The Great Schism

January 12, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


If you have ever taught Hebrew School or been a student in a Hebrew school classroom, then you know that one of the great set inductions for a discussion of Jewish identity is the deceptively simple question: “Is Judaism a religion?” The immediate response from the class will often be a resounding “Yes!” or, depending on the age of the students, a wave of shrugged shoulders signaling the sentiment “Why did the rabbi just ask a question whose answer is patently obvious?” What is Judaism if not a religion? We have a set of beliefs, festivals, mitzvot (commandments) that reflect the expressed will of God. Of course Judaism is a religion. But then, inevitably, an intrepid student will raise a hand and boldly suggest otherwise: Judaism is not a religion; we are a nationality or a people or an ethnicity or something else. There are plenty of Jews who don’t observe mitzvot, who don’t celebrate the festivals, plenty of Jews who are atheists. These Jews are Jews by way of their attachment to other Jews, or to the broader Jewish people, or to the state of Israel. The connection of these Jews to Jews in New York, New Zealand, or Netanya is not religious per se but rather reflects a sense of peoplehood, of shared destiny, and – in the case of Israel – of the nation-state of the Jews. Besides, another enterprising student may say, what Judaism is, is not a question for Jews alone to decide. There are anti-Semites who may see Jews as a race or a bloodline – a claim that makes no sense given that there are white, black, brown, and other kinds of Jews, including, for that matter, Jews who have converted to Judaism. It is at that magical moment when that initial shrug of indifference turns into a furrowed brow of intellectual curiosity, that the learning begins. An apparently simple question, revealed to be not so very simple.

I raise the question of “Is Judaism is a religion?” not merely as a set induction for the classroom of this sanctuary. I want to suggest that embedded in the answer to that question is the crux of one of the most critical issues facing the Jewish world today: the relationship between diaspora Jewry and Israeli Jewry. Four hundred fifty-two members of our congregation have just returned from a historic mission to Israel. We are energized, educated, engaged, and inspired. Many of us have also returned filled with questions and consternation on the prospects for peace, on Israel’s ability to house religious pluralism, on the challenge of how to lovingly embrace and fearlessly defend an Israel that often acts in breach of the values, practices, and aspirations at the very foundation of the Judaism from which our love for Israel emanates. Those who were not on the trip to Israel need look no further than the pages of The New York Times, The Jewish Week, or Times of Israel to see this discussion bubbling up to the surface. Just a few days ago, the Times ran a full-page op-ed declaring the arrival of another “Great Schism,”  an unbridgeable and perhaps irreparable divide between the two major centers of world Jewry. Be it due to the euthanizing of the two-state solution, the Israeli disregard for liberal expressions of Judaism within and beyond Israel, or our toxic moment of intersectionality and identity politics on the left and the right, when it comes to the State of the Union of World Jewry, we all know – to put it gently – there is much work to be done.

This morning, rather than talking about the Kotel or Palestinian autonomy or any other symptom of the frayed relationship, I want to discuss what I believe to be the primary underlying cause for our present dysfunction, and that is the simple but not-so-simple question of whether Judaism is a religion.Right about now, I imagine you have no idea where I am going. To understand the present, we need to take a big leap backwards. Trust me a little, strap on a seatbelt, and hang in there. I can’t promise that we’ll end with everything neatly tied up in a bow, but I do hope that the next few minutes will leave you with just the right amount of knowledge and questions that you may just be prompted to sign up for my history of Zionism class which begins Tuesday night.

Once upon a time, or at least for nearly 1800 years, there were only two words that mattered for the Jewish people – Golah (exile) and Geulah (redemption). Jews lived in Golah – cast out of their land by the Romans in 70 CE and, depending on the context, subject to anything from the good graces or persecutions of their gentile hosts. We were the “other,” a community apart, a people who, while granted an element of self-governance, were never granted the opportunity to integrate into civil society. We prayed for Geulah – a messianic redemption and return to the land – but except for the direction we faced in prayer, the breaking of glasses at weddings as a remembrance of Jerusalem, and some notable individuals who went to live, die, or be buried in Israel, the return to the land was strictly theological. We were Jews because we were other, as defined by us and by those around us.

For just shy of 2000 years, this is how Jews lived, until that fateful day when our good friend Modernity entered the room with his two sidekicks Emancipation and Enlightenment. We’re going to set aside the latter of them for the moment so we can deal directly with the former. Emancipation shattered all the assumptions of the past centuries. It didn’t happen all at once or in the same way, but in France, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere, formally and informally, for the very first time, Jews were granted the opportunity to integrate into civil society. It was a joyous time, no doubt an Octoberfest to remember, but in the midst of all the newfound freedom, a whole lot of new questions came into play. If we were now citizens of our respective countries, then were we still in exile? If we were now subject to French or German law, then what became of Jewish self-governance? If we were no longer a separate and distinct people, then what exactly were we?

It is at this point that Judaism became a religion. No longer a “people apart,” Jews began to think of themselves as a religion in the Protestant sense of the word. We had our rituals, we had our festivals, we established our synagogues (this one included) no different than our non-Jewish neighbors who had their rituals and their churches. Jews renounced the notion that Judaism was a national identity; we were now, for example, “German Citizens of the Mosaic faith.” It is a story that started with a man named Moses Mendelssohn and reached its apotheosis with the Reform movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which proudly declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As a religion, Jews were no longer in the Golah and thus no longer in need of Geulah, a return to the land. Significantly, this turn to Judaism as a religion was not limited to the Reform. Modern Orthodoxy – a reaction to the Reform Movement – was also a product of the Emancipation. The festivals, dietary restrictions, and otherwise – these too were the religious demands of the religion of Judaism, not in any way contradictory to the secular demands of the state.

And this is where the story might have ended except that during those same 1870s and 1880s, as one slice of the Jewish world was busy building the institutions of diaspora religious life, something else was also happening. A whole lot of Jews were coming to realize that the promise of the Emancipation had been revealed to be a fraud. Whether it was the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the 1880s or the famed French Dreyfus trial of the 1890s, it became increasingly clear that Jews were not really becoming full members of these modern nation-states, a concept which would be realized in its full horror with the Holocaust. All of which is why it was precisely during these years that the earliest Zionist thinkers – Smolenskin, Pinsker and, of course, Herzl – pronounced that Judaism was not a religion, but a nation. We are a nation because we are attached to the land. We are a nation because we are attached to each other. We are a nation because the gentiles will never accept us as part of their nations. The emergence of Zionism in the 1880s wasn’t just a rejection of the Enlightenment or the false promise of the diaspora. Zionism was a rejection of the notion that Judaism was just a religion. In the years to come there would be different kinds of Zionism – political, religious, and cultural – each one with its own flavor. But at its core, to paraphrase the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am, Zionism came to remind diaspora Jews that they were “slaves in their freedom,” misguided in their naïve belief that they could practice their religion under the false promise of a liberal state. (Cited in Leora Batnitzky, How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought, p. 156) No longer were Jews going to wait for Geulah. Jewish brothers and sisters were doin’ it for themselves, which is why Pinsker’s famous essay is entitled “Auto-Emancipation.” That is what Zionism was and continues to be: “A land without a nation for a nation without a land.”

So there it is, two notions of what Judaism is: a religion or a nationality. Two roads that diverged both philosophically and geographically in the 1880s. It is not, to be sure, the only time that Judaism has been redefined. In our Torah reading today, the soon-to-be-emancipated Israelite slaves were given a calendar, a set of rituals, dietary laws, a historical memory, and all the accoutrements of a religion to replace the glue of shared oppression which had been their national bond for hundreds of years. It is not an airtight distinction: diaspora Jewry has had its prophets of peoplehood like Mordecai Kaplan, just as Israel has had its champions of Judaism as a religion like Yeshayahu Leibowitz. But for the most part, two worlds of Judaism have emerged. American Jews have defined their identities by way of ritual observance or non-observance, the causes of social justice, and other practices. Israelis, both religious and secular, see the world totally differently: Israel is a nation – one that is surrounded by hostile neighbors. The world is divided into an “us” and a “them” and it is that lens that determines national priorities. For diaspora Jews, the whole point of practicing (or not practicing) Judaism as a religion is that it proves that Jews can live side-by-side with our gentile neighbors. In the eyes of Israelis, such an approach is delusional. Be it Pinsker, Jabotinksy, Ben Gurion, or Israel’s present Prime Minister – there are only two outcomes for diaspora Jewry: anti-Semitism or assimilation. American Jews bristle at an Israel that not only fails to acknowledge their religious identities, but carries out policies in breach of what they believe their Judaism to be about. Israelis have neither the time or patience to make sense of the choices of American Jews, which, with a few notable exceptions like the Pittsburgh shooting, are being made in the most comfortable circumstances in which Jews have ever existed. Israelis are choosing not to care about their diaspora religionist cousins and diaspora Jews are choosing to stop defending a Jewish state whose nationalistic expressions of Judaism no longer reflect the very religion they hold dear.

It is a vicious cycle that builds and builds and builds. There is no question that a schism exists between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry, but we miss the point if we think it is just about the Kotel, the two-state solution, or the decision of the Netanyahu government to cozy up to authoritarian European governments. This schism is about two fundamentally different understandings of Jewish identity and about the emergence of two Jewish communities which reflect the different contexts in which we function. We know we are related. In theory we want to get along, but in practice it is really, really hard. Not because one Jewry is right and one is wrong, but because we see the world – or more specifically, our Judaism – in such very different ways.

I wish I had an easy fix, but I don’t. There are knots to untangle, and, at the end of the day, I pray that American Jewry and Israeli Jewry continue in strength – which, by definition, means that they continue to grow in their own ways. Perhaps as in any good therapy session, the best we can do is  admit to the problem, acknowledge each other for who we are, listen to each other even if we don’t always agree, and try our best not to project our own inadequacies onto our partner, who is hopefully just doing their level best to deal with their own issues.

A final thought. These last few weeks both in Israel and since our congregational trip returned, I have been asked time and again, by congregants, community leaders, and journalists – both Israeli and American – why we as a synagogue or I personally have not leveraged the platform of Park Avenue Synagogue to protest the wrongs that I see taking place in Israel. It is a fair question. For the moment, my answer is that when faced with a relationship in need of repair, in our private families or our global family, one can choose to pick and tear at it, or one can choose to lean into it with expressions of love, earned trust, and the belief that by having a seat at the table, one is better positioned to effectuate change. I am well aware, I promise you, of the problems facing American and Israeli Jewry. There are few topics I think about more. We have two different worlds of Judaism, and right now we are talking past each other. I have chosen, and, by extension, this synagogue has chosen, to lean in. I am choosing to work for that day when American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are able to retrieve a common language, a day when we acknowledge not just our shared past but also our shared destiny, a day when we come to realize that Judaism is both a religion and a nationhood. That redemptive day is not yet upon us, but it is a day worth working towards and fighting for. As one wise person once said: “If you will it, it is no dream.”