The Vision of the Jerusalem Center
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

The Vision of the Jerusalem Center

Daniel J. Elazar

New Times - New Institutions

The far-reaching changes taking place in the world in general, and the Jewish world in particular, require a new model Jewish organization structure for our times. That new model is to be found in the development of institutions that combine academic excellence and community involvement, that draw directly from the historic sources of Jewish civilization and apply the ideas and insights of those sources in concrete ways to the problems of our time. A handful of such institutions have developed in recent years. What is common to them all is their emphasis on the re-Judaization of the individual Jew, principally through drawing upon the Jewish religious heritage and making it more relevant to contemporary Jews.

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs offers a new model of a different kind - one whose emphasis is on the public affairs of the Jewish people, of Adat Bnei Yisrael - the organized assembly of Israelites. In an era in which Jews have returned to the political arena in full strength through the reestablishment of the Jewish state and the development of politically influential diaspora communities, our commitment to exploring the Jewish political tradition and applying it to contemporary Jewish affairs is of special importance. Since Sinai, the Jewish people has sought to be a kahal kadosh - a good commonwealth, as the means to achieve tikun olam - the reformation of the world. Without denigrating the spiritual needs of individual Jews, this collective effort is the preeminent task of Judaism. It is the effort to which the Jerusalem Center, alone among the new model institutions, is fully committed.

The work of the Jerusalem Center is based upon two fundamental premises: 1) Today people active in Jewish public affairs want to understand and be involved, not merely to be passive recipients or sideline supporters. 2) Today the solutions to our problems are very much in our own hands; we cannot blame external factors for our difficulties and deficiencies. In the immortal words of Pogo, "we have met the enemy and they is us." Or, to put it more positively, in a democratic age, every people gets the polity and society it deserves.

The Principal Concerns of Contemporary Jewry

With that in mind, the Jerusalem Center shares the four principal concerns of contemporary Jewry - for 1) the survival of the Jewish people, 2) the security of the Jewish people and the Jewish state, 3) the unity of the Jewish people, 4) articulation of the eternal Jewish vision for our times. These four concerns - survival, security, unity and vision - animate our work.

1. Survival

We at the Jerusalem Center understand that Jews are bound by both kinship and consent, a common ethnicity which is only meaningful when Jews are consciously committed to their common covenant. The combination of kinship and consent is the essence of the Jewish genius for survival. Jews must keep the two factors in balance, something that cannot be done by merely relying either upon Jewish ethnicity or religious affiliation alone for Jewish identification. We must foster a common sense of edah (assembled congregation), that combines both. We are fully aware of the dangers to Jewish survival in our time, which are principally demographic and cultural; again, problems whose solution lies very much in our own hands. Thus we have argued for Jewish public policies that will foster a demographic turnaround, that will view intermarriage as an opportunity whereby conversion to Judaism becomes a matter of citizenship and not merely religious affiliation, yet will insist on maintaining halakhic standards in marriage and conversion.

We are centered in Israel because we see Israel as the principal motivating force for contemporary Jews and the only place for Jews to encounter and participate in the development of a fully authentic Jewish civilization, from pop culture to spiritual expression, from cleaning the streets to Jewish self-government; in the words of Oliver Cromwell, "warts and all."

Finally we see survival as very much other than passive. In human as well as physical matters, it is motion which generates existence. Thus we are dedicated to fostering Jewish activism, since Jews will survive only by acting as Jews in all the myriad ways it is possible to do so. The very motion of activity generates additional survival capabilities.

2. Security

The Holocaust was a manifestation of Jews at their most insecure - naked and exposed to murderous enemies. That is why so much of the Jewish response to the Holocaust has been to seek political and military means to attain greater security. To do so, Jews have returned to the political arena in full force. We have reestablished our state to give us both the political and military means to protect ourselves, and led by American Jewry, diaspora Jewries have come to engage in collective political activity on a level unprecedented since the early days of the Roman Empire.

The Jerusalem Center is on top of day-to-day developments in the political arena as they affect Jews and is itself an actor in that arena on behalf of common Jewish interests. We seek to build wall-to-wall coalitions on the vital issues affecting Israel and the Jewish people so as to encourage solutions for Jewish problems that strengthen Jewish unity as well as security.

The return to the political arena has brought with it a certain intoxication with politics on the part of many Jewish activists, leading in turn to the need to seriously consider the responsible use of political and military power. The Jerusalem Center is committed to politics, but is aware that politics, like fire, is useful only if controlled and used responsibly. In our exploration and teaching about the responsible use of power we draw heavily upon the Jewish political tradition, a tradition which combines both a messianic vision and a prudential concern for political realities.

3. Unity

The Jerusalem Center, beginning from the covenantal basis of the edah, works to foster an understanding of Jewish unity as federal unity, a unity that is based upon multiple versions of the covenantal vision within a common consensus and bound by a common constitution. Federalism is the operational application of the covenant idea. The very word "federal" is based upon foedus - the Latin word for covenant. We Jews have recognized this in our political and communal organization since the days of the ancient Israelite federation of the twelve tribes.

Today this kind of federal unity is embodied in the Jewish federation movement in the United States and in the emerging institutional framework for Israel-diaspora relations through the Jewish Agency and its network. The Jerusalem Center prides itself on its contribution to understanding and fostering both and other examples of federal unity in the contemporary Jewish world, and in exploring their roots in the Jewish political tradition.

Federalism is more than simple pluralism. First of all, pluralism alone is not enough to protect diversity. Diversity can only be protected through appropriate constitutional and institutional mechanisms of the kind embodied in federalism. Moreover, pluralism unrestricted by covenant is simply an ideological justification for "anything goes," something which the Jewish worldview cannot accept. Hence we are concerned with developing proper pluralism for the Jewish people today.

We are also concerned with the development of proper forms of pluralism in Israel, avoiding the monolithic, monocentric approach dominant in many Israeli circles, on one hand, and the "anything goes" approach often advocated by those who would change it, on the other. In other words, we seek what Jews have always sought, the establishment of basic rules equally administered for a people noted for having a variety of messianic visions, within a framework of federal liberty, that is to say, liberty to live up to the terms and principles of our common constitution.

4. Vision

We Jews remain a covenant people, which means we have taken upon ourselves special obligations toward God and humanity, as well as mutual obligations to one another. In order to understand those obligations and fulfill them, we need a sense of mitzvah and of being mitzuvim - commanded, under the terms of the covenant, to live a life of mitzvot. It is not enough to feel Jewish for reasons of guilt that we did not do enough during the Holocaust or that we are not living in Israel or that we are not sufficiently religious, or nostalgia for a mythic, lost Jewish life in the Eastern European Jewish shtetl, in the ghetto, or in the mellah.

Since most Jews today do not live according to the traditional halakhic understanding of mitzvot, we need to consider how the sense of mitzvah and mitzuvim can be appropriately fostered among contemporary Jews. To do so we must go back to our heritage and draw from it in a manner consistent with it, yet in line with contemporary needs. This is, of necessity, a matter of voluntary commitment. Classical Hebrew has no word for "obey." In the Bible, even when God commanded, Jews were called to "hearken" (l'shmoa) to those commandments; that is to say, to hear them and to consent to them. That is the sense of mitzvah which needs fostering today and ultimately needs to be included in a new sense of Jewish constitutionalism recognizing the Torah as our constitution even as we interpret it in a variety of ways.

A second element of the Jewish vision is the recognition that Jewish civilization is a world civilization - one of the handful that transcend time and space to have an impact on the entire world, far beyond their own members. As a civilization it plays a major historic role on the world scene. That role must be played by the Jewish people collectively as well as by individual Jews. Humanity is now in the post-modern epoch, one of the founding events of which was the reestablishment of the State of Israel. This epoch offers us exciting new opportunities to enrich our civilization and play our proper role on the world scene. The Jewish people may possess the smallest world civilization in quantitative terms, but qualitatively we have always been among the most important and we must continue to be.

The third element of a contemporary Jewish vision must focus on Israel as the best, indeed the only, opportunity to fully test Judaism as a way of life. Since the goal of Judaism is the building of the holy commonwealth as a major step toward the redemption of humankind, it provides a total way of life, regardless of whether one sees that total way of life as embodied in halakhah or embodied in some other way of applying the principles of Judaism to polity and society. The real test for Judaism lies in how well it can shape the Jews' own polity and society. That is the opportunity which Israel provides.

We are in the midst of a great experiment based on that opportunity, an experiment compounded by the fact that Israel also brings out the hard reality of Jewish character - Jewish contentiousness, stiff-neckedness, even vulgarity - all of which have been noted in our sacred writings since the days of Jacob. It is both the privilege and the task of postmodern Jewry to be engaged in that experiment, to have Israel as its great project, to try to build the holy commonwealth despite the hard realities of the Jewish character.

The fourth element in a contemporary Jewish vision focuses on the diaspora as the first great experiment in Jewish history of Jews living freely immersed in the surrounding world, yet retaining their Jewishness and Judaism. This, too, is a great experiment - to see whether Jews can live in freedom outside of their own polity and remain Jewish. Conversely, the assimilationist aspect of the diaspora brings out the hard reality of perpetuating any civilization - how quickly a culture disappears if it is not taught and lived, and how fragile Jewishness is unless a proper Jewish environment is maintained.

The Jerusalem Center is committed to participating actively in both experiments and develops its program accordingly. In pursuing the elements in this vision we seek to foster a contemporary version of the biblical vision of a free people living in community with each other and with their neighbors throughout the world in conditions of peace and prosperity, liberty and justice under God's sovereignty.

Being Jewish Today

In our time, four factors provide the reasons for being Jewish for most Jews - guilt, nostalgia, a sense of ain breira (that there is no alternative), and the sense of being commanded (mitzuvim). Indeed the Jewish world divides into two groups: those whose Jewishness is basically built around guilt and nostalgia and those whose Jewishness is basically built around some combination of feeling commanded and feeling that there is no alternative. Beyond these there are those few Jews who are Jewish out of love for Jewishness, Judaism and Jewish civilization.

The Jerusalem Center, recognizing the severe limits of building a Jewish life on guilt and nostalgia alone, realistically assessing the validity of ain breira in a post-Holocaust age and feeling commanded under the terms of the covenant, seeks to foster a Jewish civilization resting upon love of things Jewish.

Responding to the Power Shift in Contemporary Jewish Life

In pursuing these great tasks, the Jerusalem Center recognizes a new operational reality in Jewish life, namely the major shift of power that has taken place within the Jewish leadership in the past century. Throughout Jewish history, authority and power have been divided among three domains, known in Jewish tradition as ketarim (crowns). They are the keter torah, the domain of Torah, traditionally understood as the way in which God has communicated His commandments and their meaning to His people; keter kehunah, the domain of priesthood, through which the people have a channel to communicate their needs and desires to God - to connect with the transcendant, as it were; and the keter malkhut, the domain of civil authority, through which Jews have governed themselves.

According to Jewish tradition, all three of these domains are equally empowered by God through the Torah and were so empowered from the earliest epochs of Jewish history. Throughout history they have lived in both balance and tension with one another with the advance of real powershifting among them. Thus in the days of the First Commonwealth, after the institution of kingship, the keter malkhut was in the ascendancy. Throughout much of the period of the Second Commonwealth, the keter kehunah occupied an ascendant position. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, ascendant power passed into the hands of the keter torah which retained it until our times.

In the twentieth century, however, there has been a shift of power back to the keter malkhut, which is now the senior domain by virtue of the reestablishment of the State of Israel and the development of diaspora Jewish communities headed by bearers of that keter. It is this shift among the ketarim which is the most prominent feature of organized Jewish life in the twentieth century. With the new empowerment of the bearers of the keter malkhut come new obligations - to be mitzuvim, to be Jewishly educated so that they can play their role and be leaders, that is to say, be willing to take the initiatives and risks that come with leadership, but to do so from a perspective grounded in Jewish civilization. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs was the first to identify this shift for what it is. We have built our program on this new reality and in the years since our founding have striven to strengthen the leadership of the keter malkhut in just those ways.