(Today and Thursday we review the obvious. Next week, we move on to the radical. Please see preceding post for reasons-why.)
The Talmud suggests that God permitted the Romans to destroy the Temple and the Jewish State because of Sinat Hinam, the “baseless hatred” of Jews for each other.
Whatever the divine intent, the second half of the statement is wrong. Jews back then had some very good reasons – religious, political, economic, social, cultural – to hate each other. They’d been at it for at least a dozen centuries.
We still are.
The “received” history of the Jewish people and nation tells of millennia of endurance under persecution. No matter how bad it got, we always had that faithful remnant, the heroes, the martyrs, the Lamed Vavniks, to keep us going.
The received history is true; after all, we’re here to bandy it about. But there are darker aspects to this history.
For millennia, we’ve done terrible things to each other. Start, perhaps, with the murders and massacres described in the Books of Exodus, Numbers, Judges. The harsh creation and rapid disintegration of the United Monarchy. The centuries of intermittent strife that followed until the destruction of the Northern Kingdom.
The Maccabees, domestic terrorists as well as freedom fighters. The Hasmonean brutalities. The Sicarii and Zealots. Eighteen centuries of nastiness and violence between “establishment” rabbis and their followers, against various sects, false messiahs and their followers. And against each other.
Palestine, 1944-1948, and since.
Given the violence that suffuses this culture, renewed civil strife seems far from impossible.
So much is obvious. Also obvious is the fact that, for millennia, Jews have yearned and struggled to get away from each other. The struggle has taken various names: idolatry, apostasy, emigration, assimilation, “attrition,” “leakage.” Motivations have included escape from some suffocating shtetl, marrying out, ambition, social climbing, sincere conversion, sometimes even “Jewish self-hatred” – a term that should be reserved for a genuine psychopathology, not mere distaste.
That distaste, however, can be strong and motivating. A while back, I read two novels by Naomi Ragen, the well-regarded chachama of “Orthodox Jewish chick lit.” The Saturday Wife and The Tenth Song. Affluent Orthodox American Jews. Tiresome people surrounded by their tiresome possessions – if you want to know how to spell “expensive,” turn to most any page – and their tiresome crises, leading to epiphanies as tiresome as they are banal.
I know these people, thought I. I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding them.
Then I happened upon Bread Givers, a 1925 novel by Anzia Yezierska, then a popular teller of life in the American shtetls of that era, and the endless abuse of Jews by Jews. Having grown up among older immigrants in a house where Yiddish was spoken . . . I know these people. I couldn’t get away fast enough.
Since the 19th century, there have been millions like me. And whole libraries that depict and document it.
And what was Zionism in its early secular incarnations, except a fierce desire to get away?
And now, in America, there’s a new kind of getting-away. Assimilation by indifference. The indifference of those whose parents or grandparents escaped or drifted off; who have no direct knowledge of their heritage; who have little or no reason to support Israel, and more than a few reasons not to.
It’s not that no one tries to bring them back. Rabbis and educators sermonize and editorialize on how “we” need to make Judaism more appealing. How? By offering more of the same to people who either left or have no interest in the offering? By insulting them, as far too many Ultra-Orthodox diatribes, and a couple recent government advertising campaigns, seem to delight in doing? Or by smug “mark my words” invocations of some hypothetical future Expulsion or Holocaust?
How bad has it been, all these millennia? Let’s run the numbers.
In 33 CE, a date sometimes associated with the crucifixion of Jesus, there were perhaps seven million Jews within the Roman Empire. Beyond those borders, hard to tell. Maybe another two million. So, 33 CE, nine million.
Nineteen centuries later in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, eighteen million. Persecution, disease, poverty, forced conversions, no doubt took many. But I would suspect that many, many, many more, in one way or another, simply left. Especially in the century preceding, when the numbers should have soared.
And now, seventy years after the Holocaust, about fourteen million. Maybe three-four million more if you really loosen the criteria. Given the global population explosion since World War II, that ain’t a lot. Worse, current Jewish population increase (outside the Haredim) is scant to negative, again depending on criteria used.
To conclude: For millennia, the Jewish people have experienced both severe civil strife and repeated voluntary implosions. It’s happening again. Neither the Jewish people nor the State of Israel can afford it.
We’ll talk specific suggestions, radical ideas, in a couple weeks. For now, it might be useful just to consider a line adapted from a great old TV sitcom:
“Jewish is what I am. It’s not what I’m trying to be.”