Living in a Time of Shattered Faith

“How do you separate Judaism and Israel? I don’t know. I can’t. … To me, it’s the same. You can’t separate it. Israel is Judaism and Judaism is Israel. That is who I am, and that is my identity.”

— Jacqui Schulefand, former Jewish day-school teacher, from the film “Israelism” (2023)

“The vision of the New Jerusalem, complete in 1967, beckoned not tourists, but pilgrims to the new heaven and the new earth. This, as I said, is the myth that shapes the mind and imagination of American Jewry, supplies the correct interpretation and denotes the true significance of everyday events. … This is the myth that transforms commonplace affairs into history, makes writing a check into a sacred act. … It is myth in that it so closely corresponds to, and yet so magically transforms and elevates, reality that people take vision and interpretation for fact.”

— Jacob Neusner, “The Implications of the Holocaust” (1973)

In the seven months since the horrific events of Oct. 7, American Jews have been flooded with a range of emotions — grief, rage, fear and confusion, to name just a few. In that time, much has been written about how successfully Hamas has raised global awareness of the Palestinian cause; whether Israel’s war to eradicate Hamas from Gaza is prudent or even realistic; how this will alter U.S.-Israel relations; whether, as Franklin Foer has put it, the “golden age” of American Jewry is over; and the impact of these events on the geopolitics of the region.

I want to focus here on something less widely appreciated: the way our changing perceptions of and relationship to Israel represent a fundamental shift in our religious consciousness. For the rise in antisemitism — and the increasingly widespread and heated condemnations of Israel’s war in Gaza — have not only undermined our sense of security, they have profoundly disoriented us. We feel as though we are living in a new and unfamiliar world, that the world as it existed before Oct. 7 will never return. This experience can be described in many ways, but I think it is best understood as a fundamental loss of faith. It is worth taking stock of what that means.

To understand this, we must begin by noting, as Jacob Neusner did decades ago, that, for liberal Jews, the core of American Jewish religion rests on two foundations: the Holocaust and the State of Israel. The greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people was followed just a few short years later by the greatest renaissance of Jewish life in two millennia. The themes of “death and resurrection” have shaped the experience and religious commitments of American Jews. Indeed, for the vast majority of non-Orthodox American Jews, who have little knowledge of or attachment to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices, they have replaced “Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim” (Torah, worship and deeds of lovingkindness) as the touchstones of Jewish commitment. Commemorating the Holocaust and celebrating the State of Israel have been, at least since 1967, the cornerstones of American Jewish religious identity. Arguably, the theological vacuum created by the Enlightenment, which undermined traditional Jewish beliefs in creation, revelation and redemption, has been filled by this “new religion” focused on the tragedy of the Holocaust and the triumph of the modern State of Israel.

The evidence for this is so pervasive that it hardly needs to be recounted. The ubiquity of Holocaust museums and memorials; the repetition of the slogan “Never Again;” the determination to fight antisemitism and the unwavering support for the State of Israel promoted by mainstream organizations such as UJC (United Jewish Communities), AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee), ADL (Anti-Defamation League), AJC (American Jewish Committee), JNF (Jewish National Fund) and others; the focus on Israel education in Jewish schools and the success of programs like Birthright; the “We Stand With Israel” signs outside so many Jewish institutions; the celebration of Israeli culture (music, film, dance); the large attendance at communal programs for Yom Hasho’ah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day); the extraordinary sums of money donated each year to organizations that support Jewish life in Israel — all this and more is evidence of the power that the Holocaust and the State of Israel exert in American Jewish life.

We can capture this concisely as a problem and its solution. For many American Jews, especially those strongly affiliated with Jewish institutional and communal life, the fundamental problem for Jews is antisemitism. It defines the circumstances in which we live. And the unmistakable answer to that problem is the State of Israel. It promises to provide the security that Jews have needed, but lacked, throughout most of our history. These two assertions are so self-evident to a large segment of Jews that they don’t need to be said; they only need to be acted on.

The fullest articulation of this American Jewish religion was offered by Jonathan Woocher in his Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews (1986). His analysis is based on the work of Robert Bellah, who popularized the term “civil religion” as a way to describe the core values, beliefs and practices that shape the civic life of a community, thereby giving coherence to their collective lives and a sense of purpose to their individual lives. For most American Jews, Woocher argued, that civil religion is built on several pillars, but most especially on the importance of “Jewish survival in a threatening world,” and “the centrality of the State of Israel.” In Woocher’s words (p. 77),

Jewish unity, mutual responsibility, and Jewish survival [three of the pillars of the American Jewish civil religion] all come together in Israel; it is the symbolic center of the civil Jewish universe, the place where the lines of Jewish existence — of Jewish history and tradition, of the modern Jewish condition and the response to that condition — intersect.

In its essence, here is the message of American Jewish civil religion. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is perfectly obvious that the world is a dangerous place for Jews. Our fate, even when we feel secure, is always uncertain. In such a world, we can ill-afford to be powerless, unable to defend ourselves. We require a “safe haven” on which we can depend when the non-Jewish world turns against us. We need an independent state to represent our interests, to defend us from our enemies and to secure our future.

It follows that supporting that State, as well as fighting any and all expressions of antisemitism, is the ultimate imperative. We identify with that State — its needs and challenges, as well as its cultural and material achievements — because it is both the guarantee of our safety and also the expression of Jewish national identity, which re-emerged astonishingly after nearly 20 centuries of dormancy. More precisely, we don’t just “identify” with Israel, we “believe” in it. It anchors our identity, gives meaning to our collective lives, provides a link to our history and explains our destiny. As Schulefand says in the epigram above, Judaism and Israel thus become inseparable. Israel is our faith.

Israel has anchored our identity—given meaning to our collective lives, provided a link to our history and explained our destiny.

It is against this background that we can begin to understand the cataclysmic events through which we are living. The American Jewish civil religion has begun to come unraveled. The events of Oct. 7 and their aftermath have radically challenged some of the key assumptions of that religious faith, which explains how shaken and disoriented many of us feel.

We don’t just “identify” with Israel, we “believe in” it.

To be sure, some elements of that faith — namely, that the world is a dangerous place for Jews — have surely not changed. If anything, the events of Oct. 7 have reinforced that view in the starkest possible way. But our conditioned response — to put our faith in Israel as the bulwark of our safety — no longer feels warranted. For Israelis themselves, faith in the Israel Defense Forces and in Israel’s vaunted intelligence services was revealed on that awful day to be misplaced. Those institutions failed them. American Jews have experienced a double disillusionment: Not only do we feel viscerally the vulnerability of our Israeli compatriots, but we have also experienced a marked upsurge in antisemitism in this country in the aftermath of the Hamas attack and the subsequent war in Gaza.

To treat Israel as a source of security at a time when it failed its own citizens and when its actions have engendered more antisemitism in this country feels increasingly untenable for many of us. Far from being the safest place in the world for Jews, Israel has become among the least safe places, and it has made Jews less safe throughout the world. At the very moment when we are experiencing antisemitism more acutely than at any time since the end of the Holocaust, when we need a safe haven and a beacon of hope, Israel turns out not to be the answer. Our faith in Israel has been shattered.

Of course, before Be’eri and Re’im, there was the Tree of Life, and Poway, and Colleyville, the rants of Kanye West and the proliferation of antisemitic memes on the Internet. Antisemitism has been on the rise since at least 2016. So, Oct. 7 happened in a context in which we were already on heightened alert. The world, we now conclude, is even more unsafe than we had imagined. It is hardly surprising, then, that increasingly we hear the suggestion that we are again in Germany in 1933 or 1939. And, now as then, there isn’t a Jewish state that appears able to protect us. It exists, but we no longer feel we can put our faith in it.

Far from being the safest place in the world for Jews, Israel has become among the least safe places, and it has made Jews less safe throughout the world.

This crisis of faith is deepened by another factor — the growing awareness that the myth of Israel’s founding is incomplete at best, and perhaps even fatally flawed. For the past few decades, Israeli “new historians” have been offering a more accurate, less rosy, picture of Israel’s relationships both with Palestinians and with the surrounding Arab nations. The glorified image of Israel that most of us were taught (and that much of the mainstream Jewish community continues to promote) — that Israelis have always behaved justly, sought peace and promoted democratic values — is a myth, not supported by an unbiased view of the historical record. Israel’s dramatic success came at a cost to Palestinians, and so many of us can no longer celebrate Israel’s genuinely remarkable accomplishments without taking that cost into account.

On top of this historical reappraisal, the current situation presents a new set of challenges: an Israeli government that includes avowed racists, homophobes and authoritarians; which provides arms to lawless settlers on the West Bank to harass and expel Palestinian villagers; which still professes to abide by the international laws of war even as it displaces and kills tens of thousands of civilians in Gaza; and that has tried mightily to diminish the Israeli Supreme Court, the last check on the government’s unbridled power.

The disconnect between the Israel enshrined in American Jewish religion over the past several decades and the Israel we read about in our news feeds has reached the breaking point. This is especially the case for Millennial Jews and those of Gen Z, who have only known an Israel governed by Benjamin Netanyahu and his (increasingly) right-wing allies, and who increasingly view Israel through the lens of post-colonialist critiques. They have not so much “lost” their faith in Israel; they never really believed in Israel in the first place, at least not in the way their parents and grandparents did. But, as so often happens, the change in attitudes among the younger generation prefigures a larger cultural shift. Today, larger and larger segments of the American Jewish community are experiencing that loss of faith, even if they haven’t yet named it as such.

In this time of anxiety and confusion, it is easy to focus our attention on the most obvious examples of what has changed. Jewish students afraid to wear kippot or a Magen David on campus. Enhanced security measures at synagogues and other Jewish institutions. Debates in Congress about whether calls for Jewish genocide are protected free speech. The World Court of Justice debating whether Israel’s war in Gaza constitutes an act of genocide. Amid all the noise and turmoil, the accusations and counter-accusations, it is easy to miss what we’re really living through — the disintegration of American Jewish civil religion as we have known it.

Larger and larger segments of the American Jewish community are experiencing the loss of faith in Israel, even if they haven’t yet named it as such.

That disintegration explains the reactions of mainstream segments of the American Jewish community to this crisis. As Israel is being attacked in the media, at the United Nations and on college campuses, those who still adhere to the American Jewish faith in Israel have, not surprisingly, ratcheted up their defensive posture. Israel is being unfairly accused; Hamas is wholly to blame; the progressive left is misinformed, biased or malicious; anti-Zionism is always antisemitism; in times of crisis, allegiance to Israel is more important than ever. Defenders of the faith circle the wagons and increasingly denounce other Jews who have the temerity to openly criticize Israel, express support for Palestinians or otherwise display disloyalty to Jews. For, in their eyes, anything that is perceived to challenge Israel or its centrality to American Jewish identity is, quite literally, an act of apostasy. The intensity of their defensiveness testifies to nothing so much as to the power of the civic faith of American Jews. But this faith is shared now by a shrinking, and aging, segment of our community.

This religious framing of our current predicament also explains the profound sense of disorientation many progressive Jews are feeling. Our distress is more than just fear or disruption; it is a nascent awareness that the underpinnings of our religious identity have been pulled out from under us. As scholars of religion have long known, when people can no longer subscribe to the faith of their parents, when the beliefs and practices that have given meaning to their lives quit working, they experience profound dis-ease. The ground on which we stand no longer feels solid.

Perhaps we should have anticipated this. Placing our faith in a political entity, making the State of Israel a pillar of our religious life, was always a risky venture. Political institutions, after all, are flawed, human creations, susceptible to all manner of misdirection and even corruption. Many prominent thinkers warned us against idolizing the State, perhaps none as fiercely or persistently as Yeshayahu Liebowitz. But those warnings were drowned out by the religious fervor that overcame Israel in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the miracle of Israel’s founding and the ways in which it provided hope to a profoundly traumatized people in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that it became an article of faith. But for many of us, that faith no longer seems warranted, both because it has failed to make Jews safer and because it has failed to live up to the image of righteousness that we ascribed to it.

In short, the foundations of our faith as American Jews are crumbling. This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state, but it does mean, at a minimum, that that state will figure differently in lives and religious imaginations of American Jews in the future. It is surely too soon to know what sort of new faith will emerge, much less what role the Israeli polity or culture will play in our lives. What is clear is that we are living in the deeply unsettling transition between the disintegration of the old faith and the emergence of something new.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent article. But to take it a step or two further, it is definitely mainly written from the perspective of someone over 30 or 40. Many younger Jews have already started to create a new type of faith, a new Judaism based on social action, interfaith and intercultural relations, and based on change.

    So yes we are in a time of great transition. And until Bibi is gone, and hopefully Hamas is gone, we won’t be very far into this new period of global Jewish life.

    We should hope and pray and work towards this new period, indeed a *new* Zionism, and hopefully a new Holy Land on many levels – from religious to cultural to political.

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