While We Were Sleeping

By Barbara Spectre

The Jewish world has certainly been awake and on the alert regarding a multitude of worries and problems that affect us. Certainly, we have been vigilant with regard to Europe. Certainly, we have been attentive to the rise of xenophobic populism in Europe, to the alienated immigrant populations with strong anti-Zionist sentiments, to fanatics and horrendous anti-Semitic acts, all leading to our grave anxiety for the safety and well-being of Jews in Europe. Certainly, we have been aware that hostile political EU and unilateral positions across the continent might lead to the disruption of economic ties with Israel’s greatest trading partner. How could we have been asleep when haunting us is the thought that even if Europe wanted to rid itself of Jews, it is obvious that Jews cannot rid themselves of Europe? The memories torture us, and the future threatens us.

So it would seem.

But nevertheless we might have been caught sleeping. Perhaps it was because of all these concerns that we were dulled to something towards what has been happening in Europe that  is of import for the Jewish people. A revolution of types has taken place and is reflected in a startling statement issued this summer in a document entitled “The Glämsta Declaration.”

“We are a group of activists, thinkers, and artists united by a commitment to the renewal of Jewish life and culture in Europe. In recent years, matters relating to anti-Semitism, the Shoah, and the State of Israel have come to define Jewish interaction with the larger European community. While we acknowledge the importance of these topics, we are also concerned that an exclusive focus on them does not do justice to the richness and breadth of what Jewish life and culture have to offer. We strongly believe, in particular, that Jewish thought and experience can make important contributions to the on-going endeavor for a more just and democratic Europe. To that end, we propose the following points:

  1. European Jewish cultures – past, present, and future – are as much Jewish as they are European. We see European Jewish cultures as integral to Europe and no less indispensable to Europe’s self-understanding than, for example, the legacy of Classical Antiquity or the ideas of the Enlightenment. For this reason, we do not think that divisions of Jewish life and culture in terms of “centre” and “Diaspora” are helpful models. We rather think of the Jewish world as constituted by a multiplicity of centres which exist in relation to one another, and to the societies of which they are part.
  2. We envision the Beit Midrash, the house of study, as the centre of Jewish community life. A key element in our project is to reclaim the Beit Midrash and its methodologies in order to engage Jewish texts not simply as sources of authority, but as sources of inspiration, questioning, and discovery. Where there are texts, there is always intertextuality. Texts invite other texts, including those from other traditions, and they call for renewed readings and interpretations. We believe that the doors of the Beit Midrash should be open to all, regardless of background, who share a common love of learning and inquiry. Diversity should be actively encouraged as a way to incorporate new perspectives and understandings. In the spirit of the Beit Midrash, we also encourage rabbis and community leaders to welcome creative dissent and to facilitate conversations around controversial issues through the learning of texts.
  3. Number of members, by itself, is not an adequate measurement of the vibrancy of Jewish communal life. What others may read as a weakness in population size is for us an historical opportunity for deeper engagement with our broader communities. The maintenance of a thriving Jewish space requires, and signifies, the cooperation of people with diverse personal relations and affinities with the Jewish tradition – whether identifying themselves as Jews or otherwise. The Jewish space, centred on the Beit Midrash, should provide access to all those – Jews, non-Jews, and all in-between or undefined – who are eager yet who remain estranged from the vital elements of Jewish culture. Jewish space should offer a unique meeting point for Jews and non-Jews to learn together from our different traditions, to reclaim and renew the neglected aspects of our overlapping yet distinct heritages.
  4. Jewish thought and experience have important insights to contribute to the European project. European Jewish communities can provide a model for minority citizenship based on the principle of integration without assimilation. The long history of multifaceted identities among European Jews can serve as a useful precedent at a time when transnational biographies and identities are becoming increasingly common in Europe. And last but not least, we believe that Jewish thought can contribute to the European quest for universal values by providing examples of how universalizing claims are constantly examined in light of a multiplicity of voices.

“We recognize that the future of Jewish life and culture in Europe is far from certain. We are concerned about the consequences of rising populism and xenophobic tendencies throughout Europe, as well as the tensions and acts of violence against various communities perceived as “non-European”, including Jewish, Muslim, Roma, Sinti, and immigrant groups. But it is precisely for this reason that we lay claim to a stake in Europe’s future, and are committed to making a contribution. The renewal of Jewish life and culture in Europe is for us inextricably linked to the success of the European endeavor as a whole.”

This is startling. This series of declarations should awaken our attention. Even if we focus only on the second point: a group of young activists and intellectuals proclaim that they see as their home in Judaism as the Beit Midrash. This says as much as it doesn’t say. They see this, and not the synagogue, as the center of the Jewish community. They might not be denying the importance of the synagogue; they simply don’t see it as the vortex of their Jewish lives.

Who are these people that made this proclamation? Who do they represent? And is this claim thick enough to sustain Jewish life?

Who they are could awe us. The statement itself was made by 10 activist/learners/intellectuals who retreated for a week of deliberation in Stockholm, but they represent a much wider constituency. They represent a dynamic and growing group of young European Jewish community leaders, intellectuals, activists – activists meaning people who are creating Jewish life in Europe through establishing more new projects for Jewish life per person than even in the US – and intellectuals who insist that the reclaiming of Jewish culture be based upon content – all of whom are not content that a discourse of victimhood and support for Israel should constitute the solitary defining facets of Judaism in Europe.

While we were sleeping, or more correctly, while we were alert only to the threats to Jewish life in Europe, something profound of another nature has been taking place. A depth of Jewish culture is being reclaimed. Thousands of people, united by their passion for learning, most between the ages of 25-40, declare their commitment to the future of the European Jewish community. And through their commitment, they declare their dedication to the future of the European community. They understand their responsibility to represent a model of minority citizenship throughout Europe. They are not fearful of uncertainties; they enjoy complexities; they have the tools to distinguish between pluralism and relativism. They understand Jewish culture as open – even refusing to use the notion ‘think-tank’ because, as they state, a tank is sealed, impervious to its surroundings. They called themselves “Beit Makshavah” – a place of thought.

One among them once stated, “We take upon ourselves ‘the yoke of learning.’” That too says as much as it doesn’t say. The traditional phrase is: ‘the yoke of commandments.’ But is a house of learning and a place of thought durable enough to sustain Jewish identity? This group would claim ‘yes’. If we are skeptical, we might want to consider the implications of a statement made some time ago by Professor Moshe Halbertal. When addressing a group of Paideia Fellows, he brought attention to the revolution in thought that took place together with the destruction of the Temple. The Temple, after all, was the dwelling-place of God. Where was the divine to be found after its decimation? The revolution was the place to which God was re-located. He was to be found… not in the Temple, now destroyed. Rather, His Face was to be found on the pages of the Talmud.

These people of the Glämsta declaration, religious or not, have found the Face of God on the pages of Jewish text.

Cynics among us will question the significance of their statement and of these persons. Some might find their understanding of Judaism disruptive; others will find it refreshing. In either case, we should awaken to their presence, for if ideas have power, then theirs is the future.

If you want to join their forces, you can sign the Glämsta declaration at makhshava.org/glamsta-declaration

Barbara Spectre is founding director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden.