“May slanderers have no hope; may all wickedness perish instantly; may all Your enemies be cut down soon. Speedily uproot and crush the arrogant; cast them down and humble them speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Lord, who breaks the enemies and humbles the arrogant.”
This prayer, composed almost 2000 years ago, is a part of the traditional siddur/prayerbook. To be sure, it is probably a safe bet that many people recite these words by rote. However, careful reflection easily leads one to conclude that the response(s) of American Jewish leaders and laity to recent events have infused it with a renewed resonance that is both poignant and compelling. Reflecting on the circumstances that caused the prayer to be created and the circumstances in which we modern Jews find ourselves I am reminded of the lyrics from a song in the movie “All That Jazz”: everything old is new again.
In the wake of the war with Rome that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, thousands of Jews were killed or sold into slavery and the economy of the land was left in shambles. The loyalty of many Jews to both their faith and to their own people was mightily tested. When the war broke out, Hellenistic culture brought by Alexander the Great had already been an all-encompassing and deeply influential presence in the lives of Jews living around the Mediterranean basin for over 300 years.
Just as modern ideas flowing from the Enlightenment and more recently secular humanism have significantly influenced how modern Jews interpret and practice Judaism, Greek philosophy similarly had a significant influence on how Jews living in those ancient times interpreted and practiced Judaism. While their divergent ways of belief and practice may have shared certain ritual commonalities –observance of Shabbat and dietary laws, ritual circumcision —there were doctrinal and political differences that contributed to a lack of communal unity that ultimately proved catastrophic during the first war with Rome, when such unity was needed.
The destruction of the Second Temple during that war was arguably the “holocaust” of its time. Like the Holocaust in our own time, that catastrophe presented significant challenges to the religious faith of Jews who survived. Some interpreted the Temple’s destruction as proof that the G-d of Israel and Israel’s faith was no match for Rome’s army and Roman culture. Following the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, they joined the ranks of Jews who had already assimilated into the larger Greco-Roman culture, even collaborating with the Roman victors against their own people. Others understood this “holocaust” as proof that G-d had nullified the Sinai covenant, but had concluded a “new covenant” with a “new Israel”. This was the belief of the Jewish and non-Jewish founders of the early Church.
The Jews who remained faithful to the covenant at Sinai ultimately came to accept the authority and teachings of the rabbinic Sages. Wanting to strengthen communal unity and sustainability in such a chaotic time, those Sages sought to respond to the threat of those Jews who had betrayed their faith and their people, but whom they were powerless to discipline with any coercive authority. Out of palpable frustration, they composed the above-quoted prayer.
To be sure, the parallels between “then” and “now” may not be exact, but they are close enough:
–Just as religious beliefs and attitudes of ancient Jews were heavily influenced by the Hellenistic host culture, so the beliefs and attitudes of Jews today have been heavily influenced by the Western culture in which we live. Arguably, today’s Western culture has had a greater negative impact on contemporary Jewry than Greco-Roman culture had on the Jews of Hellenistic period. While most Jews of that period kept the Sabbath and the dietary laws, most contemporary Jews do not.
–Jews living back then sought to find “the right balance” between blending into the host culture and still maintaining a loyalty to their ancestral traditions Jews today also seek to find that “right balance”. The political chaos in the Holy Land (which ultimately led to two wars with Rome) resulted in violence against Jews living outside the Land and challenged the patriotism of those Diaspora Jews to their host governments.
The current chaos in that part of the world is once again leading to violence against Jews living outside the Land and again challenging the political loyalties of Jews outside the land. Jews who chose loyalty to the host Greco-Roman culture assimilated and ultimately were lost to us. During both wars with Rome, some not only chose to abandon Judaism but also their fellow Jews, allying themselves with the enemies of their brethren throughout the Diaspora.
We are witnessing a parallel phenomenon today. In the past weeks we have heard and read from various prominent Jews—politicians and entertainers– who have chosen to abandon our people and ally themselves with our enemies. Indeed, to our great amazement and shame, included among our “slanderers” are rabbis and lay leaders. Despite couching their virtue-signaling in “Jewish values”, it is painfully obvious that their true commitment is not to Judaism and the Jewish people, but rather to beliefs and causes that are antithetical to Judaism and the welfare of the Jewish people.
Is it any surprise then that they should evoke among we Jews who adhere to traditional teachings the kind of fear and frustration felt by the Sages when they composed the above-quoted prayer?
The Sages of old composed that prayer because there was no other effective way to respond. They could not compel or coerce the “slanderers” among them to stop their nefarious efforts; they could only pray to G-d to intervene. Although their words may seem to our modern ears harsh and cruel, they were born out of a fear for the future of the community and threats they perceived to be genuine.
In our time, we also have no way to compel or coerce the slanderers among us to stop. All we can do is continue to educate ourselves and others, advocate for our embattled brethren wherever they may live—and continue to pray that G-d will deal with the slander, wickedness, and arrogance that threaten our ranks, from both from within and without.
“Now it’s time for the chosen ones to choose—before all hell breaks loose.” These words from the iconic composer and author Kinky Friedman may be prophetic–we seem to be approaching yet another time in our history when once again each of us will have to make the choice: remain faithful to our ancestral teachings or abandon them for what our host cultures have to offer.
Indeed, everything old IS new again.