Diaspora Judaism has been a problem for the community of nations from time immemorial. It is a unique phenomenon that only the Jew has experienced. Exiled from our country for nearly two thousand years, we stubbornly refused to assimilate and to dissipate. We clung tenaciously to our Jewish identity and maintained autonomous communities wherever we lived.
How can a host nation tolerate a foreign nation, albeit a peaceful one, in its midst? The truth is that I can find many answers to that question, but if a nation seeks total hegemony within its borders, which is a historical right of nations, the stubborn Jew becomes a problem.
Pharaoh solved the problem by enslaving the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar, by exiling them. Haman, by threatening to annihilate them. Titus, by defeating them. The Crusaders by decimating them. The Inquisition, by burning them. The Czars, by inciting Pogroms. Stalin, by deporting them, and Hitler, by gassing them. Everyone sought to destroy us, but we never went away.
On the contrary, as the Torah says of the Jews in Egypt, the more they were tortured, the more they proliferated. This has been a problem for all tyrants who attempted to destroy this nation within their nation. No matter how much they worked to stamp out the Jews, we miraculously survived. The greatest miracle of history is the survival of diaspora Judaism.
The renaissance and enlightenment posed a new and profound challenge for Jews. Unshackled from the constraints of the Church, free thinkers began to advocate tolerance and emancipation for all people. For the first time, Jews were welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors.
This acceptance came with a price—the renouncing of Jewish traditions and rituals that make us different. We would be free to believe as they chose, but we would need to adopt the conduct and laws of our host nations. The secular legal code would supplant Halachah. Jewish courts would no longer adjudicate disputes among Jews or conduct Jewish marriages and divorces. We would need to dissolve our Jewish schools and insular communities. In short, the price of admission was to join. Another way to put it, Jewish emancipation was a paradox. One could either have Judaism or emancipation, but not both.
This created a new mold for the Jew—secular Judaism. Until that point, there was no such thing as a non-practicing Jew. You were either fully observant or converted into Christianity or Islam. There was nothing in between. Suddenly, Jews had an option. It is said that when Benjamin Disraeli was asked to define his identity, he pointed to the page between the Old and new Testament, and said, this is where I belong. This was simply not an option before the renaissance.
But now, secular Judaism became an option. As Yehudah Leib Gordon put it, one could be “a Jew on the inside and a mentch on the outside.” You could straddle both and find respectability. This created a huge strain on the Jewish community as people wondered whether it would survive. If the rituals and traditions were no longer necessary, what would become of the Jewish community? Would Klal Yisrael survive if Reb Yisrael didn’t need it?
Many Jews began to rethink the meaning of Jewish identity. Some concluded that the only path forward is to reform Judaism in the mold of Protestantism. A religion with a core set of beliefs, but with malleable rituals and practices. In this spirit, they abandoned Kashrut and Shabbat, symbols that set the Jew apart, and adopted the guise and lifestyle of their non-Jewish neighbors.
Others concluded that there is no future for Diaspora Judaism and turned their focus on the formation of a Jewish nation in Israel. Stripped of the tassels of old, this secular nation would be as Jewish as the British are British. It would be a nation, rather than a religion.
Some sought to build bridges between Judaism and the enlightenment. Led by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, they utilized rational enlightened methods to explain ancient Jewish teachings. Others such as the Chassidim and the Lithuanian Yeshivot, rejected the Enlightenment outright, focusing intently and exclusively on traditional Judaism. They hunkered down and created islands of orthodoxy in a sea of assimilation. Then there was the response of Harav Kook, who taught that this dilemma can only be resolved in the sacred aura of the Holy Land, where the dichotomy of diaspora Judaism can be synthesized through the power of mystical thought.
There were many other Jewish responses, the common denominator was a burning need to respond to the new question; what is the future of Judaism? Should it join the global village or focus on particularism to the detriment of the enlightenment?
For Jews, the Enlightenment turned out to be a terrible disappointment. Its promise of Jewish emancipation failed to translate from theory to practice. Despite the majestic clarion call for tolerance, the idea never took root among the masses. No matter how Jews tried to disguise their Judaism, no matter how much Jews tried to emulate their neighbors, antisemitism persisted. As Moses Hess put it, “they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews less than their peculiar noses.”
This burgeoning hatred reached its zenith in the Holocaust. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “The great experiment of European humanism, Jewish emancipation, died in the ovens of Auschwitz.”
Many survivors tried to put the Holocaust behind them and move on. They hoped it was an aberration of human history. Many denied their Judaism and concealed it from their children hoping that this would spare them further persecution. Even the realization of the Zionist dream and the Jewish return to Israel in 1947 did not awaken Diaspora Judaism from its slumber.
But the Six-Day War changed everything. The nation of Israel stood imperiled, threatened with annihilation by murderous armies bristling with rage and trumpeting their aims in the Arab streets. The world stood by silently and the Jew was, once again, alone. The stunning victory in six short days convinced Diaspora Judaism that something special was happening to the Jew. We might be a small nation, but we are shielded by the divine promise made to Abraham.
The Pintele Yid
The prediction of the enlightenment died in the Holocaust, but the promise of Abraham survived. Diaspora Judaism began to thrive again. Not because of antisemitism bur despite it. Not because of Zionism and the return to Israel, but alongside it. Jews were proud again. Jews stood tall again. Jews were willing to stand upright and declare their Jewish identity unabashedly.
The pintele yid had awakened. The quintessence of the Jewish soul, bound inextricably with G-d, stirred to life in our collective breast. Nothing can quell this flame. It can be banked for a while, but it can never be extinguished.
The miracle of Jewish survival is not accomplished by G-d alone, but also by the stubborn tenacity of the pintele yid that refuses to go away. It drives us to rise from the ashes and embrace life. It drives us to stand up to persecution and to thrive. Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish nation is well and alive.