Calling All Jewish Contrarians
Contrarianism is in the very DNA of Judaism, but something has hampered the power of Jewish contrarians in recent decades, and it is plaguing the Jewish People.
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Contrarian thinkers are trailblazers in business, politics, social activism, healthcare, and education — visionaries who have the foresight to see hidden opportunities and the courage to lead us down the road less traveled.
But contrarians are also polarizing and sometimes teeter between brilliant and crazy. Plus, humans have a tendency to be suspicious of new ideas, many of which appear unrealistic and even unfathomable. These ideas can make us feel insecure because they challenge a variety of our day-to-day assumptions about how certain things work, or how we think they are “supposed” to.
As such, we often face strong social pressures to conform to the dominant culture of thinking and doing. Think: progressives, neoconservatives, Islamic fundamentalists. If we’re not careful, this can easily lead to “group think” — the antithesis of intellectualism — in which members of a faction prioritize consensus over more realistically analyzing a given situation.
Abraham, the common Hebrew patriarch of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — vehemently opposed “group think.” His father, mother, and everyone around him were idol worshipers, but Abraham realized that there was one God, known as monotheism.
His whole world stood on one side, and Abraham on the other. This is why he was referred to as “Avraham ha-Ivri” (Abraham the Hebrew) which also means “the one who stood on the other side.”
Abraham’s legacy led to Jewish and (by extension, Israeli) culture encouraging and celebrating contrarian thinking, as characterized by a willingness to take risks and commit to a unique vision. This has historically allowed Jews to blaze new trails and buck the status quo, not just for Judaism and the Jewish People, but for the world.
Take, for example, education, which is mainstream today, but thousands of years ago, this was not the case. That is, until Judaism made school and scholarship a prerequisite. Elementary school learning was regarded as compulsory by Simeon ben Shetah as early as 75 BCE and Joshua ben Gamla in 64 CE. The education of older boys and men in a beit midrash (study hall) goes back to the Second Temple period.
And the Talmud stresses the importance of education, stating that children should begin school at age six. Rabbis added that they should not be beaten with a stick or cane, that older students should help younger ones, and that children should not be kept from their lessons by other duties.
Judaism also introduced a concept called Shabbat. It’s why we have a weekend — you know, the end of a week, to encourage rest and relaxation, a clear separation between the week that was and the one ahead.
According to Eviatar Zerubavel in his book, “The Seven Day Circle,” having a fixed day of rest was most likely first practiced in Judaism, dating back to the sixth century BC. In 1908, the first five-day workweek in the United States was instituted by a New England cotton mill, so that Jewish workers did not have to work on the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
As political Zionism was picking up steam in the 1800s, Zionist thinkers all agreed that something had gone drastically wrong in Jewish history which went far beyond the persecution that Jews had suffered at Gentile hands. Many Jews living in the Diaspora before the State of Israel was founded had little choice but to rely on their more powerful Gentile guardians, whose ongoing protection was aimed to be secured through politics, money, and favors.
Each Zionist thinker differed in identifying which aspects of the “Old Jew” were particularly unhelpful, and thus which aspects of the “New Jew” — the Israeli Jew — were most crucial to building a successful Jewish state. Indeed, the State of Israel, founded in 1948, transformed an extraordinary amount of Jews and reimagined what it meant to be Jewish.
Whereas the “Old Jew” was weak and anxious, and never felt at home in the Diaspora, Israelis became the “New Jews” — marked by their unapologetic, daring, adventurous, optimistic, confident, and courageous tendencies — no doubt aided by a hostile Arab neighborhood.
But something has hampered Jewish contrarianism in recent decades. Israel has grown up, Jews have built strong communities around the world and, yet, against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, many Jews in Israel and across the Diaspora have never felt more insecure.
For Diaspora Jews, many have become too “comfortable” in their respective countries, which has led to arrogance and ignorance. The arrogance of many Diaspora Jews is that they think they’ve finally found a safe and welcoming place in whichever country they call home.
Their ignorance? They either forgot or never knew that this is the exact same mindset, primarily among German Jews, which led to six million of our people being annihilated in the Holocaust.
For Israeli Jews, they have long looked down on Diaspora Jews as those who enjoy the vast comforts of the West while Israelis are on the literal front lines of Jewish history, rebuilding our indigenous homeland while fending off Arab- and Muslim-driven antisemitism, which in some ways is worse than that of the Nazis.
October 7th seems to have shattered both of these mental methods. If there is ever to be a silver lining for this unthinkable tragedy, it might be that Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are starting to truly see and understand each other. Even though Abba Eban, the great Israeli statesman, used to say: “Jews like their clouds without silver linings.”
However, to do a better job of seeing and understanding each other is not enough. When the Israel-Hamas war eventually becomes a part of our past, it will feel convenient to go back to “the way things were” — both individually, communally and, in Israel’s case, nationally. This would be a profound mistake, for it would suck us back onto the very path that drove us into the current situation.
To be better off tomorrow than we are today, we must put our Jewish contrarian hats back on.
Israel should go back to being the scrappy, up-start nation that is not dependent on any one ally, such as the U.S. In addition, Israel must elect new leadership, significantly minimize its growing corruption, stop trying to be America’s 51st state with its surge in capitalism and individualism, distance itself from the Palestinians, and continue to develop relationships with like-minded countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the world.
In the Diaspora, Jews ought to start thinking that the key to their success lies not in alliances with non-Jews and non-Jewish organizations, but in the unification of their country’s Jews, of their country’s Jews with Israel, and of their country’s Jews with other communities of Jews in other places across the Diaspora.
As it relates to Jewish leadership, we ought to prioritize our own very real needs, and not abandon our organizations’ core mission — to serve and protect Jews.
Earlier this year, when a Jewish journalist asked a senior executive at a very large Jewish organization what their group’s top priority was for the year, this person replied, without missing a beat: “Ukraine.”1 I get it, Ukraine needs and deserves help, but if your priorities are such that serving and protecting Jews takes a backseat to issues that have little to do with your constituents, I’m not sure that you are in the right line of business.
Many Jewish leaders see their success as a consequence of their superior insight, rather than part of a process of continuous change, in which the so-called Jewish world changes to reflect realities that have nothing to do with them, such as changes in technologies, lifestyles, consumer preferences, macro-socioeconomics, geopolitics, and so forth.
Many Jewish leaders and their organizations have even deepened the divide between Jews and Israel. A few weeks ago, on multiple calls with Jewish communal professionals, some argued: “We need to hold space in the Jewish community for Jews who are struggling in this moment because they don’t support Israel.”
From now on, we should be clear about our “position” on Israel: It is the Jewish homeland and the capital of Judaism. Being an “anti-Zionist” Jew is oxymoronic and has no place in mainstream Jewish communities and organizations.
Jewish education must also be revamped. “Hebrew School” is outdated and generally hasn’t been modified since its founding 200 years ago, while Jewish day schools are far too expensive and exclusive. There is no reason why Internet technologies cannot make Jewish education more accessible, enjoyable, and effective.
Lastly, we must be cautious to not over-embrace popular, feel-good trends of the day like social justice, environmentalism, and the LGBTQ community — which are all good and well — but I’m not sure how much longer Judaism can sustain itself by repeatedly adopting and championing quintessentially non-Jewish causes, without comprising the very nature of Judaism and Jewishness.
I’m all for inclusion and treating everyone equally, but it is unnecessarily dangerous to act as if Judaism and non-Jewish cultures are the same threads of one seamless fabric. Judaism has historically been countercultural in many ways, which creates tensions between it and non-Jewish cultures. If we do not proudly emphasize these differences, the essence of Judaism will be distorted or even lost.
In the face of strong social pressures to conform to the dominant (non-Jewish) culture, the power of a strong, overriding culture cannot be underestimated. It therefore pays to be an outsider, whereas “insiders” often lack the insight, capabilities, and courage needed to disrupt the status quo — and all the more so if that status quo was their creation in the first place.
To avoid those traps, we must be smart contrarians who lean into cognitive dissonance, cast a wide net, embrace new ideas, and most importantly: stay on the outside.
“Replace American Jewish Communal Leadership.” Tablet.