Lessons from Jewish History in a Time of Crisis and Transition

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judeWe saw the Moon in the Morning in the East, but in the Evening in the West:

On the Destiny of Contemporary Jews and Judaism:

Lessons from Jewish History in a Time of Crisis and Transition


An early Yahrzeit Lecture by Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik

Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring

Part II

Rising Anti-Semitism:

How and Why the Modern Variety Differs from that of the Past


Editors Introduction

In the first part of this shiur, delivered in 1943 as the horrific contours of the Shoah were becoming clear, the Rav embraced the campaign to create a Jewish State in the land of Israel. In so doing he became a leading voice of modern Religious Zionism. In this next section, the Rav turned his attention to the question of how the massive persecution of European Jewry could have come about, and in particular to understand the nature of the unprecedented anti-semitism that was at its core.

Modern anti-semitism had been on the rise throughout Western and Eastern Europe since the late nineteenth century. Most perplexing to Jews was that this had occurred precisely in highly civilized and cultured societies where Jews had reached pinnacles of cultural and intellectual influence, and contributed in every way to the enrichment of their societies. In this section, the Rav sought to explain this unprecedented hatred and persecution of the Jewish people under such paradoxical circumstances. What had changed in modern times that might account for the Shoah?

Herein lies the importance of his analysis 70 years later. For in 2014 we are once again confronted with rising anti-semitism, in particular in Europe, but elsewhere too.


Holiness versus Wisdom, the Heart versus the Mind

A precious homiletic jewel is hidden in the luggage of the Sages, for they declared that Jews sin against God by substituting the mind for the heart. Instead of a vital, beating heart that instinctively longs for its beloved, they embrace a placid mind that belittles emotion and feeling. Yehudah Halevy described this precisely when he invoked the midrash that the Jews are the heart of mankind, and that in the heart of every Jew there is a hidden love for God. The modern secular Jew substituted for this warm heart a cold mind, one that is bereft of the glory of Judaism.

In referring to the Jewish heart and the mind, we are referring to the separate goals of holiness and wisdom, respectively. The Torah teaches us, as described at the revelation at Sinai, what makes the Jewish people special: namely, being a goy kadosh, a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). What makes our people different from all others is our longing to embrace the transcendent world of holiness. The search for holiness is at the very center of the spiritual life of Israel, infusing infinite light into its mundane daily existence. By declaring that we are a holy nation, the Torah taught us that we are distinguished by dedicating our actions, desires, and aspirations to achieving sacredness. In this we are to serve as an example for the entire world of a life of purity in each succeeding era, transcending the crude values of those among whom we might live. The task of Israel is to embody the ideal of a holy nation, known for the modesty of its ways, the harmony of its character, and the nobility of its spirit. Our duty is to embody an elevated sensibility, a purity of thought, and a glorious will, as a nation filled with holiness, purity, and an upright soul.

This idea was expressed by the midrash (Lev. Rabbah 30) that “the fruit of a splendid tree – pri etz hadar (Lev. 23:40) – this is the esrog which is like the heart.” This reflected the Sages’ world-view that the power and charisma of the Jewish nation are to be found in its heart, as symbolized by the heart-shaped esrog. When a Jew takes an esrog and recites a berachah on it, he experiences the light of eternity which in turn causes him to praise God by immediately reciting the Hallel. Thus does he transcend the physical universe to enter the domain of the Shechinah. Note that there is nothing among the four species of Sukkos that might symbolize the mind, for the intellect is irrelevant to the process by which man realizes his spiritual aspirations.

For the same reason R. Yitzchak in the midrash declares that “the Torah should logically have begun with ‘this month will be the first of months’ for that was the first commandment to the Jewish people (see Rashi to Gen 1:1).” That is, it is only when Jews sanctify the world that God created by performing His mitzvos, and are themselves sanctified in the process, that the world finally achieves the purpose for which it was created.  Conversely, when Jews fail to live holy lives the cosmos too remains formless and empty.

What the Jews of Modernity have Changed

But what has the modern Jew wrought? What have liberal and secular nationalistic Judaism brought about?

They have embraced a different view of what makes the Jew special. To them, Jews are above all an am chacham venavon, “a wise and understanding people (Deut. 4:6).” Modern Jews have substituted wisdom for sanctity, and instead of being a “nation of priests” (Ex. 19:6) they preferred to be a nation of the wise. Rather than being a holy people they have sought only understanding. Worse yet, they have replaced real wisdom with a much more limited “knowledge,” which itself has been reduced to a mere utilitarianism, pragmatism or know-how.

Judaism of old declared that “the foundation of wisdom is the fear of Hashem” (Proverbs 111:10), and the source of understanding is purity of the soul. It furthered crucially proclaimed that the nations of the world would come to recognize that our wisdom as a great nation derives from our adherence to kol ha-chukim ha-eleh, i.e., all of the laws and statutes of the Torah (Deut. 4:6). But the Jews of modernity have rejected these teachings by rebelling against the centrality of holiness. Instead they declare that the foundations of wisdom can only be found in pragmatism and functionality, in which the measure of the good life is in its utilitarian results, as man searches for earthly happiness and the pleasures of this world.

As a result modern Jews have taken inordinate pride in their many contributions to modern culture. They are proud to proclaim that Jews are the essential catalysts and agents of society’s highest cultural achievements, and that our sons and daughters having enriched the Western European spirit, while contributing greatly to its civilization. And indeed it is true that many of the intellectual and cultural giants of modern times have been Jews born within the walls of the Jewish ghetto who went on to embrace the worlds of science, literature and the arts.

The problem is that the so-called wise men at the helm of our people in recent generations did not fully comprehend what was happening. They thought that by contributing their many tithes to the cultural treasuries of society the Jews would receive appreciation and respect from the nations of the world. They thought that the nations would graciously appreciate these gifts. But were they right? Did those contributions strengthen the Jews’ political situation, or improve its fragile standing? Was the Jewish people rewarded with more secure basic rights?

The truth is that had our so-called wise men of modernity realized that love and appreciation of the Jew would not result from the contributions of its scientists or intellectuals, and that civic acceptance would not ensue from the efforts of its artists, actors, or politicians seeking to improve the world, they would never have exchanged holiness and a life of separation and elevated living, for the meager rewards of cultural utilitarianism.

What was the result? It was that the life-giving wellsprings that had watered our soil for centuries dried up, leaving us in a spiritual wasteland, deprived of the sources of our intellectual vitality and faith. We forfeited the joys that crowned the love of young marrieds in their devotion to each other, and the love of parents and children that were found in the ancient “tents of Jacob.” The Shabbos queen, that was so pure, holy and blessed, went into exile. The national life of Israel was emptied of the old wine and pomegranate nectar of tradition. Diminished were the reflections of chesed, and pale was the star of compassion that had served to illuminate our paths from generation to generation. The flame of refined thought was extinguished, while purity of feeling was replaced with a polluted soul. We became preoccupied with the pursuit of many disciplines and sciences, including philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, esthetics, and politics, none of which can or will restore the glorious crown of our people, nor form the dew that might revitalize our dry bones that are so dispersed over the secular landscape.

The Key Difference between Classical and Modern Anti-Semitism

Recognizing this is the key to understanding the difference between classical and modern anti-Semitism.

In earlier times the nations did indeed recognize the glory of our holiness, even if they did not respect our wisdom. In earlier ages our detractors saw us as an exotic and foreign people, accusing us of being strangers who were very different from all other nations. They came at us alleging that we deliberately chose to be different and apart, as they noted that the openings of our tents did not face those of our neighbors, and that we had marked off the outer perimeters of our domains. Classical anti-semitism faulted the Jews for standing apart, but it never came to despise or disrespect Judaism. Never did ancient Jewry experience their enemy’s abhorrence. Jews knew that deep down their enemies respected and admired them. The old Jew, burdened by the weight of adhering to the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, went about in the land with a raised arm and unbowed head. The hatred of his detractors was the result of their envying his hidden strengths and the beauty of his existence. On the one hand the anti-semite never understood the eternal Jew, and was unable to penetrate into the inner dynamic of his world. This failure to comprehend the Jew led to perpetual hatred for this eternal people. But on the other hand the anti-semite did not deny the Jews’ transcendental strength or the elevated beauty that God had bestowed on this people to ennoble its life with radiance and dignity. Our enemies knew that in spite of our lowly condition and physical poverty, we stood astride the cosmos and attained eternity. They may have attacked Knesset Yisrael, but against their will they recognized the holiness and dignity of its soul. In the words of King Solomon, in their eyes Israel was black (shechorah) – but it was also beautiful (naavah) (Song of Songs 1:5.)

But now the cursed eternal Jew who was also so mysterious and incomprehensible, whose impenetrable existence could not be figured out, is no more. In his stead there is the modern Jew, all suited and perfumed, his soul and spirit revealed to all, filled with intellect and modern thought. How does the anti-semite respond to such a person of high culture? The anti-semite now deals with a cultured man who seems similar to all men, and inhabits the same sphere with them. No longer are there differing values, spiritual strangeness, or withdrawal from the world at large. The Jew is not distinguished by a unique spiritual quality. He has no specific philosophical outlook to set him apart. Instead he seeks the approval of his peers. He generously contributes of his spirit and intellect to general culture, as an artist, scientist, politician, philosopher, author and journalist, participating in cultural creativity with every fiber of his being. He is open to many ideas and worships many gods. And yet – he is no less hated by his intellectual peers and colleagues, by the students who benefit so much from his wisdom, and by the world of culture that surrounds him.

This new hatred differs from other forms of bigotry that have arisen in our time. This hatred is not the result of envy but the result of disgust and abhorrence.  The anti-semites mock us, saying “where now is the eternal and mysterious Jew who used to possess transcendental aspirations and lofty ideals? Where is his spiritual courage, pride, strength and humility? Where the ancient glory and the eternal radiance that once characterized him? It must be that the eternal Jew who saw visions of the divine has become just another citizen of the marketplace, one who has absorbed all of the dirt of the public domain, in his yearning to embrace a life of ease and comfort. That mysterious Jew who was the hero of ancient tales, and whose exotic visage cast such fear upon us, now stands revealed to us as a simple creature of flesh and blood who aspires merely to the enjoyment of physical pleasures and the joys of this world. He has none of the fire of the prophets, or the stubbornness of the Maccabees, or the sanctity of the Nazirites. Neither does he rise ethically or in his life-style above his contemporaries, so why did we fear him?”

Thoughts such as these bring such people to a hatred and enmity that amount to nothing but loathing. Our contemporary anti-semitism contains no awe, fear, or envy that are the result of admiration, but instead expresses disdain and revulsion that bring shame and indignity upon our people.

So, as between hatred that is the result of envy, or hatred that is the result of disdain, which is preferable?

Editors Comments

  1.  It is remarkable how thoroughly the Rav embraced the primacy in Judaism of the heart over the mind, the predominance of warm feelings over cold logic. After all the Rav was a leading practitioner of Brisker intellectualism, whose forebears followed in the austere footsteps of the Vilna Gaon. Even his academic studies and degrees were steeped in Kantian logic and rationalism. And yet the Rav here places emotion and feeling at the very center of the religious life, relegating intellectual speculation to a secondary role. In this he explicitly chooses R. Yehudah Halevy (“the Jewish people is the heart of the world”) over Rambam, joining with the former in seeing the Jewish people as the unique “heart” among the nations. The acquisition of wisdom is not the defining characteristic of the Jew – rather it is the pursuit of a life of holiness and purity through the mitzvos of the Torah. To think otherwise is to fall into a modernist trap that betrays a fundamental teaching of the Torah.
  2. We can also note the anti-elitist corollary of this position: a Jew embraces the Shechinah by reciting a brachah and then holding the Four Species of Sukkos. He transcends the physical world by reciting the Hallel, esrog in hand. This is a religion for the masses, not just for the intellectual or moral elite, or for the talmid chacham. This is far indeed from the elevated standing of the chosen few described in the parable of the palace found in the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed (Guide 3:51).
  3. This brings us to the central thesis of this section. For the Rav, in opposition to many Jews of modernity, anti-semitism is a constant, a given, a matter of fate. Nothing the Jew does can prevent its emergence. Not assimilation or the embrace of non-Jewish values and behaviors. Not even unparalleled Jewish contributions (read “Nobel Prizes” et al) to the well-being and progress of humanity in every imaginable sphere. Surely the rise of Hitler was proof that those Jews who thought that by being good citizens of the world who had cast off their Jewish markers they would be freed from the scourge of anti-semitism, were completely mistaken. To the contrary, says the Rav, the more Jews transcend their Jewish otherness or (as he calls it) “exoticism,” and the more they reject the life of holiness and mitzvos, the less the anti-semites respect them. At least in the past, the bigot grudgingly recognized the holiness, purity, and eternity of the Jewish soul. But now that so many Jews are indistinguishable from their fellow citizens, and bereft of the unique spiritual qualities that were always the source of Jewish strength, the anti-semite for the first time in history has nothing but scorn and disgust for the Jew, irrespective of all that individual Jews have contributed to the enrichment of the cultural life of society at large. Paradoxically, it seems, the more the Jew contributes and assimilates, and the more he loses his unique otherness and distinctive identity, the less he is respected, and the more he becomes an object of disgust and revulsion.
  4. An instructive recent illustration of this point can be found in the recently released Notebooks of Martin Heidegger. To the dismay of all those who have admired his work, this eminent German philosopher now stands revealed as a thorough and unrepentant Nazi. Most interesting, is Heidegger’s characterization of the modern Jew, in which he writes “contemporary Jewry’s increase in power finds its basis in the fact that Western metaphysics – above all in its modern incarnation – offers fertile ground for the dissemination of empty rationality and calculability…” He accuses the Jews of excessive intellectualism, and the loss of loyalty to their historical “national community.” In the past, Heidegger wrote, the Jews lived as a separate nation or “race,” but now as Jews seek to assimilate and be accepted by other peoples, there is a world-wide cosmopolitan Jewish conspiracy to alienate the world’s peoples from their rootedness in soil and nationality. (See Richard Wolin, in The Jewish Review of Books 5:2, pp. 40ff.)
  5. Hence, for the Rav, we can understand the emergence of an unprecedented persecution of the Jews. In this respect it is the discarding of Jewish separateness and holiness itself which leads to the heightened oppression of the Jew, who is now not only hated. The Jew is also an object of disgust in his utter loss of community and nationality on account of his excessive “rationality” and “calculability.”
  6. The Rav’s analysis of classical versus modern anti-semitism, written during the unfolding of the Shoah, has many ramifications for the modern Jew. One might argue that much of the recent growth of anti-semitism is connected to the State of Israel in relation to the Moslem world, and thus the Rav’s thesis has only limited application to such changed circumstances. On the other hand, if one views the State of Israel (or modern Zionism) as a stand-in for the historical Jew, one can argue that the Rav’s analysis remains quite relevant to the realities of today. If the State of Israel is to be seen as merely a state of the Jews, one in which Jews can live securely and in freedom like every other nation-state, contributing in a variety of not particularly Jewish ways to world-culture, and without the state bearing an essentially Jewish character, then the Rav’s critique of the modern Jew in relation to anti-semitism remains intact in application to this “state of the Jews.”
  7. But if Israel can be a specifically “Jewish State”, one that preserves the uniqueness of the Jew and of Jewish life, seeking to enhance the spiritual and moral identity of the Jewish people by strengthening all that has always identified the Jews as a special or holy nation, both ethically and religiously. If Israel is such a state then it will be a country and a society that will be respected and recognized as the modern-day embodiment of the ancient and glorious Kingdom of Israel, filled with justice and goodness both within and beyond its borders, even if it has the ineluctable fate of always being beset by cruel enemies and detractors.
  8. In that respect, which path the State and the Jewish people will follow is the ultimate issue that confronts the State of Israel, and the Jewish people, in our time.

About Basil Herring

Rabbi Basil Herring PhD has headed a number of congregations, taught at various colleges, published a number of volumes and studies in contemporary Halachah, medieval Jewish philosophy and Bible, and best Rabbinic practices. A past Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Caucus and Rabbinical Council of America (the RCA), he is the editor of the recently published Avodat Halev Siddur of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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