Jews and Gentiles: Two Stories 3_2
By Basil Herring
Some time ago I found myself on an intercontinental flight to Africa, sitting next to a charming young man with a blond beard. He introduced himself as the tour director for a large group of tourists from North America who were about to tour Africa from, as he put it, ?from the Cape to Cairo.? As we settled in for the long flight, he began to talk about himself, and I realized that this was going to be an interesting trip. He related how he was from the West Coast, and that his father was in fact a Jew who had gone to Hollywood right after the war to seek his fortune as an actor in the movies. There, in the late forties, he had met an attractive woman, whom he married. She was not Jewish ‑ in fact she was of German descent, and when she married him, her entire family disowned her for marrying a Jew. As the story unfolded it became quite apparent that her family nurtured an intense hatred of the Jews; many of them had actively supported Hitler during the war, and after the war some of them had fled to Argentina to escape justice. As the young man explained it, anti‑semitism pervades that German community to this day. His own response was, however, to identify with his father's family, not his mother's, and to want to marry his Jewish girlfriend, even though he knew that from a Jewish point of view he was not really Jewish. Why? To spite the hatred of his family, and out of love for his father.
Jews Escaping Jewishness
In reflecting on this stratospheric encounter, it occurs to me that the story of that young man and his father describes in rather extreme terms, the pathology of much of the American Jewish experience. For during most of this century, for many Jews it has been a case of Jews escaping from their overt Jewishness, in the hope of making it big, achieving the American dream, and overcoming the twin burdens of anti‑semitism and Jewish tradition. That this young man's father failed in his dream is clear. He was never accepted by those with whom he wished to ingratiate himself. His children, in spite of his intentions, were of another faith, confused and unsure of themselves. That he should have chosen to marry into a family of arch anti‑semites is a matter of pathetic irony. But his story is effectively the story of an entire generation of Jews who believed that by assimilation they could overcome the anti‑semitic animus, become accepted in the larger society, and escape the burdens of Jewish life and Jewish history.
How mistaken they were, is made apparent by the story of this young man. Yet the dynamics of his condition were recognized a long time ago by our Sages, in a midrash to the Exodus narrative:
These are the names of the children of Israel coming to Egypt with Jacob, each came with his household. Ex. 1:1
Now the midrash asks the obvious question: the words ?coming to Egypt? are in the present tense, as if the Israelites were only now coming into Egypt at the time of the persecution. But the truth is that the Israelites had been in Egypt already 100 years when the persecution began? And in any case why does the end of the verse change the tense to the past, in saying ?each came with his household??
The answer of the midrash, as interpreted by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, is that the verse describes two separate attitudes, that of the Egyptians, and that of the Jews. The Egyptians looked upon the Jews as strangers in their midst, people who had just arrived, who had no historical claim or roots in the land of Egypt. The Jews were seen as interlopers, as outsiders, who were ba'im, foreigners and aliens coming into the land of the real Egyptians.? But the second half of the verse refers to the true reality, as affirmed by the Jews themselves, i.e., that they had been there for hundreds of years, ever since the arrival of Jacob and his children, as they transferred their entire houses and lives into the Egyptian setting.
This, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, gives us insight into the very nature of anti‑semitism: whatever the overt rationale, oppression of the Jew is made feasible by representing the Jews as newcomers, even after centuries of distinguished service. The Jew is the outsider, the pariah, the stranger, no matter the length of his stay, or the intensity of his effort to ingratiate himself with his hosts. And the more the Jew will attempt to embrace his non‑Jewish environment, the more he will try to become indistinguishable from the larger culture in which he finds himself, the more violent will the reaction to his chameleon‑like behavior be.?
Fortunately the Israelites in Egypt chose the other path, that of most resistance. This we know from the Haggadah, which teaches us that as for the Israelites, vayehi sham legoy, they became a nation who were mezuyanim sham, easily distinguishable, conspicuous in their attempt to be recognized not as Egyptians but as Jews, changing neither their names, nor their faith, nor their language. In a sense, as Rabbi Soloveitchik puts it, they themselves refused to adapt to their new environment, they remained as they were when they arrived, always ?greeners?, refused to disappear into the Egyptian milieu. They practiced their own form of cultural pluralism ‑ and for this reason they merited God's redemption.
Dangers of Assimilation
Thousand of years have passed, but in truth nothing has changed. Too many Jews living all around have forgotten this timeless lesson. Too many teach their children to blend and become indistinguishable from the society all around us. Too many of us labor under the misconception that being different will somehow generate mistrust and suspicion of the Jew ‑ when our history has taught that the very opposite is the case. If there is anything that will earn us the respect and tolerance of the nations, it is our determination to be ourselves, to protect that which has been our eternal glory, which is the Torah and the wisdom of our people and our literary traditions. If that will not endear us to the anti‑semites, you had better believe that nothing will. And even if it does not ‑ at the very least we will have retained our own self‑respect, and strengthening of the unique Jewish identity which history has entrusted to our safekeeping. And if that will not make us worthy of redemption, what could possibly substitute for it?
Not that we must make a fetish of being different. There is no gain in always and everywhere sticking out. It has been said with more than a little wisdom that non‑conformity for the sake of non‑conformity is the highest form of conformity. Thus it is neither necessary nor desirable that we should set out to reject the cultural assumptions of our time, as some Jews do. Modernity has brought the Jew untold benefits, and the American experience in particular has been one of great blessing and indeed salvation. To be an affirmative and committed Jew in our time means to proudly and openly declare our identity, asserting the prerogatives of Jewish living, and rejecting every attempt to deny the differences between the cultural majority and the needs of Jewish survival.
And Dangers of Intermarriage
Sadly enough, all around us we see the effects of Jews who have never learned this fundamental lesson of Jewish life. Jews who are intermarried, Jews whose lifestyles are completely denuded of anything that is uniquely Jewish. We see and hear about Jews who neither belong to synagogues, support the UJA, nor provide their children with the elementary tools to have a real Jewish identity. Jews who are embarrassed to see a yarmulke in public, or any public manifestation of Jewish religious life, as if such things are the greatest threat to the Jewish people in our time. The time is past for us to be embarrassed or ashamed of overt Jewish living. It is no longer necessary to deny our cultural differences with the Christian world. We have seen the results of such Jewish myopia ‑ and they spell disaster for the future of our people. The issue for us is not acceptance in our society ‑ it is rather whether we have the guts to be ourselves, to affirm what we are, to live as Jews, proudly, openly, and respectfully. Only thus will we reverse the tide of assimilation and dissolution of Jewish community life.
I started out by referring to two stories. The first was one of estrangement, confusion and denial. But the second is one of hope, affirmation, and belonging. It concerns a young woman who some time ago came to me with a request to be converted to Judaism. It was not that she needed to in order to be married to a Jewish man, or that she craved acceptance by her future Jewish in‑laws. For some years previously she had in fact fallen in love with a Jewish fellow, had been warmly welcomed into his family, and had married him in a civil marriage. But she wanted to convert because she saw the beauty of Judaism, and she felt that the life she was living was a lie. I welcomed her approach as genuine, and for many months she studied with me, diligently reading and studying, experiencing Jewish life at first hand. Finally she converted, according to halakha, and then we held a private ceremony under the huppah where she and her husband were finally married ke‑dat uke‑din. Some time later I received a note from her, and this is what it said:
After these many months I have finally done what I intended do much earlier, which is to thank you for your assistance to me during the entire conversion process. The culmination was ultimately to stand under the huppah together, to celebrate our wedding in accordance with the Jewish faith. However that was simply the beginning, and we have so much more to look forward to. In fact I am expecting a child, whom I look forward to bringing up according to Jewish law and tradition. It isn't easy to do these things when we are just two, however with a child to teach, it will, I hope, be that much easier. Once again my warmest thanks.
What a contrast to that first story, what a powerful antidote to the self‑hating and confused Jews of our time, what an inspiring example of how one person chose, in spite of the prejudices and tribulations of being a Jew, to become a Jew, to raise Jewish children, in accordance with the most demanding standards of our tradition, to do her part in ensuring the continuity not only of the Jewish body, but of the Jewish soul and Jewish spirit.
Let us therefore take heed, so as to affirm in freedom the principles of Jewish life, carried forth by the slaves from Egypt, affirmed at Sinai, and embraced by generation after generation, down to our own time; in that way to merit the blessings of renewal and rejuvenation, and in the end, that even our lost Jewish brethren should return to the fold, to the embrace of Judaism, and of G‑d.
Rabbi Basil Herring, Ph.D is the spiritual leader of the? Atlantic Beach Jewish Center.