Remembering Our Identity
by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff
According to the recently published Pew Survey of U.S. Jews, a staggering 73% of Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is “an essential part of what being Jewish means to them.” In fact, more Jews chose “remembering the Holocaust” as an indispensable component of Jewishness than any other alternative.
What does this response convey? If “remembering the Holocaust” is an essential part of what it means to be Jewish, then it follows that a substantial core of Jewish identity is primarily defined by heinous acts committed by Nazis upon Jews. In a tragic twist of history, it is the enemy who now writes the story of Jewish identity and who determines its emphases.
Perhaps even more regrettably, this “essential” feature of being Jewish is characterized by gaping loss, appalling destruction, and unremitting sadness. Hence, according to the popular view, the most pivotal component of Jewishness actually emerged post-1933 in the form of a horrendous cataclysm that was fashioned by others; and Jewishness is devoted to recalling this nightmare so that nobody should forget what happened.
There is, moreover, an element in the Israeli collective psyche that seems to believe the same thing. Why else would every president, prime minister, and royal be whisked directly to Yad VaShem, no matter how brief their stop in Israel? The implicit message of the required tour is unmistakable: “you can’t really understand who we are, or what we stand for, or even why we’re here in Israel until you confront this central touchstone of our being.”
Never mind that the Jewish sojourn in the land of Israel goes back three thousand years. Never mind that the Jewish people has always had a national vision and a collective objective and a compelling history that is quite distinct from the suffering inflicted by multiple oppressors throughout the centuries. Never mind that – living with sovereignty and strength – it is long past time for Jews in both Israel and America to delineate Jewishness in terms of a self-defined set of aspirations, rather than an externally imposed series of persecutions. Never mind all of this … when asked to reduce the Jewish state to one emblematic site, Yad VaShem is at the top of the list.
Let there be no doubt: it is vitally important to remember the Holocaust and its lessons. But it is also vitally important to acknowledge that remembering the Holocaust is no more essential to being Jewish than remembering 9-11 is essential to being American. Both memories are of great consequence, but neither shapes the “essential meaning” of the nation.
So what is essential to Jewishness? What vital elements should a president or prime minister be shown in order to understand the central thrust of the Jewish odyssey through history?
The enduring focus of Jewish life is surely its attempt to elevate civilization. From the time when Abraham assumed the mandate to build a world based on justice and righteousness, Judaism has sought to innovate in order to foment positive change. Historically, Jews were never content simply to “repair the world”. Judaism wanted to transform it.
Small wonder that the British historian, Paul Johnson details how Judaism produced the “idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”
It was, furthermore, the Dutch archaeologist Henri Frankfort who offered the view that “Israel’s great achievement, so apparent that mention of it is almost trite, was monotheism … an achievement that transformed subsequent history.” And no lesser figure than Tolstoy himself wrote that it is the Jew “who for so long guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind.”
There is an unmistakable pattern here. Judaism has consistently sought to be an engine of ideas for civilization itself. It has attempted to enhance civilization by bringing ground-breaking ideas to the table, and by working to implement them. Those big ideas are the enduring monuments of Jewish life. They are the defining characteristics of what Judaism has sought to contribute.
It is in vogue nowadays to apply the term “startup nation” to Israel because of its buoyant high-tech sector. But ancient Israel was, in many ways, a “startup civilization” that produced extraordinary inventions. The weekend was built on the Jewish idea of a weekly day of rest. The rejection of slavery as a norm propelled civilization along the road to freedom. And the Hebrew Bible’s bias towards the downtrodden created a widespread impetus to help the less fortunate.
These central ideas, and many more, formed a framework for imagining and constructing a very different type of world … a world that the Nazis would ultimately come to reject. The Nazis, after all, did not just aim to murder Jews, they aspired to extinguish the fundamental concepts of Judaism that the world had embraced. Hitler could not have been more explicit when he pronounced that “the Ten Commandments have lost their validity.” Amplifying the point he avowed that “conscience is a Jewish invention,” and “I am freeing man from the … self-mortification of a false vision called conscience and morality, and from the demands of a freedom and independence which only a very few can bear.” It is ironic indeed that so many Jews now believe that a vital part of being Jewish is to be found in recalling the Nazi repudiation of the essential core of Judaism. A revised outlook is overdue.
In the final analysis, it would be a more authentic approach, and would provide a more beneficial vision, to affirm what has always been an essential part of Judaism: the application of conducive ideas to the challenge of combatting evil and to the goal of enhancing civilization for all.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff is a noted teacher and researcher in Jewish ethics. He lives in Jerusalem and is the founder and president of MoJI, the Museum of Jewish Ideas.