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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News August 2002

August 26, 2002

CULTURE, COMMUNITY AND CONTINUITY

The Memorial Foundation organized an Academic Convocation on "Culture, Community and Continuity" just prior to the Foundation's Biennial Meeting in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History. The convocation opened on the evening of July 1, 2002 at the Beit Hanasi in the presence of the President of the State of Israel, Moshe Katsav and continued the next day at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Ten distinguished academics and scholars gave papers relating to the Jewish Community's historic responsibility for the creation and dissemination of Jewish culture, the ideological and philosophic perspectives that influence this obligation, and the challenges we face in fulfilling this responsibility in the 21st century.

Our purpose in organizing this seminar was to assist the Foundation and other bodies like ours in developing conceptual frameworks to guide our cultural programs in the future. It was the unanimous judgment of all those who attended and participated that the convocation was an outstanding success.

I should like in this report to briefly present here one of the many highlights of each session of the convocation (see attached program). All the papers given at the convocation can be audited at the Memorial Foundation's website mfjc.org. It is hoped that a book containing the papers will be published in the future.

 

A Common Language and Literature

Professor Eliezer Schweid, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University, opened the convocation with a provocative thesis which provided the framework for the fruitful discussion which followed. The Jewish people has successfully reconstructed itself since the Holocaust through the establishment of the State of Israel and our effective integration into our host societies in the Western Diaspora. These material accomplishments, Professor Schweid suggested, raised serious cultural challenges for our people.

Peoplehood, Am, according to Professor Schweid, is achieved by the transmission of our collective memory and culture, rooted in our common language, literature and values. The more shared memory exists in our language, literature and values, the deeper our attachment to our people and the recognition of our responsibilities to it.

Professor Schweid pointed out that the Jewish people today no longer share our common language, Hebrew. Nor do we posses a full commitment and understanding of our traditional canonical texts, including the Bible, and our classical national literature.

Where there is even agreement about the public preservation of aspects of our collective culture like the cycle of Jewish Holidays, there is a considerable chasm between their public acceptance and its incorporation and integration into Jewish family and communal life in the Diaspora.

Lacking a common language and literature weakens the Jewish people, Schweid called for strengthening family and community — in addition to schools— as agencies for the transmission of our collective memory and culture as K'lal Yisroel.

The lively, intense discussion that followed, including an intervention by President Katsav, demonstrated that the theme of the convocation had struck a deep nerve in the diverse group of Jewish leaders assembled at the Beit Hanassi both from the Foundation and the cross-section of Israeli cultural personalities present.

 

Emancipation and Zionism

The next day, Professor Arnold Eisen, Professor of Religion at Stanford University, stated that we have two main tasks today in Israel and the Diaspora. The first is building communities which can prove adequate to the ever-changing conditions in which we find ourselves. The second entails transmitting and interpreting an authentic Jewish tradition able to secure and retain the allegiance of Jews exposed to other powerful cultural forces.

We also have two available options, in his view. The first, emancipation, gives Jews and Judaism an opportunity to compete in the Diaspora for the allegiance of Jews against the powerful social and political forces that influence them. This option necessarily entails an ongoing calculation of how much distinctiveness our host societies in the Diaspora are prepared to tolerate. We can point to much success achieved within this option, but with huge costs and casualties as well.

Zionism, the second option, has abundant advantages, but risks as well, Despite its enormous advantages, the security Israel requires has not yet been achieved.

Our task today is to locate a place where Jews can stand in the new political, social and cultural order of modernity and develop forms of Judaism that can thrive in this new communal framework. In this regard, it is vital to recognize that the basic rule in the modern world as far as Judaism is concerned is volunteerism. Jews possess choice regarding all their Jewish commitments. Furthermore, no one Jewish group can monopolize the sentiments of all its members and certainly not those of the larger community.

But today's Jews have the advantage of having both Israel and the Diaspora. Israel is a cultural resource for the Diaspora, with the Diaspora also possessing important resources for Israel. Our situation is complicated by the fact that all of us are hyphenated Jews, not immune to outside powerful cultural forces. In addition, the Jewish community is no longer built on the global notion of Jewish peoplehood, but is based on face to face encounters with other Jews.

Professor Eisen concluded that without many sources of transcendental values in secular culture and no opportunities for real community, the Jewish community needs to involve Jews in conversation with our master narrative, the Torah, and to do so in a way that we can co-exist with each other and with the larger society.

 

Historical Overview

Professor David Berger, Professor of Jewish History at Brooklyn College, noted that for many pre-modern and modern Jews, the concepts of community, culture and continuity are problematic.

Professor Berger asserted there has always been a tension between the broad communal responsibility for transmitting Jewish culture and the reality that communities were more stimulated to action by their narrow objectives than universal Jewish values. Furthermore, when Jewish communities issued enactments, they were not always intended to preserve Jewish culture or continuity but to address their particular needs.

On occasion, Jewish communities produced cultural institutions that transcended national boundaries, as in the case of the Babylonian Talmud. But Jewish communities also guarded their own traditions with tenacious zeal. Large communities in the middle ages even evolved cultural patterns that set them apart from one another. When the two great medieval cultures — Ashkenazic and Sephardic — met in the twelfth century, each side pursued a policy of cultural imperialism.

Professor Berger believed that there exists a passionate effort by some communities to disseminate their own vision of culture — witness the Sabbatean, Chasidic, Zionist and Chabad movements of modern times. That passion is not generated by "Culture" or concern for continuity. It is generated by narrower, more focused ideologies that usually cannot command assent across the entire communal spectrum. Indeed, the more focused the ideal, the more likely it is to be divisive.

Professor Berger concluded that in pre-modern Jewish communities — for all their divisions — there was a vision of what Jewish "culture" meant. This is no longer the case; Jewish communities in the contemporary world contain dramatically different sub-cultures. If such communities are to function as cultural forces, judgments must be made by them about achieving a necessary balance between the need for Jewish unity and continuity and the ideological reservations that their leaders harbor about other ideologies.

 

>An Omniterritorial People?

Professor Jonathan Sarna, Professor of Jewish History at Brandeis University, focused on a central transformation that is reshaping world Jewry and two cultural implications of this change. The central transformation is that the Diaspora is shrinking, while Israel's population is continuing to grow. While it is true that the vast majority of Diaspora Jews have moved to economically affluent, politically stable and socially attractive environments, Professor Sarna suggests that when faith communities decline both in absolute and relative terms, they lose their vitality and spiritual freshness.

While most of the world's great religions are expanding globally, Judaism is contracting. But we still think that we form part of an Am Olam, a global people that is "omniterritorial".

The second and more deeply troubling issue that commands attention is the issue of K'lal Yisroel. In Sarna's view, K'lal Yisroel today is nothing less than an endangered Jewish value. A recent study found that only a bare majority of American Jews even recognized the ideal of K'lal Yisroel. The fact of the matter is that both in Israel and the Diaspora the deep feelings of kinship with all Jews is less and less taught, less and less lived and less and less celebrated.

Sarna stated that the Memorial Foundation represents a model of what K'lal Yisroel is all about. But just modeling K'lal Yisroel may not be enough in a world where the value itself is endangered. He hoped that the Foundation would more and more promote, as it has been doing in some of its programs (e.g. the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship), the value of K'lal Yisroel.

While the Foundation has become concerned, as have others, about Diaspora losing its relationship to the State of Israel, the real problem, according to Sarna, is that Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews are losing their connection to K'lal Yisroel.

 

The Synagogue and Social Capital

Professor Joseph Hacker, Professor of Jewish History at Hebrew University, demonstrated in his paper the crucial role of the synagogue historically in the cultural and communal life of the Jewish people. Professor Schorsch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in closing the convocation, strongly supported this view. He especially emphasized the central role the synagogue was playing in America in producing the "social capital" for the Jewish community. From the ranks of American synagogues — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — were emerging the key communal, philanthropic and professional leaders of Jewish life in America. The future of American Jewry was heavily dependent on the quality and quantity of this "social capital".

* * * * * * * *

It was serendipitous that Professor Anita Shapira in her first presidential report at the opening meeting of the Foundation's Board of Trustees also expressed deep concern about the decline of Hebrew in the Diaspora. She had raised this issue earlier this year at a meeting of the Foundation's Administrative Committee. The Board unanimously and enthusiastically approved her request for a consultation to be held on this issue next year in New York, based on a paper by Professor Alan Mintz on "Hebrew in America" that the Foundation commissioned and distributed at the meeting.

The felicitous formulation of Professor Schorsch about the crucial need to produce "social capital" for the Jewish people has been one of the major objectives of the Memorial Foundation. In the 36th Anniversary Report issued by the Foundation prior to our Board meeting, we documented the 11,895 grants awarded to men and women who have subsequently served as communal and professional leaders in Jewish communities all around the world. We plan to continue to give highest priority in the future to this area — the training and developing of young men and women who will provide the leadership — intellectual, religious and communal — for all the segments and strata of our community to deal with the challenges raised at the convocation, especially for the revival of the concept and value of K'lal Yisroel.

Warm wishes for a New Year of peace and good health.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President