Millennia of persecutions, expulsions, and massacres would surely mean the ruination of a nation, left as nothing but fragments of abstract history. Yet, though many ancient peoples have disappeared from the face of the earth, with nothing but academic interest to keep their memories alive, what explains adequately the continued survival of the Jewish people other than calling it a miracle? Looking at the totality of Jewish suffering throughout the centuries lends itself to the theological conclusion that Divine intervention not only exists, but has actively led a role in shaping the world for the beleaguered Jewish people.
Acknowledging the presence of Divinity is a first step towards internalizing the remarkable journey of the Jewish nation and the wisdom that has contributed to making our existence possible despite every attempt to destroy our values and unique contributions to the humanity.
Though the human mind is incapable of understanding the exact reasons for Divine intervention, especially in relation to how Judaism has withstood so much baseless hatred, revulsion, and tragedy, I humbly submit five pieces of significant Jewish wisdom that helped make this survival, not only possible, but indicative of the indomitable Jewish spirit to thrive:
De-centralization – Since the destruction of the Second Temple, it became quickly apparent that individual Jewish communities (and indeed, individual Jews) could not be controlled. Religious hierarchies are imprudent, and trying to control something as complex and constantly evolving as the Jewish soul is folly. The trauma of losing the Temple ensured that empowerment over obedience was the new normal, and that inclusion over exclusion would allow communities to thrive. This has become increasingly true over the centuries.
Emphasis on Family and Community – The single greatest priority of Jewish intellectual life is the transmission of wisdom and a fidelity to a righteous way of life. By turning the home into the nucleus for incubating education and values, we enabled a unit for staying power. The self is not central and this mission requires humility to embrace the conviction that our legacy is through our youth which in turn gestates the survival of our community.
Outsider Status – When Abraham was mandated by God to be an ambassador for justice, he altered the course of Jewish existence. No longer could he blend into society and adopt the ways of social conformity. Although the Jewish people have often been forced to live as outsiders, this status was predestined through historical events. By being on the periphery of society, Jews have been in touch with other marginalized people and play a crucial role in making invisible people visible.
Trauma Memory – We cannot hide from the manifold traumas of the past, so we constantly have to remind ourselves to remain conscious of them and grow as a community. Remembering the Exodus from slavery, commemorating Tisha B’Av and destruction of the temples, observing shiva for a lost loved one, lighting a candle on Yom HaShoah, these are all emblems of Jewish pain. But in that pain, we join together. We heal together. We constantly remember together. Division ceases among the Jewish people and by holding onto the lingering pain, cultivates within us empathy for the countless many who are vulnerable.
Unique Societal Engagement – Jews remain distinct, but not separated from society. The model has not been complete isolation from society nor full integration assimilating into secular culture. We offer our own unique contributions to the world, while also learning from the society around us. Rambam taught that we must accept the truth from wherever we hear it. We engage with the world and the wisdom of our surrounding cultures but we bring our unique Jewish wisdom to it.
God gave Judaism the perspicacity to endure every hardship and tribulation. In the twenty-first century, each of these long-held values is challenged by the external and internal forces of assimilation, the breakdown of identity, and the corrosion of community; Jewish survival is being challenged in the process. There will always be those who attempt to control Jewish life in an autocratic manner, while others will try to act as insiders while throwing off their outsider identity. Some make Judaism about self-fulfillment rather than embracing transmission and family-based and community-based models. Thoughtlessly, some try to dismiss our historical consciousness and the responsibilities that come with it, while others unconditionally try to separate from the broader society altogether. There is no gain from losing one’s identity caught by the zeitgeist of contemporary society, nor is it virtuous to expel oneself from the broader triumphs that secular society has afforded all people.
In the post-modern tumult that is contemporary society, there are so many different forms of Jewish wisdom that a person can embrace. Each of us has the faculties to choose from them, to discern their strengths and weaknesses. But one’s voice can’t simply be synonymous with any other American faction. For Jews in the United States, we’re embedded within American culture and we can be proud of that. But we also must possess the consciousness that rises above the din of needless and pointless pabulum. It is our obligation to raise the discourse, applying our guiding Jewish principles to lead the way. This is the secret of Jewish success, and always has been.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.