Center field: Celebrating Torah in a world that’s gone bonkers

And in the US, the world’s largest and seemingly safest Jewish community is slowly committing communal suicide, as the children and grandchildren of deeply committed Jews abandon Jewish practices.

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)
As the 5775 Jewish High Holiday season winds downs, as those of us with delayed work projects gear up to catch up, this period feels like it is sputtering to a close rather than building to a spiritual climax.
It often seems that both Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah should be entered in the Silly Holiday Derby. The pointlessness of Shmini Atzeret, an eighth day tagged onto Sukkot, after the lulav-crashing intensity of Hoshanna Rabba, has launched a thousand sermons, and, it seems, a thousand different rationales. I remain unconvinced. Do we really need another day off with more burdensome prayers, heavy meals and leaden sermons? And, after the kind of year we had, who is really having a Simchat Torah, any kind of rejoicing with the Torah? The world has gone mad. In Israel, we have too many freshly-dug graves, too many young heroes with crushed bodies, too many traumatized souls after thousands of rockets rained down on us, trying to punish us simply for living our lives. In the Middle East, it seems that the beheading Jihadists of ISIS and al Qaida are on the march, exploiting a weary America and dysfunctional Arab dictators to seduce millions of broken people happy to embrace fanaticism. Meanwhile, Europe has gone decadent. The latest targeting of Israel and bullying of Jews are merely symptoms of a larger problem, of a Continental culture that has lost its mojo, its self-confidence, its moral compass, its underlying rationale and, as a result, its passion for self-defense.
And in the United States, the world’s largest and seemingly safest Jewish community is slowly committing communal suicide, as the children and grandchildren of deeply committed Jews abandon Jewish practices, Jewish passions, Jewish partners. The problem has become so ubiquitous that most of us are too polite or too politick to mention it, having been told (or discovered through bad experiences) that complaining won’t help. So we sing and dance our young people out of our covenant, out of our tradition. The number of intermarriage ceremonies marking this outflow now rivals the number of bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies which, all too often, are too superficial and alienating to ensure any sustained inflow.
Many of my Chabad friends respond to these challenges by collecting individual stories of redeemed Jews and celebrating their own deep joy in the Torah. Many of my more liberal friends respond to these challenges by pretending they don’t exist, and getting offended when people like me dare to address them. These days, it seems the only politically correct critique in the Jewish world is one aimed at Israel. The once sacred cow of the Jewish State is no longer a sacred cow in an age in which many other Jewish sacred cows have proliferated. And I know that many of more conservative friends use these challenges to fortify their own bunkers, to make themselves feel more virtuous and more contemptuous of the world around them.
None of these responses satisfy me – making the temptation to cancel the holiday and catch up on work even greater.
But the final verses of Deuteronomy we read on Simchat Torah teach that “the Torah that Moses commanded us is a legacy for the community of Jacob.” Rashi teaches that we have accepted the teachings – and won’t forsake them – while remembering that Moses only sees the Promised Land without entering it.
The Torah, then, is alive yet unfinished. On Simchat Torah we celebrate what we have – and all we have left to do. We can rejoice in the ongoing miracle of Israel – and the bravery of our soldiers and citizens – even while pushing to make the country stronger, safer, better, freer, more just, more humane, more democratic, and more Jewishly vibrant. We can strengthen our resolve against Islamist evil, secure in the knowledge that barbarians who need to behead their enemies demonstrate the insecurity of the loser not the confidence of the winner. Totalitarians are so threatened by ideas they try to slay those who symbolize their power; we democrats are stronger and more secure than that.
Here, then, is the ultimate Simchat Torah Jew-Jitsu. We know that in combating totalitarian terrorism ideologically and militarily, we only can win when we act like winners, fighting proudly, passionately, proactively, as we did in Gaza this summer. So, too, we need an affirmative, expansive, celebration of Western values to combat European degeneracy and an equally positive, infectious delight in Jewish values to ensure Jewish continuity. The age of guilt trips and acting out is over. The time for rededication, rebuilding, and redeeming has arrived. I see in Zionism an endorsement of both Western and Jewish values, individually and communally, as Israel itself draws on democratic ideas and Jewish traditions.
I see that in the Torah too. My reading of the Torah does not result in false polarities, only setting up conflicts between Jewish and democratic values or between Judaism and Zionism. I see the overlaps not the disconnects. The Torah’s egalitarian and humanistic message shaped Western democracy as well as Judaism. Moses himself as leader and teacher, as a prophet of great accomplishments and as unfulfilled old man peeking toward salvation, ultimately passes on both universal and particular lessons.
With the Diaspora’s artificial (and anachronistic!) division of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, Shemini Atzeret can be the day of contemplation in preparation for Simchat Torah’s redemption.
This Simchat Torah, I will dance my heart out, to repudiate a world that’s gone bonkers.
My dance steps will be my latest steps toward creating what Genesis envisions: a world of peace and of justice, of meaning and sanity, of goodness and greatness, in the Promised Land and the rest of the world.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and will be teaching at the IDC in Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on American history, his latest, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was published by Oxford University Press.
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