Plead­ing for change

Tal Keinan of­fers an im­pas­sioned but un­der­whelm­ing trea­tise on Ju­daism to­day

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • AMY SPIRO

Tal Keinan is wor­ried. The Is­raeli-Amer­i­can en­tre­pre­neur and busi­ness­man thinks that Ju­daism – in the United States and Is­rael – is fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. His deep-seated con­cern has led him to pen the earnest and thought-pro­vok­ing God is in the Crowd: Twenty-First Cen­tury Ju­daism. In the US, with soar­ing rates of in­ter­mar­riage and as­sim­i­la­tion, Keinan sees Jews sim­ply dis­ap­pear­ing in a few gen­er­a­tions. In Is­rael, Keinan be­lieves, fac­tional in­fight­ing and an in­abil­ity to agree on an ap­proach to solv­ing con­flict with the Pales­tini­ans will drive sec­u­lar Is­raelis out of the coun­try and ef­fec­tively spell its end.

As both a trea­tise and en­treaty on modern Jewry, Keinan’s work is deeply flawed. But he is a com­pelling writer – and at his best when speak­ing about his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. Through­out the book, he tells of his sec­u­lar up­bring­ing in Florida, the spir­i­tual re­newal he un­der­went while a stu­dent at Ex­eter, and his de­ci­sion to en­list in the Is­rael Air Force and serve as a fighter pi­lot. One pas­sage, where he de­scribes his first Yom Kip­pur in Is­rael, is par­tic­u­larly mov­ing. Since age 13, Keinan had fasted and at­tended sy­n­a­gogue on Yom Kip­pur. But that all changed in the IAF.

“I as­sumed we would walk to the sy­n­a­gogue, which I had never seen, that evening,” he writes. In­stead, he dis­cov­ered his com­rades pre­par­ing grilled-cheese sand­wiches with a cel­e­bra­tory spirit. “I made my way to my cot as ca­su­ally as I could, strug­gling to avoid be­tray­ing my con­fu­sion and a welling bout of panic. I had just com­mit­ted years of my life to Is­rael, an en­ter­prise it some­times seemed I barely un­der­stood. There was no emer­gency exit.”

Though the day be­gan with panic, a sense of calm later set in.

“For the first time, I grasped a prac­ti­cal dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a modern Jew in Amer­ica and be­ing a modern Jew in Is­rael. In Amer­ica, I had to make an ac­tive ef­fort to dis­en­gage from school... [a] rit­ual that had been the con­fir­ma­tion of my mem­ber­ship in the tribe. In Is­rael, the rit­ual was un­nec­es­sary.”

Sim­i­larly, Keinan mov­ingly re­counts be­ing in Tel Aviv the day that prime min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin was as­sas­si­nated, and call­ing his then-girl­friend Am­ber in the US with the news.

“An­other siren wailed out­side my win­dow, then faded and stopped as the am­bu­lance turned into the hospi­tal en­trance. The line was quiet for a few sec­onds. ‘Tal, shouldn’t you be call­ing some­one from work [the IAF] right now? Why are you talk­ing to me?’” But Keinan knew that the as­sas­si­na­tion would not call for an air force re­sponse – the prime min­is­ter had been mur­dered by a Jew. “No. There is no­body for me to call.”

In­ter­spersed with his per­sonal jour­ney are Keinan’s mus­ings and con­cerns about the fu­ture of Ju­daism. But his rad­i­cal ideas – which I’ll get to in a mo­ment – are al­most an af­ter­thought in the close to 300-page ex­am­i­na­tion of the state of global Jewry, which is high on sweep­ing procla­ma­tions but low on sup­port­ing data.

In­deed, the ques­tion I con­tin­u­ally asked my­self while read­ing this book is: Why Keinan? Why are his grandiose ideas worth more at­ten­tion than those of any­body else?

Sure, the 49-year-old has lived in both Is­rael and the US, has served as an Is­raeli fighter pi­lot, has an MBA from Har­vard and is a busi­ness suc­cess. But is that enough? In an epi­logue to the book, Keinan ad­mits that he is not an ex­pert but a “con­cerned mem­ber of world Jewry.”

Bona fides aside, un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims and nig­gling mis­state­ments through­out re­in­force a feel­ing of doubt while read­ing Keinan’s work.

Early on, he claims that “in­ter­mar­riage rates among Is­raeli Jews liv­ing in Amer­ica are even higher than the rates for Amer­i­can Jews.” He pro­vides no ev­i­dence and of­fers no ci­ta­tion; a study by the Is­raeli-Amer­i­can Coun­cil shows the op­po­site to be true.

Later, Keinan as­serts that a mar­riage out­side Is­rael be­tween a Jew and a non-Jew “is not rec­og­nized in Is­rael,” af­fect­ing both taxes and the le­gal sta­tus of their chil­dren. This is a very par­tial truth; the In­te­rior Min­istry will regis­ter any cou­ples mar­ried out­side Is­rael as legally mar­ried with full tax ben­e­fits. While the rab­binate will not rec­og­nize the wed­ding, and there­fore a di­vorce can­not be granted in Is­rael, any chil­dren born to a Jewish mother will be reg­is­tered as Jews, and if a par­ent is Is­raeli, so are the chil­dren.

Sim­i­larly, the au­thor re­counts a story about a pi­o­neer­ing fe­male cadet join­ing the air force in the 1990s and how much he ad­mired the strict Na­tional Re­li­gious male cadets for their open­ness and ac­cep­tance of their fe­male cadet. He cred­its grow­ing Na­tional Re­li­gious en­list­ment for cre­at­ing “a more pro­fes­sional, more ef­fec­tive, and more hu­mane or­ga­ni­za­tion.” The fact is that to­day the es­tab­lish­ment Na­tional Re­li­gious move­ment is rather ar­dent in its op­po­si­tion to fe­male en­list­ment, and Keinan’s will­ful ig­no­rance of that un­der­mines his point.

AF­TER LAY­ING out the press­ing prob­lems, the au­thor comes up with his ad­mit­tedly rad­i­cal so­lu­tions, seek­ing to har­ness the power of crowd wis­dom and crit­i­cal mass to keep Ju­daism alive.

Among his ideas are trans­form­ing the role of Is­rael’s pres­i­dent into one serv­ing – and elected by – global Jewry. He also seeks to es­tab­lish a “Jewish World En­dow­ment” where fam­i­lies com­mit 1.25% of their pre­tax in­come to a fund that will pro­vide for their chil­dren’s Jewish ed­u­ca­tional needs.

The ideas, equal parts in­ter­est­ing and un­likely, feel like a postscript to the book.

Con­sid­er­ing Keinan’s as­sess­ment of the am­biva­lence of Amer­i­can Jewry, he of­fers no com­pelling rea­son why Jewish fam­i­lies would par­tic­i­pate. And con­sid­er­ing his dis­may at the sharp di­vi­sions in Is­raeli so­ci­ety, he doesn’t ad­dress how un­likely and dif­fi­cult it would be to change Is­rael’s de facto con­sti­tu­tion and es­tab­lish this role.

It is clear that Keinan is driven by his keenly felt need for change. But his ef­forts to con­tribute to the so­lu­tion are un­der­whelm­ing.

(Baz Rat­ner/Reuters)

CAN JU­DAISM sur­vive the 21st cen­tury?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel

© PressReader. All rights reserved.