Thursday, December 06, 2007

Ahavat Yisrael vs Jewish Civilization

Mordecai Kaplan - founder of Reconstructionist Judaism - famously defined Judaism as "the evolving civilization of the Jewish people." He also was a notorious innovator, on the "left wing" of American Judaism, and not afraid to antagonize Jews of all stripes, most certainly the Orthodox. In fact he himself was excommunicated and his first Reconstructionist Prayer Book was burnt by Orthodox Jews in NYC in 1945.

Neither Kaplan nor his Orthodox opponents where deterred from expressing their opinions by an over concern for propriety, nor were they persuaded to hide their conflicts in order to promote a false "Jewish unity" for public consumption. Though Kaplan was certainly committed to the survival of the Jewish People, he was not cowed by a call for "Ahavat Yisrael" (the Love of Israel) in either his criticism of other Jews or of the State of Israel. Neither where his Orthodox opponents.

But that is precisely what living in a civilization means. While you are steeped in its symbols, metaphors, arguments, ideas, values - you don't necessarily support them all. Indeed you fight to shape the civilization to those values you hold most dear; to have it adopt the symbols and metaphors that speak loudest to you and disown the characteristics you find most troublesome; to shape the civilization in your own image. Criticizing other members of your civilization or its institutions can in fact be the height of communal commitment. It is a sign of caring and involvement. In the Jewish context, it can be motivated, as often as not, by "Ahavat Yisrael" as by its opposite.

What should matter, to those that are worried about the survival of Jewish civilization, is that people are involved. That they know the issues, symbols, images, and care enough to discuss them passionately and to express their opinions publicly is a good thing, and should be seen as such, and encouraged.

I was brought to this insight partly by this humorous ad (click on video above). Obviously created by and for secular Israelis, it pokes fun at the ultra-orthodox, in order to sell High Definition TV to Israelis. It makes use of images and symbols that will no doubt make Hasidim cringe. It uses their very opposition to modernity as a selling feature of HD TV. The implicit assumption of the advertiser is that, for secular Israelis, if the ultra-orthodox hate it, it must be good. Some will see this as sinat yisrael - hatred of fellow Jews. And indeed it might be. There is no love lost between secular and ultra-orthodox Israelis.

But it is also a sign that the secular Israelis - both the ad makers and the target audience - are steeped in a common Jewish civilization with their haredi counterparts. Non Jews (and probably and large number of North American Jews) will not get this ad - how perfectly it plays on ultra-orthodox "mishegaas". And how perfectly it says, "This is not the Jewish civilization that we want."

Sadly many Jewish institutions feel that much criticism is outside the pale. This only serves to make Judaism seem monolithic and boring. It drives people away, and makes the continued vibrancy and indeed survival of Jewish civilization a question mark. We need more chutzpadik ads, more edgy criticism, more debate - not less.


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