I often come to shul late. There’s nothing in the Shmoneh Esrei or Ashrei that Hashem hadn’t heard from me last week. One eighty-something friend of my Bubbie’s has gossiped on more than one occasion about how disrespectful she finds it. But unfortunately my tendency to come late to shul paid off this morning. Nobody at my synagogue knew yet. When I got there, the Rabbi was nearing the end of a sermon that was already about political violence. I whispered what happened to the Rabbi’s wife (a Rabbi herself), and she went up to the pulpit to tell him. When he broke the news I watched as a number of congregants dissolved into tears.
At its core, Judaism is not a religion of belief. Faith, or ’emunah’ as we call it, certainly exists in Judaism, but Judaism was formed before the Classical era from the best scientific knowledge anybody had in 1000 BC, so there isn’t as much of a leap of faith Jews need to make. The Tanakh, or the “Old Testament” has very little to say about the transcendent realms of Hashem and his celestial dominion. The core of Judaism is not in belief but tactile, about rituals and customs. One of the most well-known aphorisms of the religion is ‘na’aseh v’nishma.’ “Do first, understand later.” I go to shul because it’s as inborn as a bird flying south. It’s just what Jews do. Needing a critical justification for your worldview is a very Western concept. Jewish theological texts are as voluminous as Christian and generated by a tiny people, but the bulk of it is not theological justifications or mystical speculations, it’s simple legalistic rulings about the best way to properly interpret our oh so many weird laws and customs.
Had I not played music, I wouldn’t have ever known a single gentile remotely well until I was sixteen. I spent my twenties trying to be as secular as I could, only to find myself changing the subject at every opportunity to the bizarre tales of what it was like to grow up in the most uniformly Jewish town in America. What else did I ever have to talk about? Eventually, I just decided it was better to just ‘eat the bagels.’ Meet some Jews again who were Jewish in more than just extraction, and talk the ins and outs of this strange faith into which fate deposited us with people who already knew what it was.
I do remain a God-skeptic, and even were I a believer, how can anybody love a god that allows the world to come to this? But my father always put his creed like this: “There is no God, and He gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai.” I didn’t quite understand it growing up, but as I got a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I watched over and over again as friends who had renounced religion fell into religions of their own, sometimes actual traditional religions, more often political religions, and because they had no experience of growing up in a system of beliefs from which they had no critical distance, they fell into their beliefs with such fervor that when their pet causes came up, it was as though their personalities had left them and they answered with pre-programmed responses that were not their own thoughts. Seventy-two years ago, my father was the first Jewish baby born after the Holocaust in the city of Bialystok, possibly in all of Poland. My grandparents survived both Stalin and Hitler, they knew very well what happens when people take leave of their critical faculties, and yet they elected to remain Jewish. When my father was born, other Jews told them not to give him a bris because God had abandoned them. But they gave a bris anyway, and every remaining Jew showed up in the entire region.
Who am I to turn my back on all that and so many other stories of family members who lost, sacrificed, and fought for, everything for the right to survive as a Jew? And even were I tempted anymore, Judaism, as weird as it is, is the best way I’ve found so far to make sense of our bizarre world. Other religions, spiritual, political, social, demand of us transcendent possibilities in a world where there is so clearly no transcendence to be had. The technology may get better, but the ‘yetzers’ of human nature seem unchanging, every virtue balanced by vice, and both locked in an eternal struggle where good can only ever win 50% of the time while the stakes grow ever higher.
Judaism is a religion of caution. It does what it can to accommodate the practical necessities of guarding against evil while still promoting active virtue. It is the only Western religion that does not believe stake its entire system of belief on there being a transcendent life after death, and is therefore the easiest of scapegoats for anybody who needs a reason that the world has not achieved a celestial kingdom on earth. It neither gives into the sensual as most of the ancient pagan religions do, nor does it demand renunciation of sin, as Christianity does (and yes, of course it’s more complicated than that). It simply asks for a balance, instructing us to not give into either our urges to the narcissism of unceasing pleasure or the self-absorption of fanatical self-renunciation. “To everything, there is a season,” the poet of Ecclesiastes writes (said to be King Solomon but probably a court scribe), and Judaism is a pre-proscribed series of customs and holidays and commandments to regulate the human spirit into something more balanced than it would be were it adrift in the chaos of some moments not meaning something cosmic.
With numbers like 6 million from the Germans, 1.7 million from the Romans, 320,000 in Pogroms, with the tales of slavery in Egypt, expulsion by the Babylonians, imperial rule, discrimination, and persecution from the Persians and Selucid Greeks and Byzantines, the betrayal by the Sanassid Emperor, the forced conversion and massacres and humiliations of the Islamic Caliphates, after the medieval blood libels and forced exiles and conversions in England and France and Germany and all the resulting murders that resulted in only 250-400 Ashkenazic Jews remaining in the entire world during the 13th century, after all the forced exiles of Sicily and Genoa and Portugal, after the deaths of the Spanish Inquisition and the Grenada massacre and the forced exile of the Alhambra Decree, after the Venetian Ghetto and all the ghettos they inspired, after discrimination in Poland, the massacres of Khmielnitsky, the destruction of Tzfat, after both waves of Russian pogroms, after the trials of Alfred Dreyfus and Manechem Mendel Bellis, the forced exile of 700,000 Sephardic Jews from Arab lands when the State of Israel is declared, after seventy years of an encircled Israel from which our forced expulsion and death is demanded by so many millions nearby; after all that and so much more, what’s another eleven martyrs? We have had it so good here in America. Thousands more Jews could have died today and the American rule of the world would still be the Goldenest of Golden Ages in Jewish history. This country gave us everything. We love it here, your good fortune is our good fortune, and whether or not our contributions are properly appreciated, we will fight and die to keep this country as far from tyranny as we can, because nobody knows better what tyranny does to people than Jews. Even if America takes everything away from us someday as everyone else has, this will be remembered as the happiest period of Jewish history, and therefore, perhaps the happiest period in the history of the world.
Because the fact is, everywhere we’ve gone, we are the barometer of your civilization. We have never been parasites, as antisemites inevitably say, but we have been the yeast that makes your society rise. When we are your honored guests, your civilization prospers, when you do us dishonor, your civilization declines. It’s probably not because God is watching over us, it’s because a civilization well-disposed to its guests is a civilization that values tolerance and progress and liberty and justice, and is therefore destined to improve. Feel bad for us, sure, we deserve it, but feel just as bad for yourselves. Every Jew is taught that any moment we’re not being persecuted is a lucky one. It’s you who don’t know how to deal with moments like this, not us. Why are Jews seen to be disproportionately successful? It’s because we have practice. We are a whole religion based on how to be practical and accommodate the reality of every situation. When you don’t know how to deal with a people whose entire religion is based on practical accommodation of reality, it means that you yourselves don’t know how to deal with reality anymore. Whatever happens, we will survive this with the core of culture intact. Even if many of us don’t survive, the memory of us, our world, our customs, lives on in those who come after. But should America fall, the essence of America falls with it, everything about American culture will be as foreign to those who come after as the culture of the Byzantines.
But as we say on every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, ‘Repentance, prayer, and charity, avert the evil decree.’ There is still hope, perhaps plenty of hope, to avert the evil that may come to us. But it involves a careful accounting for all the wrongs we’ve all done, collectively and personally, right and left, and enacting corrections to right them. Endless debate, and not debating civilly, but through nuance – endless immersion in the precise details of how our world went wrong, agonizing examination of our own actions well as examining the faults and virtues of others. And by better understanding our world, by better understanding people different from us, by seeing the world through their views as well as ours, we better understand ourselves, and we each see where and when we’ve gone wrong. And from there, we can apologize for when and where we’ve erred, we can forgive when and where others have erred, and most importantly among causes, we can understand where we have enabled evil. And then we can proceed to solutions: we can understand how to create a better society, and we wage the fight against the worst enemy of all, ourselves, and hold out faith and hope that through the most Samsonian effort, the tactile actions we take on ourselves every day can change the most powerful country on earth.
We must think differently, look at things in a different way. Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions. You don’t make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek. We need you to help us prove that together, ordinary people can still do extraordinary things in the United States of America.