Are We A Nation Or A Religion?


More than 450 members of Park Avenue Synagogue are now home from an historic mission to Israel.  Celebrating Israel’s 70th and the congregation’s 136th anniversary, we have returned engaged, energized and connected to the Jewish State.   We have also returned filled with questions and consternation, on the prospects for peace, on Israel’s ability to house religious pluralism, and how to lovingly embrace an Israel that at times acts in breach of the values at the foundation of the Judaism from which our love for Israel emanates.  None of us need look further than the recent pages of the New York Times or Jewish Week to read the pronouncements of an unbridgeable and perhaps irreparable divide between the two major centers of world Jewry.

More often than not, we focus on the “symptoms” of our divide – the viability of the two-state solution, the Israeli disregard for liberal expressions of Judaism within and beyond Israel, or our toxic era of identity politics on the Israeli and American left or right.  While each of these issues is deserving of an airing, we would do well to probe more deeply into the root causes of our present predicament – specifically – an Israel whose Jews define themselves as a nationality, and a diaspora Jewry whose Judaism is defined as a religion.

Cast out of the land by the Romans in 70 CE, for centuries the Jewish people lived in the Golah (exile). Depending on the particular time and place, we were subject to anything from the good graces or persecutions of our gentile hosts.  We were the consummate “other,” a people that while granted an element of self-governance, was never offered the opportunity to integrate into civil society.  Though we prayed for Geulah – a messianic return to the land, excepting the direction of our prayer, the breaking of glasses at weddings as a remembrance of Jerusalem, and some notable individuals who went to live, die or be buried in Israel – our return was largely theological.  We were Jews because we were other, as defined by us and by those around us.

The arrival of modernity and the Emancipation shattered all the assumptions of the past centuries.  It didn’t happen all at once or in the same way, but be it France, Germany, Russia or elsewhere – formally and informally, for the very first time, Jews were granted the opportunity to integrate into civil society. And yet, in the midst of this newfound freedom a series of new questions were introduced.  If we were now citizens of our respective countries, then were we still in exile?  If we were now subject to French or German law, then what becomes of Jewish self-governance? If we were no longer a separate and distinct people, then what exactly were we?

It was at this point, argues Professor Leora Batnizky, that Judaism became a religion.  No longer a “people apart” Jews began to think of themselves as a religion in the Protestant sense of the word.  Our rituals, festivals, houses of prayer and otherwise were understood as analogous to the religion of our gentile neighbors.   It is a story that began with Moses Mendelssohn and reached its apotheosis with the Reform movement’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform that proudly declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” The turn to Judaism as a religion was not limited to the Reform Movement.  Modern Orthodoxy was also a product of the Emancipation.  The festival observances, dietary restrictions and otherwise – these too were framed as the religious demands of the religion of Judaism not in any way contradictory to the secular demands of the state.

We are missing the point if we think the schism between American and Israeli Jewry is merely about the Kotel, the two-state solution, etc.  It is about two fundamentally different understandings of Jewish identity.

Our story might have ended here, except that during these very decades that one slice of the Jewish world was establishing the religious institutions of diaspora life, other Jews came to realize that the promise of the Emancipation had been revealed to be a fraud.  Be it the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the 1880s or the famed French Dreyfus trial of the 1890s, it became increasingly clear that Jews were not really becoming full members of modern nation states – a thought realized in its full horror with the Holocaust.  It would be during these years that the earliest Zionist thinkers, Smolenskin, Pinsker and of course, Herzl pronounced that Judaism was not a religion but a nation.  We were a nation because we are attached to the land. We were a nation because we were attached to each other. We were a nation because the gentiles will never accept us as part of their nations.  The emergence of Zionism in the 1880s wasn’t just a rejection of the Emancipation or the false promises of the diaspora. Zionism was a rejection of the notion that Judaism was a religion.   Zionism was a corrective to the naïve belief of diaspora Jewry that they could practice their religion under the false promise of a liberal state. Small wonder that Leon Pinsker’s famous essay was entitled “Auto-Emancipation”; no longer were Jews going to wait for Geulah, we were taking our national destiny into our own hands.

Religion or Nationality

Two notions of Judaism: a religion or a nationality. Two roads that diverged both philosophically and geographically in the 1880s.  It is not an airtight distinction: diaspora Jewry has had its prophets of peoplehood like Mordecai Kaplan, just as Israel has had its champions of Judaism qua religion like Yeshayahu Leibowitz.  But for the most part, American Jews have defined their identities by way of ritual observance or non-observance, the causes of social justice and otherwise.  Israelis, both religious and secular, see the world differently. Israel is a Jewish nation – one surrounded by hostile neighbors.  The world is divided into an “us” and a “them” and it is through that lens by which national priorities are determined.  For diaspora Jews, the whole point of practicing (or not practicing) Judaism is to demonstrate that Jews can live side by side with their gentile neighbors.  In the eyes of Israelis such an approach is delusional.  Be it Pinsker, Jabotinksy, Ben Gurion or Israel’s present prime minister – there are only two outcomes for diaspora Jewry – anti-Semitism or assimilation.  American Jews bristle at an Israel that not only fails to acknowledge their religious identities but carries out policies in breach of what they believe Judaism to be about.  Israelis have neither the time nor patience to make sense of the choices of American Jews, which, with few notable exceptions like the Pittsburgh shooting, are being made in the most comfortable circumstances in which Jews have ever existed.  Israelis are choosing to stop caring about their diaspora cousins, and American Jews are ceasing to defend a Jewish state whose nationalistic expressions of Judaism no longer reflect the very religion they hold dear.

It is a vicious cycle that goes on and on.  We are missing the point if we think the schism between American and Israeli Jewry is merely about the Kotel, the two-state solution or the decision of the Netanyahu government to cozy up with authoritarian European governments.    It is about two fundamentally different understandings of Jewish identity and the emergence of two Jewish communities which, no different than Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, reflects the different contexts in which we function.  We know we are connected. In fact, in theory we want to get along, but in practice it is increasingly difficult.  Not because one community is right and one is wrong, but because we understand our Judaism in such very different ways.

There are no easy fixes.  Moreover, given the hope that both American and Israeli Jewry continue in strength, we must allow for both communities to grow in their own directions.  Perhaps the best we can do at this point is simply admit to the problem, acknowledge each other for who we are, listen to each other even if we don’t always agree, and try not to project our own inadequacies onto our partners who are just doing their level best to deal with their own issues.

Since returning from Israel, I have been repeatedly asked – by congregants, community leaders and journalists – Israeli and American – why my synagogue did not leverage its visit to decry perceived wrongs taking place in Israel. For the moment, my answer is that when facing a family relationship in need of repair, one can choose to tear at it, or one can choose to lean in with love, earned trust and the belief that by way of dialogue one can better effectuate change.

Park Avenue Synagogue has chosen to lean in.  We work for the day when American Jewry and Israeli Jewry are able to retrieve a common language, a day when we acknowledge our shared past and shared destiny, a day when we realize that Judaism is both a religion and a nationhood.  It is a redemptive day not yet upon us, but it is a day worth fighting for.  As a wise person once said: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue.

is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.