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The challenge for Tzedek Chicago

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Rabbi Brant Rosen’s new congregational venture Tzedek Chicago continues to make news. Writing in the Forward, Jonathan Paul Katz thinks that such a non-Zionist venture rooted in universal Jewish values might fill a gap in Jewish life.  That said, the issue is much more profound than Katz is aware of. Creating new Jewish space at the end of Jewish ethical history is a challenge that may or may not succeed. Is it worth the effort?

Here’s the way Katz frames Tzedek Chicago:

If you ask me, Tzedek Chicago is old news, but it’s also radically new.

On the one hand, my hipster side can snidely inform you that Tzedek Chicago is building on a long, long line of religious Jewish non-Zionism. In American communal discourse, we tend to associate this non-Zionism with Haredi groups like the Satmar and Skverer dynasties in New York , or with the pre-World War II Reform movement . We also associate it with secular Ashkenazi movements — including Communist groups and the Yiddishist Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter-Ring). Yet there is a continued tradition of non-Zionist religiosity in the United States and diaspora more generally — be they those who hold by a certain interpretation of Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s (himself a Zionist) explanations of Jewish sovereignty , those who do not believe Israel is redemptive in any fashion, and those who have always remained silent in synagogue for fear of being ostracized. Tzedek Chicago is now a congregational, far more liberal manifestation of this impulse that never quite died.

Yet there’s also something new and very “millennial” in Tzedek Chicago’s mission statement. It frames Judaism as something modern and “beyond” typical tropes: “a Judaism beyond nationalism”; “a Judaism beyond borders.” Membership is not barred to those in relationships with non-Jews or to their non-Jewish partners; the membership fee is kept low in an era of growing fees; solidarity with social justice movements is considered a core aspect of the congregational mission.

As I read that mission statement, I wondered: is this what the 21st-century congregation looks like? Anti-racist, non-Zionist, social justice-oriented, centered neither on preventing intermarriage nor on praising Israel? This is the Judaism that a portion of our generation has sought to build and create — and if Tzedek Chicago succeeds, we may see many more congregations of its kind popping up around the country. The old congregational model — the holy trinity of Israel, bloodline, and day schools; a lack of criticism and worries about “what will the goyim say” — seems far too retrograde to the many people Tzedek Chicago seeks to engage.

Katz is on the mark here but he needs to go further. Tzedek Chicago has to be more than a place for Jewish millennials and dissidents to gather. A Jewish congregation emerging today has a broader and more difficult struggle on its hands, one that that millennials and dissidents on Israel bypass at their own peril. In post-Holocaust Jewish life and with a militant Jewish state still in ascendancy, the battle lines are consequential. Declaring oneself or a congregation non- or even anti-Zionist threatens to be symbolic with little content when living within and being protected by an imperial America tied to an Israel that knows no ethical or political boundaries.

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Israel in Jewish life, too, is far more complicated than declarations of loyalty, lack of interest or dissent. Jews have ascended with America’s embrace of Israel over the years. Though the 1967 war and the settlements in its wake may have spelled the end of the two state solution in Israel-Palestine, it was a watershed moment for the increasing status, affluence and political clout of Jews in American society. Even Jewish dissenters in the academy benefited from the romanticization of Israel in America. So it is more than coincidence that the great proliferation of Jewish Studies in America came with the study of the Holocaust, which itself reached prominence in the wake of the 1967 war.

What does non-Zionism, anti-Zionism and universal Jewish values mean today? Aspects of each were addressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century movements of Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. Most recently they were embraced by the Jewish Renewal movement. On the one hand, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements were naive in their embrace of the Jewish prophetic and Jewish civilization within the framework of European Enlightenment and American democracy as a predestined world future. On the other hand, Jewish Renewal expropriated and integrated Judaism, native cultures and other religions into a strange New Age ritual amalgam.

Is it necessary for Jews to gather in specific Jewish spaces in imperial America, after the Holocaust and after what Israel has done, is doing and will continue to do to the Palestinian people? Katz’s concluding positive statement about Tzedek Chicago’s mission is too weak:

In continuing the tradition of religious anti-Zionism, Tzedek Chicago is building the potential for a very different kind of Judaism in the 21st century. I myself am still holding out for a “Conservadox post-Zionist moment” that might never happen: a liturgically conservative, egalitarian Judaism that is divorced from the Zionism it is so often tied to today. But Tzedek Chicago — if it succeeds — could help propel a community already detached from its old nationalisms farther along in its trajectory. It could also push the “mainline denominations” to reconsider how they appeal for the support of a Jewish generation with very different concerns and values.

After all, Tzedek’s greatest contribution to 21st-century Judaism may be a congregational model designed and sustained along the justice-oriented, non-nationalist lines millennials have long craved.

What Katz misses, Tzedek Chicago can’t afford to miss – the naked Jewish prophetic. Without congregational or other Jewish institutional space and often against it, the Jewish prophetic is engaged at the Jewish end-times as the violence of Israel and the enabling Jewish community in America peaks. Does the Jewish prophetic need a Jewish environment to do its work? Can the Jewish prophetic survive even a dissenting Jewish embrace?

Despite the rhetoric of decline, Israel has never been stronger or more integrated into the American-European, Middle Eastern and international world order. Palestine has never been smaller or weaker. The two state solution is gone. The one state solution has never been more distant. If Tzedek Chicago is to pioneer new Jewish space today it will have to concentrate on the reversal of this reality, a reality that will continue after the lifetime of its charismatic rabbi, the millennial generation and the Jewish dissidents it attracts.

Is Tzedek Chicago and its possible offshoots up for the long haul Jewish crisis that is, at the same time, so immediate that the long haul might be pie in the sky?

Though pie in the sky is theology’s bread and butter, Jewish life and the continuity of the generations cannot be celebrated, even in dissent, when Jews are oppressing another people. Under different guises, that oppression is permanent. Nonetheless, playing the prophetic wild card is a Jewish specialty. If Tzedek Chicago plays the prophetic wild card it will raise the stakes of an ancient tradition in steep decline.

The haunting question remains: Is there anything more than can be done?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His new book, Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures, is forthcoming.

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7 Responses

  1. Mooser
    July 14, 2015, 2:27 pm

    “The haunting question remains: Is there anything more than can be done?”

    How’s about Tzedek starts out serving the religious needs and desires of the congregation it attracts. That’s a big enough job to start with, and when American Jews know what that feels like again, they may be up for bigger challenges within Judaism.
    After all, having a religious institution centered around religious needs of and lives of its congregants (and through them, the world) can be very inspiring.
    So might the idea, for American Jews, that they are not responsible for fixing Israel.

    • just
      July 14, 2015, 6:44 pm

      Well said, Mooser.

      Bravo Rabbi Rosen.

      Lead the way, light the path and good luck!

    • ritzl
      July 15, 2015, 9:41 am

      Thanks Mooser for mentioning this article in the other thread.

      I was going to skip it as yet another fence-straddling, lip-service, intra-Jewish, easily-cowed, self-styled, presumptuous, “But we’re DIFFERENT! [Trust us, or you’re a bigot.]”, thin-skinned, feel-good organizational foray into the “Jews really are for universal human rights.” game — but Tzedek appears to be none of those things (well, maybe the “feel-good” bit).

      As a Brant Rosen endeavor, this is very sincere, very positive, Very important, and maybe most importantly, durable enough to grow.

      I hope it works out and grows beyond all expectations. There’s certainly a need/receptive audience, inside and outside the Jewish spectrum.

  2. Mooser
    July 14, 2015, 3:47 pm

    “I myself am still holding out for a “Conservadox post-Zionist moment” that might never happen: a liturgically conservative, egalitarian Judaism that is divorced from the Zionism it is so often tied to today.”

    Yes, pretty easy to see who will be left holding the bag, taking the hit.

  3. niass2
    July 14, 2015, 10:42 pm

    This is worth a shot, and hopefully they will succeed, but what is success. Does it take 100 years?

    As someone who might consider looking into that, it feels just as yucky and uncomfortable as becoming a Unitarian.

    Do they have air conditioning? If so I’m in.

    For me Judaism is toast. I will turn up the volume on my Grateful Dead tapes, cause Jerry knows better abut things like love, war, peace and desperation than any Religion will ever know.

    I am not clear that religion and morality mix, and I would never be a member of a club that would have me for a member, so for now I’ll steer clear of my birth religion and stick with Bob and Jerry.

    Thanks and let me know if it works and I’ll come visit, with my father, in heaven.

    -Shaun

  4. JWalters
    July 15, 2015, 8:14 pm

    Break free from obsessive attachment to the past.

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