Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Tale of Two Jonathans

I wrote last week about the degree to which Donald Trump reminded me of Andrew Jackson when I heard him (Trump, not Jackson) speak at AIPAC a few weeks ago. Today, I’d like to further hone the skill of finding traces of the imagined future in the recollected past with respect to Jonathan Edwards, a far less well-known personality but in his own way just as pivotal a one. I hadn’t thought of him or read any of his work in a long time. And then something J.J. Goldberg, of all people, said at the rabbis’ luncheon at AIPAC rang a distant bell with me, one it took me a few days to identify correctly.

J. J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of The Forward, is not someone who immediately brings eighteenth-century Congregationalist clerics to mind. Nor did his topic at the luncheon, at which he shared the podium with Bret Stephens, formerly the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post and now a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, have anything to do with theology per se, Jewish or Christian. Instead, this being an AIPAC forum, he chose to speak about the error he believes we all make in assuming that the relatively unimpressive level of support for Israel we see among today’s Jewish college students is a function of their displeasure with this or that one of Israel’s policies. (Goldberg was speaking about college students, but the problem is hardly a feature solely of campus life: the Jewish blogosphere has long been grappling with the same issue as it applies across the board more broadly to our American Jewish community in general, Elliot Abram’s essay, “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” published earlier this week in the online magazine Mosaic only being the latest in a long series of essays on the topic, albeit a particularly interesting and intelligent one. But there have been many others too, some insightful, some provocative, some too partisan to be useful to any who don’t already share their authors’ opinions. If you are reading this electronically, click here to see what Abram had to say.)

Goldberg, however, was talking about Jews on campus. And his sense is that the responsibility, or at least the lion’s share of it, for declining levels of support for Israel among our young people rests with the older generation, their parents, who somehow expected them magically to embrace Zionism but who failed to create the context in which that kind of bedrock-level, gut-based solidarity with Israel takes root and, if properly watered, flourishes naturally. In other words, we—and I speak here as a member of my own generation—we have forgotten that the soil in which Jewish identification—and a sense of solidarity with other Jewish people and particularly with the Land of Israel—the sole soil in which that kind of commitment to personal identity flourishes is Judaism itself. The annual AIPAC Policy Conference is the largest annual gathering of Jewish people outside of Israel. Eighteen thousand delegates attended this year, and more than ten thousand of them were there because they were part of synagogue delegations, which is to say that they were there because their sense of personal responsibility for securing the future of the Jewish State is related directly to their devotion to their faith and its rituals and its festivals. But when our children suddenly find themselves in the overtly hostile environments that prevail in so many of our college campuses, settings in which anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism flourish because the administrators of those schools are concerned with every conceivable kind of prejudice except the kind directed against Jews, they lack the basic orientation towards Judaism itself that leads directly, and almost inexorably, to a deeply felt sense of dedication and personal responsibility for Jews everywhere…but particularly in Israel, where the Jewish population is regularly threatened with annihilation by large, powerful enemies like Iran. (That dismal description of our nation’s college campuses, by the way, is hardly my own observation but comes directly from the pen of Lawrence H. Summers, the president emeritus of Harvard University, writing in a blog on the Washington Post website. Click here and prepare to be seriously depressed.)

Bret Stephens agreed with most of these points, but it was J.J. Goldberg that made the stronger impression, at least on me personally, but arguing the point that, if we have failed to create a generation of millennials who feel personally aggressed against when the State of Israel is attacked, it isn’t because of whom the Prime Minister is at the moment or his party affiliation or any of his policies, but rather because we’ve failed to raise up a generation of Jews committed, not to Zionism, but to Judaism itself. In other words, both speakers—both possessed of dynamic, insightful intellects—were in easy agreement that what we’ve failed to do is to make the whole issue personal, to make it clear to the up-and-coming generation that this is not about Israel but about them, that enemies of Israel are their personal enemies, that we fool ourselves when we embrace the fantasy that we can make common cause with our enemies and not eventually be their victims anyway, that our behavior when the historical link between the People Israel and the Land of Israel is questioned or mocked is not a matter of personal political orientation, but part of a cosmic drama that has been unfolding since Israel stood at Sinai and accepted the burden of an eternal covenantal relationship with God on its recently enslaved shoulders.

And that brings me to Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps you can remember learning about him in eleventh grade. Perhaps not. By today’s standard, he lived a short life—born in 1703 and ordained (like myself) at age 24, he was a working clergyman for most his life, then president of the school that would eventually be called Princeton University for about five weeks before he died in 1758—but his influence was so great in his day that the great religious revival of his day, called The First Great Awakening by scholars of religion, can reasonably be said to be a national response to his preaching and writing(Other central figures were George Whitefield and Samuel Davies. But Edwards is the one whose works are still read.)

His most famous sermon, published in his day as an independent pamphlet and later in many collections of his writings, was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” an elaborate midrash on the words le’eit tamut raglam (“their foot shall slip in due time”) taken from the Haazinu poem that appears in Deuteronomy almost at the very end of the Torah as Moses’s final effort to wax poetic before composing his final blessings and then climbing the mountain to his private death. It had been a while. I hadn’t really dipped into Edwards work since I read several of his sermons and his book the Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue at Ramah Canada the summer I met Joan. But somehow it was the opening passage of that one sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that J.J. Goldberg’s remarks nevertheless awakened in me when I heard him speak at AIPAC.

Even though I doubt he could ever actually have met a Jewish person, Edwards begins by talking about the nature of the Jewish people. (The earliest mention of there being a Jew in Massachusetts, where Edwards lived for almost all of his adult life, dates back to 1649, but the first real Jewish communities in the Commonwealth were only established during the Revolutionary War decades after he died.) His understanding of Israel must therefore purely have been based on the Bible and on his intuitive sense of what it ever could mean to belong to God’s chosen people. On top of that, he obviously read his Scripture through the lens of Protestant Christianity. But he still got things pretty straight, particularly for someone of his time and place.

He begins by noting that the Jewish people, by virtue of the intimacy that inheres in its covenantal relationship with God, is always on the brink of destruction just “as one that stands or walks in slippery places is always exposed to fall.” (That is, after all, precisely what Scripture says in the verse Edwards chose as the title of his sermon.) Nor is this accidental or unearned: for Edwards, the natural situation of the Jewish people is precariousness itself. And then he moves forward with this idea that living on the edge of a sword is Israel’s natural condition, noting that Israel is “always exposed to sudden, unexpected destruction,” precisely because that kind of danger results from being the focus of God’s watchful gaze not unlike the way parents are always far more concerned with—and eager to respond to—their own children’s behavior than with other people’s. Nor will this precariousness always be the result of hostility on the part of others. Implied by the very nature of Jewishness is that the Jews “are liable to fall of themselves without being thrown down by the hand of another, just as he who walks on slippery ground needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down.”  In other words, Edwards understands Israel to stand or slip, to thrive or decline, to flourish or perish, not primarily because of the machinations of others, including even Israel’s most violent, angriest foes, but because of their own inability to hew to the core concepts of Israelite faith, to embrace the commandments, to live lives of unremitting fealty to the terms of the covenant that binds them to God.

It only follows, then, that to prepare our young people to feel as personally and emotionally committed to the security and well-being of the Jewish state as their parents will have to involve commitment not to the Prime Minister of Israel, whoever he or she might be at any given moment, or to some leftist or rightist philosophy of political Zionism, but to Jewishness itself…and particularly to Judaism. By missing that point—and by deluding ourselves into thinking that we can transmit Jewish values without anchoring them in religion—we do our children (and, by extension, their children and their children’s children) a huge disservice.

Edwards, preaching in church, clearly understood the ancient Israelites to the be spiritual forebears of his own co-religionists far more meaningfully than of the world’s actual Jewish people. That much he makes clear as he moves forward with his remarks and it is there that we part company: for me, nothing could possibly be more axiomatic than the notion that today’s Jews are the spiritual descendants of their own ancestors. But before we part company on that point, Edward’s lesson is compelling, even to the point of being chastening. The world’s nations will be judged based on the way they relate to Israel. Individual Israelites need to accept the precariousness that inheres in membership in the House of Israel as their normal situation, together with all that suggests about the “real” nature of anti-Semitism. It is not possible to go to war with Israel without concomitantly going to war with the God of Israel…and any who forget that do so at their own peril. And that the ultimate weapon Jewish people have to protect themselves and their interests is to embrace the faith of their ancestors with all possible exactitude.

J.J. Goldberg said something like that at AIPAC and it inspired me to hear him say it. That it somehow brought to mind the words of a Puritan minister who lived more than 250 years ago probably says more about me than about either of these Jonathans, Goldberg or Edwards. But the notion that the way to secure future support for the State of Israel among the college-age offspring of the men and women of the House of Israel is to strengthen their commitment to Judaism itself—that notion resonates strongly with me and reminds me why it is I chose this particular path in life that I pursue…and why, even after all these years, I continue to think of my life in the pulpit as the m’lekhet ha-kodesh—the holy work—to which I was and continue to feel called personally.

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