After the emancipation of European Jewry, the relationship between Jews and the world was clearly defined by the sharp division between the private and public domains. Jewishness was rarely displayed publicly. You were a Jew at home, but in public you put on the face of “humanity” – you became invisible as a Jew.
The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel are the two most important events to have changed Jewish consciousness in the modern world. Israel has been a strong catalyst galvanizing the will of Jews to fight for survival openly and with dignity. It proved to be the most effective antidote to the disease of helplessness and powerlessness which the Holocaust represents.
This revolution in Jewish consciousness was clearly visible in the difference between our outspoken public demonstrations of concern and support for Soviet Jewry and Israel’s welfare, and the self-conscious, inhibited responses of Western Jews during the Holocaust. Jews are no longer frightened to be visible and to articulate publicly their needs for survival and national recognition.
From an institutional perspective, Jewish communal life has never been stronger. Yet, paradoxically, we feel threatened and unsure of our future. Our new sense of power in the public domain is offset by our growing sense of inner weakness because of the disaffection of so many of our youth from their Jewish heritage.
The staggering assimilation figures indicate that the social and political strength of our organizations and institutions have had little effect on the quality of individual Jewish commitment and conviction. We feel powerful on the public, institutional level, yet weak and endangered on the personal level. The threat we face today is not annihilation by an external enemy, but historical suicide brought about by indifference and assimilation.
When we saw ourselves as victims, the agenda of Jewish life was clear and unambiguous. Shared suffering can create a deep sense of shared solidarity and destiny. Physical and economic survival can define a family’s priorities and give meaning to family life so long as the external threat persists. But when the threat loses its urgency, the focus shifts inward to the inherent meaning and purpose of family life.
A community lacking the inner cultural resources to inspire personal conviction and commitment must continue to invoke the external enemy. So, we build Holocaust memorials and send our youth on pilgrimages to Auschwitz in the hope of reviving the psychological power of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism as organizing memories of Jewish identity.
The fact is, however, that the trauma of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism are no longer sufficient for creating personal identification with the story of the Jewish people. The real problem is how to build a sense of community out of shared meaning, not shared suffering. Stories of persecution will not inspire our grandchildren to be Jews. We have to offer them a dream, a vision that is morally and spiritually compelling.
Can the Jewish people survive in freedom, without the fear of persecution? Or do we need an enemy to set our agenda and define our identity?
This question exists not only in the Diaspora, but also in Israel. Can we build a healthy Israeli society in a climate of peace, or must war and the threat of annihilation be the cementing elements of communal solidarity? Many skeptics claim that the peace process and the dream of a new Middle East might lead to cultural and social fatigue and weaken our sense of communal solidarity.
Israel gives Jews an identity grounded in a feeling of dignity and power, in the ability to cope with external enemies. Today, however, Israel must restore vitality to the story of Jewish history. If Israel is committed to the survival of Jews, it has to change its focus from being the rescuer, to offering a compelling moral and spiritual vision of Jewish history. Israel must not only enable us to be visible, to go public as Jews, but it must become an educational force inspiring us to live as Jews in our private and not only our institutional lives.
Both Israeli and Diaspora Jews must change their paradigms of Jewish experience from slavery to freedom, from “Egypt” – our shared suffering, to “Sinai” – our shared commitment to a vision of daily life and moral aspiration.
All Jews must face the questions: What is the significance of Sinai today? What story can convey the importance of being Jewish and inspire our children and grandchildren to want to continue Jewish history? What are the minimal conditions for membership in our community? What are the values and narratives which provide a compelling frame of reference for Jewish identity? What ideas, images, texts and traditions are constitutive of Jewish experience and provide a joyful spirit for living as a Jew?
We must touch the hearts and souls of individuals. Our target must be to educate. Our institutions must inspire and influence the personal lives of Jews.
Rarely in history has the Jewish people been so challenged as today. Everything we cherish and love in our heritage is at stake. We now know that the continuity of the Jewish people in free, democratic societies cannot be taken for granted. We can disappear.
We cannot – and dare not – believe that our only hope for the future lies either in the ghettoization of the Jewish people into self-enclosed enclaves isolated from the larger culture or in the never-ending outbreaks of the demonic disease of anti-Semitism. We must marshal our resources to begin the process of rebuilding conviction and personal commitment.
Our deep identification with Israel’s struggle for survival and our solidarity with the people of Israel must provide new content and meaning for daily Jewish life. Through the Biblical narrative we see how a dramatic event, the liberation from Egypt, became a normative principle and was integrated into the reality of everyday life:
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).
You too must love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10: 19).
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15)
Our ethical and religious lives and sensibilities have been shaped by the dramatic story of the Exodus. Our ethical sensitivity to social exploitation grows out of the defining collective memory of our own exploitation in Egypt. Our laws, our rituals, our liturgy, our celebrations, our everyday lives are infused with the living memory of the Exodus.
Our generation has witnessed another great liberation drama in Jewish history – the rebirth of the State of Israel. Israel’s rebirth proclaimed an end to Jewish homelessness. Out of the destruction and despair of the Holocaust emerged a moment of new hope and a renewed will to live.
Today, we are a nation determining our own agenda. This new liberation drama can become the new Exodus story of our times. Like the Biblical text, Jewish educational institutions in the Diaspora are faced with the challenge of translating the rebirth of our nation into a potent normative story to enrich Jewish consciousness and memory.
Israel must not only enter our consciousness when blood is spilled in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Apart from the compassion and empathy of all Jews, Israel’s future health requires a revitalized Judaic spirit throughout the Diaspora.
In contrast to the post-emancipation slogan which made us Jews at home and universal – invisible – human beings in public, today we must decide not only to be Jewish in public but, above all, to be Jewish and visible in private. Jewish spirituality will be renewed not only by active, public synagogue life, but also, and above all, by our bringing the presence of God into the intimate confines of our homes.
Formal Jewish education can never replace what is imbibed by a person’s soul when a family celebrates the Sabbath with joy. Parents and grandparents should not delegate their responsibility for Jewish continuity to others – be it the synagogue, the community center or the day school. Every family must become a dynamic and dramatic educational carrier of Jewish life. The home must be the stage for telling the Jewish story, and parents the key actors and role models for Jewish commitment.
Momentous historical events, such as the Six-Day War or the dramatic arrival of Russian and Ethiopian Jews may be temporary catalysts of communal action and concern, but they cannot sustain the long-term, vital needs of healthy Jewish individuals. It is urgent, therefore, that we empower parents and grandparents to feel adequate and prepared to sing the Jewish niggun, to bear witness to Jewish memories and dreams in their personal interaction with their families.
Judaism and the Jewish people can live in societies that offer Jews freedom and cultural integration. This is the new challenge facing both Israel and Diaspora leadership who must shoulder the responsibility of bringing our people and its history safely into the 21st century.