The 20th-century Jewish thinker and writer Simon Rawidowicz (1897- 1957) is
perhaps best known not for his major academic works, but for a rather playful
article that he penned titled “Israel – The Ever-Dying
Rawidowicz’s point was simple: virtually every generation of
Jews has feared that it was the last. As early as the Mishna and as late as
early-modern Europe, he found numerous examples of Jews who were convinced that,
as Chicken Little put it, “the sky was falling.”
In the Mishna,
Rawidowicz noted, the Tractate Sota concluded: “When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness
departed from the world. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of
wisdom left the world.” And so on. The deaths of these rabbis marked the end of
an era, the demise of qualities which, the Mishna seems to suggest, could never
Two thousand years later (as well as during the interim, of
course), Rawidowicz says, the same dynamic continued. Y.L. Gordon, perhaps the
finest poet of the Haskala (Judaism’s Enlightenment), asked, “For whom do I
labor? Who… will tell me that I am not the last poet of Zion?” He, too, believed
he was the end.
But, of course, goodness did not depart from the world
when Rabbi Joshua died, and wisdom did not cease with the passing of Rabbi
Yohanan ben Zakkai. Nor was Gordon the last of the great Hebrew poets; even as
he was writing his cri de coeur, not that far away a young man was growing up by
the name of Haim Nahman Bialik.
What Rawidowicz seems to be saying,
though he never states it explicitly, is that key to the secret of Jewish
survival has been precisely this worry that we are disappearing. It was the
fragility of Jewish life that kept Jews focused on doing whatever was needed to
ensure that somehow, against all odds, there would be subsequent generations of
Jews who would worry that they, too, were the end of the chain.
things have changed! Were Rawidowicz alive today, he might well describe us as
the “Never-Dying People,” not the “Ever-Dying People.” For he would notice that
today’s Jews are convinced they are far less vulnerable than almost ever before.
American Jews believe that a grand ethnic and cultural renewal, unthreatened by
anti-Semitism, has taken root in the US. Israelis have long taken pride in both
the revitalization of Jewish life in the Jewish state and in our ability to
defend ourselves, against any enemy and against all odds.
Of course, Jews
on both continents have worried, but not existentially so. American Judaism and
Israeli Jewish life – different though they are – share one basic attribute:
they believe they do not face the threat of which Rawidowicz wrote. For decades,
neither side has believed that it is about to disappear.
In the past
month or so, however, Jews on “both sides of the pond” have been deeply shaken.
On Israel’s side, the realization has begun to dawn that Iran will likely
acquire a nuclear weapon. It may happen soon, or it may take a bit more time.
Whatever US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s
intentions may be, on this one point, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is
right: It’s impossible not to think about the North Korean experience. The
West’s embrace of Iran’s charm offensive means Tehran is more likely than ever
to build the very weapon the West had long insisted it could never
For Israel, the implications could be legion.
Meanwhile, back at
the American ranch, the much-discussed Pew Research Center’s Portrait of
American Jews has raised concerns about the viability of the liberal Judaism of
the large majority of American Jews. Intermarriage rates are now 58 percent
among Jews on the whole and 70% among the non-Orthodox.
Only 59% of
American Jews are raising their children as Jews “by religion,” and a mere 47%
of them are giving their children a Jewish education. With less than half of
Jews getting any Jewish education at all, and with only 28% believing that being
Jewish has anything to do with being part of a Jewish community, what kind of a
future is in store? It is not, to put things mildly, a pretty
Couple Pew with Iran, and we might be tempted to join the line
of Rawidowiczian Jews who claim the end is at hand.
Yet we should resist
any such inclination.
For what the moment calls for is not panic, but
wisdom. Some of what we now face was virtually inevitable. Jews have never had
to contend with a host culture as welcoming as America, and this embrace was
bound to have significant impact on Jewish behavior and on the sustainability of
Jewish difference. So, too, with the spread of technological know-how.
course we would have preferred that the Iranian centrifuges not be spinning, but
the transfer of scientific knowledge from society to society, state to state is
almost (though not entirely) inevitable.
But much of our present
condition is also the product of our own doing, and the good news is that we can
change. American Jews imagined that the way to keep Jews in the fold was to dumb
Judaism down, to make it less demanding, less exceptional. But what we’ve found
is that Jews who know less also feel less reason to care; the less different
Jewish life is, the less it matters. And thus, the solution is simple (though
not easy to execute): Jews need to know much more than they do, and their
Judaism has to say something unique. It’s not too late to restore
Similarly, while Israel’s enemies are relentless, we have
unquestionably misplayed our cards. Wherever one thinks about settlements,
“occupation” or the peace process, there can be no denying – Israel’s leaders
have done a horrific, incompetent job of making our case in the international
community. The world is exasperated, and it is partly our fault. Would the world
have loved us had we done a better job? Obviously not. But without question,
some of the international frustration with us is a product of our own bluster
and utter lack of nuance.
This, then, is the moment to learn from our
mistakes. An American Judaism that knows virtually nothing of its heritage and
transforms itself into nearly content-free ethnicity will hemorrhage; America
erodes all such ethnicities. And an Israel that antagonizes the world,
proceeding full steam ahead with no morally substantive narrative about what
sort of future we envision for our region will similarly lose the world’s
The fact that we have created our fair share of this mess is
actually good news, for it means that the future is ours to shape. Whether we
are American liberal Jewish leaders or Israeli politicians, the choices we make
and the language we use matters.
Pew and Iran thus ought to evoke not
panic, but thoughtfulness. Though Rawidowicz was right that anguish had long
been a hallmark of Jewish thinking, so, too, has wisdom. And now is the moment
to choose the latter.