Over the last weeks, the words of an almost sixty-year old correspondence have been running through my head.
In 1961, the New Yorker commissioned Hannah Arendt to report on the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Arendt turned these articles into her now (in)famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
This book was not simply a reflection on the trial and Eichmann’s crimes: Arendt expanded her inquiry and questioned how it was possible for the Nazis to have carried out the annihilation of one-third of the Jewish people.
In her analysis, Arendt played down the evil of individuals like Eichmann in these atrocities, explaining their barbarism away as the work of banal bureaucrats. Strikingly, though, she indicted the behavior of the Jewish councils (Judenrate) who were forced to collaborate with the Nazis in the ghettos.
Professor Gershon Scholem, the founder of the modern study of Kabbalah and one of the most senior Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century, forcefully accused Arendt, who was his personal friend, of treason against the Jewish people.
“The problem you pose is genuine,” Scholem acknowledged, writing to her from his home in Jerusalem on June 3, 1963.
But he went on in his letter to describe the huge gap he perceived between his understanding of the events of the Holocaust and that of Arendt and he sought to “clarify what stands between us…”
“There is something in the Jewish language that is completely indefinable, yet fully concrete – what the Jews call Ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people. With you, my dear Hannah, as with so many intellectuals coming from the German left, there is no trace of it.”
I’m not interested in rehashing their disagreement. But I can’t help but feel that we might use their exchange as a lens through which to think about Jewish community and Jewish communal discourse at our present historical moment.
Some have argued that Scholem’s critique of Arendt was primarily of her lack of fairness in her treatment of this incredibly complicated, raw and painful period of Jewish history. Less than fifteen years since the end of the war and with thousands of survivors trying to put together their lives under the shadow of losing families and communities, here was Arendt judging the actions of Jewish Councils in the ghettos.
Scholem, indeed, attacked Arendt’s lack of “balanced judgement.” But I don’t think that is what infuriated him.
Ultimately, Scholem didn’t want an even-handed presentation or equity. Scholem wanted love.
Scholem wanted his friend Arendt to drop her journalistic distance and write as a Jew. And for Scholem that meant to write from a place of love.
Love, which asks us to make a special place in our hearts for our beloved. Love, which at moments asks us to put aside their faults and missteps.
Scholem wanted Arendt to relate to the Jewish people with love that would engender empathy and compassion and generosity.
“How right you are that I have no such love,” she shot back at Scholem in her response to his letter. “I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective- not the German, French, or American nation, or the working class or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love.”
Arendt explained her connection to the Jewish people as follows: “I belong to this people.”
And by relating to the Jewish people solely from the place of “belonging” and not from love, Arendt attenuated her connection to the nation. Hers was one of sterile membership, not deep emotional investment.
This exchange between these two towering Jewish intellectuals continues to echo out into Jewish history.
What does it mean to relate to the Jewish people with love?
Is it important to speak from a posture of love and not simply “belonging?”
Does love limit or enrich our communal Jewish discourse?
Love of the Jewish people is an idea and value that has come upon some hard times recently — both from the right and on the left.
On the right, the notion of Ahavat Yisrael — love of the Jewish people — is too often used to shut down compassion for those outside our community. If you truly love the Jewish people, then there is no space for the “other” and their suffering. Moreover, in some conversations in the Jewish world, Ahavat Yisrael precludes substantive critique; criticism is heard as a betrayal of the people.
On the left, the acceptance of the larger cultural notion of universalism and equity — with its rejection of any privileging of Jewish experiences, needs, or suffering — has undermined the possibility of a full and loving embrace of the Jewish people.
This commitment to universalism with its concomitant rejection of the specialness of “family” reduces being Jewish to a mere marker of identity. My “belonging” to the Jewish people becomes as thin as my belonging, for example, to the group of people who subscribe to the New Yorker. This relationship reflects an aspect of my identity but engenders no sense of special responsibilities or commitments to the other members of this group.
But most tragically, this approach fails to appreciate and leverage the power of love. Love, like few other things in life, has the power to inspire and move us to try to become our best selves. It also compels us to want our beloved to be their best selves.
Healthy love does not blind us to the faults of our beloved. On the contrary, because I love them I am invested in their well-being.
Because I love the Jewish people, I hold them to higher expectations. Because we passionately love the Jewish people, we should want them to live up to our Torah’s high ethical demands. My critique is not betrayal but a profound expression of my love.
The Jewish people — particularly at this moment in history — needs our love. It needs more than membership or “belonging.”
Our Jewish brothers and sisters need our total existential investment; they need us to offer critique from a place of empathy; and the Jewish people needs us to place its joys, needs and challenges at the center of our lives. It needs us to be one.