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What keeps Judaism alive?


It is a thought often attributed to Ernest Bloch that it is anti-Semitism that, for all its perniciousness, has preserved the Jews. Of course, if that were true our position in the world would be very different today. After all (according to the Encyclopedia Judaica) Jews accounted for about 1% of the population of the Roman Empire at a time when the total population was around 56 million at the time of Augustus. And in medieval times, Jews again accounted for 1%. Populations fluctuated, indeed, because of natural disasters, plagues, and wars. But by logic and right we should be at least 1% of the Middle Eastern and Western world’s population now.

During these thousands of years, of course, Jews were not only being killed in vast numbers. They were constantly converting to other religions, whether by force or simply to survive. Some, incredible as it seems, because they actually believed in the alternatives. So if it was anti-Semitism that was keeping us alive, then frankly it did a lousy job.

But the truth is that proponents of such a madcap theory are invariably those Jews who want to find a reason for Jewish survival other than a profound commitment to its civilization and religion. So they seek ways for self-justification or alternative shibboleths to explain Judaism’s survival. It’s similar to those who define their Judaism through historical, tragic, or other forms of “feeling Jewish” without it in any way having to impinge on their daily lives. It’s like claiming you can love someone without any sense of obligation. You can’t argue with it, but it does seem trivial.

External threats do often bring out the best in us, but also the worst. The late Israeli diplomat and rabbi, Yaakov Herzog, often liked to say that were it not for the eternal threat, the internal divisions in Israeli society would have torn it apart long ago. I would add that the average left-wing, secular Israeli has more in common with the average left-wing, secular Arab than he or she has with Orthodox Jews. Indeed, soon after the establishment of the State of Israel the Israeli Communist Party merged with the Arab Communist party, while Ben Gurion and Begin were at armed loggerheads. This may be even truer now that both the right-wing and the Orthodox populations of Israel have grown exponentially.

There is a perpetual motion of seminars, conferences, books, and articles all trying to find ways of keeping the Jewish people together so long as one doesn’t have to live a traditional Jewish life. Yet it is that very behaviorism that has been the real reason for our survival against all the odds. This doesn’t mean you have to be traditional to be Jewish, or that without tradition one cannot remain a Jew. But if you seek a way to perpetuate any tradition you can only do it by living it.

Rabbi Marc Angel’s Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals makes an important contribution to “sane Judaism”. A recent issue of its publication, Conversations, focuses on why so many synagogues fail to inspire. The message one gets is that there are no shortcuts. Every panacea has been tried; change the music, change the words, change the style. And after all that has been tried for over a century in the USA, apart from the odd minor spike, it has had no significant overall effect on synagogue attendance. Quite the opposite. Because as with anything you want to take seriously, there are no simple fixes, only serious commitment. Jews vary in the way they like to pray, but the common denominator of those who are involved is that they are committed to act (in whichever way they decide works for them).

An article by James Loeffler bemoaning the collapse of secular Jewish culture in the USA recently appeared in Mosaic Magazine. He refers to the “death” of two institutions dedicated to Jewish culture in America, Makor and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, saying that:

“. . .both of them failed the test of relevance. If the cause of Jewish culture cannot sustain a modest physical presence in New York City, the symbolic center of American Jewish life, then it would seem to have exhausted its raison d’être. Indeed, the time may have come to acknowledge the truth: the project of Jewish culture is dead.”

He concedes that Jewish film festivals, klezmer, new Jewish museums, Jewish artists and composers making Jewish art and music, and Jewish titles enjoy a reliable body of readers and buyers, but notes:

“. . .Jewish culture means something other than simply the sum total of works of art or other artifacts, of whatever quality, made by individuals who happen to be Jews. Nor is Jewish culture merely the sum total of such works made by Jews on explicitly Jewish themes. It refers instead to a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, and holistic identity.”

I happen to think that what Loeffler says goes for the USA, but not for Israel where secular culture is indeed alive and flourishing precisely because it is the default. But there Israeli identity works under different parameters to the Diaspora, where it is marginal.

There have always been institutions, movements and ideologies (and music) that have had mass appeal. But others have focused on quality, intensity and depth. Judaism is not a mass movement to be reduced to minimal basic concepts. It’s a way of life. You either live it or lose it. That is what is meant by the term used in the bible, “a kingdom of priests”. You have to take it seriously for yourself, not rely on others to do it for you or indeed to define you.

4 thoughts on “What keeps Judaism alive?

  1. I think there might be some validity to the supposition that anti-Semitism does help keep Judaism alive. I've seen it used as a rationale for why the Jews of Kaifeng largely assimilated. This supposedly happened in Uzbekistan at certain points as well, if I'm not mistaken, before being invigorated by a hakham/textile trader. But there weren't really enough examples of Jews who lived in peaceful situations to really make it as a blanket statement though.

    It seems reasonable to me that these "Jewish culture" organizations and revivals will have a relatively short shelf life. Much of what they celebrate or preserve aren't universally Jewish, but Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish. Jews from other areas can't relate to it (like me, for instance). As Judaism becomes more modernized, the novelty of the shtetl culture won't really persevere for future generations.

    Shabbat shalom!

  2. I have tried to stress that there are different ways of living a committed life. Some people by nature and preference are more inclined to behaviourism, others are more reflective. Judaism has sections devoted primarily and essentially to study, others focus on the performance of minutiae and some on mysticism. There is room for it all. But I do agree, the ignorant person is much more limited in his or her choice and only a very committed person will be able to combine them all.

  3. Communities usually assimilated because they were isolated or were unable to maintain institutions of study either for internal or external reasons. Kaifeng would not have survived eve if there had been anti Semitism and on the other hand Spain disappeared as a Jewish place precisely because of anti semitism.

    As for culture, I agree, other than artifacts or writings of a religious nature it is jews doing or making rather than Jewish art etc per se.

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