In 1990, a delegation of rabbis traveled to Dharamsala, India, headquarters of the Dalai Lama in exile. The rabbis came at the behest of the Dalai Lama himself to begin a dialogue which continues to this day. Tibet had been invaded by China in 1959. The Chinese subjected the Tibetan people to brutal persecution and were equally brutal in their determination to eradicate the Tibetan Buddhist religion. They destroyed temples and monasteries, torturing and murdering monks and nuns and forcing the Dalai Lama to flee. Recognizing the similarities between the plights of Tibetans and Jews as persecuted peoples expelled from their homelands, the Dalai Lama sought to understand how Jews had been able to maintain their religion and identity as a unique people throughout 2000 years of exile.
Other conquered nations have faded into obscurity. Jews are the only ancient people known to have survived as a distinct entity in the absence of their own sovereign territory. And they have done so despite multiple enemies bent on their annihilation from ancient times to the present.
As the Jewish people found themselves cast across the broad face of the earth, they became masters of adaptation capable of living among strangers, whenever and wherever permitted to do so, even adopting some of the characteristics of their host lands without sacrificing their own distinctive customs and values. These customs and values originated in ancient Judaic oral traditions. Eventually, they were committed to sacred texts including the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and the Talmud (discussions and commentary on Jewish law), the essential cords binding Jewish people together across countries, alien cultures and hundreds of generations.
When the rabbis visited the Dalai Lama, they found that the Buddhists were already compiling their own sacred writings and archiving them in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives just as the ancient Israelites had done when conquered and exiled to Babylonia in 586 B.C.E. For Jews, this had been a crucial step on their path to becoming “The People of the Book.
The Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem made it impossible to practice certain Judaic rites. To accommodate this reality, the sages created written descriptions of Temple rituals that could be read and remembered by everyone. In addition, the new writings set forth a recounting of the Jewish people’s foundational narratives, its history, and the ethical demands incumbent upon those entering the Jewish covenant with God. Consequently, these Scriptures augmented the oral tradition as a vehicle for perpetuating Judaism even in exile.
As the Dalai Lama exchanged ideas with the rabbis, he was struck by the emphasis embedded in Jewish prayers on remembering communal history, the connection to the land of Israel and the responsibility to teach children. For example, even today, all over the world Jews turn to face Israel when they pray. The blessing over meals routinely includes a prayer to “return to Zion” and Jews conclude the Passover Seder and the High Holy Day services with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Writing about the meeting between the rabbis and the Dalai Lama, Roger Kamenetz noted, “The Dalai Lama had grasped an essential Jewish secret of survival-memory.”
In relying on the written word, Jews became a people whose religion required that every man, not just the priests, achieve sufficient literacy to pray. Even after the Temple had been restored 70 years later, the portable written word became the means of preserving Judaism for future generations. Literacy allowed the Jews who were dispersed throughout the world to follow the same religious practices as their brethren who had remained in the Holy Land, renamed “Palestine” by the Roman Conquerors in the year 70 C.E. Literacy also made it possible for Jews scattered throughout the Diaspora to communicate with one another and fulfill the Talmudic instruction, “Kol Yisraelim arevim zeh l’zeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another.
In codifying the Torah, the rabbis divided it into 54 portions, called parshot (singular: parsha). These parshot ensure that everywhere in the world, the same parsha is read on the same week so that a Jew in Morocco would be reading, or more precisely, chanting, the same Torah portion as a Jew in Moscow. The Moroccan Jew chanting the parsha Emor, for example, knows that on the same week of the Jewish calendar hundreds of years ago, his ancestors living in Spain were also chanting Emor. Thus, the Torah connects the Jewish people in an endless chain backward to parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and, perhaps, forward to future generations. With the division of the Torah, the rabbis created an educational system unifying the Jewish people temporally as well as geographically while constantly connecting them to the missing homeland, Israel.
In the early 1980s, a group of American Jews became aware of the dire situation faced by the Jewish community in Ethiopia as a result of political upheaval, famine and persecution. A small delegation set out from New York City to assess the situation and see how they could help. After a long and difficult journey traveling through the mountains for days on horses and mules, they found themselves in a remote village of mud huts in the Ethiopian highlands.
Ethiopian Jews had been isolated from other Jewish communities for thousands of years and practiced an ancient pre-Talmudic form of Judaism. They had never seen Jews who were white. The urban Americans had never known Jews who were black. The little troupe, exhausted from its journey and dismayed by the village’s poverty and disease, found itself overcome not only by the hopelessness of the Ethiopian’s plight and the possibility of being able to help them in any substantive way, but at the stark differences between them. Could either group even be sure the other was really Jewish?
Barbara Ribakove Gordon, who later became the founder and Director of the North American Conference of Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), was one of the New Yorkers in that early delegation. She reports their reactions upon first meeting the Ethiopians:
“…[W]e aren’t going to make any real contact with these people, we’re too different.They didn’t look like any Jews we’d ever seen. Their homes were different, their synagogue [a stone, instead of mud hut] was different… It was empty inside, nothing there…It seemed at that moment as if it was going to be hopeless. And…then somebody asked them, ‘What parsha are you reading?’ And they were reading parsha Noach and back home we were reading parsha Noach and I can’t describe what that meant to all of us, including those who had never set foot in a synagogue in 20 years. It was a transcendental moment when everything that was different fell away and we were just Jews with other Jews.”
The impoverished Ethiopian Jews, despite their desperate conditions, did not ask the Americans for material help. Rather, having learned of the reestablishment of Israel, they expressed their desire to fulfill the biblical prophecy of returning to it. In a dramatic example of Jewish responsibility for fellow Jews, the state of Israel with the help of NACOEJ and other Jewish organizations airlifted about 15,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a single weekend. This partnership between Diaspora Jews and Israelis, which also succeeded in helping 1.6 million Soviet Jews immigrate (“make Aliyah”) to Israel, has been a significant source of strength and creative energy for both communities since the founding of the Jewish State.
As the Dalai Lama noted, the constant references to the Holy Land in the Torah can exert a great influence on its readers. Those Ethiopian Jews living in mud huts, dreaming of making Aliyah to Israel, were considerably more Jewishly literate than the average secular American Jew. And, they continue to be well versed not only in their own special history and traditions but also in the observant practice of Judaism.
On the other hand, modern American Jews, who often refer to themselves as “culturally Jewish,” even those with the benefit of a rudimentary religious education for bar/bat mitzvah, know very little of their people’s religious traditions and less about its 4000 year history. The bulwark of survival that so impressed the Dalai Lama, “Always remind,” has long been eroded. Modern secular American Jews have lost the kind of familiarity with the Torah and its teachings as well as the sense of shared destiny with other Jewish communities that has been the hallmark of this people from biblical times.
Feeling disconnected from Judaism, American Jews are abandoning it and substituting a religion of liberal or progressive values. Alexander Soros, founder of “a Jewish action PAC,” called “Bend the Arc,” provides a progressive manifesto in his article, “What American Jews Want:
While Israel remains deeply important to many of us, the idea that Israel and Israel alone is what drives Jewish voters — and Jewish political dollars — is false…We care about reducing economic inequality…, full equality for LGBT people… And, having survived persecution and bigotry throughout our history, we’re deeply concerned about discrimination against other minority communities in the United States..”
Soros’ PAC will “retire the…single-issue Jewish [i.e. pro-Israel].. voter myth” in favor of a “commitment to keeping the American dream alive for everyone in this country.” Of course, Jews are hardly the only people in America who support such a laudable goal. What distinguishes Jews from other groups who share the same ideals? The answer may be “nothing.” It may be that American Jewry has reached a point where being Jewish is pointless.
Furthermore, it may be that the issue itself is meaningless. It now possible to pose a question that may at first seem absurdly alarmist and opposite to the Dalai Lama’s query. After thousands of years of success at survival could the Jewish people be on the threshold of extinction? At this moment, the world’s population consists of 7.3 billion people of whom approximately 14.2 million, or less than 1%, are Jewish. Half of the world’s Jews are Israelis. The second half are North Americans, with much smaller Jewish communities residing in Europe and other places. World Jewry’s continued existence is threatened by its low number, low fertility rate (except among Orthodox Jews worldwide and both secular and Orthodox Jews in Israel), assimilation through intermarriage, indifference, and increased anti-Semitic violence.
Because being Jewish is an ethnicity as well as a religion, it is comfortable to believe that one can be “culturally Jewish,” to divorce oneself from religious practices and participation in the mostly synagogue-centered American Jewish community without losing whatever aspect of self is valued as “Jewish,” if any. After all, Judaism, as Rabbi David Wolpe notes, requires “… a great deal of its adherents…[It] is a behavior-centered tradition… primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals…” Soros’ PAC and others devoted to promoting similar principles offer a way to bypass Judaism’s rigorous study and onerous practice. A donation to Bend the Arc is a direct act of “tikkun olam,” the appealing concept of being God’s covenantal partner in repairing the world, an ethos with great currency among American Jews.
If some basic knowledge of Jewish scripture, rituals, tribal memory, connection to Israel and responsibility for other Jews are among the powerful defining elements that ensured Jewish survival through prolonged Diaspora, what happens when they dissipate? Rabbi Wolpe warns, “That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.” The secular Jewish alignment with liberal/progressive positions, while having great humanitarian value, may be a Trojan horse. It provides a fine rationale for an illusive and limited identification with Judaism by focusing on tikkun olam and discarding the rest, leading secular Jews to feel dissociated from both Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.
Would Soros’ PAC have rescued the Jews of Ethiopia or the Soviet Union? Will it help the Jews of France whose synagogues are surrounded by armed soldiers protecting them from anti-Semitic assault? And if Soros succeeds in “retiring” the partnership with Israel which is already less important to young American Jews than it has been to their parents or grandparents, the strength of having two major centers of Jews who sustain one another will also be diluted and eventually disappear.
Indeed, the rabbis tell us “Kol Yisraelim arevim zeh l’zeh” (All Jews are responsible for one another) was never meant to refer only to Jews but to be extended, as Soros does, to all mankind. As interpreted by Rabbi Mark Greenspan, it refers to a “responsibility [which] is not either/or but and/also. If we have the ability to make a difference in our own family or community then we must do so. And if we can better the world in some way we cannot turn our backs on others.”
Perhaps it is the destiny of secular American Judaism to morph into well intentioned PACs like Soros’ that represent the ideals of its majority. After all, if Jews themselves fail to treasure their heritage or invent a creative new way to maintain it, something Jews have done well throughout their existence, why should they not fade into history?
In a reminder to these masters of adaptation, the Jewish people, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers this suggestion: “I admire other civilizations and traditions and believe each has brought something special into the world, aval zeh shelanu, but this is ours. This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give…I want to say to Jews around the world, ‘Take it. Cherish it. Learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you, in turn, pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their destiny live on in you.'”
(References furnished upon request.)