Those of us who fight in the trenches of the daily public debate---tweeting, blogging and churning out columns about building rights in Jerusalem, global anti-Semitism, Goldstone and Madoff and all the other hot-button issues--rarely take time to step outside and look at the bigger questions. When all the acrimony and activism arc set aside, what is left of our Jewish identity?
The basic problem with Jewish life today is its overwhelming emphasis on crisis. We fight. We "weigh in." We identify enemies and proclaim loyalties. We hold high-level meetings to discuss our "brand." We defend Israel as though our lives were at stake or criticize Israel with the passion of a democratic evangelist. We accost those Jews who fail to enlist in the cause, as though any minute we may need them to storm Washington, as we did in the decades when a million of our brethren were imprisoned behind Soviet lines.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with combating activism or fighting the Iranian bomb. There are dangers out there, both political forces and simple ignorance that put Jewish life at risk. Our crises are not manufactured. But just as an individual's life cannot be defined solely through his struggle for survival, isn't there something disturbing about a Jewish identity' defined principally by the constant effort to put a halt to terrible things? Welcome to fire extinguisher Judaism.
What's missing is a coherent content to our identity, a positive message, a set of beloved things and ideas--other than ourselves and our organizations and the state we've built--to which we proclaim allegiance, in which we invest time and effort to understand, which we embrace as possessing the keys to ourselves and our future.
What am I talking about? Culture is certainly part of it. When we take a moment to shut out the rocket fire, both real and figurative, we'll discover that a lot is going on in Jewish culture today--perhaps more than at any time in our history. On the Israeli side, the past two decades have seen, to take just one example, a huge surge in innovative Jewish music, from heavy metal to reggae to electronic and Arabic and Greek themes, where deep poetry catapults into stunning song, never fully abandoning the connection to ancient Jewish texts and figures. Precious little of this ever makes it stateside, partly because North American Jews know so little Hebrew, partly because they have never placed the Bible at the center the way that even secular Israelis do, but mostly because Israeli and American Jewish cultures have grown so far apart. Many American Jews barely recognize the deep Jewishness that drives Israeli creativity.
In North America, new developments are …