To Be a Jew in the Free World: The Struggle for Identity in Modern Times
6 Sundays | Beginning February 4, 2014
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. One side of the coin promised security, acceptance, and affluence with the escape from antisemitism and discrimination; while the other threatened assimilation, confusion of loyalties, and the possibility of disappearing as a nation.
In To Be a Jew in the Free World, we examine the personal and religious struggles that individuals and communities confronted as they faced the challenges of changing times: stories that provoke debate and shed insight into what it means to live as a Jew today.
More intriguing than any fictional TV show, this course will prepare you for choices that you or a loved one may be called upon to make. It is also a fascinating exposure to little-discussed aspects of Judaism.
LESSON 1: Once a Jew, Forever a Jew
The first lesson examines what happened when the course of the Jews intersected with the elemental force that was Napoleon Bonaparte. His offer to free the Jews of age-old discriminatory laws required the Jewish people to redefine their own identity and forced them to pledge allegiance to him as the emperor and to the state that he embodied before all else.
Napoleon’s challenge is ongoing. Who are we? Is our Jewish identity our primary sense of who we are, or do we define ourselves by other things that we believe to be more significant than being Jewish?
LESSON 2: Freedom for All
This lesson looks through the prism of another great leader whose life overlapped Napoleon’s—George Washington. He led a revolt in the name of freedom, yet established a disciplined army and a lasting and effectual united government.
He affirmed the freedom of America’s tiny Jewish community, emphasizing that their freedom, as well as that of all citizens, is divine and inviolable, and not a commodity for which other humans can exact payment.
What do Jewish sources say about the nature of the freedom that comes from G-d? Did America’s Founding Fathers see freedom the same way?
LESSON 3: Judaism of Our Choosing
The third lesson looks at the effect of the American ethos of individual freedom on Jewish communities throughout the world. Just as Americans were empowered to remove governments that did not suit them, Jews began to flout Jewish communal norms and to forge with others or create their individual expressions of American Jewish life.
Looking closely at the failed attempt to establish a chief rabbi in New York in the 1890s, we seek to answer the question: how can Jewish life thrive when top-down organization has been replaced
by individual autonomy as the prime mover of Jewish communal life?
LESSON 4: The Jewish Vote
This lesson probes the relationship between the Jews and Ulysses S. Grant. As a general in the Civil War, Grant issued an order expelling Jews “as a class” from the area of his command. Grant’s command aroused deep fears that also America, when in crisis, could revert to the barbarities that the Jews thought were left behind. When Grant ran for president after the war, championing the cause of civil rights, the Jews struggled over whether they could vote for someone who had wronged the Jewish community in such a fundamental manner. This raises the still relevant question: Should our identity as citizens of a democratic state cause us to see our duty in a larger way, or is our first obligation to vote for what is good for ourselves as Jews?
LESSON 5: Antisemitism-free Jewish Identity
The fifth lesson examines the transformation of anti-Semitism in the modern age. Whether in the Dreyfus case in fin de siècle France or Henry Ford’s eager dissemination of the Russian forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, hatred of Jews reappeared in the West in new and virulent forms. Why did the world’s new freedoms not result in the death of hatred? How do we identify and respond to the continuous morphing of anti-Semitism? To what degree are the Holocaust and anti-Semitism a necessary forces in molding the Jewish identity of future generations?
LESSON 6: Purpose for All Mankind
The final lesson looks not at how the world of freedom affects Jews, but at how Jewish tradition can affect the world. The lesson examines the life of Menasseh ben Israel, who at the dawn of the Age of Freedom found a way to share the world’s dream of redemption and move England to readmit the Jews who were expelled centuries earlier. The lesson also explores a debate that reached the U.S. Supreme Court: the constitutionality of placing menorot in the public square. We then ask: What new opportunities do we Jews have to actualize Jewish tradition’s redemptive promises in new and powerful ways?
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