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Promised Land, Golden Land: Why Jewish Survival Depends on Both Israel and America

In his new book, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit argues that without Israel, secular Jewish life will vanish. Six American Jews reply.

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; 1901 illustration Hebrew Publishing Company via Wikimedia Commons, stamp Arkady Mazor/Shutterstock, Empire State Building photo SeanPavonePhoto/Shutterstock.com, Dome of the Rock photo Shutterstock)
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Few non-Orthodox American Jews, will ever move to Israel—and most Orthodox American Jews aren’t likely to do so anytime soon either. It’s not for lack of appreciation or love of the Holy Land; it’s just a reality. Whether for economic, social, cultural or yes, even religious reasons, most American Jews, the Orthodox included, have chosen to remain, at least for now, in the Diaspora. That’s neither an indictment nor a defense, only a fact. But the Jewish identity and continuity of Orthodox Americans who see their aliyah as dependent on the Messiah will not suffer for their continuing sojourn on these shores.

Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah:
Amazingly the gentile world has allowed us to make the choice: Do we want to marry someone who will nurture the Jewish nature of our family, who will value our tradition and our Jewish national aspirations?

My rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, had strong views of how a Jew should behave, but, at the same time, he opposed hero worship and loved the freedom Jews have in the United States to view the traditional sources and freely make up their own minds about how to live as Jews—or not. While well aware of its risks, he believed people—Jews—had to be free to make their own choices and be responsible for their own behavior. Statistics show we may collectively be making the wrong choices in our Judaism—but statistics also show we have never had more freedom to make our own choices about what kinds of Jews, or what kinds of people, we want to be. The blessings and challenges of a free-choice society leave us responsible for owning up to the scary but holy reality that God trusts us—needs us—to make the best choices we humanly can.

Leibovitz: I have no desire to linger on the innately problematic nature of arguing that a religion that had survived for millennia in exile, and whose canonical texts were, for the most part, composed far from the warm dunes of the Promised Land, suddenly depends on one geographical location, sacred as it may be, to survive. In the spirit of Shavit’s own personal candor, I wish to assure him, myself, and anyone else who may be occupied by this question that in the 14 years that have passed since I landed in Manhattan, my commitment to Judaism has grown stronger, an attachment I’m certain my children, too, will inherit and nurture. Why? It has to do with volcanoes.

For Shavit, the fiery mountain is a key metaphor. “We,” he writes, meaning Israelis, “are always restless, for we live between great fires. We thrive between calamities. That’s why we are so quick and vital and creative. That’s why we are so neurotic and loud and unbearable. We dwell under the looming shadow of a smoking volcano.” Take away the threat of imminent lava, and you lose the will to live, the drive to create, the particular spark that helps the tiny nation thrive.

I agree. But the metaphor extends far beyond Israel’s geographical borders. It applies, I believe, to Jews as such, wherever they may be; for us, the volcano is in the mind, the heart, and the soul. The religion was designed that way: Its key moment is the revelation on Mt. Sinai, in which God anoints us his chosen ones. He does not, however, tell us why we were chosen, or for what, or if there was any way to be unchosen, or whether chosenness automatically applies to our children after us. He leaves us with our questions. To have been chosen, then, is to spend eternity wondering what it means to have been chosen, which is as much of a looming eruption as anything a mortal mind could ever grasp—and it shadows us, wherever we go.

Shafran: Unlike the carrying-poles of the Tabernacle’s other holy vessels, those by which the Ark of the Covenant was borne were never to be removed from the grapples built into its sides. No reason is given for the Torah’s insistence on those poles’ permanent placement, but Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the celebrated 19th-century German commentator, suggests that it signifies something that has import for the question of the American Jewish future: What the ark holds—the tablets of the law and a copy of the Torah—is permanently travel-ready and geographically unbounded.

Our desert-wandering ancestors were focused on settling in the Jewish holy land; ongoing exile from their divinely designated home was the last thing on their minds. But the ark poles, Rabbi Hirsch contends, imply that the Torah can, must, and will travel with the Jews to whatever strange shores might await them, for it alone can preserve their peoplehood, allowing them, one day, to return to their ancestral home.

The Talmud has an intriguing comment on the ark’s poles as well. It describes how, when the Temple in Jerusalem was built, they protruded slightly from the space of the Holy of Holies, pushing against the curtain at its entrance “like the breasts of a woman” against her clothing. What that imagery suggests dovetails with Rabbi Hirsch’s analysis: The Torah is the Jewish people’s mother’s milk, and whatever the circumstances of time or place, it is what nourishes us, what preserves us as a people.

And that has proven the case over millennia when living in the land of Zion was an impossibility for millions of Jews, when they found themselves in disparate countries, inhospitable cultures, and the most trying circumstances. The land was, and is, important; indeed, it remained an ultimate goal. But the only thing that mattered, as far as identity and continuity were concerned, was the study of, and commitment to, Torah, as it has been handed down over the centuries.

Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing writer at The Nation. She is the author, most recently, of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World:
Of course, Shavit is right that non-Orthodox Jewish populations outside of Israel are shrinking. “In the twenty-first century, the Jewish birthrate in North America is low and the intermarriage rate is high,” he writes. I understand his anxiety—I love Jews and want there to be a lot of us. It’s important, though, to understand that the demographic phenomena he describes are byproducts of acceptance and prosperity. It’s easy to see why intermarriage would increase as discrimination declines. But the falling birthrate, too, is related to the Jewish community’s success.

In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have—those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower, averaging 1.86 children per woman. As the last National Jewish Population Survey found, “By age 40-44, Jewish women who have been to college have nearly identical numbers of children as all U.S. women at the same educational levels. … [W]ith respect to fertility, Jewish women are acting very much like their educational counterparts in the larger society.”

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Promised Land, Golden Land: Why Jewish Survival Depends on Both Israel and America

In his new book, Israeli journalist Ari Shavit argues that without Israel, secular Jewish life will vanish. Six American Jews reply.