Good enough for Herzl

“It’s a curious thing,” a friend shared this week. “Unengaged Jews rising to defend Judaism because of anti-semites. Sure, it inverts the purpose of those who seek Judaism’s demise. But,” he observed, while trying not to be judgmental, “the anti-Semite seems to achieve that which eludes a Jewish educator — a rebirth of Jewish belonging.”

Awakenings take many forms. The sparks which ignite interest in identity vary widely. We should not judge. Where a ‘return to belonging’ leads an individual is often highly praiseworthy, even inspiring.

Theodor Herzl wrote elegantly about an artist who found his way back to Judaism in response to increasing attacks on Jewish life.  The return of the age-old hatred awakened the artist’s return home.  As his Jewish commitments crystalized, his unaffiliated contemporaries misunderstood, and occasionally mocked him.  Yet he gently and fervently persevered.  Herzl’s 120-year-old essay, of course, is autobiographical. It is also the story of the rebirth of an entire people. 

In this week’s portion of Torah we are taught to live by God’s commands “By keeping My commands a person can truly live (v’chai ba-hem) (Lev. 18:5). Although the sages derive a lesson making exceedingly rare a readiness to give up our lives rather than transgress, the context of this passage relates to not being too influenced by host societies like Egypt and Canaan (Lev. 18:3-4). How about when hosts become more hospitable to hate?   

The overwhelming swelling of support and love in today’s host societies cannot extinguish the wickedness of a killer in Pittsburgh and a killer in Poway. But it can serve to marginalize it. By responding with glowing goodness, we curb darknesses’ reach. 

This is most vivid in the stories of how the Six Million retained their dignity in humanity’s darkest hour. “The wellsprings of goodness and humanity, generosity and joy do not dry up, no matter how much evil one has withstood” Blu Greenberg testifies. “A heart that has been broken, trashed, and trampled can hold enough love for two complete lives.”  This too, for a medieval commentator (Rabeynu Bachya), captures the essence of ‘fully living’ (chai ba’hem) in accord with God’s ways.

What to make of hatred as an influence for return?  As we are now perched between this week’s Holocaust remembrance and Israel’s 71st birthday next week, may we recognize that if it was good enough to transform Herzl, then it is good enough indeed.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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