We Jews must set our own narrative

Sometimes it seems that the outside world does not see Jews at all as real living people, but rather as psychological projections of either the religious right or the Marxist left.

For the secular left in America, Jews have been praised for their universalism.  Indeed, it would be difficult to name a group in America that has been more devoted to humanitarian concerns.  This is certainly a beautiful aspect of Judaism, but such appreciation tends to ignore the reality that Jews are a distinct people, with their own place in history and their own goals and values.  Indeed, this view describes only one branch, or Rabbi Hillel's famous injunction to the Jewish people: "If I am for myself only, what am I?"  In this view, the value of Judaism is centered solely on its concern for the other — whether this is expressed in the realm of politics, economics, health, or law.  But how are Jews viewed who don't subscribe to this view, but simply want to live their own lives? 

For the religious right in America, especially the Evangelicals, the Jewish return to Zion has acquired strong theological overtones, valorizing Jewish particularism insofar as it fits into the Evangelical worldview.  Although there are a number of branches of Evangelical thinking, the importance of Jews returning to Zion cannot be overestimated.  It occupies a central role in the Christian view of salvation.  An excellent source for greater detail in various Evangelical beliefs is Zeal for Zion by Shalom Goldman [1].  For some, this is expressed in that the "time of the gentiles" has passed in G-d's eyes, and the "time of the Jews" has returned. Others have different views.  What is constant is the central role of Jews returning to Zion.  This squares with the other side of Hillel's famous injunction.  "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"  But is this acceptance really any less conditional than the first one described above?  What would happen to this support if, G-d forbid, the Jews in Israel were dispersed again?  Would this be interpreted as a sign that G-d has now turned his eyes away from the Jewish people?

What I am suggesting then is that much of the support of or opposition to the Jewish people stems from factors totally unrelated to actual Jewish behavior.  For some on the secular left, Jews seem to have evaporated as a real people and turned into a disembodied set of values.  For some on the evangelical right, Jews have similarly evaporated and are important only in terms of their role in the End Times.

While it is the height of folly and ingratitude to reject support from wherever it comes, it can be extremely self-deceptive and dangerous to ignore how conditional some of this support may actually be, focusing only on one or the other part of Hillel's injunction.  As a people, Jews must be both particular and universal.  We must not try to escape our particularistic identity in the diffuse helping of others.  Likewise, we must not retreat from the world into insular communities.  As difficult as it is critical, the Jewish people must insist on their own self-definition and not dance to the music created by the outside world.  We must insist on our narrative and begin to speak to each other.

Kalman J. Kaplan, Ph.D. teaches in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois College of Medicine. The views expressed here are solely his own.

[1] Goldman, Shalom. Zeal for Zion. Chapel Hill, NC: The University Of North Carolina Press. 2009.

Graphic credit: Pixabay license.

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