American Jewry: On Power and Vulnerability

Dr. Elana Stein Hain is Scholar in Residence and Director of Faculty at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, where she serves as lead faculty and oversees the content of lay and professional leadership programs. Elana also leads the Created Equal research team.

Jews do not fit neatly into the groupings of identity common to liberal discourse in America today. On the one hand, we are not clearly a marginalized group because we do not have structural barriers impeding our success and influence. On the other hand, we are not unqualifiedly powerful or even safe: anti-semitism continues to rear its head in the United States and Jews suffer at its hands around the world. 

This position makes it difficult to make the case for collective Jewish identity. If we were a clearly marginalized group (such as people of color), the idea of preserving and protecting our group – both physically and culturally – would be intuitive. If we were a clearly dominant group (see white nationalists) calling for physical or cultural protections of our group would be understood as discriminatory maintenance of a corrupt power balance.

Living in between these two neat categories means our deservedness of protection as a collective - whether through
nationalism or through in-marriage – is being negotiated both within the Jewish community and outside of it.
This challenge necessitates a new way of thinking and talking about ourselves that can break us out of this strict dichotomy.. And I would like to suggest that weaving together three readings of the Purim story might help us to frame this conversation:

On vulnerability: There is no question that the Purim narrative describes a situation in which diaspora Jews are vulnerable. But there is a twin to the Jewish community of Persia in the land of the Israel at the time of the setting of the Megillah. According to the book of Ezra, Jews had already returned to the land of Israel and were actively rebuilding the Temple. In fact, as the Jews of Persia were having their woes, the Jews of Judea were having troubles of their own. The book of Ezra describes the trouble that a group of Judean natives made for returning Jews: They “weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and harried them while they were building, and hired counselors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:4-5).” It is significant to note that in the book of Ezra we hear nothing of the Jews in Persia, and in the Scroll of Esther, we hear nothing about the Jews in Judea. So much for Jewish collective identity. Each group is only looking out for itself. 

In fact, the book of Ezra even records hardship for the Jews of Judea during the time of Ahasuerus, and yet it completely ignores the experience of persecution of Persian Jewry at the very same time. The verses in Ezra describe:


And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they [the natives] wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.  (Ezra 4:6)

Where is there any mention of the Jews suffering in the rest of the Persian empire, the  ones who were almost annihilated? Even if there are historical reasons for the narrowness of the Judean story, seeing Ezra and Esther, contemporaneous stories that seem unaware of one another in the Biblical canon, reminds me of a familiar pattern. Whose vulnerability counts? If I am living comfortably as a proud and safe Jew in NYC, does the vulnerability of my fellow Jews living in Europe or even in other parts of the United States matter to me? Or are we part of  separate stories? If I am influential and living safely on the West Coast, does the danger that my fellow Jews experience in Israel matter, or is that too political or distant an issue to get involved in?

This is part of the story of our collective identity in the age of privilege. Because we experience and believe so much in our own story of success, we distance ourselves from the stories of anti-Semitism and conflict that continue to plague parts of our people who live elsewhere. (We also often distance ourselves from local experiences in our own lives that contradict the success story, and that is a related matter.) But an essential dimension of Jewish peoplehood is relating to fellow Jews who do not share my experience. Not because I feel vulnerable right now, but because they do.

On power: But Megillat Esther is not only about Jewish vulnerability, it is also about Jewish power. After all, by the end of the Megillah, a Jew is queen and another Jew is viceroy. According to one rabbinic midrash, in fact, Darius II, the next emperor of Persia, was Esther’s own son.  

This is a fundamental part of American Jewish story as well. In an age in which American Jews are freer, safer and perhaps more influential than we have ever been, when do we discuss the ethics of Jewish power? Often our discussion about Jewish community revolves around vulnerability or potential vulnerability, but how do we start conversation in our communities about what it means to use power responsibly? To use it well? What’s worse, often people are worried to even use the term “power” because that is a term that anti-Semites use. But if we are not willing to use the term even within the confines of the Jewish community,, how can we possibly develop an ethic of power for American Jews? 

While it seems obvious that a people living in an age in which Jews are both powerful and vulnerable should be discussing the ethics of both in tandem, I find that people tend to choose sides. There are those who push towards vulnerability as the fundamental reality of Jews today and others who push towards characterizations of power as the fundamental reality of Jews today. The resulting consequences include the inability for right and left or for members of different generations to speak to one another about vital issues of concern.

As Jewish professionals who seek to maintain some semblance of Jewish collectivism, how can we conduct conversations that bring the ethics of vulnerability and the ethics of power into conversation with one another? And how should this kind of thinking be reflected in our educational initiatives, in our resource development, and in our programming?

On Jewish identity: While the discussions about weakness and strength are important, they should not be the foundation of Jewish identity. While those issues do speak to physical protection of our collective, they do not speak to the importance of cultural protection, to what it is beyond our bodies that is worth preserving, what is it that we stand for as a people.

It is rather Judaism itself that should stand at the foundation of Jewish collectivity and identity.  As the Talmud relates regarding Purim: 

Rava said: They again accepted it willingly in the time of Ahasuerus, as it is written: “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them” (Esther 9:27), and he taught: The Jews ordained what they had already taken upon themselves through coercion at Sinai.

This voluntary acceptance is contrasted to what is viewed as a forced acceptance after the Exodus from Egypt. What is remarkable about this statement is that it does not seem to be supported whatsoever by the Esther text. Even the activities that Esther and Mordechai prescribe for Purim – sending gifts and taking care of the poor – while they reflect Jewish values, are actually just good ways of behaving that any human being might intuit. The rabbis, however, suggest that this was a moment in which the Jews decided to voluntarily accept the Torah as a whole nation.

This approach to Purim, that it is a moment not just of safety from danger or the acquisition of influence but a time of acceptance of the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Jewish people pushes an important question about Jewish collectivity to the fore: In what ways are we as a community educating toward a Jewish collective distinctiveness that is based on Jewish ideas and values? 

This may sound simple, but it is indeed quite complex in 2019. Our lives as American Jews push us to filter Judaism predominantly through the lens of American and of universal values. Often, we frame Jewish ideas and practices in ways that domesticate them to American culture, whether this means trying to sideline the particularistic and countercultural elements of Jewish thought or allowing political partisanship to force nuanced Jewish ideas into American positions of Democratic or Republican platforms. And while universalism and engagement with society are significant Jewish values themselves, have we left enough room for the distinctiveness of Jewish ideas? How should we balance the universal and the particular in 2019, without veering too far to either side? 

What would it mean as leaders of American Jewry today to take on these three conversations – on vulnerability, power, and Jewish identity – in ways that are actually exploratory? In ways that do not have predetermined answers?