Rabbi Urges Jews and Israel to Drop the 'Near Extinction' Narrative

The president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem says both Israel and U.S. Jewry are strong and vibrant - they just need to realize that.

When the Pew Research Center’s "Portrait of Jewish Americans" was released in September, it set off the equivalent of a five-alarm fire across the organized Jewish world. The first substantive survey of American-Jewish life in more than a decade indicated that the trend toward assimilation had mushroomed, with a high increase in Jews who are intermarried, unaffiliated and define themselves as ethnic or cultural Jews “of no religion.”

Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, has his fair share of water to pour on that fire. He also suggests that the pollsters may be asking yesterday’s questions.

“They’re looking at things through '70s eyes,” says Hartman, who at 55 looks more like a fit Tel Aviv lawyer than a Jerusalem rabbi with his nose buried in books. “One of the biggest shifts that has taken place is that there is no intermarriage anymore in Jewish life," he notes. "American Jews are meeting American Christians and getting married, and they don’t see it as intermarriage. They don’t see themselves as marrying out, and the non-Jewish partner often sees himself as joining.”

That paradigm shift is monumental, yet Hartman believes that much of the organized Jewish community has yet to process it. “Years ago, you had to be insane to want to be a Jew, which in part explains the historical reluctance to accept converts," he says. "'What, you want to see a pogrom from the inside?'”

The organic, almost accidental humor that springs up even as Hartman is talking about the most critical issues facing the Jewish people is reminiscent of his late father, Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, who died in February at 81. The elder Hartman, a Brooklynite who founded the institute in 1976 and oversaw its move two decades later to a leafy green hill in the German Colony, named the center after his own father. Although David Hartman had once been an Orthodox congregational rabbi, he moved into a broader role as a sort of public philosopher navigating between tradition and modernity, posing aloud what other rabbis were afraid to raise even in their innermost circles.

Continuing his legacy, Donniel Hartman argues for an adaptive Judaism through the Hartman Institute, which will play a key role during the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Jerusalem. The institute will lead visitors in a text-based study session on the foundations of Jewish diversity of religious practice.

In a remarkably businesslike manner, Hartman points to the reasons why Judaism and its geographical manifestation – identifying with Israel – don’t seem to excite growing numbers of American Jews. “We’re stuck in old conversations and old categories," he says. "We have a mediocre product, and if you have a mediocre product you die.”

To clarify: It’s not Judaism that’s mediocre, but the way it has been packaged for several generations of Americans and other Diaspora Jews. In the most basic terms, it looks something like this: We had centuries of anti-Semitism, then the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, and now a Jewish state faced with the possibility of imminent annihilation. It could all fall apart – without your help.

“The way they kept interest in the past was to say someone’s dying - either world Jewry’s dying or Israel is dying. We’re not going to give up a death narrative, so we still say we’re dying,” Hartman says.

At the same time, there is small but heroic Israel, which wins its wars and, more recently, makes Silicon Valley swoon. “We want to be Startup nation and Pathetic nation at the same time. You want to be David and stay David, even after he defeats Goliath,” Hartman quips. “The problem is that none of us are dying. Israel is strong and vibrant, and U.S. Jewry is strong and vibrant. Different groups in this environment can engage.”

A new discussion on Israel

Getting U.S. Jews to look more substantively at Judaism and Israel is part of the institute’s signature program, iEngage. Launched four years ago, iEngage is a curriculum developed at the Hartman Institute in which sessions are led by a local teacher, scholar or rabbi, who also plays accompanying DVDs to facilitate difficult conversations about Israel. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, that when they get to the curriculum's chapter 5 - “War and Occupation” - it might be better to let a far-away rabbi in Jerusalem raise the tough questions that the local congregational rabbi feels he or she can’t.

In short, iEngage was a move to take some of the institute’s resources and turn it into “deliverable educational products” that could be brought to Jewish community centers, synagogues, Hillel branches and the like. It’s now used in some 400 sites in the United States, and an iEngage 2.0 - for groups ready for the next installment - is now going out.

“Now you can conduct a discussion about Israel on a level you’ve never been able to before,” Hartman says. "We talk about building the Israel that you want, not justifying the Israel that is.” These questions are particularly appealing for what he calls the “trouble-committed”: Jews who feel connected to Israel but are disturbed by what they see and read. Israelis in America – their own subculture within the American Jewish framework – have also been using the program.

Some of the same problematic tendencies he sees in the American-Jewish community exist in Israel as well. Specifically, the tendency to be driven by crisis – again, that narrative of being perennially, perilously close to the edge of extinction. The rejection of death and more death as a flawed building block on which to base modern Jewish identity was famously expounded on by David Hartman in 1982 in an essay called “Auschwitz or Sinai?”

“While I respect and share in the anguish …. I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history and of our national renewal and rebirth,” the elder Hartman wrote. “It is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history.”

When iEngage was introduced and David Hartman, in the last years of his life, wondered what it was, Donniel reminded his father of that essay and told him how a program had been created to implement it.

“As a country, we’re pushing Auschwitz as the entranceway to Jerusalem. Israelis have returned to the death narrative, and in the programing we’re doing in Israel, we look at the idea that Israel is not about death. Israel is about ideas and values,” Hartman says, noting that it's best to look forward for a raison d'etre.

“What are we doing to make Judaism competitive? What ideas are we producing? What leadership? What membership policies? This Pew survey is good news because it reminds us that we have to work harder.”

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