When novelist Michael Chabon took the lectern to give a commencement address at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion in Los Angeles earlier this month, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer clearly intended to create controversy. In damning Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank and Jerusalem, and dismissing the need for any concern with the Jewish state’s security (he called the word an “invention of humanity’s jailers”), he set off a predictable exchange between the Jewish right and left—and anyone who cares about Israel.
Chabon’s harsh denunciation of not merely the settler enclave in Hebron, but of any effort to defend the one Jewish state on the planet against people trying to destroy it would have generated criticism at any time. But coming at the same time that Israel had to defend its border against violent mobs seeking their so-called “right of return,” the warmly applauded speech came across as yet another clueless Diaspora reaction to the conflict.
But to focus primarily on Chabon’s potshots at Israel—whose existence he wished out of existence in his most celebrated Jewishly-themed novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which takes place in a world where the newborn state of Israel is destroyed in 1948—is to miss the point about why his speech might be a seminal moment in American Jewish life.
That’s because Chabon’s target wasn’t merely the settlers or the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We already knew that he considered “nations and borders” to be “antiquated canards.” Rather, his goal was to delegitimize the very idea of Jewish boundaries of any kind—both physical borders, and the lines that demarcate Jewish marriages and families. Though he claimed that there is no difference between walls that imprison and those that protect, the boundaries he most despises are those “figurative walls of tradition” that separate Jews from others.
Chabon has largely turned on Judaism, even the liberal variant with which he’s most comfortable. Not only does he oppose measures that save Jewish lives in Israel, but his “shame” about “Jewish oppression” has led him to see any effort to preserve Jewish identity as suspect.
As he explained, though he married a Jew (fellow writer Ayelet Waldman, a virulent critic of Israel in her own right who has sometimes rationalized Palestinian terrorism) and once thought he wanted his children to marry Jews, now he thinks differently. In his view, an endogamous marriage is “a ghetto of two.” He decried what he considers Judaism’s “interlocking walls” that are limiting and ultimately harmful.
Chabon’s attack on Judaism’s most sacred traditions—he dismissed the Exodus from Egypt as an ancient lie that has allowed the Jewish people to “manufacture out of whole cloth a tradition of bitterness”—isn’t merely about applauding intermarriage. If, like him, you can’t discern a distinction between a God of hatred and one of love, what point is there to preserve faith or a sense of peoplehood at all?
If Jews were to assimilate themselves out of existence, the fault would, he said, rest with Judaism and its restrictive beliefs that had “lost its hold on the moral imagination” of its adherents. What he seems to want instead is a version of Jewish life in which all distinctions—both in practice and thought—are broken down. For Chabon, “embracing change through diversity” isn’t merely a tired liberal cliché but a plan of action that would strip Jews of their separate identity.
While one might think this is an odd thing to say to a class of newly ordained rabbis, what’s troubling is that it speaks to a growing belief among American Jews that inclusion and diversity are not merely important values, but the only values to be defended.
That’s not to say that most Reform, Conservative or Reconstructionist Jews share Chabon’s toxic blend of cynicism about Jewish faith/identity and hopeless idealism about a world where borders wouldn’t be needed to protect us.
Nonetheless, the notion that a defense of Jewish tradition or in-marriage is somehow a form of antiquated parochialism or even racism has seeped into the consciousness of contemporary American Jewry. Having grown up in a free country where we are no longer compelled to stay within our own tribe, many Jews have also come to see all such boundaries as illegitimate, even if the same people who dismiss Jewish tradition generally treat the mores of those who are viewed as victims of Western oppression as worthy of respect. Writer Cynthia Ozick’s quip that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews” has never seemed more prescient.
The consequences of such distorted thinking are twofold.
In the communal sphere, it means considering groups that oppose Israel’s existence and even promote anti-Semitic canards (such as Jewish Voice for Peace) as legitimate and worthy of inclusion in the big Jewish tent.
In the private sphere, it means not only encouraging intermarriage, but treating all efforts to encourage Jews to marry other Jews—and thus make the creation of Jewish families more likely—as an unacceptable affront to the intermarried.
What this means in practice is a situation where not only are non-Orthodox Jews assimilating and intermarrying at rates that are causing the demographic collapse of their movements. It’s also made it difficult, if not impossible, for the organized Jewish world to respond to the crisis.
Israel will survive Chabon’s insults and misleading arguments. But a non-Orthodox world in which Chabon’s ideas about the worthlessness of Jewish life are accepted is one where the institutions of liberal Jewry will not fare as well as its population shrinks. And that is what makes Chabon’s speech significant.
A Jewish community that has no boundaries and treats inclusion as a god that must be blindly worshipped is one that ultimately stands for nothing. That is why liberal Judaism is in so much trouble as many of its adherents have embraced Chabon’s amorphous ideas about Jewish identity. Unfortunately, those whose future is most threatened by the war on boundaries and traditions that Chabon is encouraging were the ones cheering for him.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.