WHY ARE WE JEWISH?

A Two-Part Essay by Rabbi Chaim Ingram – 1

If I am I because I am I
and you are you because you are you
then I am I and you are you.
But if I am I because you are you
and you are you because I am I
then I am not I and you are not you
(R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotsk  1787-1859)

Note: Some may find ideas contained within this essay challenging and confronting, others may find them exciting and liberating.

I am happy as always to receive feedback and to debate these issues with anyone who would like to engage.

 

Prologue

Last year, a survey of Australian Jewry (Gen17) was commissioned jointly by the NSW-based Jewish Communal Appeal (JCA) and Monash University, Victoria.

In his Report in the latest JCA Source Magazine, its President, Mr. Stephen Chipkin (whose late father Mervyn I remember fondly from my post-morning minyan Shiur group at Central Synagogue), summarises its main findings as follows:

Remembering the Holocaust (95% of respondents)
and upholding “strong moral values” (94%)
are the two most important identifiers of Jewish identity.

Additionally, 91% of respondents declared that “combatting antisemitism” was crucial to their sense of Jewish identity.  But only 46% rated “believing in G-D”, just 36% cited “prayer”, a mere 34% valued “observing halacha” and a paltry 31% considered important “studying Jewish religious texts”.

JCA demographer David Graham interprets the survey data as

reveal[ing] an Australian Jewish community that is gradually secularising, shifting away from traditional/Orthodox positions towards more progressive and secular streams

I should state at the outset that I am somewhat sceptical of the accuracy of this survey. For one thing, it was submitted by only around 8 per cent of the community. For another, I believe, further to my own admittedly rough and localised poll, that a considerably smaller-than-average proportion of the most orthodox section of the community, completed the survey.  For a third, a goodly slice of the most committed segment of Australian Jewry have made Aliya since the previous Gen08 survey.

However the important thing is that whether I or others like it or not, the findings of Gen17 will be used by the JCA as well as the Institute for Jewish Civilisation (IJC) at Monash University as the basis for future communal planning.

And the most graphic finding of the survey, even if it may be slightly skewed, is still terrifying, Namely that more than three times as many respondents find the Nazi Holocaust critical to Jewish identity as engaging with the Jewish texts which have shaped our civilisation for more than three millennia.

 

The Two Responses at Sinai – A Paradigm

Most of us will be familiar with the celebrated response of our ancestors on the eve of the momentous stand at Mount Sinai.  Just like in my childhood at the cinema (well, no, not really!) the Bnei Yisrael were granted a preview of the ‘forthcoming attraction’  – the unveiling, by Moses, of certain selected sections of the Torah.  Whereupon the nation felt no need to wait until they saw the whole picture the next day, including all the small print.   There and then, as one, in a passionate outburst of faith they declared na’aseh ve-nish’ma – “we’ll do it – we’ll accept the Torah even before we’ve heard and digested all its details and nuances (Exodus 24:7).

However, as a counterweight to that almost, there Is a curious passage in the Talmud which seems to unravel all our preconceptions (Shabbat 88a). There, Rav Avdimi expounds on the verse vayityatsvu be-takhtit ha-har.  The verse is normally rendered “they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). But be-tachtit  literally means “underneath”. Hence R’ Avdimi’s fabulous exposition: “This teaches that G-D overturned the mountain on them like an inverted tub and said to them ‘If you accept the Torah, fine, if not, sham te-hei kevuratam, there will be your grave!’”

Extraordinary! Less than 24 hours earlier Bnei Yisrael had accepted the Torah unconditionally. How come they now needed threats and coercion?

The Midrash Tanchuma (Nitsavim 3, based on Deut 29:13-14) tells us that the souls of all future generations of Am Yisrael  – “those who are with us today and those who are not with us today” (Deut 29:14) stood at Sinai.  But it was only those physically present who declared na’aseh ve-nishma (on behalf also of those as yet unborn).

Therefore it could be that R’ Avdimi is hinting at future generations of Jews who will not be so enamoured of keeping the covenant into which they were born. For them, G-D is, as it were saying  sham te-hei kevuratam, there is no easy escape from being Jewish.  if it isn’t the living Torah that buttresses your Jewish existence and infuses it with meaning it will be graves, crematoria, the stench of mass human butchery, memories of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Which would you prefer?

 

The Parable of a Strange Marriage

In seeking to convey powerful messages, our Rabbis of old used the medium of the mashal, the parable. I in my own puny way will attempt to do likewise.

Once upon a time there was a man who loved a woman and married her.  However over time the marriage turned sour. The woman’s parents who had never liked him from the outset became the in-laws from hell.  They cursed him, spat on him and abused him in every possible way.  Yet instead of this being the catalyst for the man to end his deteriorated marriage and free himself of his hated in-laws, he became more and more determined to perpetuate the union.  Barely was there a happy moment, scarcely a civil word spoken between husband and wife.  And day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year, the conduct of the in-laws towards him became more and more spiteful, more and more intolerable, more and more threatening. And as it did, so the man became more and more determined to hold on to his sham of a marriage.  His rationale:  I don’t want to forget, to let it become a distant memory.  I want to preserve the memory of their abusive behaviour fresh in my mind so that I can the better convey to my children (for there were indeed unfortunate offspring from this sad marriage) and indeed, one day, my grandchildren what I have experienced, for I would not want them to have the sorry experience I have had to undergo.  And besides that, I would rather suffer all their indignities than give these wretched in-laws of mine the satisfaction of getting rid of me!

 

The Parable Unravelled

Were the in-laws not to have behaved in the abominable way they did, this man would have ended his marriage long ago.

The love that had once blazed brightly between husband and wife was now a dying ember. The man knew there was no turning back. He did not even consider trying to reignite the brilliant spark of love they had once had.  In the event, he would have been much happier with a clean divorce and a fresh start. But he was not going to let his in-laws win. And so the marriage was perpetuated but in name only, and he continued to suffer.

I am sure my readership doesn’t need me to spell out the nimshal (moral).

If it is only our haters and persecutors, if it is only the anti-Semites, if it is only the bitter experience of the Holocaust and our ongoing determination not to suffer another that keep us Jewish then where is the virtue of our Judaism. Where is its beauty? Where is the love?

What is the point?

The Kotsker Rebbe, in his brilliant insight, taught us a profound secret.  If we are Jewish only because of those who hate us, only because of Auschwitz and Treblinka, then our Jewishness is not real Jewishness. But if we are Jewish because we recognise our souls are Jewish, they stood at Sinai and they experienced a unique theophany resulting in the Torah which our ancestors accepted unconditionally with love and bequeathed to us and if we want to hold on to and perpetuate this gift by our celestial Lover, then let our detractors be what they are – no matter, our Jewishness is real and indeed there is nothing more real in all existence!

The Eternal Nation – Despite Everything.

In the Sifrei (Be’ha’alotskha 69 to Num 9:10), R’ Shimon bar Yochai declares “it is a given fact that an Esau will hate a Jacob” – that in our unredeemed world antisemitism will always exist and that while it exists Jews will exist!

But can that really be the reason for our existence?  Are we truly prepared to define and measure our Jewish identity according to the yardstick of Hitler and his satanic determination to unearth a Jewish great-grandparent?

The Way Forward

Here is surely an instance when our Jewish communal leadership must not be content with merely reflecting communal trends but must shape them!

The survey is telling us that the Jewish leadership, religious and lay, have failed.  Dare I say it, rabbis have failed. Jewish educators too have failed.

If despite Chabad, despite Limmud-Oz, despite 70% of Australian Jewish children attending a Jewish day school, only 31% of the community wish to engage with the sacred texts of our heritage, something somewhere has gone terribly wrong.

How does the JCA propose to go about righting that wrong?  Hopefully not by building more Holocaust museums or instituting more Holocaust studies departments in schools and universities, despite indications from the survey possibly pointing that way.

Let them instead plough more funds and yet more funds into Jewish day schools and after-school educational centres. But let the money be channelled wisely.  Let it be used to recruit the world’s best Torah teachers and pay them top bucks. Let it be available to bring top Jewish educators and rabbis to Australia not just for fly-in-fly-out visits but to run inspirational seminars of meaningful length and intensity. This could lead to a demand, a clamour even, for the day schools and part-time centres to implement structured, enticing family education on a regular basis on Sunday mornings.. Let parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, learn together, grow together.  Let there be eliminated such scenarios where children return enthused from Counterpoint and other inspirational experiences wanting to intensify their observance of Shabbat only to have their parents pour icy water on the very notion. Let such parents be helped to understand that by such negative approaches they are suffocating their children’s very souls.

In this way we will be raising a new generation which, come Gen-26 or whenever in the next decade, will turn this year’s statistics on their head and declare that they, or at least 95% of them, want desperately to develop the tools to grapple intensely and at first-hand with the Torah, the Tanakh, the Mishna and the Gemara in their quest to be authentically Jewish. In so doing they will save Australian Jewry from being a footnote in Jewish history.

Stranger things have happened!

(In my second article I shall, G-D willing, attempt to examine under the microscope the “strong moral values” that 94% wish to uphold and ask whether they are really strong, moral or valuable.)

WHY ARE WE JEWISH?

A Two-Part Essay by Rabbi Chaim Ingram  –  2

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country.

When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realise the only thing I can change is myself.

However I have also come to recognise that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country

and we could all indeed have changed the world!

(Rabbi Israel Salanter 1810-1883)

Note: Those with an aversion to provocative or challenging essays should skip right now to the final paragraph. To all my other readers: prepare to be provoked – or stimulated! As always, your feedback is immensely valued. RCHI

Prologue

In the first part of this essay, I cited the JCA/Monash University Gen17 survey and discussed the disturbing implications of the finding that “remembering the Holocaust” (95% of respondents) appeared to be the main identifier of Jewish identity in Australian Jewry.

Today I intend to explore the survey’s second most important indicant of Jewish identification (94%), namely “upholding strong moral values”.

As these words stare out at me, I am irresistibly reminded of a Gemara passage (Talmud, Berachot 27b) that I always find slightly amusing:-

R’ Zeira said ….in the name of Rav: On the side of this pillar

R’ Yishmael b. R’ Yose prayed Shabbat Maariv

when it was still Erev Shabbat.

When Ulla came he said: It wasn’t by a pillar but by a date-tree; it wasn’t R’ Yishmael but R’ Elazar; and it wasn’t Shabbat Maariv on Erev Shabbat but Saturday night Maariv on Shabbat!

In other words, there is nothing the matter with the original Talmudic account except that all the facts are wrong

Similarly I wonder: are the “strong moral values” that the survey respondents wish to uphold actually strong, moral or valuable in authentic Jewish terms?

Paradigms of Contemporary Morality

Examining the moral values that govern the secular “free world” today, and by extension the secular Jewish world, we are confronted with two key but disparate paradigms:-

  • Individual “rights” particularly with regard to what are seen as minority groupings within society must not be infringed even when they conflict with societal responsibilities
  • At the same time, global societal reform or what modern Hebrew calls tikun olam is projected as the highest moral ideal.

Rabbi Salanter’s soul-baring declaration with which we started provides an excellent launching pad to examine how contemporary moral assumptions compare with Torah (i.e. authentic Jewish) morality.

The source for his sentiments is found in the Torah itself.  … Open your hand to your brother, your poor and your destitute in your land (Deut 15:11)

On this verse, Rambam (Matnot Aniyim 7:13) bases his fundamental principle of priority in charity-giving.  Our first responsibility, after ensuring that we are self-supporting, is to our immediate family (“your brother”) then to the poor of your town (“your poor and your destitute”) then to the needy of our country (“in your land” which embraces both fellow-Jews in our country of residence and Erets Yisrael which is the object of our verse.  In a prior paragraph [7:7], the Rambam already makes it clear that the gentile poor must also be supported wherever necessary mipnei darkei shalom as an expression of the ways of peace.)

It is not surprising therefore that R’ Salanter takes this pecking-order as the basis for his pyramid of societal engagement.

Contemporary Morality vs. the Salanter ‘Pyramid’

1)  Individual Rights vs Wider Responsibilities

Looking at our paradigms of contemporary morality above we see something quite fascinating.

On the microcosmic level of individual ‘rights’, contemporary morality appear to be concerned almost exclusively with championing the “I” (paradigm 1).  It declares that when my personal autonomy conflict with other moral imperatives, my rights must win out.

Thus, to take a bang-up-to-date example, Ireland has reversed its old abortion law (giving the unborn child equal rights with the mother) and moved to the other, pro-choice, extreme which will allow abortions unconditionally up to 12 weeks – notwithstanding that foetal brain function can already be detected at 40 days and foetal heartbeat at 6-7 weeks. The wilful destruction of potential life within my body (my closest relative, my [as-yet-unborn] child), declares contemporary morality, must take second place to my right to choose what I want to do with my body.

This vote in far-off Ireland has unexpectedly gained local relevance.  The National Council of Jewish Women of Australia has decided to broadcast its acclamation of Ireland’s vote.  No doubt the NCJWA believes that they stand up for the highest moral and ethical values among which the rights of women feature highly.  Unfortunately these values bear no resemblance to the strong moral imperatives of authentic Judaism. True enough the old law did not represent the Torah standpoint.  But the new law resembles it even less!

The slew of other contemporary moral challenges including voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide and same-sex marriage throw up the same dissonances, namely that my moral duty to preserve existing life and create new life is outweighed, in modern morality, by my personal autonomy. Many within the Jewish community still take a traditional stance towards VE and AS although there are signs that this too is sadly changing. As for same-sex relationships, the tolerance and even approval level within the Jewish community has reached a level that would have been deemed unthinkable even a few years ago. Very recently a Sydney synagogue classified as Orthodox held a Friday night dinner to honour “invited (non-Jewish) members of the LBGTIQ community”. Its aim, which it presumably regarded as the ultimate in reflecting “strong moral values”, was to show how diversity-respectful it was. That it may have alienated or sidelined members of its own, non-LBGTIQ, Jewish community did not apparently cause it any moral anguish.  Clearly another example of the chasm between contemporary and authentic Jewish morality which, of course, unconditionally outlaws same-sex unions.

 

2)   Global Societal Reform – The New “Global Morality”

On the level of ‘responsibilities’, the modern focus is directly on the global sphere (paradigm 2). In the secular Jewish world, this phenomenon is known as tikun olam.

Here, contemporary morality asserts, we are not to embrace a parochial outlook.   This doesn’t just mean not being racist.  (Indeed discrimination founded solely on race has no place in Torah Judaism. Any person from any race may become Jewish – even Amon, Moab or Amalek!). The political liberal Left, which appears to have convinced everybody they hold the monopoly on ethics and morality, preaches that we must show no special consideration to our own families, coreligionists or fellow-citizens but must be equally committed to the rights of those whose interests may even conflict with our own. Otherwise we are guilty of discrimination, one of the worst moral evils of contemporary secular morality.

This is nowhere more graphically demonstrated than in the attitude to the defence of Israel’s borders by the IDF assumed by the world’s media and, shockingly, Left-leaning elements within our own communities.

In a typically trenchant piece published less than a fortnight ago, Australian-born, Israel-based Jewish activist Isi Leibler writes: There is a serious sickness among Jews when so many feel more concern about the death  of those seeking to kill us than anxiety for their own kinsmen.

Such is the “new morality”. We must show “proportionality” in defending ourselves.  If they wound ten of us but by the grace of G-D no Israeli lives are lost, Israel mustn’t dare kill a single murderous terrorist or the wrath of the nations will descend upon our heads!  No matter that it is only be-siyata diShemaya through the IDF and the Iron Dome that casualties do not soar into the hundreds or thousands, r.l. We are not permitted, according to the international rules of morality of engagement, to create a situation where our borders are safe and the residents of Sderot and the Sha’ar haNegev region can sleep easy in their beds at long last!

This could not be further from the Torah view (see Deut 20:10-13) which teaches that (a) initially one is to offer a peace pact to any warring nation; (b) however if that offer is refused and one is subject to enemy attack one can and must target the entire militia. (If the enemy is forcibly using innocents as human shields the responsibility for their deaths lies squarely with their militia.) The Talmud expresses it succinctly (based also on Exodus 22:1).  If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first!” (Berakhot 58a) In this scenario we are to show no misguided mercy.

In a war situation, every enemy combatant is a potential rodef (pursuer).A soldier who does not go into combat with that mindset not only puts his own life at risk but also the life of his fellow-soldiers and of the civilian population he is defending.  This truism which was undisputed in past generations has been rubbished by the purveyors of the “new morality” who delude themselves that they have more wisdom and compassion than all their forebears. (Intriguingly, this truism is borne out by the sacred Hebrew language.  The three root-letters of the word for war, milkhama, are lamed-chet-mem which spells lekhem, bread, the staple element of consumption. One enters war, regrettably but necessarily, with two options: to consume – or to be consumed.)

Setting the war scenario aside: with the principal means of communication nowadays being the all-pervasive internet, we truly inhabit a global village.  And so in a sense it is hardly surprising that one identifies as closely, if not more so, with a Facebook friend of another culture and faith living on the other side of the world than one does with one’s landsmann or even one’s own blood-relative.

Thus, in Salanterian terms, we believe we have the potential to change the world!  The trouble is we haven’t successfully addressed the more compact and readily accessible parts of the pyramid!

In Australia, one in three marriages end in divorce. I do not know the figures for the Jewish community but I do know sadly of many bitter divorces, broken families and messed-up kids.  How can we start to talk about fixing the world when the family unit is in such disarray? The irony, of course, is that it is often precisely the global idealists who are undermining the perpetuation of the nuclear family as the desideratum.

Conclusion

We have examined the contemporary moral paradox.  We have seen that on one level, individual rights, particularly when they are seen as addressing the desires of minorities – women, same-sex-attracted people, the infirm and dying – are regarded as valid and responsible moral choices. As an aside, I would observe that at one time a working definition of the new morality was “anything goes as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else!” As we have already seen, things are not so simple.  Abortion-on-demand hurts the unborn child; planned, assisted suicide may hurt family members; the ‘right’ of a same-sex couple to raise a child takes away the right of that child to a father and mother.  No matter, apparently.  In these scenarios, my rights matter most!

On another level, the macrocosmic level, tikun olam, mending the world according to the lights of contemporary secular morality, means that we must show no special favours to our own family/fellow-nationals/correligionists because that would mean discriminating against others. The only problem is that one ends up disdaining one’s own.  As the American philosopher Eric Hoffer famously said “it is easier to love the world than it is to love your brother!”  (This is now manifest in some of the world’s most affluent democracies where sizeable pockets of poverty are emerging while the social-reformers prioritise global concerns, in particular agonising over Palestinian Arab poverty which is self-inflicted.)

So in summation: contemporary secular morality says two things: (1) I need to change the world; (2) I have no need to change myself!

This is the very mindset which R’ Israel Salanter recognised to be faulty, coming as he did in his mature years to the firm conclusion that (a) we need firstly to change ourselves; (b) we cannot ignore the middle of the pyramid – family and community; (c) true tikun olam according to the lights of the Torah must be routed from the inside outward!

(It is sad that modern-morality exponents do not think a human being is capable of change. We see the worst side of the modern-morality mindset with its almost pathological vindictiveness and witch-hunts against anyone who has broken the essential tenets of political correctness and made one unguarded, misguided remark out of turn.  Such an individual is branded a ‘racist’ or a ‘sexist’ for ever. Apologies and protestations of repentance count for nothing and trial by media results in his or her personal humiliation and professional ruination for life.)

We have merely skimmed the surface of this vast subject. But what results out of all this is very clear.  When 94% of the Gen17 respondents declare that “upholding strong moral values” is a main indicator of Jewish identity we cannot be at all confident that these moral values are authentically Jewish ones. This is because contemporary secular morality is, in all the ways we have seen, at odds with Jewish morality. And since apparently less than a third of these respondents think grappling with Jewish texts is important, we have to conclude that their mindset will most likely be a secular rather than a religious Jewish one.

For those who believe I have been overly negative and cynical in this study, I believe the facts speak for themselves. But here’s the thing. Even if we were to posit that the universal moral values being upheld by respondents are indeed those of the Torah or what is sometimes termed “the Judaeo-Christian moral heritage”, this hardly constitute the totality or even the bulk of Judaism.  You don’t have to be Jewish to be moral according to Jewish teachings. And so the burning question remains: If, as JCA head Stephen Chipkin asserts, “remembering the Holocaust and upholding strong moral values are the two most important identifiers of Jewish identity”, what, pray, is Jewish identity.  In other words: Why really are we Jewish?

Rabbi Chaim Ingram