Scrolling social media and seeing what has been going on in the world since October 7 has oddly reminded me of a lesson I give to my students about a Jewish book few outside of the religious world know of, called the Kuzari. Maybe it is just because I am currently a teacher without students, or perhaps there is something deeper at play.
The Kuzari was written by Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, a brilliant rabbi and poet in Muslim Spain in the year 1140. The plot of the book is that a tribe, known as the Khazars, are looking to convert to a monotheistic religion and thus, their king summons the beginning of a bad joke: a rabbi, a priest and an imam. He charges each man of religion to make the case for their faith.
I then challenge my students with the following question: who is Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi writing this book for?
The answer, at least in my eyes, is that Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi was writing the Kuzari for a very specific audience: his co-religionists in Spain. The historical background is important here. Spain in the Middle Ages was a key battleground for the war between Christianity and Islam. However, no matter the ruler, the Jews of Spain found themselves subservient to these warring ruling religions. In Christian Spain Jews were forced to listen to proselytizing in the synagogue, their religion denounced in trumped-up religious disputations and even forcibly baptized (this of course would all eventually culminate in the bloody Inquisition and afterwards the violent expulsion of 1492). In Muslim Spain Jews were given the status of Dhimmi, which was institutionalize second-class citizenship, which came with many humiliating stipulations. It would not be a stretch to assume that many Jews were beginning to wonder if it was even worth it anymore.
As his fellow Jews saw that the prospects of a peaceful and happy life were becoming less and less tenable if you outwardly-practiced, many decided to just give up. It was them, and those considering following in their footsteps, that Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi was addressing. He was essentially writing a “Why Stay Jewish” book at a time when being Jewish came at a harrowing price.
It is devastating to say that we are at a very similar point in Jewish history today. Not just beginning on October 7, but certainly in dramatic fashion since then, being an openly-practicing Jew and Zionist appears to now come at a harrowing price. In Israel, the price has devastatingly been paid in blood, while in Europe and America, the price, writ large, has been the feelings of safety as well as belonging.
Now Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi I most certainly am not. But I would like to tell any Jew who may be thinking right now that it would be easier to not be Jewish…or at least to hide their Jewishness…or maybe not care so much about Israel…or at least not vocally or publicly support the Jewish State…that this is not the answer.
Yes, it is hard to be a Jew and a Zionist in public right now, but that is exactly why you must remain so, and perhaps even MORE publicly and more vocally than ever before.
When you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world you are telling them that you are part of a tribe that has seen these horrors before and has responded to hate and destruction time and again with rebuilding. At a funeral for a mother and her 15-year-old son from Kibbutz Be’eri I attended last week, the surviving members of the family promised their deceased loved ones that once this war is over they would go back and rebuild the Kibbutz and continue to raise their family in the soil they loved so much.
When you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world, you are telling them that you are part of a tribe that, despite deep philosophical divisions that have torn you apart for the last year, has rallied back together like the loving family you really are.
Israelis of all political and religious creeds can be seen arm-in-arm.
Just before the war there was a political storm over a bill to draft the Ultra-Orthodox into the IDF. Last week a video went viral showing 120 Ultra-Orthodox volunteers finishing their basic training and singing Hatikva!
In basketball gymnasiums across the country, Right-wing and Left-wing Jews, recently at each others throats over the proposed Judicial Reforms, work side-by-side to collect, sort, and distribute much-needed food and supplies to soldiers as well as evacuees from both the north and south.
In cities and towns all over the country, people are volunteering to help move and set up evacuees in new homes, babysit for mothers whose husbands have been called up to fight and work in the agricultural fields that have been let fallow due to the war.
When you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world, you are exclaiming that you are part of a tribe that has heroes to look up to such as my former student, Omer Balva. An American Israeli who, despite being on a visit to America when the war broke out, insisted on hopping back on the first flight he could to defend his homeland.
Fueled by a desire to help his ancient homeland, Omer was tragically cut down by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile, but it is not only the way he died that will be remembered. It will also be for his smile, his magnetism, his genuineness, and his unadulterated love of the Jewish People and the Jewish State. A better person to look up to, we could not ask for.
When you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world you are telling everyone that you are part of a tribe that has been tirelessly putting up posters of the faces of innocent men, women and children who have been ruthlessly abducted by Hamas terrorist, so that the world cannot ignore them and must not forget them. Despite evil people ripping down those signs, we continue to put them up, and will continue to put them back up, because if one Jewish mother, father, sister or brother is sitting up all night waiting for their loved one to be returned to them, we are all sitting up at night waiting along with them.
When you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world you are telling them that you are part of a tribe that knows that it is on the right side of history. That we are a people that are fighting for peace, even if it’s through strength. We are a tribe whose army, the Israel Defense Forces, does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties while Hamas cynically uses human shields time and time again. We are a tribe that serves as the vanguard for the civilized world, against the barbaric hedonism that Hamas stands for.
And when you declare your Judaism and Zionism to the world, you are showing that no matter who you try to tell us we are, we know exactly who we are. We are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We brought ethical monotheism to the world. We brought morality to the world. We brought the idea of tzedakah, which doesn’t mean “charity” but rather “justice” because making sure everyone has what they need isn’t a nice thing to do but rather the RIGHT thing to do.
We are a people that, as the late great Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks once said, who, despite “the worst crime ever to be committed against the people, responded by reviving a land, recovering their sovereignty, rescuing threatened Jews throughout the world, rebuilding Jerusalem, and proving themselves to be courageous in the pursuit of peace no less than in defending themselves in war.”
I named my eldest child Nili, an acronym of a verse in the Tanach that proclaims that, “The Jewish People are eternal,” and we have proven this time and again throughout Jewish history. We took a big punch, but we will fight back, and we will win. But we will only do that if the Jewish people don’t shy away from being the Jewish People.
I call on each and every one of you to not hide your Judaism and Zionism, but rather amplify it. Know that you are on the side of the just and never doubt that the Jewish People and the Jewish State are an intrinsic part of who you are.
At a time when it seems most risky, we Jews and Zionists must jump into the sea with two feet like Nachshon ben Aminadav when leaving Egypt. We must know who we are and what we are fighting for. That is why I call on you to stay Jewish and Zionist. The Jewish People and the Jewish State need you, and together, eternal we shall be.
Am Yisrael Chai!