Rabbi Shmuley Boteach refers to himself as “America’s rabbi.” Although I don’t consider him my rabbi, I wondered what entitled him to this honorific title. I think I now know why.
First a little background. My father, of blessed memory, served honorably in the 82nd Airborne during World War II. And while he saw combat and his unit helped liberate a labor camp, it wasn’t until he after the war that he was able to even begin comprehending the atrocities of the Shoah. When he returned to the United States, he was only 22 years old. I can’t even begin to imagine the impact the war and its aftermath had on his psyche. That part of his story is not unique.
The realization of what happened during the Shoah affected not only his generation of returning Jewish soldiers – it affected the entire American Jewish community. I can imagine that his parents and grandparents could now better explain to their families why they escaped Czarist Russia and how they looked to America not only as the “goldene medina,” but also as a haven of freedom and safety. Even so, while they now lived in relative comfort, the black cloud of the Holocaust never dissipated.
Future generations of American Jews defined themselves through the lens of Nazi atrocities. Some chose to simply hide their Jewishness by changing their names and blending into the great American Melting Pot. Others strengthened their resolve to raise families who understood what it meant to keep Judaism alive. In doing so, they developed a philosophy that warned their children to be fully aware that Hitler’s defeat was only temporary; that there were still people seeking our destruction. It meant that we were told to watch out for anti-Semites, to be distrustful of “the goyim,” and not to intermarry. Post World War II, the Holocaust became American Judaism’s civil religion.
Which brings us back to Rabbi Boteach. You may recall that his organization, “This World: The Values Network” (https://thisworld.us/), recently took out a fullpage ad in the New York Times, accusing U.S. national security advisor, Susan Rice, of turning a “blind eye to genocide.” The advertisement was swiftly and universally condemned by North American Jewish leaders, which prompted Rabbi Boteach to issue somewhat of an apology to Ambassador Rice in which he made the following statement:
“Genocide, unfortunately, is the defining characteristic of my people.”
No doubt, my great-grandparents would have agreed with him, and 70 years ago, that was probably the case. This “defining characteristic” resulted in rapid assimilation and an untold number of disaffected Jews. The resulting strategy of admonitions about intermarrying and being distrustful of anybody outside the faith failed miserably, but the Holocaust as American Judaism’s civil religion survived as evidenced by the number of monuments and museums dedicated to perpetuating the memory of those who perished. It is also kept alive by Rabbi Boteach and others who insist on defining the Jewish people by what was, and not by what is.
I would prefer to think that we have many defining characteristics. Mitzvot, education, a strong and vibrant culture, and tikkun olam come to mind. These are lasting traditions which enable us to maintain our connections to Jewish life and still live as citizens of the world.
While there will forever be psychological trauma, the days of viewing tragedy as the defining characteristic of the Jewish people are coming to an end. There is much to be said for the rewards and richness of Jewish life. Yes, we should always be vigilant, yes there is much anti-Semitism, but defining ourselves in this context has done nothing more than lead to despair.
We no longer need any of America’s rabbis and other Jewish leaders to remind us of how difficult it is to be a Jew. They should be actively telling and showing us how wonderful it is instead.