Antisemitism may be driving some Jews back to observance, but we need to stress the positive

Judaism is about what we stand for, not what we stand against

June 15, 2021 14:52

Professor Alan Dershowitz was once asked to speak to a gathering of different factions within the Jewish student body at Columbia University on the topic of unity.

He informed the administration that due to prior scheduling he wasn’t available to speak on that date, and suggested they try him again in a month.

A month later he was contacted and told, “Mr. Dershowitz, we’d still like you to come and address the students but at this point it’s no longer necessary to speak on the topic of unity.

A few weeks ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to speak at the university and he brought the entire Jewish student body together…”

I was reminded of this anecdote a few weeks ago during a “Nachas call” I made to a congregant to share how delighted I was to see her teenage son, who hadn’t been to Synagogue since his bar mitzvah, at a Shavuot event we organised. 

“Rabbi Mendel,” she interjected in the midst of my going on about how her son’s attendance may indicate a newfound interest in Judaism, “I’m afraid to say that Judaism didn’t bring my son to Synagogue this Shavuot; it was Hamas, Gigi Hadid, and Trevor Noah who got him there.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this exchange over the past few weeks in the aftermath of the most recent conflict in Israel, which triggered and activated many Jewish teens and university students in our community in unprecedented ways, jumpstarting a number of new and exciting youth initiatives.  

Take Charles for example.

A few days after being physically assaulted outside his school by a pro-Palestinian classmate, he too attended Shavuot services inspired by a conversation between the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory and the Young Leadership of the UJIA, who were preparing for a trip to Poland.

During a private audience that took place on March 4, 1962, members of the group asked the Rebbe: “We are going on a pilgrimage to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, going to Warsaw and Auschwitz. As we get deeper into the reading we’re all having many problems with the questions that the Holocaust and Auschwitz bring…. What did the whole thing mean?

The Rebbe responded: “…[During the Holocaust] We witnessed something so terrible, it must bring every Jew to become more identified with his Jewishness…every one of us has an obligation to fight Hitler, [which] can be done by letting that which Hitler had in mind to annihilate, not only continue, but grow bigger and on a deeper scale.

Hitler was not interested so much in annihilating the body of Jewishness as he was interested in annihilating the spirit. [He decreed that the spiritual and moral ideas which the Jewish people embodied] must not infect the German people, the Russian people, or the Polish people…

[Therefore] If someone does his best in his personal life to be Jewish [so that] everyone sees that in the street he is a Jew, that his home is a Jewish home, that he is proud, and that it is not a burden, but his pride, his life defeats the idea of Hitlerism.”

To paraphrase the Rebbe’ approach to Jew hatred: The way to combat antisemitism is not (only) through anti-antisemitism but through Pro-Semitism!

Indeed, is there any greater poetic justice and spiritual victory over Hitler who once said, “The Ten Commandments have lost their validity,” than a Jewish teenager showing up to hear those very same assuredly valid and pertinent Ten commandments?

But the Rebbe did more than simply advocate “doing more Jewish” in response and as a protest to antisemitism.

The prominent Jewish scholar and activist Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg once provocatively commented: “Antisemitism is bad for the Jews, but good for Judaism.”

Throughout his many talks and encounters, the Rebbe made it clear that in his view: Antisemitism isn’t good for Judaism, Judaism is good for Judaism.

Meaning, that while antisemitism may be an effective trigger and tool for Jewish engagement, it certainly isn’t a healthy or strategic one.

Rather than raise a generation of Jews to identify and express their Jewishness reactively and defensively, the Rebbe’s legacy was one of positive and proactive Judaism.  

Indeed, throughout his teachings and motivational theology one discerns a conscious attempt to shift the central point of national focus and self-identification away from the persecution narrative - and, specifically, the colossal tragedy of the Holocaust - and direct it instead toward a joyful present and a redemptive future.

In so doing, the Rebbe chose not to devalue or trivialize such historic loss, Heaven forbid, he only worked to ensure that it not come to exclusively define and confine the way the Jewish People view their past, present, and future.

In the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory: “I have read many works of post-Holocaust Jewish theology. And they all ask the same question. They ask what unites us—the Jewish people—today, with all our divisiveness and arguments. And in them I read the same answer: What unites us as Jewish people today is memories of the Holocaust, fears of anti-Semitism. What unites us as a people is that other people hate us.

“The Rebbe taught the opposite message. What unites us, he taught, is not that other people don’t like us, but that G-d loves us; that every one of us is a fragment of the Divine presence and together we are the physical presence of G‑d on earth. Surely that message—spiritual, mystical as it is—is so much more powerful, [and] so much more noble than the alternative.”

More powerful than the alternative indeed.

According to a recent Pew Report titled, “Jewish Americans in 2020” the unique impact of Chabad on all streams of American Jewry is remarkable and growing. 

For example, according to findings in this poll, at least 38% of all US Jews have engaged in some way with Chabad programs.

Tellingly, 75% of those who are involved with Chabad do not self-identify as Orthodox. And the younger the demographic, the more connected they are with Chabad.

According to Rabbi David Eliezrie, a prominent Chabad Shliach in Southern California: “The shift of millennials has been documented in a series of local Federation studies that reveal that more Jews age 35 and younger are involved with Chabad than any other Jewish group.”

Clearly, something about the Rebbe’s spiritual philosophy, embodied and articulated by his emissaries around the word, is resonating profoundly with Jews of all backgrounds, demographics, and denominations.

One insightful analysis into the unique relevance and resonance of the Rebbe’s philosophy comes from an unlikely source.

Describing himself as a “non-chabanik for all sorts of reasons” Conservative Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove shared the following eloquent words in a thought-provoking Kol Nidrei sermon in 2019:

“…Schneerson understood it well seventy years ago…

What is new, what our generation must contend with that past generations never did, is the fraying of our unspoken safety net, the three things that rightly or wrongly American Jews could count on to keep us together but can do so no longer: 1) The Shoah, 2) Israel, 3) Antisemitism.

First, the Shoah. When I went to Hebrew school, I was taught about the 614th commandment – that in addition to the 613 commandments, after the Holocaust there is an additional commandment – to remain Jewish lest we provide Hitler a posthumous victory…Seventy years later, our commitment to the memory of those murdered in the Shoah remains resolute and eternal. But for Jewish educators, it is neither practical, nor for that matter, conscionable to leverage the horrors of the Shoah to prompt positive Jewish identification in the next generation. The Shoah can no longer be counted on to inspire individual or collective Jewish identity.

Second: Israel. For seventy years, Israel has been the centripetal force keeping American Jews together. In ’67, ’73, Entebbe, Osirak, in triumph and tragedy, Israel has brought us close. But you and I both know that for the coming generation that is no longer the case. Israel alienates as many American Jews as it engages. Ours is an era where our opinions regarding Israel divide as much as they unite. And as for the extraordinary success of Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, Onward Israel, and all the other Israel programs that you should support and send your children and grandchildren on, none of them answer that question of how and why to live an engaged Jewish life once you return from Israel to America. Israel can no longer be counted on to inspire individual or collective Jewish identity.

Third: Antisemitism. Notwithstanding the hatreds about which I spoke on Rosh Hashanah, American Jewry is living in an unprecedented era of social tolerance. Say what you will, the state-sponsored antisemitism of other times and other places is simply not the lived experience of American Jewry. A blessing to be sure, but also a challenge…Why? Because then the onus for a Jew to be a Jew is on nobody but him- or herself. Besides, what sort of Judaism is it, if it is reliant on the hatreds of others in order to survive? Antisemitism can no longer be counted on to inspire individual or collective Jewish identity.

The Shoah, Israel and antisemitism. These were the three forces, the threefold mystic cord that we could always count on…Three constants that are constant no longer.

Which is why we need mitzvot. Mitzvot are the chords – the commitments and commandments – the sparks that can inspire individual and collective Jewish identity. The proud performance of Jewish deeds that are not contingent on the Shoah, that have nothing to do with how we feel about Israel, and that exist independently of antisemitism.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about being kind, about a nebulous plea to live according to some inchoate set of Jewish values. I am talking about kashrut, about prayer, about Torah study, about coming to shul, about tzedakah and yes – tefillin and Shabbat candles, too. I am talking about the Jewish obligation and opportunity to perform distinctly Jewish acts on your own and in the company of other Jews. I am talking about mitzvot.

…for the Rebbe, mitzvot were the key. The performance of a mitzvah, a distinctly Jewish act – tefillin, Shabbat candles, making challah, or otherwise. That is the key, the secret sauce by which the assimilated American-Jew would find his or her way back into yiddishkeit.”

So as we collect ourselves and process the most recent resurgence of Israel-bashing and blatant antisemitism, let us redouble our efforts to raise a generation of Jews whose identity and Jewishness is defined and determined by what we stand for rather than what we stand against.

And in the memory and merit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose 27th Yahrzeit was marked this past Sunday, let’s add a Mitzvah to our spiritual repertoire and portfolio, and work to ensure that the Rebbe’s secret sauce for Jewish fulfilment and engagement remains a secret no longer.  



June 15, 2021 14:52

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