Both speakers were persuasive, both were intelligent and articulate, and, perhaps surprisingly given their titles, neither argued for greater religious observance. The best way to encapsulate their answers is Torah vs. Israel.
Now, if you happen to believe that securing the Jewish future isn’t a worthy goal, or if you feel that Jews are doing just fine, thank you — even taking into account high rates of intermarriage, high levels of Jewish ignorance, low levels of affiliation and increased criticism of the Jewish homeland — then neither of the two rabbis’ opinions will be of interest to you.
But if you, like me, are concerned about the state of the Jews as well as the Jewish state, then the presentations by Rabbis Ethan Tucker and Daniel Gordis are worth considering separately and together.
Tucker, who is the head of the egalitarian yeshiva Mechon Hadar, argued for Torah learning. Invited to Pittsburgh, with another Hadar teacher, to facilitate intensive chevruta-style learning over the course of a community Shabbaton hosted by Congregation Beth Shalom and sponsored by myriad local Jewish organizations and congregations, Tucker made his case for the Jewish future through Torah by first examining the current state of American Jewry. Tucker argued that in other countries and in previous generations, Jews were forced to identify as Jews because of outside pressures and structures. In America in the 21st century, on the other hand, such outside forcing mechanisms no longer exist. Moreover, as Tucker explained, Judaism does not get transferred from one generation to the next through osmosis. So given this unprecedented freedom, including the freedom to leave Judaism behind, how does one make the case for self-identifying as a Jew?
Tucker’s answer came from the book of Isaiah, specifically the siege of the Jewish kingdom of Judea by the Assyrian king in 701 B.C.E. Instead of being destroyed as the northern Jewish kingdom was 20 years earlier, Judea was saved. Tucker then explained that according to the text, all the men, women and even children of Judea knew the laws of ritual impurity (tuma and tahara). Rabbinic interpreters argue that the comprehensive knowledge of Jewish law was what saved the Jews of Judea. And for Tucker the story is a perfect illustration of the need to teach Jewish law — Torah — to every Jew. As he explained, it isn’t because 3,000-year-old laws are going to perfectly conform to our modern life. The reason is because those laws, those texts — Torah learning in general — is every Jew’s birthright and it is incumbent upon all of us to transfer that information to the next generation.
Three days later, Gordis, vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, spoke at the Heinz History Center on behalf of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and, like Tucker, he also looked back into history to answer the question of how to secure the Jewish future. Instead of looking back several millennia, however, Gordis asked his audience to look back several decades to January 1946 and to imagine what the future of the Jews looked like at that moment in time. According to Gordis, what you would have found would not have filled you with hope because the cradle of Jewish civilization for a thousand years had just gone up in smoke, and looking westward to the United States you would not have seen the same proud Jewish community as it exists now.
“In January 1946,” Gordis explained, “American Jews did not interview for positions on Wall Street wearing a kippa, and did not seek jobs on Madison Avenue informing their prospective employers that they would not work on Shabbat. The self-confidence of American Jews that we now take so for granted was almost nowhere to be found back then. With European Jews going up smokestacks, American Jews mostly went about their business, fearful of rocking the boat of American hospitality.”
AIPAC draws 13,000 people to its annual conference, all of whom spend one of those days on Capitol Hill meeting with their elected representatives to express their support and concerns for Israel. But AIPAC isn’t the only game going. There are other Jewish groups that organize lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel or against whatever the latest threat to Israel’s security might be. Not too long ago, I was honored to join a terrific group of Pittsburghers on a trip to Capitol Hill organized by multiple, local and national Jewish organizations in order to press our legislators to understand the threat posed by Iran.
Gordis noted that such activities were virtually nonexistent during World War II. “Between 1938 and 1945,” Gordis said, “how many Jews ascended [to Capitol Hill] to demand that at least one bomb be dropped on the tracks to Auschwitz, or that American shores be opened to at least some of the thousands of Jews who had literally nowhere to go? During the worst years that the Jews had known in two millennia, virtually no Jews went to Capitol Hill or the White House. There was the famous Rabbis’ March of October 1943, in which some 400 mostly Orthodox rabbis went to the White House (though FDR refused to meet with them), but that was about it.”
For Gordis, the only reason Jews have changed their behavior is the existence of Israel. “The Jews have a future because the Jews have a state,” he said. Gordis even pinpointed the exact moment when the Jewish condition was fundamentally altered — June 1967.
“It was Israel’s victory in 1967 that injected energy into Soviet Jewry and led them to rattle their cage, demanding their freedom,” he avered. “Post-1967, the world saw the Jews as people who would shape their own destiny. Unlike the Tibetans (or Chechnyans or Basques, to name just a few), Jews were no longer tiptoeing around the world, waiting to see what the world had in store for them.” And it isn’t just how Jews are perceived, but how we think of ourselves, Gordis argued. As he has written, “The days of ‘We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we appeared to them’ (Numbers. 13:33) are gone, and the reason is the State of Israel.”
Gordis believes that securing the Jewish future means securing the state of Israel first, period.
Will more Torah learning improve the Jewish people and strengthen our future continuity? Absolutely. But if Israel disappears, there is no one to protect the lives of all the Torah scholars.
(Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based columnist, writes the New York Post’s politics blog Capitol Punishment nypost.com/blogs/capitol) and can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.)