Chapter 7: Mingle Bells
To Be Jewish, or Not to Be Jewish—That Is the Question
One of the most important prayers on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is known as Maftir[i] Yonah (Jonah), during which the entire book of Jonah is read. The story of Prophet Jonah symbolizes more than anything the ambivalence that our people feels toward its role in the world.
Admittedly, it is not a pleasant task to be the eternal wet blanket. Even within our own nation, prophets rarely had it easy or were treated with gratitude for saving us from calamity and affliction. Yet, prophets always carried out their tasks. They were compelled to do so by the dread of the torment that would otherwise befall their unsuspecting brethren, so they could not keep quiet.
Jonah tried his hardest to avoid his mission. He hid his identity as a Hebrew and boarded a ship that sailed to Tarshish, away from Nineveh, where the Creator had told him to prophesy. But as we know, the Creator found him in the ship and the sailors discovered his identity and threw him overboard, where he was tormented in the bowels of a fish. Finally, after he repented (praying from the bowels of the fish), he went to Nineveh and prophesied. Thanks to Jonah’s repentance, the residents of Nineveh learned about the correction required of them, executed it, the city was spared, and its people were pardoned.
Interestingly, Nineveh was not a Hebrew city. It was the most populous city in the Assyrian Empire and a prosperous trade hub. Yet, the Lord commanded Jonah to prophesy to them so they might better their ways and avoid affliction. This, again, indicates that the path of correction and attainment of the Creator was not meant for Jews alone, but for all of humanity. How symbolic it is that we read this story on the most Jewish day of the year—Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement.
Thus, Jonah’s story epitomizes the dilemma of Jewish people throughout the generations. On the one hand, we are the chosen people, intended to show the way to the light to all the nations. On the other hand, we insistently and futilely try to avoid our fate because the message of mutual guarantee and unity that we bring is unpleasant to the listener’s ego, as we are all born self-centered and want to remain that way.
When the Jews returned from the exile in Babel to build the Second Temple, those who remained behind assimilated so thoroughly among their host nations that they gradually disappeared. The Jewish Encyclopedia[ii] writes that once freed from captivity in Babylon, Jews gradually spread to Syria, Egypt, and Greece—mainly as slaves, but rather inadequate ones, so they had no trouble being ransomed and freed.
“Besides,” informs The Jewish Encyclopedia, “owing to the close solidarity, which is one of the lasting traits of the Jewish race, they had no difficulty finding coreligionists willing to pay the amount of their ransom.”[iii] However, continues the encyclopedia, “The Jews thus freed, instead of returning to Palestine, usually remained in the land of their former slavery, and there, in conjunction with their brethren in faith, established communities. According to the formal testimony of Philo (Legatio ad Caium, §23), the Jewish community in Rome owed its origin to released prisoners of war.”[iv] From Rome, the Jews went on to spread through the rest of Europe.
Once liberated from Babylon, however, a minority of the Hebrews returned to the Land of Israel, and their descendents are what we now know as “the Jewish people.” After the ruin of the Second Temple, they wished to assimilate. Yet, unlike their former brethren, whose traces cannot be found today, the Jews who were exiled from Jerusalem and Judea did not mingle to the point of disappearance. Had that happened, the purpose for which the Jews exist, namely the revelation of the Creator to the rest of the nations, would have been defeated.
Indeed, when we attempted to mingle and assimilate, we were often reminded of our heritage. In some of these cases we were harshly driven back into Judaism, or remained as outcasts in our new religions. Today, many Jews are still trying to assimilate into their host cultures, but for all the apparent success in some countries, history shows that it usually fails, and the Jewish task mandates that it should.
Particularly notable examples of Jewish assimilation and rejection took place in 14th and 15th century Spain, and in Germany, before and during World War II and the Holocaust, resulting in the extermination of virtually the entire European Jewry. Although much has been said and written about those two epochs in Jewish history, it is worthwhile to note some similarities that could point to a repetitive trend we might use as an augury. We will address those periods one at a time, and conclude with reflections on today’s most prominent Jewry outside of Israel—that of the United States.
[i] The haftarah (parting) reading follows the Torah reading on each Sabbath and on Jewish festivals and fast days. The reader of the haftarah is called maftir.
[ii] “Diaspora,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, url: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5169-diaspora.