have formally and forcefully regretted in our liturgy for two thousand years) as something we should celebrate as a great step forward towards the fulfillment of our national destiny, and declares that the trajectory forward from Sinai leads not to the Heikhal Haatzma’ut in Tel Aviv, but to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Nor was he alone in this thinking. Cohen’s book—which I recommend to all of you—is filled with similar quotations. They all approach the matter from slightly different directions, but the underlying notion is invariably the same: that American Jews will only bring disaster (or, at the very least, charges of disloyalty that will lead to disaster) upon themselves by allowing anyone to think, even incorrectly, that we collectively maintain any sort of tie, deep or even casual, to any other land. And if that meant rejecting millennia of Jewish thinking, then that was a price well worth paying! It was not our finest hour.

Irish Americans don’t live in Ireland. Italian Americans don’t live in Italy. Polish Americans don’t live in Poland. And Jewish Americans live here, not in Israel. But I don’t believe that any of those other communities ever spent as much time or energy suffering over the question of their relationship to their ancestral homelands as our people did: they simply accepted that they were Americans with deep, unbreakable ties to the European lands of their ancestors and left it at that! Only we seem to have felt the need to repudiate those bonds for the sake of making even more apparent the degree to which we have embraced Americanism.

How far we have come from that kind of self-defeating rhetoric, from the notion that somehow to be loyal Americans means turning our backs on the eternal ties that bind all Jewish people to Jerusalem and to the Land of Israel!

In a day when anti-Semites regularly and publicly insisted that no Jew could be fully American, I suppose it must have seemed important to deny that truth forcefully by repudiating even emotional (let alone political) ties to the Land of Israel. But we—the Jews of our day, I mean—have chosen the wiser and more thoughtful course, and by far. Indeed, by embracing our American heritage without feeling any sort of concomitant obligation to turn away from the mitzvot that bind us to the land of Israel, by owning up publicly both to the deep ties we all feel to our co-citizens of this great country and by being unafraid to show ourselves as unconflicted members of the House of Israel whose ties to Jews everywhere and especially to the Jews of Israel are unencumbered by ill ease or by a lack of self-confidence engendered by endless worrying about what others might think—by adopting these healthy, self-assured attitudes, we have created a climate in which it feels natural to live openly as committed, engaged Jewish people whose ties to Israel are as basic a part of our national identity and self-conception as is our identity as unconflicted, wholly patriotic Americans. And that, it seems to me, constitutes a great step forward for our Jewish community as a whole and also for each of us as individual Jewish citizens. (July 3, 2008)

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