Donniel Hartman on Jewish Education and Israel in Today’s Modern World

In An Age of Complex Identity,

Are We Anesthetizing Judaism?

Donniel Hartman Seeks Vitality in Judaism,

Jewish Education and Israel in Today’s Modern World

Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem returned to Aitz Hayim this May. Shabbat evening, he dealt with a question of the Jewish people and the modern world.

“There are two ways of looking at the fundamental failure of the Jewish people to confront and to deal with the basic challenges of the modern world,” he said.

The first way is to say that we want to fail and that our educational system in fact reflects in a very deep way what it is that we’re trying to achieve. We are actually the most successful educational experiment in history, producing marginalized Jews that want to be that way.

Vibrancy Plays a Crucial Role

Judaism today is not a vibrant religion, Jewish people aren’t vibrant in their commitment, and the Judaism of most Jews is boring. So one way of looking at it is that Jews are far more intelligent than the educators who sit in criticism—people know and produce what they want. People spend more time on their golf game than on their Judaism, he noted—and there is no reason to assume that it takes longer to learn to put.

People aren’t fools, Donniel noted. They watch the statistics and they still aren’t changing. They want their kids to be Jewish without being too Jewish. We have made a well thought out decision to produce a mediocre Judaism and we are succeeding. For

example, he noted, the Birthright program which sends college age kids to Israel is seen as an end rather than as a beginning. Kids come back excited and nothing is done to build on that feeling.

This is not so different than the instinct of most

secular Israelis, he noted. But it is a self destructive act that won’t work.

Another way of looking at the problem we’re facing is that even those who want more haven’t completely adjusted to the fact that what is necessary to create more in our generation is different than what it was in previous generations

Jewish Identity Today Fundamentally Different

The reality, said Donniel, is that Jewish life today is fundamentally different than at any time in the last 4000 years with the possible exception of the Jewish people in the land of Israel during David and


Prior to emancipation in the 1770s (and emancipation only lasted a short time and didn’t reach Eastern Europe), if someone was described as a Jew, you knew everything you needed to know about the

person. Being a Jew described and defined

everything, from the way someone thought and acted, to who their friends were, what their jobs were, and what societies they were allowed to be part of.

Jewishness was all encompassing. That was the

reason it never dawned on most countries to ask Jews to be citizens. By being citizens, Jews would be

disloyal to Judaism. Jews couldn’t be anything more than Jews.

In emancipation, Napoleon erected a Sanhedrin and asked whether Jews could be loyal to France. The Jews said, yes, we could be Frenchmen of the Jewish persuasion. Now Jews were not a single identity


People Today Have Complex Identities

Today, said Donniel, when I say Jew, I am talking about a complex identity. The phenomenon of

modernity, in fact is that we a singular identities don’t define us anymore. Judaism is only one of numerous other things that are important and significant. That is what it means to get out of the ghetto.

The critical phenomenon of the modern Jew is that an individuals says “I don’t want anything to be the

defining, confining thing for me.” Being a modern Jew means being a part of the modern world and that means that regardless of what Judaism says, I love other features in the world that are as important as

Judaism to me. When I stand, I stand with multiple identities.

Today, this phenomenon has become self-evident and deeply rooted. It started in the 1770s, the anti-Semitism returned, was continuous in Eastern Europe and returned to Western Europe despite the

emancipated Jewish identity. If not for anti-Semitism, in fact, this complex identity would have disappeared in the middle of the 19th century.

Anti-Semitism Means One Identity

What anti-Semitism does psychologically is say that you only have one identity. You may have thought you had a complex identity, but when the anti-Semite sees you he sees a person with only one identity and through that, you, yourself, are redefined.

Your world gets smaller when there is anti-Semitism. That’s why we’re so nervous today. It is not fear alone, but that, when you have a complex identity, anti-Semitism is a fundamentally self-alienating


The old Jews said, “I was alone from the beginning, I will be alone tomorrow.” But that is not our world.

We are Jews and Americans and we have a certain vision of morality and clubs I belong to and I love all of it. And all of a sudden, if anti-Semitism is going to come back, I can’t handle it the way my ancestors did. Judaism is not important enough to me to let go of myself.

At the same time if anti Semitism succeeds in getting you back to a single identity, a sole identity, then it can be a bigger identity.

As we were moving from single to complex

identities, anti-Semitism stopped that process, but since the Holocaust, we are second and third

generations of people of complex identities, and

second and third generations of Jews with complex identities can’t return to a world of single identity.

In fact, rather than returning to that, most Jews will opt out of Judaism.

Intermarriage No Longer Exists

By Jewish identity, Donniel means that we are the first Jews in Jewish history for whom there is no

reality of intermarriage anymore. We are the first Jews for whom intermarriage has ceased to exist. Those who talk about percentages are wrong: There is no intermarriage in the Jewish world. Intermarriage assumes that a person of one identity marries a person of a different identity. When that happens, it is a rare phenomena, and at least one of the people

doing it perceive themselves as leaving their identity.

As recently as 1986, there was a question in the JCCs as to whether or not someone who was intermarried could be on the board, Donniel remembered. He

remembered debates of parents as to whether or not they could come to their children’s weddings. At that point, there was a reality that something was

happening, that something was problematic, that there was an imbalance being created that had to be dealt with.

Today we don’t feel that way. Today, when someone makes a decision to marry someone of a different faith, they are not making a statement about their Jewish identity. Instead, part of them is marrying someone who shares one or more of their identities. So that even when the phenomenon of intermarriage exists, it doesn’t mean the same thing. And intermarriage grows because we live with our complex identities.

This never existed in Jewish life before, except perhaps, in Canaan. Why did Abraham want a wife from his land? They weren’t monotheists there. It’s just that he knew that if the wife would be picked from the local clan, then her idoloatry would be part of his identity. Abraham was looking to create a people with a single identity and the way to do that is

surrounded by strangers. Ivri, in fact, means side. Abraham was on one side, and everyone else on the other. And much of Jewish law was developed around creating a single identity. A kippah, for

example was an attempt to create a single identity. Today it has more meaning as I have a complex


Tradition Breakers and Tradition Anesthesizers

Donniel distinguished between tradition (and

identity) breakers and tradition (and identity)

anesthetizers. In a time of a single identity, the

greatest challenge you face is identity or tradition breakers, he noted. In a time of complex identities, tradition breakers don’t exist. Instead what exists are tradition anesthetizers and much of Jewish tradition falls into this category.

An identity breaker is something that precludes

existence in a certain identity. If the identity breaker is present, the identity cannot be present.

For example—you can say “I won’t go to a shul unless it respects women”, “I refuse to go to a shul if the rabbi speaks more than 15 minutes”… Every generation, says Donniel, has its own identity


When you have a single identity, and you’re

confronted with an identity breaker, the only choice is to leave. And yet, despite all the incentives to do so, very few people left Judaism.

The Reform movement was initially addressed to those who had left Judaism because of an identity breaker. They felt Judaism was intellectually and aesthetically inadequate. The Reform movement

answered the questions “How do I create a shul I will want to go to?” “How do I deal with this pathetic, primitive religion which is not as sophisticated as we want to be?” Reform was a response to secular forces. Orthodoxy was a response to Reform.

Anesthesizers Not a Threat to Single Identity

An identity anesthetizer, on the other hand, is usually not a threat. It makes you fall asleep, but doesn’t make you leave the room. When you have a single identity, you have identity anesthetizers. You can have a Bar Mitzvah reading four verses you don’t

understand, but it is not dangerous. You still went back.

In a place of complex identities, however, the

tradition anesthetizers are the greatest threat. You never have to actually leave your tradition—but you are able to create a reality in which, effectively, it is non-existent. This is because, when you have

multiple rooms, at any given moment, you have to choose which room you are going into and in which you will be.

Sometimes, in fact, tradition breakers are more meaningful. They create anger and awareness. In a world of complex identities, tradition breakers are the things we want people to at least understand.

Complex Identities Require Emotion and

Involvement to Stay in the Room

In a world of complex identities, the goal of

education is to get a child to understand that you are angry about something. Getting people to understand why Judaism is important in life is the height of a Jewish education. When you are asleep, and in

another place you are alive—even with anger—there is excitement and vibrancy. In a world of complex identities, tradition anesthetizers are the greatest

danger. Camps create a vibrancy. They are a room I want to be in. One of the problems of camps is how do we create continuity afterward?

In a world of complex identity, I’m equipping

someone with the skills and desire to choose. You simply have to function with your other identities and then your jewish identity becomes less significant and that is the reality of the Jewish world.

We can ask this about our Hebrew schools? Have we created a room with music and ideas that complex identities will notice? We haven’t!

Donniel then turned to Israel, where, he says, we are teaching Talmud and Bible the same way even though the student has changed.

Israel in a World of Complex Identities

Israel in the world of a singular identity is one thing and Israel in a world of complex identities is

something else, he says.

We began to treat Israel as a Holocaust phenomena, Israel as Auschwitz. Israel as “never again.” “Never again” means I support Israel. It is the potential

dying Jew and I have to be the force that keeps Auschwitz away.

Israel became this phenomenon because for a time its existence was challenged and also because when you have a singular identity, you see things in “us vs. them” categories.

A generation or two existed because of their

connection to a dying Israel. If I said “henaini” (here I am) to a dying Israel, my Judaism was alive. It was through involvement in Israel that some of the most vibrant Jews found connection.

But, said Donniel, you have to realize that in a world of complex identities, the notion of dying Jews does not rally people. It turns them off. In a world of complex identity, the concept of dying Jews is not enough to keep the room alive. It is not enough to have someone choose this room over another. Saving a room you don’t want to be in anyway, isn’t going to keep that room alive. Many of us are still using Israel that way.

He noted recent statistics that said, even with the

dramatic recent increase of funds raised for Israel, there is no dramatic increase of Jewish identification. When there are 5000 people at an AIPAC meeting, we are energizing the already committed. For others, there is no reason to challenge the balance I have with my other identities.

The only reason to work for Jewish identity and Israel, said Donniel, is if you find in Israel a tradition and energy that is a catalyst and not an anesthetizer. In a world of complex identity, our focus has to be on catalysts that keep the water moving.—not that which keeps the waters still.

That which raises money this year won’t be what keeps people Jewish in three years time. In fact, what raises money today may plant a seed which is actually destructive later on.

For the first time in the 90s, said Donniel, Zionism began to be, for many in America, not just about a place where Jews lived, but a place which defined part of what it meant to be a Jew. It was not about “over there”. It was a local need. I became a people by participating in the experiment of statehood. Whatever defines this experiment called Israel, it’s mine.

Vibrancy Means It’s Working on an Individual Level

We know that Judaism is alive when it is not just what we do in a communal setting, but on our own. It takes up the space that golf classes might have taken up.

When something is alive, it is done privately. The symptoms may be communal, but the actions are in each person.

When this is the Israel that you sell, then it becomes a catalyst. And it is a tragedy that when we need an Israel that is a catalyst, that we get an Israel that is a Holocaust phenomeon. And when money for Israel is seen as in competition for money for local Jewish education, as if the two are different.

And so, he says, coming full circle, it is possible that we are creating what we want and then we hope that we will somehow survive and that each community will have individuals who set the priorities straight.

Another point is that 50 years without anti-Semitism have created a world for which Holocaust Museums are not the room. We need the museums, but it is not where people go for vitality. Death and destruction sell certain things, but knowledge, joy and commitment become the most significant features of life.

The reason we are living in a unique time period, is that no where in Jewish history has this level of commitment and joy been a prerequisite for continued existence. For most of Jewish history, most Jews were carried by the elites. Only the elites needed the high level of commitment, and the others lived vicariously.

The Challenge of Today—We Are All the Elite

“If I had to define the challenge of contemp0orary Jewish life,” said Donniel, “It would be that there are no more elites, and that is that there could b no more elites, and that makes us ask, fundamentally, what do we have to create?” What do we need to get people walking in the direction of vitality?”

Today everyone has to do the maximum. In a world of complex identity only the maximum is the bare minimum.

If you understand that paradigm shift, he says, then there is a future

If you don’t, then you are still functioning in models that don’t bode well for our future. If we want a future, we need different models. To treat the future like the past is the greatest recipe for not having a future at all.

Neesa Sweet