Interesting Times: From survival to purpose

The Jewish people must refocus on finishing its job. If survival is our only purpose, we have no purpose.

saul singer 88 (photo credit:)
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The immediate dilemma in Gaza is how to fight a war with an enemy that uses its own people as human shields and offers them only one "hope" - endless war aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state. The trap in which Hamas is trying to ensnare Israel, however, is much broader than that; it is one that has been set by all the enemies of the Jewish people throughout history. That trap is to perpetuate collective Jewish amnesia. Consciously or not, the enemies of the Jews have successfully fooled the Jewish people into thinking that they remain in a bygone era, postponing their adaptation to the new era and relegating them to sidelines of history. The bitter irony is that anti-Semites are effectively preempting a Jewish mission that Jews themselves have largely forgotten. In their seminal book, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin demonstrate that the standard socioeconomic explanations for Jew-hatred do not hold water, and that the real reason is that the Jewish people has a mission that extends beyond its own betterment, which is the mission of almost every other national group. In terms of an ambition to positively influence other peoples, the American idea of advancing democracy is perhaps the only modern ambition similar to the Jewish mission of spreading ethical monotheism, the belief in one God and one ethic. Nazism, Communism, and Islamism also, of course, had or have international ambitions, but they are mirror images of the American and Jewish missions, since they require imposition by force and are anchored in the denial of freedom rather than its expansion. TO MODERN Jews, the idea of a Jewish mission is either antiquated, messianic (in the sense of unreal) or radical. Many Jews have a vague notion that they once had a mission. They are roughly cognizant that monotheism - a strange notion when it burst forth in the ancient pagan world - has triumphed through Judaism's daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. They are less aware that Jews, by introducing the idea that history has direction, invented the concept of progress that became the basis of Western civilization and therefore of the modern world as we know it. But even if they are aware of this history, Jews tend not to project it into a current sense of mission. True, the idea of tikkun olam (mending the world) has become an animating force in the non-Orthodox world. The Orthodox, however, tend to be dismissive of this as a kabbalistic emphasis that lies on the fringes of Jewish practice, while being suspicious of a universalistic agenda that might undermine Jewish particularism and cohesion. The non-Orthodox, moreover, tend to the opposite extreme, by expressing their Judaism mainly through the lens of worthy universalist causes such as stopping genocide in Darfur or promoting environmentalism. What both approaches are missing is the combination of mission and Jewishness. Worse, both remain mired in a survivalist mindset, rather than reembracing the Jewish purpose and updating it for the modern era. IT SHOULD not be surprising that it is difficult to shake habits, developed over centuries, that became part of the Jewish collective consciousness. At the Pessah Seder, Jews recall how "in every generation [they] rise up against us." The Talmud states that potential converts should be warned that Jews are subject to persecution, as if this is a permanent facet of the Jewish condition. The modern era has certainly not given Jews reason to believe that this aspect of their situation has changed. Not only has this era witnessed the Holocaust, but the persecution of Soviet Jewry, the vilification of Israel and the current rise of an openly anti-Semitic strain of Islam. Yet this form of continuity with the pre-modern exilic era has obscured an even more fundamental discontinuity. Except for some tiny communities, the era of oppressed Jewry is over. Almost all Jews live either in Western nations, or enjoy both freedom and sovereignty in Israel. This means that, whatever threats remain, the exilic period is over, and we are deep into a period that is more like that of Ancient Israel, when Jews lived both under their own sovereignty and in a Diaspora where they enjoyed a high degree of influence and success. During this period, from about 200 BCE to 70 CE, the Jews not only seeded their ideas of monotheism, ethics and progress, the Jewish population grew from half a million to eight million (according to historian Salo Baron). Historians debate the scope of this growth, and whether it was accomplished through active missionizing or simply an open-door approach. What is not arguable is that the Jews grew because they offered something that was attractive and compelling to the world around them. "Survival" was not an issue, let alone a goal. The Jewish purpose was alive. Today, we cannot let Hamas or any other enemy distract us from renewing our purpose: to finish the job we started before we were so rudely interrupted. ISRAEL HAS already demonstrated that it is possible to build a democratically vigorous, economically booming state while under attack. There is nothing stopping either the Israeli or North American poles of world Jewry from asking themselves: Now that we can aspire to more than survival, what is our purpose in the modern age? We don't need any more conferences to obsess over survival, or its euphemism, "continuity." We need to obsess over how we can stop thinking about survival and start thinking about purpose. If we focus on purpose, derivative concerns - such as "relevance," "identity" and "continuity" - will automatically be addressed. These maladies are symptoms of the instinctual understanding disaffected Jews have that if survival is our only purpose, we have no purpose. So what is our modern purpose? The context of our ancient purpose was the global struggle to conquer adversity. Though tyranny and poverty are still with us, the challenge of the modern world is increasingly to cope in a world that lacks physical adversity and faces instead a crisis of meaning and community in the face of frayed societal bonds. If the Jews can show that they produce more ethical people, more cohesive families, and the only religion that is also a coherent people (there is no Christian people or Muslim people, but Christians and Muslims), I believe we will be able to attract both disaffected born Jews and a small but significant fraction of non-Jews to join our cause. If we continue to let our enemies fool us into thinking we are only about survival, the only "continuity" we will experience is on a path toward obscurity and decline. On February 24, the writer participated in a symposium of the finalists for the Bronfman Chair at Brandeis University. This column is based on his presentation. The author's full presentation can be read here: And all of the finalists' proposals, including the winning one by Yehuda Kurtzer, can be read at:
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11