Chapter 7: Mingle Bells
To Be Jewish, or Not to Be Jewish—That Is the Question
The Land of Unlimited Possibilities
Once entrenched as a major force in Germany, Reform Judaism spread to the United States, Hungary and a number of countries in Western Europe. This was a result of the emancipation of the German Jewry.[i] A similar process of dispersion occurred with Conservative Judaism,[ii] and the two denominations became the predominant religious forces in United States Jewry by the mid 1800s.
In Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, Professor Michael A. Meyer of Hebrew Union College writes that while Reform Judaism in Germany constantly had to defend itself from both the entrenched Orthodox establishment and from government intervention, these impediments did not exist in the US. “True, individually and collectively, Americans were not entirely free of prejudice,” Meyer adds, “but in the United States there was no government control over religion, no conservative established church to set the pattern of religious life.”[iii]
Thus, Reform and Conservative Judaism found in America a land of unlimited possibilities. The mindset of amalgamation with the host, predominantly Christian society, has finally found fertile soil in which to grow. According to Prof. Meyer, “German Jews could never really feel they were partners in shaping the destiny of the nation with which they so much identified. The United States was different in this regard as well. Like the major European nations it had its own profound sense of mission, but that mission rested upon a destiny not only unfulfilled but not even wholly determined. In America, Reform Jews could feel that their own concept of mission might be woven into a larger still inchoate national purpose.”[iv]
Indeed, with the obvious exception of Israel, the contribution of Jews to the shaping of a nation has never been more substantial than it has, and still is in the United States. Be it economy, entertainment, education, politics, or any other aspect of American life, the Jews play a major, if not leading role.
Never in all of history have Jews been in a better position to fulfill the role for which they were chosen. They are embedded in every corner of American public life and entrenched in the mediums that determine public discourse and public opinion. Considering the predominance of American culture worldwide, the Jews can now affect change that will impact the entire world.
Put differently, despite antagonism toward the United States coming from other powerful nations, the global culture—and therefore social standards—is still predominantly American. The dominant films come from America, pop music comes primarily from America, the main news outlets come from America, and the internet is dominated by American companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. In a sense, America is to the world what New York is to America—if you make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
American Jews, therefore, bear a greater responsibility for offering what they must than any other Jewry, perhaps excluding that of the state of Israel. If American Jewry unites and projects the values of mutual guarantee, the rest of American society will follow. Today, many Americans understand that the principles on which the American Dream was fashioned no longer hold true. Rampant egotism and an excessive sense of self-entitlement have consumed everything that was good about the freedom to speak your mind, to initiate, to work hard and succeed, and to live by your faith.
There is so much violence, distrust, competition, and exploitation in American society that unless a major shift happens very soon, the society will implode. And if that happens, the Jews, as always, will be held at fault. Arguments about Jewish contribution to science, culture, and economy will be rebuffed, and the Jews will be the obvious wrongdoers in everyone’s eyes. Anti-Semitism that has been latent for several generations will roar to the surface, and a repeat of the horrors of Nazi Germany cannot be ruled out.
As we have seen throughout this book, Jews and non-Jews alike are keenly aware that the Jews are essentially a task force, a unit built for a very specific mission. In 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a platform which it titled, “Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective.” In that platform the conference announced, “We have learned that the survival of the Jewish people is of highest priority and that in carrying out our Jewish responsibilities, we help move humanity toward its messianic fulfillment.” [v]
Indeed, currently, the Jewish people are the only nation within which cohesion and subsequent revelation, attainment, and acquisition of the quality of the Creator, the quality of bestowal, are possible. Our “messianic fulfillment,” whether the conference delegations were aware of it or not, is for all the nations to obtain the qualities just mentioned and enjoy their benefits. Until we fulfill our role, the world will keep blaming us for every adversity and plight that comes upon it. And the more we avoid our mission, the more harshly they will force us back to it.
Prophet Jonah should be a reminder to every Jew that our vocation is preordained and non-negotiable. We can follow it willingly and reap its benefits, or follow it unwillingly and reap the punishments of the world, as history has proven so many times.
In a very willing spirit, the platform’s final section is aptly titled, “Hope: Our Jewish Obligation.” In that section, CCAR takes a paramount commitment (emphases are the editor’s): “…our people has always refused to despair. The survivors of the Holocaust, being granted life, seized it, nurtured it, and, rising above catastrophe, showed humankind that the human spirit is indomitable. The State of Israel … demonstrates what a united people can accomplish in history. The existence of the Jew is an argument against despair; Jewish survival is warrant for human hope.
“We remain God’s witness that history is not meaningless. We affirm that with God’s help people are not powerless to affect their destiny. We dedicate ourselves, as did the generations of Jews who went before us, to work and wait for that day when ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’”[vi]
Indeed, history, especially Jewish history, is not meaningless. It has an educational purpose: to teach us our role in life and to show us the right way from the wrong way, the blissful path from the painful one. Yet, it is our choice which way we want to go.
In his “Introduction to the Book of Zohar,” 20th century Kabbalist, Baal HaSulam, relates specifically to the role of the Jewish people at this time: “Bear in mind that in everything there is internality and externality. In the world in general, Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are considered the internality of the world [closest to the Creator], and the seventy nations [the rest of the nations] are considered the externality of the world. …Also, there is internality in every person from Israel—the Israel within—which is the point in the heart [desire for the Creator, for bestowal], and there is externality—the inner Nations of the World [all other desires]…
“When a person from Israel enhances and dignifies one’s internality, which is the Israel in that person, over the externality, which are the Nations of the World in him … by so doing, one makes the children of Israel soar upward in the internality, and externality of the world as well. Then the nations of the world … recognize and acknowledge the value of the children of Israel.
“And if, God forbid, it is to the contrary, and an individual from Israel enhances and appreciates one’s externality, which is the nations of the world in him, more than the inner Israel in him, as it is written (Deuteronomy 28), ‘The stranger that is in the midst of thee,’ meaning the externality in that person rises and soars, and you yourself, the internality, the Israel in you, plunges down? With these actions, one causes the externality of the world in general—the nations of the world—to soar ever higher and overcome Israel, degrading them to the ground, and the children of Israel, the internality in the world, to plunge deep down.
“Do not be surprised that one person’s actions bring elevation or decline to the whole world, for it is an unbending law that the general and the particular are as identical as two peas in a pod. And all that applies in the general, applies in the particular, as well. Moreover, the parts make what is found in the whole, for the general can appear only after the appearance of the parts in it, according to the quantity and quality of the parts. Evidently, the value of an act of a part elevates or declines the entire whole.”[vii]
Moreover, continues Baal HaSulam, “When one increases one’s toil in the internality of the Torah and its secrets [exerts to attain the Creator], to that extent one makes the virtue of the internality of the world—which are Israel—soar high above the externality of the world, which are the Nations of the World. And all the nations will acknowledge and recognize Israel’s merit over them, until the realization of the words, ‘And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord’ (Isaiah 14, 2), and also ‘Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and set up my standard to the peoples: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried on their shoulders’ (Isaiah 49:22).
“But if, God forbid, it is to the contrary, and a person from Israel degrades the virtue of the internality of the Torah and its secrets, which deals with the conduct of our souls and their degrees [attainment of the Creator and conveyance of that attainment] … [the nations] will humiliate and disgrace the children of Israel, and regard Israel as superfluous, as though the world has no need for them.”[viii]
When that happens, he adds, “the externality of the entire world, being the Nations of the World, intensify and revoke the Children of Israel—the internality of the world. In such a generation, all the destructors among the Nations of the World raise their heads and wish primarily to destroy and to kill the Children of Israel, as it is written (Yevamot 63), ‘No calamity comes to the world but for Israel.’ This means, as it is written in the above corrections, that they cause poverty, ruin, robbery, killing, and destruction in the whole world.”[ix]
In conclusion, if we carry out our role and pass on the light of benevolence to the world, the quality of the Creator, the internality that Baal HaSulam speaks of, then “the internality of the Nations of the World, the Righteous of the Nations of the World, will overpower and submit their externality, which are the destructors. And the internality of the world, too, which is Israel, shall rise in all their merit and virtue over the externality of the world, which are the nations. Then, all the nations of the world will recognize and acknowledge Israel’s merit over them.
“And they shall follow the words (Isaiah 14:2), ‘And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord.’ And also (Isaiah 49:22), ‘And they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried on their shoulders.’”[x] (Repetition of the quotes is in the original text.)
It may seem like a hefty task for such a small number of people to make such a great difference in the world, but in truth, the success or failure of our efforts depends on one and one thing only—our unity. And so, to remind ourselves of the paramount role that unity plays in our success as a nation and in the success of our mission, the next chapter will be dedicated to the words of our sages throughout the ages as they describe their thoughts about unity. Subsequently, we will examine the means by which we can achieve that unity.
[i] Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Ed: Jonathan Frankel, Steven J. Zipperstein, 12.
[ii] “Conservative Judaism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, url: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/133461/Conservative-Judaism
[iii] Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Detroit, US: Wayne State University Press, 1995), 226.
[iv] Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, 227.
[v] Reform Judaism: A Centenary Perspective, Adopted in San Francisco – 1976 (Oct. 27, 2004), url: http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/reform-judaism-centenary-perspective/
[vii] Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), The Writings of Baal HaSulam, “Introduction to the Book of Zohar” (Ashlag Research Institute, Israel, 2009), 450-453.