The Year Of Principled Pragmatism


Tell me what’s going on in the world, and I’ll tell you what’s going on with “the Jews.” There really are no “Jewish trends,” at least not in contemporary America. There are human trends that manifest themselves within what is often called “Jewish life.”

Sometimes Jews lead and sometimes we lag, but whatever we do, we are never far removed from the larger forces shaping humanity, no matter how much time we spend assuming otherwise. Religious identity issues? Not so different from what is going on in other third- and fourth-generation immigrant communities. Israel? As always, a part of the larger Middle East puzzle, as it has been for a very long time.

Looking back on 2011 and looking ahead to 2012 is a matter of looking beyond Jewishness, or looking “bigger than Jewish,” so to speak, and then asking where we fit in, what we can learn, and where we might contribute. And don’t even get me started on who the “we” is, because that is an essay in and of itself. For now, just assume that if you are reading this here, it includes you and take it from there.

The year 2011 was all about democratization. From the Arab Spring, which spread across the Middle East and even included Israel’s own version along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, to the Occupy movement, which quickly spread from Wall Street across the country, to the Denver Broncos’ QB Tim Tebow becoming America’s best-known evangelist, this was a year defined by unlikely people having unexpectedly big impact.

Like them all, hate them all, or take a position somewhere in between — there is no denying that this was a year in which the world was shaped by people we often don’t know, in ways that we still cannot fully comprehend, and often by those who had no formal training in the areas where they have become most influential. That’s democratization, and it can be seen in Jewish life as well.

Consider the following: more places than ever are ordaining rabbis; ironically, more synagogues are cutting back on rabbinic staff but continuing to function; and The New York Times reports increasing numbers of non-Jews using Jewish rituals to enhance their weddings. And those are just a few examples from inside of Jewish religious life! As with the larger trends that these trends mirror, the jury is still out about how positive or negative they may be. Personally, I see remarkable promise in all three.

Overall, Jewish history points toward increasing democratization, with episodes of consolidation followed by even greater democratization. We have evolved, over the centuries, from a small people (Israelites) living in a small land (Israel), centered on a single institution (Temple), led almost exclusively by hereditary classes of leaders (Priests and Kings), to a global people with multiple centers of institutional power and creativity, led by a variety of people whose expertise was often anything but hereditary.

Rather than asking if this trend is good or bad, we might do better to see it as an eternal part of our story and ask instead, how we can make the most of it. Yes, resistance to trends is also part of our story, a sacred part, and it must continue to be so, but not as our story’s defining feature, which it too often becomes.

Our defining feature must be, as it has always been, making the most of the context in which we find ourselves. For 2012, that means looking ahead, in this case to another “bigger than Jewish” story that highlights a critical issue for Jews, for America, and for the world. The issue is America’s upcoming presidential election.

The issue is not fundamentally about which candidate is good for Israel, or the voting patterns of American Jews. It’s something far bigger, and it can be seen playing out right now in the contest to win the Republican nomination. And it is beginning to emerge among those on the left wing of the Democratic Party. It is the struggle between puritans and pragmatists.

Republicans have spent months swooning over a variety of candidates, none of whom, according to polls have much chance of defeating President Obama in November. Mitt Romney, the one candidate who well could, is not perceived of as being “truly conservative,” or conservative enough. And although Democratic support for the president is pretty solid, there remains a consistent complaint among so-called progressives that President Obama has failed to be a “true liberal.”

In each case, purist notions of what constitutes being true to a cause threaten to undermine the ability of the chosen cause to win the day. Purist ideology as espoused by a few makes it impossible to actually accomplish anything, with the puritans preferring to bask in their own ideological correctness even when it gets in the way of actual victory. How familiar is that story in Jewish life?

In Israel, we see Jews harming Jews because we too are a people struggling with this issue. In America, we agonize over what counts as really Jewish, instead of asking where and how people can use Jewishnes to make their own lives better and help others to make their lives better. Like any community afflicted by puritanism, we confuse markers of success with markers of others being exactly like us, and limit our understanding of authenticity to that with which we are comfortable.

As with most years, 2012 will be filled with opportunity and challenge. No matter what it brings though, the year ahead will be best for those who appreciate that principled pragmatism, not puritanism, is the path to success in almost every instance, both for American and for Jews.

As we begin a new year, the challenge lies not in proving what is truly Jewish any more than it lies in proving what is truly conservative or liberal. It lies in recovering a deeply principled pragmatism — one that instinctively sees possibility along with challenge and opportunity alongside change, using the resources of our past to create the future. ◆

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and is the author of You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.