The joy of unease

Like a moral barometer or a canary uniquely sensitive to the proverbial coal mine’s ethical atmosphere, the status of Jews serves as a critical register of the general health of society.

Soldiers dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simhat Torah in the Eshkol region in the Negev in September 2010. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Soldiers dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simhat Torah in the Eshkol region in the Negev in September 2010.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Of all the holidays that make up the High Holy Day season, Simhat Torah is the most fitting for our generation – and the most emotionally and intellectually challenging.
Rosh Hashana is the day of judgment. Jews are expected to stand humbly before God and recognize His sovereignty over all existence. But the idea that one is being judged for one’s actions is not an easy concept for many to accept. No one likes being scrutinized. We are willing to invest in self-improvement for the sake of our own personal success, but few of us are receptive to outside criticism that does not necessarily advance our own interests. The difficulty of the day is compounded by the fact that many – if not most – Jews have serious doubts about faith. There is an element of absurdity in attempting to grant sovereignty to an entity who might not even exist.
Similar difficulties are experienced by many of us on Yom Kippur. Admittedly, we fast in large numbers. Public opinion surveys consistently show that at least 70 percent of Jewish Israelis do not eat or drink on this holy day. But many of us do so for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the traditional belief that the fast expiates our sins. Pollster Geocartography, which was commissioned by the BINA organization for Jewish pluralism and social action, found last year that of the 73% of Israelis who fasted, over half did so out of “respect for tradition,” “solidarity with the Jewish people,” “for health reasons, or for a challenge” or for some other reason not related to religious faith.
Succot has its own challenges.
Leaving the materialism of one’s home for a temporary adobe with scanty protection against the elements has messages that both secular and religious can relate to. There is a quasi-socialist concept here. We temporarily eschew the luxuries of the domestic realm. We reject elements of socioeconomic status and consumerism connected with the houses in which we live and the appliances, toys and gadgets with which we fill them. There is also the implicit recognition of our ultimate powerlessness before much larger forces, whether they are nature, the circumstances of our birth and our own physical, intellectual and spiritual limitations. But one needs to work to arrive at such interpretations.
And what meaning can be derived from shaking a citrus fruit and a bunch of branches, purchased at a premium? Simhat Torah’s message, in contrast, is simple and it is eminently fitting to this generation whether you have faith or don’t: It is a holiday devoted to rejoicing in our Jewishness. Our sole commandment on this day is to be happy because we are Jews.
Dancing with the Torah scrolls is the most iconic expression of this celebration of Jewishness.
This is only natural since the very foundation of our Jewishness is the Bible, which tells the story of our people. And even if one does not believe the Bible is “from Heaven” one must nevertheless acknowledge the centrality of the “book of books” to Western culture. Indeed, Western culture is unintelligible without the Bible – and without the Jews.
This is a holiday devoid of Rosh Hashana’s demand to recognize an omnipotent and highly judgmental God who places us under constant surveillance and holds us accountable even for thought crimes. It lacks the aspects of self-flagellation and contrition connected with Yom Kippur. And it does not require the sometimes expensive paraphernalia of Succot. It is simply about feeling good with being a Jew and embracing that Jewishness, whatever it means for you.
But therein lies the problem.
While Jews have much to be proud of (Nobel Prizes, Freud, Marx and Einstein, hi-tech, Hollywood, the Bible etc.), we have historically been the most despised people of the world from time immemorial. Notwithstanding the large number of gentiles who want to marry us, we Jews remain among the most unfairly treated peoples in the world.
Too many Jews can still identify with what Heinrich Heine, the Jewish German poet, wrote more than 150 years ago “Judaism is not a religion but a misfortune.”
Today, Jews are most commonly disparaged and attacked, under the guise of criticism for Israeli policies.
The latest examples of anti-Semitism in its 21st-century mutation were on display during and after Operation Protective Edge: There was the despicable behavior of the UN Human Rights Council, which took the side of a militant Islamic terrorist group over Israel; there were the mobs who swept across dozens of cities in Europe and America charging Israel with war crimes; there was the claim – still believed by many, not just “moderate” Palestinian President Authority Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Arab world – that Israel carried out a “genocide” during the 50-day operation in Gaza.
How can we rejoice on Simhat Torah when being Jewish seems more like a liability than something worth celebrating? On the most basic, rock-bottom level, Jews have no choice. It is, after all, impossible to get rid of one’s past. Or, more accurately, it is futile to “solve” the Jewish problem by creating another problem in its place, which would be to take on the disgraceful character trait of denying one’s past and heritage. As Leo Strauss put it in a 1964 lecture titled “Why we are Jews,” “A solution of a man’s problem which can be achieved only through a disgraceful act is a disgraceful solution.”
This is not unlike Alan Dershowitz’s self-testimony in his memoir Chutzpah that he remained openly Orthodox for a few more years just to spite the anti-Semites he encountered at the Ivy League colleges where he studied and taught in the 1960s.
But refusing to feel shame over one’s very being is a far cry from the sort of rejoicing expected during Simhat Torah. An approach a bit more fitting the mood of Simhat Torah but with no small amount of irony is to embrace the Jews’ unique predicament in the world. Throughout history, the Jews have been an exiled people who felt ill at ease precisely in times of crisis. Like a moral barometer or a canary uniquely sensitive to the proverbial coal mine’s ethical atmosphere, the status of the Jews has served as a critical register of the general health of a society or a civilization. The deteriorating plight of the Jews heralded a broader breakdown.
Political Zionists hoped to cure the Jews’ unease via normalization.
They believed the Jewish problem was rooted in the deracinated European Jew – the so-called luftmensch or person made of thin air. Transforming bankers, watchmakers and doctors into hoe-carrying farmers and rifle-toting soldiers, and rejecting the Diaspora for a homeland would solve the problem. But they were wrong.
The political Zionists made the mistake of internalizing their anti- Semitic enemies’ misconceptions.
If we were to listen to the anti-Semites of today we would have to cease to defend ourselves against Islamic militants, dismantle the Zionist project and return to the Diaspora.
We should instead embrace the Jewish people’s unique role in the world as being in a perennial state of unease. As a friend of Holocaust survivor and author Victor Klemperer put it to him in a very dark time, the Jews have been both condemned and privileged to be “seismic people” hyper-sensitive to the vicissitudes of the human condition.
We should rejoice in our lot and embrace it as the best hope for bringing about tikkun olam (repairing the world). As long as the Jewish state is unjustly singled out for degradation, as long as the State of Israel’s very legitimacy is questioned, as long as Jews everywhere are attacked for Israeli policies, we know there is more work to be done. Being Jewish means you don’t live a quiet life. On Simhat Torah this legacy should give us cause for joy.