Interesting Times: Continuity for what?

The purpose of the Jewish people is not to survive, but to change the world.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
During this season, we think about how we can take the Herculean step of changing something about our lives. The rushing current of the everyday is so strong that even the slightest change of direction seems impossible to sustain. How much more difficult is it for an entire people to change direction, when it must bend a 3,000-year current of history? Yet it is precisely on such changes that people's lives, and our history, is built. We change course when we marry, have children, take new jobs, move to new places. Some people even succeed in more thoroughly reinventing themselves. This season is full of such models for us. On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of the Binding of Isaac as the epitome of devotion to God. But by recalling Abraham, we may also consider him as a model of man's greatest reinvention in history. More than anyone, Abraham represents history's most tectonic transition, between paganism and monotheism. A few short days after Yom Kippur, we have Succot, when we reenact, as during Pessah, the Exodus from Egypt another fault line, this time between slavery and freedom. This string of holidays is replete with the message of the possibility and necessity of change, both on the personal and national levels. In this light, what is striking about the Jewish story of is that it is marked by startling discontinuities somehow coexisting with a passion for preservation and memory. It is bizarre, but true, that both ultra-radical revolutionaries and ultra-conservative haredim are emblematic Jews. Yet, while Jewish revolutionaries tended to spurn their Jewishness and align themselves with bloody movements that were antithetical to Jewish values, they were in some ways more representative of the Jewish spirit than their more devout brethren. The reason is that the purpose of the Jewish people is not to survive, but to change the world. Survival is supposed to be a means, not an end. The haredim are deeply committed to Jewish survival and, to their great credit, produce large Jewishly-educated families and can expect many Jewish great-grandchildren. Yet they cannot seem to see that what saved the Jewish people time and again was not its ability to hunker down and turn inward, but to reinvent itself. The periods of the patriarchs and the Exodus, of the Temples and Jewish sovereignty, and of the rabbis and exile are so distinct that each arguably constitutes a separate religion. Aside from Abraham's founding epiphany, and the crucible of Moses' legal and national revolution, the most impressive sea change came after the destruction of the second Temple. In a historical blink of an eye, Judaism transformed from a religion tightly tied to priests, pilgrimages and sacrifices to one centered on the home and education under rabbinic leadership. The advent of modernity and emancipation are no less of an existential challenge to Judaism than the destruction of the Temple. This challenge did not begin with the 1990 NJPS figures that revealed that half of American Jews were intermarrying. Already in 1920, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig founded the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt to create a new kind of learning “in the opposite direction... no longer out of the Torah into life, but out of life, out of a world that does not know about the law, back into the Torah. “We all know that we have to sacrifice everything for Judaism, yet we cannot sacrifice anything of Judaism. To give up nothing, to deny nothing, and then to lead everything back to our Jewishness,” Rosenzweig explained. We do not know how the Jewish struggle with modernity would have progressed if the Holocaust had not intervened. Nor can the establishment of Israel after World War II be dismissed as anything less than a history-shaping, revolutionary act. But it can be said that even today we have not sufficiently recovered from the trauma of the Holocaust, not to mention the previous centuries of persecution and exile, to truly begin thinking beyond survival. THE GREAT irony, however, is that it is our inability to move beyond survival that most jeopardizes our survival. In this, I too have been remiss. I have been, and still am, among those who bemoan the inability of the Diaspora to radically shift financial priorities toward the Jewish schools, camps, and Israel trips that are proven to bolster Jewish identity. But such crash programs under the rubric of “continuity,” necessary as they are, tend to dodge the question, “continuity for what?” These programs could be more about storm-proofing an old house than building a new one. They do not necessarily constitute a transformation on the scale of the previous revolutions that saved us as a people. What would be today's equivalent to the Jewish reinvention of two millennia ago to cope with the advent of exile? The answer may lie somewhere behind three concepts: growth, unity and mission. Even if the Jewish people stopped shrinking tomorrow which we won't our numbers are simply too small. On this we should be able to agree, and begin to work across the entire denominational spectrum. But even more important than the commitment to take such tactical steps is the realization that should motivate it: that we not only have a mission, but that the purpose of our survival until now has been to be ready for this historical moment. We are at the cusp of a transition from the world that existed since the dawn of humanity a state of nature in which all life was “nasty, brutish and short” to one in which most people live lives that are longer, freer, and more prosperous than could be imagined just a century ago. Though this new world may seem far away to some, we are about as close to it as to the one we are leaving behind. In this world, religion, formerly an accident of birth, is up for grabs or for abandonment. The advent of freedom, health and prosperity does not guarantee a better world, just one whose problems are more man-made and less natural. It is in this world that we must aspire to have an impact as a people, and have something to offer. If we do not, if we remain too traumatized, divided and oblivious to the possibility that we even have a purpose in the modern age, then it hardly matters if we become a curious relic from grander days on the world stage.