Want to stir a controversy? Start a discussion about someone who has stirred a controversy. Over the last few days, I’ve been embroiled in one long, heated dialogue via social media, on radio and at Shul. All I did was post a question on Twitter. That post netted me more responses than anything else I’ve ever shared online. I was curious to hear how people felt about the brouhaha over Israeli Education Minister, Rafi Peretz’s comparison between US assimilation and intermarriage and the Holocaust. Boy, did they let me know.
They insisted that nothing could compare to the Holocaust. Ever. They claimed that we’ve lost sight of just how seriously Judaism views its spiritual decline. They claimed that extremist Jews have hijacked our nation’s identity to push an outdated religious agenda. They protested misappropriation of the Holocaust, be it by Gazan activists, liberal congresspeople or Haredi politicians. They asserted offence on behalf of Hitler’s victims. They quoted religious leaders, including Holocaust survivors, who had long-before called assimilation “finishing the job that the Nazis has started”. One even claimed that assimilation is “good for the Jews”.
To many, the Holocaust was an aggressive, strategic plan by others to destroy Jews. Intermarriage, by contrast, is a choice, made by Jews. You can tell people not to murder, you can’t tell them not to love.
It was fascinating to see how we struggle to debate ideas and not people. We Jews are one sprawling (somewhat complicated) family. We’d do well to learn to argue like one- robustly, but with the overarching appreciation that we must love each other, regardless of the outcome. Like all Chabadniks, I am inspired by the Rebbe’s approach to these matters: An unwavering dedication to Torah values, matched by an equally solid love for every Jew, regardless of whether they uphold those values.
Minister Peretz’s comments came just a few days before the Chabad community’s annual celebration of the miraculous release of our sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, from Soviet prison. His captors were themselves Jews, so devoted to the Communist ideal that they had pledged to eradicate Judaism in Russia. They had tortured the Rebbe to have him reveal details about his clandestine Jewish educational network. Despite their harsh methods, he had remained tight-lipped. Eventually, an interrogator had whipped out a pistol and sneered, “This little toy makes even the mute speak”. Without flinching, the Rebbe had retorted, “That toy only frightens those who have multiple gods and only one world. We Jews have only one G-d and two worlds, so that toy neither frightens nor impresses us.”
The Holocaust was the most brutal event in Jewish history. We could watch every Spielberg interview, visit every death camp and scour Yad Vashem’s archives for days, and we would never grasp the magnitude of that horror. Our greatest thinkers remain at a loss to explain it. At the same time, a great spiritual leader, himself a victim of violent antisemitism offers an interesting perspective: A gun cannot kill us. It might end a life on Earth, but not the life of a soul.
The Talmudic back-story of Moses’ birth echoes this sentiment. Pharaoh’s astrologers had warned him that a boy would be born who would redeem the Israelite slaves. Panicked, Pharaoh had ordered all newborn boys drowned in the Nile. Amram, the then leader of the Israelites had then chosen to divorce his wife to avoid the risk of bringing a son into the world to be murdered. Swayed by their leader’s example, all the Israelite men had promptly divorced their wives too.
Then six-year-old Miriam, Amram’s eldest child, confronted her father, “You are worse than Pharaoh. His decree can only physically kill babies, but you will deny them the chance to earn a place in the world to come.” Amram was moved. He remarried his wife, who would shortly after bear Moses, the very redeemer Pharaoh had feared.
Miriam had made a thoroughly Jewish argument: Spiritual annihilation is akin to physical death, perhaps worse.
Two of our favourite Jewish festivals highlight this theme. Chanukah and Purim share equal prominence in Judaism. Purim commemorates Haman’s failed attempt at genocide against the Jewish nation. Chanukah celebrates the unsuccessful attempt of the Hellenists to assimilate us into their culture. We celebrate these holidays to illustrate how both threats of physical and spiritual annihilation are accorded equal status in our religion.
Genocide and assimilation are two sides of a coin. We naturally reject the notion that opt-in behaviour by our co-religionists could be considered as heinous as Nazi murder. After all, murder is brutal and marriage is beautiful. Intermarriages might produce decent humanitarians, academic or artistic prodigies and savvy businesspeople who take pride in their Jewish heritage. Even if you argue that they have lost the Jewish plot, they might at some point re-engage with Jewish practice. Nobody can be brought back to Judaism from the gas chambers.
This past Shabbos, we read the story of Balak, king of Moab and his spiritual mercenary, Bilam. Both were rabid antisemites and the commentators debate who was worse. Either way, they would both qualify for history’s top-ten list of Jew-haters.
Balak, concerned that the Jewish nation would flatten his nation on their way to conquer Canaan, hired Bilam to stop them. Bilam’s weapon of choice was his tongue. He could fire lethal curses with pinpoint accuracy and Balak had wanted Bilam to destroy the Jews with the mother-of-all-curses. Despite his best efforts, though, Bilam could not even muster a .22 calibre jinx. He’d rev up for a noxious blast, and G-d would broadcast marvellous blessings through his mouth. He had prayed for a Final Solution and had failed.
What Bilam did next was incredible. Unable to wipe out the Jews through aggression, he plotted to entice them to ruin themselves. His plan B was to send Midianite women to seduce the Jewish men. Bilam understood that what hostility had been unable to achieve, assimilation could. To Bilam, if the leather gloves of the SS could not wipe out Am Yisrael, perhaps the silk gloves of passion would.
We recoil at the Holocaust/assimilation comparison because we’ve sworn “Never again”. We find it unthinkable that our own people could succeed where the Nazis had failed. We sometimes forget that we are souls living inside bodies, not bodies powered by soul-batteries. Our spiritual choices have longer-term effects than do our physical experiences.
Assimilation and intermarriage undermine the Jewish people and current trends are alarming. We are losing Jews at a rate that Hitler would applaud. But, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew, regardless of who they marry or what ideals they espouse. We may cringe at those choices, but embrace those who make them.
When you really care for someone, you share your concerns with them. You respect who they are, even when you condemn what they do. If you’re that religious to deem intermarriage a crisis, you should be frum enough to engage those on the brink. You cannot discharge your responsibility with generalized public statements about how dire things are.
Moses was the ultimate Jewish leader, and every contemporary leader should aspire to emulate him. Moses got the job after he proved that he would care for every “lost sheep”. Over his forty-year tenure, Moses cajoled, negotiated and pleaded with G-d to preserve our people, when we rejected G-d, scorned His land and eloped with gentile women. He never once condoned spiritual suicide, yet always rushed to defend those who attempted it.
Don’t like the “Holocaust/ assimilation” analogy? None of us does. Some because they don’t believe such an atrocity could ever recur. Some because it is too painful to watch this unforeseen way wildfire decimate our nation. Either way, our response cannot be to wrangle over semantics and to swing clichéd insults at each other. We should all invest- time, thought and deep care- to ensure that our own Judaism is authentic and meaningful. So much so that anyone who meets us wants in. And we should try to engage with the next Jewish person as a dear relative, who we respect, no matter how they live and who we love enough to want to inspire.