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Ever-Dying or Never-Dying

November 24, 2013

SR1The 20th-century Jewish thinker and writer Simon Rawidowicz (1897- 1957) is perhaps best known not for his major academic works, but for a rather playful article that he penned titled “Israel – The Ever-Dying People.” Rawidowicz’s point was simple: virtually every generation of Jews has feared that it was the last. As early as the Mishna and as late as early-modern Europe, he found numerous examples of Jews who were convinced that, as Chicken Little put it, “the sky was falling.”

In the Mishna, Rawidowicz noted, the Tractate Sota concluded: “When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness departed from the world. When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of wisdom left the world.” And so on. The deaths of these rabbis marked the end of an era, the demise of qualities which, the Mishna seems to suggest, could never be restored.

Two thousand years later (as well as during the interim, of course), Rawidowicz says, the same dynamic continued. Y.L. Gordon, perhaps the finest poet of the Haskala (Judaism’s Enlightenment), asked, “For whom do I labor? Who… will tell me that I am not the last poet of Zion?” He, too, believed he was the end.

But, of course, goodness did not depart from the world when Rabbi Joshua died, and wisdom did not cease with the passing of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. Nor was Gordon the last of the great Hebrew poets; even as he was writing his cri de coeur, not that far away a young man was growing up by the name of Haim Nahman Bialik.

What Rawidowicz seems to be saying, though he never states it explicitly, is that key to the secret of Jewish survival has been precisely this worry that we are disappearing. It was the fragility of Jewish life that kept Jews focused on doing whatever was needed to ensure that somehow, against all odds, there would be subsequent generations of Jews who would worry that they, too, were the end of the chain.SR2

How things have changed! Were Rawidowicz alive today, he might well describe us as the “Never-Dying People,” not the “Ever-Dying People.” For he would notice that today’s Jews are convinced they are far less vulnerable than almost ever before. American Jews believe that a grand ethnic and cultural renewal, unthreatened by anti-Semitism, has taken root in the US. Israelis have long taken pride in both the revitalization of Jewish life in the Jewish state and in our ability to defend ourselves, against any enemy and against all odds.

Of course, Jews on both continents have worried, but not existentially so. American Judaism and Israeli Jewish life – different though they are – share one basic attribute: they believe they do not face the threat of which Rawidowicz wrote. For decades, neither side has believed that it is about to disappear.

In the past month or so, however, Jews on “both sides of the pond” have been deeply shaken. On Israel’s side, the realization has begun to dawn that Iran will likely acquire a nuclear weapon. It may happen soon, or it may take a bit more time. Whatever US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry’s intentions may be, on this one point, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is right: It’s impossible not to think about the North Korean experience. The West’s embrace of Iran’s charm offensive means Tehran is more likely than ever to build the very weapon the West had long insisted it could never possess.

For Israel, the implications could be legion.

Meanwhile, back at the American ranch, the much-discussed Pew Research Center’s Portrait of American Jews has raised concerns about the viability of the liberal Judaism of the large majority of American Jews. Intermarriage rates are now 58 percent among Jews on the whole and 70% among the non-Orthodox.

Only 59% of American Jews are raising their children as Jews “by religion,” and a mere 47% of them are giving their children a Jewish education. With less than half of Jews getting any Jewish education at all, and with only 28% believing that being Jewish has anything to do with being part of a Jewish community, what kind of a future is in store? It is not, to put things mildly, a pretty picture.

Couple Pew with Iran, and we might be tempted to join the line of Rawidowiczian Jews who claim the end is at hand.

Yet we should resist any such inclination.

For what the moment calls for is not panic, but wisdom. Some of what we now face was virtually inevitable. Jews have never had to contend with a host culture as welcoming as America, and this embrace was bound to have significant impact on Jewish behavior and on the sustainability of Jewish difference. So, too, with the spread of technological know-how.

Of course we would have preferred that the Iranian centrifuges not be spinning, but the transfer of scientific knowledge from society to society, state to state is almost (though not entirely) inevitable.

SR3But much of our present condition is also the product of our own doing, and the good news is that we can change. American Jews imagined that the way to keep Jews in the fold was to dumb Judaism down, to make it less demanding, less exceptional. But what we’ve found is that Jews who know less also feel less reason to care; the less different Jewish life is, the less it matters. And thus, the solution is simple (though not easy to execute): Jews need to know much more than they do, and their Judaism has to say something unique. It’s not too late to restore that.

Similarly, while Israel’s enemies are relentless, we have unquestionably misplayed our cards. Wherever one thinks about settlements, “occupation” or the peace process, there can be no denying – Israel’s leaders have done a horrific, incompetent job of making our case in the international community. The world is exasperated, and it is partly our fault. Would the world have loved us had we done a better job? Obviously not. But without question, some of the international frustration with us is a product of our own bluster and utter lack of nuance.

This, then, is the moment to learn from our mistakes. An American Judaism that knows virtually nothing of its heritage and transforms itself into nearly content-free ethnicity will hemorrhage; America erodes all such ethnicities. And an Israel that antagonizes the world, proceeding full steam ahead with no morally substantive narrative about what sort of future we envision for our region will similarly lose the world’s support.

The fact that we have created our fair share of this mess is actually good news, for it means that the future is ours to shape. Whether we are American liberal Jewish leaders or Israeli politicians, the choices we make and the language we use matters.

Pew and Iran thus ought to evoke not panic, but thoughtfulness. Though Rawidowicz was right that anguish had long been a hallmark of Jewish thinking, so, too, has wisdom. And now is the moment to choose the latter.

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