A STOP sign at a crossroads.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When does modern Jewish history begin? At first glance, this question might seem simply academic, of interest only to historians. But upon closer inspection, the answer might just well shape the Jewish future.
For Heinrich Graetz, the first modern Jewish historian, the life and career of great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn marks the beginning of modernity for Jews.
Mendelssohn, known as the “German Socrates,” broke many barriers as a self-educated Jewish philosopher welcomed into Christian intellectual circles, especially literary salons.
Simon Dubnow – murdered in Riga by the Nazis in 1941 – was the great historian of Eastern European Jewry but also composed a major work of general Jewish history. For Dubnow, Jewish modernity begins with the Emancipation of Jews in France during the Revolution of 1789. Jews living in France received equal rights with all other French citizens and their system of living as a “people apart” and a self-governing entity became illegal and an anomaly. The fact that 15 years after the granting of equality Napoleon Bonaparte pressured the Jews of France to show loyalty to the state – and the fact that 100 years after Emancipation there were cries in Paris of “Death to the Jews!” during the Dreyfus Affair – attest to the complexities and ambiguities inherent in Jews receiving citizenship in the Diaspora.
From Ben Zion Dinur we have the most unusual understanding of Jewish modernity. As a Zionist and an Israeli, this historian traces Jewish modernity back to an obscure aliya to Israel in the early 18th century. Judah Hasid led a group in some way tied to the failed messiah Shabbetai Zevi up to the Land of Israel. This immigration did not turn out to be a great success – but nevertheless it was an Israel-centered event that appealed to Dinur’s Zionist sensibilities.
While I do not know who wins this debate, there is no doubt that a hallmark of modernity for Jews has been a vigorous embrace of politics. Certainly Jews had to have some political sensibility and savvy when living in self-governing communities in the ancient and medieval epochs, especially in the Exile. The only way they could survive and thrive was to learn the art of negotiating with pagans, Christians and Muslims – they did so often, they did it well, and they were not perpetual wanderers. This required political skills.
But the contrast with modernity is clear: Today, politics has replaced Judaism as the faith of most Jews. Politics is our “civil religion.” This is both for the good and the bad. On the one hand, Jews learning the art of politics resulted in the great triumph of the birth of the State of Israel and resulted in Jewish integration into American life. On the other hand, with the arrival of human-centered political movements, God seems to have been pushed aside and there is a modern snubbing of Jewish ancestors who are seen as meek and powerless.
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One reason for this is the reality of the Holocaust. But not every road of Jewish history leads to Auschwitz or Babi Yar. The Shoah is both a culmination of 2,000 years of Jew hatred in the Christian world – with the Mufti of Jerusalem as a Muslim leader being an important factor in the genocide – but the Shoah is also a phenomenon of modern racial hatred representing the failure of European Emancipation.
As we all know too well by now, Jews are described and describe themselves as “Liberals” and “Conservatives.”
In Israel it is “Labor” and “Likud” or socialists and nationalists.
I find these dichotomies troubling.
The history of the Jewish people stretches back 4,000 years, and is marked by rich intellectual, social, religious and economic victories and achievements. In contrast, the history of the political Left and the political Right is a phenomenon no older than 250 years. Burke, Marx, Mazzini and Mill have become the icons of the new “civil religion” of politics.
What happened to Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, Nahmanides, Judah Halevi, the Maharal of Prague, Gracia Nasi – just to mention a few “pre-political” Jews? Why is the study of theology a dead art among most Jews in America and most Jews throughout the world? Why is it that American Jews are the most secular ethnic group in America? Where does God seem to fit into a “civil religion”? The last question: Can we survive as a people without our faith and our God? I would warn all my friends who seem to think that redemption is embodied in human-centered politics: as Jews, we have learned a harsh lesson about what happens when you cannot pick up a rifle and defend yourself against someone who wants to destroy you. When I studied in the hesder yeshivah in Gush Etzion – a seminary south of Jerusalem where young Jewish men served in the IDF as a religious duty – there was a rifle near every seat at any given moment, whether we were engaged in prayer or engaged in study. That was necessary in the Judean Hills and now seems very necessary in vulnerable synagogues in Jerusalem.
But the rifle will not be our only savior. We need God, we need our past and we need our faith. We need a Zionism rooted in 4,000 years of history and in the Torah – not in weak and shallow European nationalism only 150 years old. Political parties and ideologies are a means to an end, not the end goal.
I often think of the story of our forefather Jacob. How was it that a simple man studying Torah in tents could both overcome God in a wrestling match and have the courage to confront his brother Esau? The answer is that Jacob had to learn in a difficult way the ways of the world.
He had to don “the hands” of Esau, he had to run away from a brother who despised him, and he spent years with his Uncle Laban learning the art of politics on the personal level.
Without this education, the “voice of Jacob” could never have emerged as the father of the people Israel.
Friends, never forget: we as a people had to learn the ways of Esau and Laban to survive and thrive in this world. A nation of eggheads will never survive. In the post-Holocaust epoch a Jewish state and a Jewish army must exist. We cannot live without them. But the hands of Esau are only there so that Jacob can speak. We are not Esau. We are Jacob. We only learn the harsh ways of the world in order to live. Politics are necessary, especially in a world that seems to hate Jews more and more every day. At the end of the day, however, it is Jacob’s voice that defines who we are. We articulate our reason for being Jews. We respect our ancestors for not abandoning their identity and for seizing authenticity. We learn from today.
But we better learn from yesterday and the many days before it.The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.
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