Twice a year Jewish men don a kittel (a white robe): on Yom Kippur and on Seder night.
What is the connection between these two highlights of the Jewish calendar? Both are days of reckoning and self-examination.
On Yom Kippur, we examine ourselves as individuals created in the image of God, to determine whether we are worthy of the title. On Seder night, we examine ourselves not as individuals but as members of klal Yisrael, and ask how we are performing the role of transmitting the remarkable story of the Jewish people to the next generation.
Have we conveyed to our children the priceless treasure of being a member of the Jewish people? Have we made palpable that which was so precious that nothing could cause the 132 generations that preceded us since the Exodus from Egypt to renounce that membership? But for an unbroken chain of ancestors who withstood the rod and were not tempted by the carrot held before them, none of us would be here today as Jews.
Seder night is the most powerful time to convey to our children the wonder of Jewish history, the greatest story ever told. Imagine that you had five minutes to explain to your children why being a Jew is the greatest possible privilege and why their continuing the generational chain is your greatest desire. The Seder is that five minutes expanded over hours.
JEWISH HISTORY is unquestionably the greatest story ever told and the most inexplicable without a belief that the Jewish people enjoy a unique relationship with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.
All materialist explanations of history, from Marx to Toynbee, have floundered when confronted by the continued existence of the Jewish people. Challenged by Louis XIV to give one proof of the supernatural, the great philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal replied, “The Jews, your Majesty, the Jews.”
The Torah and prophets make seven promises concerning the Jewish people, and as Jewish history moves toward its culmination, we can see that each has been fulfilled. The first is that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is eternal, and will not be revoked even for bad behavior. As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The Jew is the emblem of eternity. The Jew is as everlasting as eternity itself.”
The Jewish people continue to exist as an identifiable nation despite being dispersed across the face of the earth for millennia, removed from their land, without which no people has ever sustained its national identity (Promise 2). And they have done so despite being a small minority in every place that they have dwelled (Promise 3), and being continuously subjected to vicious anti-Semitism (Promise 4).
Anti-Semitism only grows in ferocity the more Jews try to assimilate and fulfill the words of the prophet Ezekiel, saying, “‘Let us be like the nations, like the families of other lands....” (German race theory developed in response to the mass rush to assimilate by post-emancipation German Jewry, and reached its apex under the Nazis.) Even in the face of that persecution, the Jews have fulfilled their destined role as a “light to the nations,” albeit not always and not enough (Promise 5). The Torah is the source of all monotheistic religion. In our own day, Jews are overrepresented as winners of Nobel Prizes in the sciences and medicine by approximately 150 times their percentage of the world population.
Even our enemies have acknowledged the wildly disproportionate impact of the Jews and Judaism on Western civilization. Nietzsche, followed by Hitler, bemoaned the wound of “morality” Jews had inflicted on mankind.
As foretold, the land never gave of its strength under foreign dominion. In the absence of major Jewish settlement, the Land of Israel remained, in Mark Twain’s observation, a “desolate country... a desolation [so great] that not even imagination can grace [the country] with the pomp of life and action” (Promise 6).
And remarkably in our day, the tiniest of peoples have returned to a small sliver of land too small to accommodate its name on a map (Promise 7). Israel’s Jewish population is already the largest of any country, and soon Israel will be home to the majority of the world’s Jews.
ONE PLACE that the Jewish story is not being told particularly well is the United States. Reviewing two recent works on the tension between American Jews and Israel, Elliott Abrams takes aim at what might be called the “Peter Beinart explanation” – blame for the alienation of American Jewry lies with Israel for its failure to stop oppressing the Palestinians and make peace with them already.
Au contraire, writes Abrams: the major dynamic leading to American Jewish apathy, if not outright hostility, toward Israel is changes in the American Jewish community that have rendered the concept of Jewish peoplehood empty for so many younger Jews. And the primary explanation for that is intermarriage.
Multiple studies show that young American Jews whose parents are intermarried are not only more liberal than other Jews but significantly less attached to Israel. According to the 2013 Pew Survey, the intermarriage rate has now reached 60 percent.
All this is what one would expect. As a general rule, those who intermarry are likely to be those for whom Jewish peoplehood is least important and for whom “Jewish” is at best a small component of their identity.
Intermarriage itself exacerbates the detachment.
For children of intermarriage, the Jewish story is only partly theirs. And any attempt to emphasize that part of the story is likely to be a source of domestic tension and to trigger a counterreaction by the non-Jewish parent.
Abrams recounts the response of one audience member to his panel at the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum. He bewailed his Jewish daughter’s college ordeal because of the harsh criticisms of Israel to which she was exposed, and fairly demanded that Israel change the policies that are imposing a painful experience on Jewish college students. That solipsism is of a piece with what Daniel Gordis describes as the “anti-intellectual narcissism of the campus and media Left.” Israel should commit suicide, as far as this parent is concerned, so that his daughter never be made to feel uncomfortable on account of being Jewish.
In responses to Abrams’s essay, Gordis and Jack Wertheimer deepen his analysis. “Jews throughout the centuries regularly and reflexively invoked the past in a way that made it always present and real to them,” writes Gordis. “There are dozens, if not hundreds, of Jewish religious practices that kept the dream of Zion alive for generations of Jews who had never seen the land and knew they never would.” As American Jews have lost touch with those practices, including the Passover Seder, and the historical memory they engendered, so has the wonder of Jewish return to the land ceased to move them.
Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, adds that Jewish religious education has failed by reducing Jewish texts “to window dressing in support of fashionable ideas and ideologies.
” The campaign to universalize every aspect of Judaism has inspired American Jews, in Wertheimer’s opinion “to shirk their responsibilities to their own coreligionists and stripped them of their capacity to empathize with Israeli Jews,” who live in a considerably more dangerous neighborhood than their own.
CONNECTION TO the Jewish story is exponentially stronger in Israel. Israeli Jews feel themselves to be living the latest chapter in the Jewish story. As Europe and even blue America, including the elite campuses, become ever more hostile to proudly identified Jews, it becomes ever clearer that the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people will be shaped on our ancient land.
The letters to be opened posthumously left by soldiers who fell in 2014 often expressed pride in having given their lives to defend the Jewish people – with the Jewish people coming before nation, or homeland, or family.
But all is not perfect in Zion either. It is crucial that the story of Israel be placed in the context of the 3,300-year history of the Jewish people, which began with the going out from Egypt. More than 15 years ago, Yoram Hazony waged an international, and ultimately successful, campaign against a ninthgrade Jewish history text. Of the text’s many failures relentlessly detailed by Hazony, the worst offense was that described by Hillel Halkin: “Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his.”
As we sit at the Seder this year, may we merit to find the right words and give expression to the emotions that will join another generation of Jews to all those who have preceded them. Hag kasher ve’sameah.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.