Interesting times: The purpose of survival

The question shouldn't be whether Judaism can be understood with an overarching purpose, but without one.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )

Last week I argued that Jewish survival should not become an end in itself, but a means to achieving our purpose in the world. Though the idea, judging from the responses I received, does have a certain resonance, readers raised a number of understandable concerns. Some I share to a degree, and all need to be addressed.

One reader wrote that it is precisely people like me who have, through their "utopianism," turned Judaism into an "esoteric" religion that "minds everyone else's business - which everyone hates." Others argue that it is hubris to think that we can discern God's will for the world. Some contend that an emphasis on social action robs Judaism of its uniqueness, leading it to dissolve with little trace into the soup of modern liberalism. Finally, there is a valid question, even if one agrees that we have a right to and should be aiming toward a purpose, what that purpose is.

In their probing study of anti-Semitism Why the Jews?, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin dismiss numerous popular explanations, and zero in on one: the Jewish message to the world. They agree, in essence, that the Jewish refusal to "mind our own business" is the real engine of anti-Semitism.

But let us say that they are right, that Jewish judgmentalism is the irritant that the world just cannot accept. Should we drop it?

Before the Holocaust, such an argument could perhaps have been made. But in 1939, there were only about 16 million Jews in the entire world, and many were highly assimilated into European culture, including in Germany. Far from judging their non-Jewish neighbors, they were either self-isolated into separatist enclaves, or almost indistinguishable from their European milieu.

The Holocaust demonstrated that a genocide could be launched against us precisely when advancing a purpose in the world was the furthest thing from our minds. We were "minding our own business," yet our very existence was considered by the Nazis and their many accomplices to be a mortal threat.

Lying low has not exactly been an effective Jewish strategy. It is neither a practical nor a Jewish option, which brings us back to the notion of purpose, and the doubts that we have one.

Who are we, even from a traditional perspective, to go beyond the mitzvot and embellish a mission beyond our family and community? In reality, the question should not be whether Judaism can be understood with an overarching purpose, but without one.

"Judaism has never been as orphaned of living reality as in our days," wrote the philosopher Eliezer Berkovitz in 1973. "Even among the pious, Judaism can only be a matter of private concern. Lacking a partnership with history, it withers."

Berkovitz believed that Judaism was different because it required a "comprehensive deed." In contrast with all other religions, if, indeed, Judaism is to be understood as a religion at all in the conventional sense, he wrote "Faith fills the soul; the deed fills history.... While by faith alone a soul may, perhaps, be saved, the deed's raison d'etre is to be effective in the world."

And if Judaism's purpose was to be effective, then "realization in the largest collective, mankind, is the ideal; the instrument of its realization in history is the people."

For Berkovitz, Israel was central to this purpose. "Jews who believe the return to Zion is not vital for Judaism have broken the continuity of Jewish history; they have given up Jewish messianism, and thus reduced the awesome drama of redemption to meaningless misery." Just as Jews were meant to affect the world individually, the Jewish people was to do so as a nation, and a nation can only act and be an example if it has sovereignty in its land, Berkovitz reasoned.

I HAVE been critical of the Diaspora's refusal to fully recognize, much less address, the need to rejuvenate and replenish itself, but Israel has arguably abrogated its role no less. Has Israel, consciously or not, engaged in Jewish deeds on the stage of mankind? Yes, we have when we welcomed and rescued many thousands of Jews from around the world; and when we demonstrated our determination to survive the onslaught of our enemies while taking great risks to protect Palestinian civilians, even when Palestinian terrorists hide behind them. The fact that we have been vilified, not recognized, for how we have fought makes it no less, and perhaps more, of a worthy deed.

But in many other areas, such as our treatment of foreign workers, our relative tolerance for the illegal trade in women, our refusal to adopt proven techniques for ending the carnage on the roads, our cozy relations with dictatorships that "stoop" to engage with us - in all these areas, even if we are no worse than others, we are worse than some, and certainly no example of the difference Judaism should make.

Yet perhaps our greatest failure was to realize Berkovitz's fear, of which he warned both before the state's founding and when he came to live here late in life, that Israel would become a copy of Europe or the US or, as wrongly, import and perpetuate exilic Judaism - "a regimen of the permitted and forbidden."

"Exilic Judaism, as the only possible form of Judaism in exile, has its validity. Transferred to the condition of Jewish statehood, it becomes inauthentic.... One may be extremely critical of Israeli secularism... and yet realize - with an aching heart - that this rabbinate, these teachers of Torah [are with few exceptions] ... incapable of conveying the meaning and relevance of Judaism to the people in the context of this completely new reality of statehood," he wrote in 1979.

It might have been too much to ask that Israel, while fending off enemies without and torn by rifts within, would tackle the gargantuan task of reviving the organic qualities that Judaism lost when exile finally froze it in its current form in the year 500 or so, with the closing of the Talmud. But here again we meet the paradox that the quest for survival jeopardizes itself when it becomes an end rather than a means. We can delay confronting our purpose, but the path of greater safety lies in embracing it.