Jews in America: Our Conflicted Heritage

Rabbi Michael Lerner

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Please enjoy this guest post by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine. Named after the Jewish concept of mending and transforming a fragmented world, Tikkun offers analysis and commentary that strive to bridge the cultural divide between religious and secular progressives.

In addition to editing Tikkun, Rabbi Lerner is chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and the author of eleven books, including Jewish Renewal, The Politics of Meaning, Spirit Matters, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right, and Embracing Israel/Palestine. He is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley and San Francisco, California.


On the one hand, Jews are deeply grateful that America provided us with a safe haven when so many other Christianity-dominated cultures had represented us as demon Christ-killers and created the preconditions for the rise of both secular and religious anti-Semitism. American Jews rejoiced in the promise of freedom and equality before the law, and played a major role in organizing, shaping, and leading social movements that could extend that promise to all of America’s citizens. The role of the United States in defeating Nazism at the expense of so many American lives remains an enduring source of pride even for the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who fought in World War II, and an enduring source of appreciation for this amazing country. And the generosity of the American people toward Jews has made it possible for us to thrive and feel the kind of safety we haven’t felt for two thousand years of exile and diaspora.

On the other hand, Jewish well-being in America came not because this society didn’t seek scapegoats, but rather because it already had a scapegoat long before most Jews arrived on these shores—African Americans, Native Americans, and other targets (most recently, feminists, homosexuals, and “illegal” immigrants). While other immigrant groups from Europe found their safety in part by identifying with the dominant culture and becoming “white” (a social construct for all light-skinned people who bought into the existing systems of privilege and power), a significant section of the Jewish people in the past 150 years of presence in the United States chose instead to identify with the oppressed—most significantly with African Americans, but also with the poor (of which we were a significant part in the years 1880-1940), the oppressed, the homeless, and the hungry.

Was this simply a matter of self-interest from a new immigrant group seeking to find a way to integrate into the society? If so, why wasn’t it chosen with equal energy by the Irish, the Polish, the Italians, etc.? In my view, Jews chose this path because of two radical messages in the Torah:

1. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, that you were “the Other” (ha’ger), so when you come into your own power, do not oppress the stranger, but instead, Love the Other.

2. Do not accept reality as it is currently constructed—there is a force in the universe that makes possible the transformation from “that which is” (reality as given) to “that which ought to be” (the utopian possibilities of a world based on love, generosity, social justice, peace and joyous celebration of the universe). We called it YHVH—mistranslated as Jehovah, but actually a concept rather than a name, calling our attention to the reality that the world could be fully transformed and that we humans were created in the image of that force and with the responsibility to do tikkun (the healing and transformation of the world). It was this heritage that seeped into the collective unconscious of the Jewish people and that made us flock to social change movements in numbers not only out of proportion to our percentage of the population, but also more frequently than many other immigrant groups.

Unfortunately, the allure of fitting in and becoming like everyone else had a particularly strong effect on the distinctively American kind of Judaism that emerged in the temples and synagogues of American life. Seeking to imitate the decorum and respectability that WASPS had shaped for themselves, Jews in America created a Judaism that became increasingly like the other conformist religions of American society, embracing capitalist values and embracing patriotism even when it led to supporting American imperialist assumptions about the rest of the world. This new American Juadism sought to empty itself of its connection to the awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the universe that had been central to the Judaism of the past. Who can blame those in the post-Holocaust American Jewry who wanted safety and security? Yet the Judaism they tried to pass on to their children lacked the spiritual depth and political radicalism that had been at the heart of Judaism’s appeal.

The result? An increasing disaffection with Judaism in post-1950s America, and with it a decline in the ability of subsequent generations to find within Judaism its spiritual depth or its challenge to the materialism and selfishness that increasingly have come to dominate both public and private life in the early twenty-first century. But if Judaism was merely Americanism, our children asked, then why should they have to bother with all the distinctive religious practices meant to keep Jews a distinct religion, and why bother with a God that urged us to challenge the status quo when that status quo seemed so welcoming and its material benefits so enticing?

So this is the conflict that remains the enduring heritage of American Jews: an internal tension over whether to adopt mainstream values and a celebration of “that which is,” thereby fitting in with the cultural assumptions of the world’s largest imperial power, or to challenge those values, a challenge which not only leads to “speaking truth to power” in the larger society but also to challenging the Jewish community’s blind loyalty to an Israeli state that itself is committed to being “a nation like all other nations,” with its blindness to the suffering of the Palestinian people and its arrogance and hypocrisy as it attempts to turn Judaism into a cheerleader for immoral policies.

The good news is that even as many young Jews reject Judaism, they nevertheless have inherited a memory of the values that Judaism sought to inspire, and so many have joined in a wide variety of prophetic enterprises to reclaim Jewish spirituality and/or rebuild a Jewish social justice consciousness. This social justice consciousness goes far beyond the paltry platitudes of the Democratic Party and proclaims the need for a radical reconstruction of our world to save it from the environmental destruction that our Torah taught us would be the inevitable consequence of failing to build a society based on justice, love, generosity, and environmental sensitivity. We at Tikkun magazine, which is published by Duke University Press, are in the vanguard of this movement, on the one hand building a Jewish renewal spiritually and politically, and on the other hand recognizing that the global changes that are needed require an overcoming of all forms of national chauvinism and embracing a new ethos: the caring society—caring for each other and caring for the earth.

In this way, the particularism of American Judaism is morphing into a universalism. To help that happen, we have created the Network of Spiritual Progressives, an interfaith group that is welcoming to secular humanists of every stripe as well. The Network of Spiritual Progressives calls for a New Bottom Line in the United States and around the world, based on our understanding that our well-being as Jews and as Americans depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and the well-being of the planet itself.

Perhaps the Network of Spiritual Progressives, with its call for a Global Marshall Plan and an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which would require public funding of all national and state elections, banning all other monies in elections from any private or corporate or political source and requiring the larger corporations to prove a satisfactory history of social and environmental responsibility every five years to a jury of ordinary Americans) may be the fullest realization of the American Jewish Heritage. And it is in supporting, nay insisting, that the only practical and realistic way to save the planet from environmental destruction and/or some new form of elitist plutocratic fascism is to be prophetic, unrealistic, and utopian that Jews in America may still have an important role to play.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s