Part 1: A Very Jewish Dialogue
I attended the above event held a couple of evenings ago on the campus of Yeshiva University in Manhattan and felt I needed to respond. It is a little long so feel free to read part one and then part two.
The subject matter was broad, ranging from Israeli national security, the threat of Iran, to the results of the recent survey of the United States Jewish community. The topics were of great interest to the hundreds of attendees who, like me, only heard about the event a few days before. The dialogue lived up to the intensity of the title! The panelists discussed potential threats to Israel – which impact all Jews everywhere – and also some deep concerns brought to the surface by the recent Portrait of American Jews, a survey by the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project.
The speakers were well chosen by the director of This World: The Values Network, Shmuley Boteach, and included Sheldon Adelson, Chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, who is a Jewish philanthropist and major benefactor of the Birthright Israel program.
Additionally, recent Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Bret Stephens, was on the panel, as was Dr. Richard Joel, the current president of Yeshiva University. Joel is a well-known and respected Jewish leader who formally led the Hillel organization – a part of the B’nai B’rith, which focuses on college campuses.
One of the critical political questions asked of the panelists was whether or not current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would “go it alone” if he felt the Iranian nuclear threat needed to be handled militarily in the immediate future.
Bret Stephens suggested that Netanyahu would not act without the blessing of the United States and chided him for being overly concerned with what other nations, including the United States, would think about such action.
Sheldon Adelson, who knows the Israeli Prime Minister well, believed he would act and take military action with or without the support of other countries – including the United States.
The discussion was fascinating but the views of the four panelists were not all that different, as each one believed that a secure and safe Israel was critical for the Jewish people, as well as for the United States and the West. Each one agreed with Netanyahu in his recent speech before the United Nations, believing that the current president of Iran would continue the same policies as his predecessor and maintain the same attitude towards the West and Israel.
The most vehement critic of Iran was the more secular Jew, Bret Stephens, who suggested that the real problem is not the current president, Hassan Rouhani but rather the supreme commander of Iran, Ali Khamenei.
Adelson concurred with those who believed that Rouhani was a believer in a form of Muslim eschatology held by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the military leadership of Iran. He specifically mentioned their belief in the Twelfth Imam, who is expected to come and save Islam and establish the Islamic view of a perpetual Islamic kingdom. In order for this to Imam to come – who is currently allegedly hidden – there must be chaos in the world. This viewpoint is well described by popular author Joel Rosenberg in a recent series of fiction books.
Adelson thinks that Rouhani believes the use of nuclear weapons by Iran would create that chaos. In light of this, he believes that nothing but force will stop the Iranian nuclear threat, as it is theologically driven. He called upon Israel and the United States to take military action (even nuclear) to force Iran to back down from their nuclear program, but believed they should be able to utilize non-weapons grade plutonium for the creation of energy.
Part 2 of the Very Jewish Dialogue
This first part of the program was quite engaging, but the second part was even more interesting and evoked greater differences between the panelists during the discussion over the Pew survey results.
Boteach posed the possibility that within a short time all Jewish people – aside from those who are Orthodox – would disappear. Stephens suggested that the only way for the Jewish people to survive is to hitch their star to Israel. He added that though he was a totally secular Jew he was also glad that some Jews practice the Jewish religion in a more traditional way, as knowing that more religious Jews exist brings him a certain level of peace and security.
Boteach suggested that reaching out to Jewish young adults on university campuses who for the first time are faced with various lifestyle choices would be the best way to help so many Jewish young people feel part of the greater Jewish community. The Pew research demonstrated that the numbers of disenfranchised Jewish people was growing at a significant rate.
Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Adelson affirmed Boteach’s suggestion and said that this is why they are committed to funding Birthright Israel to bring young Jewish people to Israel. The program has strengthened the Jewish identity of literally thousands of young Jews. Adelson also raised the flag for his new site entitled Rethink Israel which is going to be the focus of your effort to help young people think that Israel is “cool”.
Dr. Joel took issue with Boteach’s suggestion that the key to strengthening the identity of a new generation of Jews could and should happen on the college campus. He said that while all of this is important, the most important part of helping new generations of Jewish people grow in their Jewish identity is through reshaping and strengthening the Jewish home.
Boteach seemed to be the one most concerned with the Pew study about the declining numbers of Jewish people having involvement in Jewish life. The other three seemed concerned, but not as shaken as Boteach by the results.
I tend to agree with Boteach and believe that the Pew study is going to have a significant impact on the Jewish community in the United States. It is going to take some time before the results of the survey are assimilated, but I believe the Jewish community will start developing various programs to strengthen what the survey pointed out as problematic.
I am sorry that Boteach, who is usually a very fair and reasonable person, mentioned the Pew finding that more than 34% of the Jewish community felt that a Jew can believe in Jesus with evident disdain and as evidence of how far the American Jewish community is drifting from the true faith.
According to the Pew report and commentating on their own survey,
The only clear no-no, though, is believing Jesus was the Messiah, which clear majorities of most subgroups say is incompatible with being Jewish; even so, about a third (34%) of Jews say a person can be Jewish even if he or she believes Jesus was the Messiah. (Our researchers didn’t include so-called “Messianic Jews,” as part of the main survey population; they were considered people of Jewish background or Jewish affinity.)
The above is terribly unscientific and shows both a flaw in the study and reflects the prejudice within the Jewish community against Jewish believers in Yeshua – especially those who maintain a Jewish lifestyle. Most Messianic Jews, like myself (I was raised as a nominal member of the Young Israel movement), have strong ties to the Jewish community and Israel and share many of the same values of those who believe God spoke to humanity at Sinai. Perhaps it is precisely this religious bigotry when expressed in other areas that is turning many of our young people off to a more traditional expression of Judaism?
This continued prejudice against Messianic Jews, who have a Jewish identity, love Israel and consider themselves as part of the Jewish community, has got to stop.
The mainstream Jewish community cannot continue to heap thousands of years of reaction to religious persecution by alleged “Christians” at the feet of Messianic Jews whose ancestors experienced this same persecution.
Perhaps the most distressing part of the mainstream Jewish community recent behavior towards Messianic Jews has been the unfortunate way Messianic Jewish young adults have been barred from participation in Birthright Israel and goes against everything Birthright is trying to accomplish. Messianic Jewish young adults who have either been asked to leave a Birthright trip or were barred at the last moment from participation have been alienated from mainstream Judaism.
These prejudices against Messianic Jews need to be reconsidered; and rather than distancing Messianic Jewish young adults from the Jewish community, they should be embraced.
I was happy to find out that a third of the Jewish community is changing in their attitudes towards Messianic Jews, which gives me some hope for the future.
This Part is Really Important!
In general it was a great evening, but I felt the question Boteach asked near the end of the program was both profound and worth pondering.
Boteach, asked, Can you have a Jewish future without the Jewish religion?
My answer would be NO… but in order to survive and thrive, the Jewish religion must reshape and recast itself for a new day. Sometimes I think Moses would never recognize the “religion” revealed at Mt. Sinai!
May I offer a few suggestions, based upon the survey results that express what many Jewish people today are looking for in Judaism? I hope that Jewish leaders will begin promoting something slightly different than a very traditional religious faith and go beyond the religion to show the relevance of the God of Israel to the people of Israel.
1. Many Jewish people and young Jews in particular are looking for a personal relationship with God and not an institutional religion – no matter how old and beautiful it is. Sometimes the beauty of Jewish tradition (and it can be very beautiful) eclipses our ability to develop a deeper and more personal relationship with God!
2. I also think that Judaism needs to tone down the emphasis on the Hebrew language. Who wants to follow a faith we literally cannot understand – and why should we learn a new language in order to speak to God? It is a real turn-off to so many and yet there is little serious, non-guilt-producing discussion on this important issue.
The survey reported,
Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet. But far fewer (13% of Jews overall, including 16% of Jews by religion and 4% of Jews of no religion) say they understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.
The Reform movement had it right in thinking that Jews should be able to pray in the vernacular, but sometimes veered from a more traditional and Scripturally-founded understanding of the One to whom we prayed. We need to find a balance between prayer in our native tongue, salted with the Hebrew language of our forefathers and brothers and sisters in Israel, and spontaneity of conversation that is expected between those who love one another.
3. We have made far too much of institutional religions. For many, community is more important than the performance of religious ritual. What so many love about being Jewish is what Richard Joel referred to as “telling our story.” And in this he refers to our Jewish story – which goes far beyond religion.
Our relationship to God, to our community and to our Land will be forever intertwined. Some emphasize one over the other. After all, there would be no modern state of Israel if Theodor Herzl had sought religious solutions to Jewish survival. I am convinced that far less emphasis on formal religion and more focus on understanding our Jewish story as a community with a history, culture and a land, would bring many young Jews back to the Jewish people as a whole. We cannot allow the Jewish religion to become the only gateway to the Jewish community, or the words of the Pew survey will become prophetic.
May I suggest that connecting to the God of Israel is really the mortar or cement that Adelson talked about, which has the power to build an intergenerational Jewish community? It is God Himself who gives Jewish identity meaning that transcends both formal religious expression and secularism. This is what will give Judaism the dynamism to survive and give the Jewish people a future.
We are a theocentric community, whether we know it or not, and the relationship of the Jewish people to the God of Israel rises above the mundane and lifts the heart and soul to new heights of values, ethics, hope and faith…and commitment to the Jewish people. Our young people need a way to know Him.
Yeshua the Messiah was my gateway back to the community, and I am convinced that the deep and rich relationship I now have with the God of my Fathers through the Messiah has made me a better Jew.
Thanks for the dialogue, Shmuley – it was thought provoking and fruitful!