More than any other generation, contemporary Jewry shuttles between anxiety and opportunity, unease and confidence.
A few days ago, world Jewry observed Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day devoted to remembering the six million men, women and children who perished at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. We who live in the extended shadow of the darkest hour of Jewish if not all human history know well our obligation to remember, to bear witness, to live up to the commandment of “never again,” all the more so in these decades witnessing the passing of the survivor generation. We know the atrocities that humanity is capable of inflicting, we know what it means to sit helpless as the world watches, and we stand nervously vigilant lest the ancient hatred of antisemitism rear its ugly head.
And then, just a few days from now, we will celebrate Independence Day, having observed Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, the day prior. If Holocaust Remembrance Day is all about the perils of powerlessness and victimization, then Independence Day is about Jewish self-determination, sovereignty, and the right of Jews, in the words of Dr. Ken Stein, “to be the subject of our own sentence rather than object of someone else’s.” From exile to homecoming, victims to victors, to be a free people in our own land is the promise, the power and the miracle of the modern State of Israel that we celebrate on Israel’s Independence Day and every day. Destruction and rebirth, sorrow and gladness, the retreat of God’s presence and God’s bold re-assertion into Jewish history. The days between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day are, to say the very least, a roller coaster ride.
It is a ride, to be sure, that we are on not only at this time of year, but that exists at the very heart of our Jewish condition. No different than the Israelites of old, we are an emancipated people, able to freely express our faith, living through a time when Jewish engagement is a loving and voluntary choice that anyone can make. The unprecedented blessings of American Jewry are compounded by the presence of the modern miracle that is the sovereign State of Israel. First and foremost a Jewish homeland, but also a formidable actor on the world stage, an innovator in too many fields to count, and a daily fulfillment of the prophetic challenge to be a light among nations. We live in a time with more blessings and opportunities than can be counted.
And there is also anxiety.
There are bad actors on the world stage – in Israel and in the United States, in Europe and elsewhere. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are an ongoing existential threat to our Jewish homeland. With two delicate exceptions, Israel’s neighbors do not recognize her right to exist. Beyond the physical threats, Israel faces charges and challenges on the stage of public opinion that no other nation would countenance. Here in the America, swastikas are spray-painted on the walls of JCCs and synagogues, while hate speech infects webpage after webpage. On campus after campus, our children face the challenge of BDS, and here in New York, a convicted terrorist can publish an op-ed having been described as a “leader” and “parliamentarian.” From the alt-right to the liberal Left, on the continent, campus and beyond, with the scar of the Shoah ever-present and ever-felt, and our own demographic problems to worry about, is it at all hard to understand why contemporary Jewry is anxious about its present and future?
In the years to come, it will be through the prism of this balancing act between anxiety and opportunity by which the conversations of contemporary Jewry will be understood. Every issue, no doubt, has its particulars. And yet individually and collectively, the concerns on our docket are all symptomatic of the fact that we are a Jewish generation living in the dialectic of strength and vulnerability, victor and victim, joy and sorrow. We are necessarily absorbed by those issues that bring to the fore the paradoxes, contradictions and disorienting perplexities of what it is to be a modern Jew today.
THINK ABOUT it. Why are our conversations about Israel so tense? Why is there so much vitriol and toxicity to the debate? I imagine that part of the reason is our struggle to reconcile the fact of Israel being a powerful, sovereign and imperfect state that must stand in the face of a constant barrage of physical threats and public attacks. As when we break a glass at a wedding, we are both filled with joy and aware of how fragile that joy is. How much does Israel need us? How much do we need them? Do they speak for us? Do we speak for them? These are complicated questions, and they are being played out daily, whether we acknowledge them or not.
What about the present debates on intermarriage, conversion and outreach? Why a renewed interest in the subject; it is, after all, not new. I think at least part of the reason is the unexpressed but ever-present truth that we know that we live in a time and place when we can opt to engage in Jewish life any way we see fit, but we, our children and our children’s children don’t necessarily opt to do so. We are a generation sandwiched between those who lost their lives on account of being Jewish and those who are increasingly choosing to live beyond the bounds of the Jewish community. Our debates over the boundaries of who is and who isn’t a Jew are symptoms of much deeper, unspoken anxieties about the Jewish past and future.
What about refugees? Why do we debate their fate? On the one hand, we were once strangers in a strange land, more recently a people the world turned its back on. Perhaps more than any people, Jews have an obligation to aid those seeking refuge, and now that we are in a position to do so, we must do so. And yet, perhaps more than any other community, Jews stand on guard against those who would seek to do us harm, in America, Israel and elsewhere. We are caught betwixt and between our impulse to respond to a shared and suffering humanity and our reflex to protect our parochial well-being.
We can go down the list: relations between American Jewry and Israel, antisemitism, religious pluralism, BDS on campus. All of these conversations – very different in their particulars – are in some way symptomatic of the tensions of our age. Each one of these struggles signals that we are a people who, on the one hand, have never had it so good, and yet on the other hand are deeply anxious for our Jewish past, present and future. There are freedoms we enjoy that no generation before could have dreamed of, and there are freedoms of our age that may prove to be our undoing. It is a tension that perhaps cannot be resolved, but it is the age in which we live and we do ourselves a disservice not to acknowledge its nature and the complexities it brings.
SO WHERE do we go from here? As with all things, the first step is to name and frame the conversation. Next, knowing what we know, we must be careful to avoid the extremes. We should not schrei gevalt at every turn, and we must treat each other, even those with whom we disagree, with respect. The Cossacks are not coming, it is not 1938 and we don’t live in Anatevka anymore. Not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism, and not every threat is an existential one. Besides, the blessings of American Jewry and Israel are just too good to be glossed over and ignored. It is a good time, a very good time, to be a Jew, and so we must not squander the opportunity with infighting. We must leverage our blessings toward building up the Jewish future, defending Jewish interests, advocating on behalf of the Jewish state and working tirelessly – by way of our Jewish identity – toward the betterment of our common humanity.
To know that life is delicate, to stand squarely in the face of the darkest moments of Jewish history, and know that ancient hatreds still persist is a sobering thought to say the very least. And yet, it need not immobilize us. Quite the contrary, it can serve to empower us. We can, if we so choose, be prompted to live our Jewish lives to the fullest, treating every moment as precious and every human being with respect, and to be truly grateful for every blessing we have. For Jews, anxiety and opportunity are not opposites, they are interdependent partners, the basic elements that impel us forward. Aware of our past, eyes open to the present, and always looking to the future, in this week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, may we rise to the calling of the hour, forging a future worthy of the unrealized dreams of the six million forever in our hearts, worthy of the highest hopes of the generations still yet to come.The author is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, New York.