The Nu? Jew and Yom Kippur, Part Two of Three

The customer is not always right.

Some customers are jerks. Some you’d rather not deal with. Some you jusifiably refuse to deal with. But when all kinds of customers start not showing up anymore, it may be time to take a good look at the product.

In the last post, we noted a phenomenon that nearly all Jews readily acknowledge, but whose implications few care to consider. For twenty centuries and more, Jews have left. In bad times and in good. Maybe more in good times than in bad. Over twenty-plus centuries, a majority, perhaps?

Has any people in human history ever experienced such self-attrition? Has any people in human history so struggled to get away from itself? And how often in history have so many members of a people – a nation – shown such indifference and antipathy to their own survival?

The Nu? Jew is far from indifferent to communal survival. But the Nu? Jew is not content to blame the customer. The Nu? Jew recognizes that, at the heart of Judaism, there is something going on that, for millennia, has not only driven away those born into the tribe, but has also incurred the contempt and hatred of the world – even as that world has adopted it and turned it against the Jews.

Shall we talk about Judaism as Yom Kippur approaches?

First, two caveats.

It is not my place, or anyone’s, to pass judgment on the spiritual beliefs of another. Belief is, to me at least, an unalienable natural right, so basic to humanity that it cannot be taken away. Violated, yes, and far too often. But always, even when denied, part of what we are. Nor is it my place, or anyone’s, to pass judgment on anyone’s private sensibilities.

No one can see into the heart of anyone else. Leave it at that.

But it is everyone’s responsibility to assess the actions of another, when those actions impact the common world. My concern here, then, is with Judaism as action in the world. Action at the most secular level. Action that is visible to all, and for that reason, too often sedulously ignored.

My concern here is with the obvious, and what the obvious might have to tell us.

We all know the received narrative and the basic historical outline.


Theologically, a covenant is an agreement between human beings and Ha’Shem, originated by Ha’Shem, which human beings may accept or reject, but not negotiate or modify.

The Jewish covenantal history begins with one man, Abraham, and his family, to include a promise of territory that has yet to be completely fulfilled. The family/tribal covenant becomes national at Sinai. A Talmudic legend holds that every Jew who ever existed or would exist was there that day, freely avowing consent to eternal Chosenness under divine Law.

One clear import of that covenant: to break the Law was to sin against Ha’Shem. Crime was not just crime. It was sin. And sin did more than damage the individual’s relationship with the divine. It endangered the covenanted nation.

Pardon the banality, but fast forward to the Oral Law. Its self-justification is simple. If the Torah contains all the guidance and stricture necessary for fulfillment of the covenant, and for human life, everything that is not explicit must be implicit. It may therefore be explicated by those who are qualified, or who deem themselves and each other qualified, to do so, and who can make it stick.

And because crime is sin against Ha’Shem, it is also treason against the nation, and must be treated as such.

Talmud. Commentaries. Sages. Responsa. Rabbinical courts. Century after century, the piling up and piling on, until no aspect of human life or thought was left alone, and every new situation required copious more regulation.

No other nation, no other civilization in human history has ever attempted to reduce every human deed, thought, emotion, impulse, to matters fit for regulation under Law, and then regulate. From before birth to after death, it’s all laid out. Nothing is permitted independent existence. That which cannot be used or adapted is forbidden, upon clear penalties in this world and more vague but also more dire consequences in the next.

The proper term for this impulse, as it plays out in the secular world, is totalitarian.

In totalitarianism, there is only one central, sovereign relationship. The Nazis had their version. So did the Communists. So did and do endless other evanescent groups and sects. But only the Jews took it to its utter extreme and made it work. Across the centuries, this totalitarianism insured the survival of a remnant of a people under fierce oppression.

A remnant who chose to submit, to accept, to embrace, to love . . . and to enforce.

The rest, perhaps the majority, chose not to, and, one way or another, left.

The first time I encountered the word totalitarian in regard to Judaism, I was stunned. I was also stunned by who wrote it. Paul Johnson, the eminent British historian, in one of his many excellent books, A History of the Jews. Johnson’s no anti-Semite. Rather the opposite; he’s a believing Christian and more than a bit of a Judeophile. Yet his honesty as an historian left him no choice save to use the term. He also calls it theocracy. But in the non-theological world that we inhabit, theocracy means the rule of the deity’s self-proclaimed and self-referent agents. And let’s be honest. Theocracy, indeed, all organized religion, attracts more than its share of careerists, thugs, bureaucrats, enforcers, politicians, bigots and drones.

And yet . . .

It may be true that once you start regulating under the premise of Everything matters to Ha’Shem, there is no logical, indeed no permissible place to stop. Still, most people do stop. The vast majority of practicing Jews, for lack of a better description, pick and choose. And their faith is often rendered gracious, humane and even elegant thereby.

In Israel, you can opt for what America’s Founders knew as “civil religion.” You identify as a believer. You go to the synagogue a few times a year. You rely on the institution to structure the important events of your life. You might even seek occasional counsel. You regard your faith as part of your culture, and your culture as part of your faith. And that’s that.

In America, you can choose or reject or adapt just about any damn thing you want.

So Judaism’s totalitarian. In theory, yes, and currently, for a very small minority of ultra-Orthodox, by choice.

As for the rest of us, why fret it?

Next: Why Fret It.





About the Author
Philip Gold made Aliyah from USA in 2010 after several decades as a Beltway "public intellectual" of sorts.
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