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Are Jewish Intolerance and Extremism the Real Threat to the Community’s Long-Run Viability

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2003

What Shall I Do with This People?  
by Milton Viorst,  
The Free Press,  
287 Pages,  

There is increasing discussion at the present time about the future of Jews and Judaism in the United States and other Western countries, as well as the future security and viability of the state of Israel.  

Some observers blame anti-Semitism, on the one hand, and assimilation, on the other, as threatening the American Jewish future. Religious intermarriage has been characterized by some as a “silent Holocaust.” In the case of Israel, Arab intransigence is identified as the cause of continuing violence and strife.  

The real problem, however, may be much closer to home. In a thoughtful and important new book, What Shall I Do with This People?, author Milton Viorst, who has spent his professional life combining the disciplines of journalism and history and has worked for three decades in the Middle East, examines the long history of sharp Jewish divisions and intolerance.  

Ideological Battle  

The author of twelve books, Viorst believes that not since the destruction of the Second Temple have Jews displayed such hostility toward one another or battled so fiercely over ideology. These battles are not just intellectual exercises but have exacted a fearsome price in today’s Middle East. Framed by the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an Orthodox extremist, the book examines how religious leaders through the centuries have shaped Judaism to serve their own political ends, with often disastrous consequences.  

“What shall I do with this people?” was Moses’ exasperated question to God at Sinai, and it is posed once more in Viorst’s account of the crisis in Judaism today.  

The book title comes from Exodus 17. In this account, the Israelites, having complained continually since their deliverance from Egypt, complain that they are thirsty. Moses cries to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!” Later in Exodus 32, with Moses apparently missing on Mount Sinai, the Israelites demand of his brother Aaron that he fashion them an idol - the golden calf. A wrathful God decides to eliminate this “stiff-necked people,” whom He had chosen to receive the Ten Commandments, but Moses persuades Him to reconsider. Viorst sees this as a key moment in Jewish history. “It is not too much,” he writes, “to visualize Jewish history as essentially the interaction of the protagonists of the Exodus, maneuvering within the framework of the two poles of the covenant and the golden calf.”  

Jewish Factionalism  

Jewish factionalism through history is described, from the Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots of antiquity to the liberal Jews versus the ultra-Orthodox and messianic nationalists in modern Israel who, in Viorst’s view, seem to be replaying ancient antagonisms.  

The “stiff-necked” posture “that expressed an inner strength in some circumstances,” writes Viorst, “took the form of mindless obstinacy in others ... Jewish history shows that when a stiff-necked nature manifests itself in persistent defiance of reality, its consequences can be catastrophic ... in two wars against Rome, the superpower of the age, the Jews, being a tiny nation with limited resources, should never have been waged. These wars resulted in the annihilation of the state, the destruction of the holy Temple and the scattering of the people to the ends of the earth.”  

Repeatedly throughout history, Viorst shows, extremists have led Jews to disaster. The Bible says that during Babylonia’s siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah the Prophet fought bitterly with Zedekiah, Judah’s king, over whether to surrender to the powerful enemy. Both purported to speak for the Jews, but Jeremiah’s fidelity was to God, Zedekiah’s to the kingdom. “Thus said the God of Israel,” Jeremiah declared, claiming as religious leaders do, divine authority. “If you surrender to the officers of the king of Babylonia, your life will be spared and this city will not be burned down ... But if you do not surrender, this city will be delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans (Babylon’s dominant tribe), who will burn it down; and you will not escape from them.”  

Faith Over Sovereignty  

Viorst writes, “Responding with common sense, Jeremiah’s argument in reality urged giving the Jews’ faith priority over Judah’s sovereignty. If Jews were free to worship God, he reasoned, the kingdom’s fall was of little importance. The king’s reply was that worship was of less importance than sovereignty ... Theirs was the first clash on record between religious and secular values, a dispute that endures to this day. As king, Zedekiah had the authority to settle the argument. He arrested Jeremiah and threw him into a muddy pit. ... The Book of Kings tells us that the Babylonians ... torched the ‘king’s palace, all the houses ... and tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side!’ ... they also ‘burned the House of the Lord,’ Solomon’s great handiwork. ... The Babylonians, following the practice of the time, proceeded to carry off Judah’s population. ... Not surprisingly, the Jews were hardly happy with the arrangement. A few years after the defeat, extremists among them assassinated a Jewish governor appointed by the victors, but the murder did not advance their cause. On the contrary, the Babylonians executed hundreds of Jews in reprisal, and added more to the community in bondage. This was not the last time that extremists would lead the Jews to calamity.”  

Later, the rebellion against the Seleucids which took place under the banner of the Hasmonaeans, a priestly family also known as the Maccabees - which is celebrated at Hanukkah - led to further difficulties. Viorst points out that, “Conventional Jewish history has immortalized the Maccabees and exalted their triumph. ... Jews are taught that little Judea overcame huge odds to vanquish a mighty empire, saving the faith. ‘Miracle’ is often pronounced in Hanukkah celebrations. Careful historians, however, tend to be more sober. The late Israeli historian Yehoshafat Harkabi, a retired general in the Israeli army, contends that the Hasmonaeans, mobilizing popular reaction to Seleucid abuses, actually brought superior force to the battlefield ... Jews are mistaken, Harkabi writes, in making a messianic event of the Maccabean victory, attributing it to God’s munificence toward His chosen people. The belief, he says, seriously skewed Judea’s judgment on the two wars it had yet to fight against Rome. It also distorted the perception of Jews after the Six Day War of 1967, convincing many that it was a miracle wrought by God.”  

Regional Power  

Concerning the independent state the Hasmonaeans established after their victory, Viorst reports that it made Judea a regional power once again: “Pursuing the policy of Judaization, rare in Jewish history, it converted many of the Gentiles, some by force, who were living within or near its borders. But in combining the offices of king and high priest, the Hasmonaeans created a monarch without constraints. They devised a Temple-based theocracy that, ironically, they structured along Hellenist lines, imparting a character to it that was foreign to most Jews. They also tyrannized their subjects, exhausted them in dynastic wars, and squandered their popular mandate. Their excesses, like those of David’s heirs, sealed their ultimate doom.”  

In 63 B.C.E., Rome marched in and captured the country. Over the ensuing decades, the Jews spilled blood in repeated insurrections. In fact, Viorst writes, “Rome’s rule was not oppressive. Rome conventionally relied on a strong local government to administer its imperial policies, promoting no social or religious agenda. It selected a Jew named Herod, regarded as friendly, to serve as its representative with the title of king. Herod claimed descent from David and asked the Jews to accept his legitimacy.”  

Religion and Nationalism  

Instead, the Zealots led a campaign for liberation based on their belief that Jewish allegiance, belonging only to God, could be given to no mortal, not even the Roman emperor. Once again, Viorst notes, it became a debate between religion and nationalism: “... sages of a rising rabbinic class ... opposed the Zealots. Their views recapitulated Jeremiah’s in his famous debate with Zedekiah at the time of Babylonia’s attack on the First Temple. The rabbis had no quarrel with Rome as long as Jews were free to worship. They dismissed the Zealots’ efforts to wrap their nationalism in Torah. The rabbis opposed war with Rome because their interest was not in independence but in prayer. Yet the Zealots, through energy and ardor, seem to have captured wide popular favor, and they carried the day. In 66 C.E. the Jews rose up in what has come to be known as the Great Revolt. Rome called it the Jewish War, the grandest in scale that any subject people ever waged against its empire. This was the second of the three rebellions of the Judean period, and it culminated in catastrophe for the Jews. ... The Romans put the Second Temple to the torch. They leveled the entire city, and whatever Jews they did not execute they transported as slaves to the amphitheatres of Rome or the mines of Sinai.”  

Still, the Zealots were not ready to concede defeat. They barricaded themselves with their women and children in the mountain fortress of Masada and for three years held out against a Roman siege. Their resistance, which had no military purpose, ended in collective suicide. To many Israelis, these Zealots have become heroes.  

Jewish Resistance  

When Hadrian, viewed by historians as Rome’s wisest emperor, announced a plan to replace the ruins that covered Jerusalem with a new city, named after him, but in which Jews would be equal to non-Jewish residents, he met widespread resistance from Jews. Zealots in scattered clusters secretly made plans for war. Led by the warrior Bar-Kokhba, the rebellion began in 132. The Jews quickly established their authority over all Judea, including Jerusalem, but this did not last long. Viorst notes that, “Having fought initially against local contingents, the Jews were soon outnumbered by expeditionary armies from Syria, Britain and the Danube. Romans retook Judea’s walled cities and towns one by one. After three years, the rebels were pushed back to Betar, a fortress in the hills near Jerusalem. When Bar-Kokhba was killed there, the Jewish forces capitulated ... Rabbinic scholars in the ensuing centuries have not looked back kindly at the Bar-Kokhba revolt. They depicted Bar-Kokhba himself as vainglorious and rash, a false Messiah ... from King David to Bar-Kokhba, the Jews, bedazzled by nationalism, repeatedly surrendered their good judgment, with agonizing consequences.”  

Once they found themselves living outside of Judea, Jews slowly became subject to the authority of the rabbis, who sought to control every aspect of their lives. The Torah was complemented with what was called Oral Law. Viorst writes that, “The solution surely contradicted God’s instructions: ‘All this word which I command you to do, you shall not add or diminish thereto.’ Rabbis decided, nonetheless, that Oral Law was necessary, and that its authority would be equal to that of the written word. ... The Torah sets some very specific rules for the Sabbath ... Yet rabbis authorize the hiring of a Gentile - the so-called Shabbos goy - to perform chores that observant Jews regard as forbidden to themselves. In modern times, they have also shown ingenuity in approving automatic mechanisms to circumvent the long-standing ban on kindling fires on the Sabbath or, more recently, activating electric devices.”  

Orthodox Dilemma  

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, an Orthodox scholar, writes in The Essential Talmud, of the dilemma rabbis face in dealing with the biblical command, “No man shall go out of his place on the seventh day.” The words seem to bar observant Jews not just from performing work or attending synagogue but from leaving their houses at all. Some Jews throughout history have complied literally, Steinsaltz says, by staying indoors on the Sabbath. But sages, claiming to understand God’s intent, have addressed the inconvenience by circumventing the limitation. They have, he points out, contrived curious models of boundaries in space, designed to give believers a sense of lawfulness as they move about. Such contrivances, says Steinsaltz, now characterize Sabbath law. He writes, Viorst declares, “with awe not so much of the result but of the craftiness required to achieve it.”  

Orthodox rabbis have, Viorst shows, repeatedly rejected not change, which they have often themselves initiated, but liberalization. Orthodox law, for example, permits husbands to divorce their wives and remarry, while keeping the wives without Halachic divorces, leaving them unable to remarry. In Deuteronomy, it is said that should a man choose to rid himself of his wife he “may write for her a document of divorce (get), place it in her hand and send her away from his household.” The wife has no comparable power.  

Viorst writes that, “The verse, say the rabbis, makes divorce a private matter between spouses. The imbalance, a vestige of an era of Jewish polygamy, lies in the Torah’s permitting multiple marriages to men, while women can remarry only with a get in hand. In the Middle Ages, the rabbis found a way to abolish polygamy but left intact the requirement for the get. Today, some men refuse to give it out of malice, or hold it hostage to a favorable settlement on children or money. Over the centuries, rabbis ... maintain that since Halacha is immutable, they are powerless to legislate any procedural change ... Rabbinic courts routinely accept men’s denials, made to evade alimony, that they had fathered their children. The courts thus made the children illegitimate. ...”  

Halachic Decisions  

Many Halachic decisions, which in Israel often have the force of law because the Orthodox rabbinate is given official status, such as those which bar Jews from civil marriage and divorce, are, in Viorst’s view, “without explanation at all.” One of these is the ruling on matrilineal descent, which goes to the heart of Jewish identity: “Though rabbis acknowledge that it has no Torah endorsement, the Talmud says, ‘Thy son by an Israelite woman is called thy son, but thy son by a heathen woman is not called thy son.’ It means Judaism recognizes only the child of a Jewish woman as a natural-born Jew ... Nothing in the covenant with God ... explains why the sages in the Mishnaic era narrowed the definition of who is a Jew ... Orthodoxy, citing the matrilineality still denies the Jewishness of many Holocaust survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims. It even refuses burial in Jewish cemeteries to soldiers fighting for Israel if they are not matrineally Jewish.”  

Jealous of their own power and authority, the rabbinate opposed the forces of religious freedom which swept across Europe at the end of the 18th century. Viorst reports that, “Napolean’s armies had crossed Eastern Europe, sowing liberal ideas of the French Revolution. Jews no less than Gentiles wee tantalized by them. Czarist Russia, the chief enemy of liberalism, upheld the old order of anti-Semitism and absolutism. In choosing sides in this conflict, the rabbinate adopted curious standards. Rabbi Schneur Zalman, more austere than his teacher, the Besht, was now the voice of Hasidism. ‘If Bonaparte wins,’ he declared, ‘the nation of Israel will enjoy much wealth and prestige. But it will come undone, and the hearts of the people will grow distant from their Father in heaven. Whereas if our Master (Czar) Alexander wins, there will be much poverty and suffering, but the hearts of the people will draw closer to their Father in heaven.’ Rabbi Zalman’s reasoning exemplified a persistent strain among Hasidic leaders, who perceived a greater threat to their followers from secular ideology than from aggressive anti-Semitism ... The rabbi may indeed have taken satisfaction in drawing his followers ‘close to their Father in heaven.’ But at the same time, they sank deeper into poverty and pain. Ultimately, large numbers perished in the Holocaust’s fires.”  

Resisting the Enlightenment  

As the Enlightenment grew, with its prospect of admitting Europe’s Jews into the larger culture, rabbinic Judaism resisted it in every way. Recently, Rabbi Eliezer Desler, a Haredi sage in Israel, suggested that God punished the Jews with the Holocaust for failing to resist the Enlightenment more fiercely. He said: “The era of the Emancipation was given us by God to serve as a time of preparation for the Messiah. To this end, the yoke of exile was eased from upon us ... But we used the situation to mix with the Gentiles and imitate them ... Yet the Holy One Blessed Be He delays His danger. He does not punish until we have reached the limit.”  

In Eastern Europe, Orthodoxy succeeded for a century in holding the Enlightenment at bay. But in Western Europe, Jews, most notably in Germany, were eager to shed their ancient chains. Many envisaged the creation of a new Judaism, embracing enlightenment ideals. Liberal Jewish thinkers labored to frame a theology freed of what had over time become diversions from essential Judaism.  

Abraham Geiger, the outstanding intellect of the new Reform movement, preached prophetic over Talmudic Judaism. “This meant,” Viorst writes, “that he shared the priority that the Prophets gave to the needs of the downtrodden nd upheld only ritual that expressed moral and spiritual impulses. In Geiger’s eyes, Amos, Isaiah and Micah were as important to Judaism as Moses. Their ideals, rather than Talmudic law, were to him Judaism’s essence. Geiger’s writings on the Prophets remain an integral part of Reform Judaism today.”  

Freedom for All  

In America, a society with religious freedom for all, the Orthodox rabbinate refused to surrender its ancient claims but, Viorst notes, “was unable to interfere with Reform and Conservative Judaism’s religious autonomy.”  

In Israel, however, the Orthodox rabbis were given power to control the religious life of the new country. Reform and Conservative rabbis were not viewed as rabbis at all, and could not perform marriages, funerals or conversions. Beyond this, Viorst shows that Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, set forth contradictory principles: “The Israeli Declaration of Independence proclaimed the ‘natural right of the Jewish people to be the masters of their own fate,’ a phrase that embodied the Enlightenment vision of self-determination. It also decreed the Right of Return, resonating with the ideal of messianic redemption, in pledging a state ‘open for Jewish immigration and the Ingathering of the Exiles.’ Then, in vowing ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,’ it adopted the language of secular democracy ... The vows were a complex of contradictions. How could Israel bestow preferences on Jews while offering equality to others? ... To deal with these contradictions, the writers of the Declaration ... inserted a provision that a constitution was to be written within five months ... To this day, Israel, without a constitution, is ruled largely by improvisation, with relations between its two major cultures ... still far from settled.”  

Religious Extremism  

In recent years, religious extremism has been on the rise in Israel. On February 25, 1994, five months after the signing of the Oslo Accords, an American-born disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Arabs at prayer at Hebron’s Machpelah Cave. Viorst describes the widespread support for Goldstein among settlers on the West Bank: “In the settlements, many applauded Goldstein. The head of a West Bank yeshiva called his deed ‘a desperate act of love for his people.’ The rabbi who officiated at his funeral called him ‘a martyr ... who joins the victims of the Nazi Holocaust’ ... Yitzhak Rabin, always puzzled by zealotry, dismissed Goldstein as ‘mentally ill.’ In his view, Arabs could be fanatics, Jews could not. ... By excluding ideology from his analysis, he helped divert the search for causes into the blind alley of insanity. He thus missed the condition that, the next year, would take his own life.”  

Rabin, in 1995, was murdered by an Orthodox zealot named Yigal Amir. In his interrogation after the murder, Amir said that he modeled himself on the biblical figure Phinehas, who had taken it upon himself to serve God by slaying two sinners. Zealots of the Second Temple era also pointed to Phinehas as their inspiration. Beyond this, writes Viorst, “Amir continued to insist that his act was based on rabbinic authority. He said that, ‘If not for the Halachic ruling of din rodef (which indicts a Jew who imperils Jewish life or property) made against Rabin by a few rabbis I knew about, it would have been very difficult for me to murder ... Once it was a ruling, there is no longer the problem of morality.’”  

Rabin’s sin was a willingness to make peace with the Palestinians and trade land for a final settlement. This flew in the face of the commitment by the growing force of religious Zionism to keep the land which they viewed as the Jewish inheritance from God.  

Religious Zionism  

Originally, Viorst points out, those religious Jews who embraced Zionism - a small minority of the Orthodox - did not share the Orthodox disdain for the secular state but esteemed it as an agent of Jewish power. While they sought to make the state as hospitable as possible to Orthodox practice, there was little messianic fervor about their efforts or their worldview. But the 1967 war changed all of this: “Religious Zionism ... saw the victory as an opportunity. Religious Zionism’s position, long at the margins of Jewish mysticism, held that Zionism, however secular, was God’s way of preparing the land for the Messiah’s arrival. To the rabbis, the victory was a message from God to seize the land for all time.”  

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who spearheaded the religious Zionist movement, declared that, “Under heavenly command, we have just returned home in the elevations of holiness and our holy city. We shall never move out of here. We are living in the middle of redemption. The entire Israeli army is holy. The Kingdom of Israel is being rebuilt. It symbolizes the rule of the (Jewish) people on its land.”  

Milton Viorst writes that, “Kook and his followers reshaped Halacha, religious law, to serve their political ideology. Not only did they insist that the law required permanent Jewish rule in the territories but they proclaimed its supremacy over secular law ... Religious Zionism was not alone ... in urging Jewish hegemony over all Palestine. Since the 1920s, Zionism had contained a minority wing known as Revisionism, progenitor of the present-day Likud Party, which promoted the kind of territorial nationalism that pervaded Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Religious Zionism’s role was to sanctify this nationalism, imparting new energy to it by characterizing it as God’s command. Religious Zionism after 1967 sparked the Jewish settlement movement in the occupied territories ... Every stake driven into the soil, it maintained, served God’s will.”  

Divine Nationalism  

Shortly after the 1967 war, 72 noted Israeli intellectuals, many of them mainstream Zionists, founded the Land of Israel Movement. In a highly publicized manifesto, they put aside historical differences to proclaim a nationalism based on divine imperative: “The Israeli army’s victory in the Six Day War located the people and the state within a new and fateful period. The whole of the Land of Israel is now in the hands of the Jewish people. Just as we are not allowed to give up the State of Israel, so we are ordered to keep what we received there from the army’s hands: the Land of Israel.”  

Religious Zionism’s rabbis spoke of the victory as a “miracle” and said that it meant the messianic process was reaching fruition, even if the Messiah himself were absent. The 1967 war was called the War of Redemption and the victory to be God’s sign that every inch of the land was holy. Mainstream Zionism, while in theory continuing to favor exchanging territory for peace, found it difficult, once the land was in Israel’s hands, to give it up. As time passed and settlements continued to grow, religious Zionism became Israel’s most dynamic political force.  

Viorst fears that religious Zionism has produced a fanaticism such as Judaism has not seen since the Second Temple days. Securing territory has, for many, become a divine commandment equal to traditional piety. On Israel’s 27th anniversary, Rabbi Kook declared: “The principal overall thing is the state. It is inherently holy and without blemish. All the rest is details, trivia, minor problems and complications ... Not only must there be no retreat from a single kilometer of the land of Israel, God forbid, but on the contrary, we shall conquer and liberate more and more ... In our divine, world-encompassing undertaking, there is no room for retreat.”  

Blessing in Disguise  

Kook went so far as to describe the Holocaust as a blessing in disguise. The settler movement, Gush Emunim, became the vanguard of territorialism and held a mystical concept of the Jewish state. It was a resurrection of David’s kingdom, which God entrusted to reestablish Jewish rule over holy soil. To pursue its goals, terrorism was permissible. In 1980, the Jewish Underground, a secret society of Gush Emunim militants, booby-trapped the cars of three mayors of Arab towns, leaving two of them severely maimed. In 1983, gunmen killed three students and wounded 30 at Hebron’s Islamic College. Disciples of Rabbi Kook openly applauded the attacks. In the synagogues of religious Zionism, worshippers debated whether “Thou shalt not kill” applied to Arabs at all. Both Labor and Likud, argues Viorst, “turned an unseeing eye, and the police put little effort into finding the perpetrators.”  

The growth of religious extremism in Israel, Viorst argues, is not only dangerous but makes any movement toward peace increasingly difficult. He cites such examples as that of an Israeli judge who was spat upon and beaten on the Sabbath when he stopped at a traffic light at the edge of an Ultra-Orthodox quarter and a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi who proclaimed the right to kill Sabbath violators. One female soldier in Israel’s army who questioned an Orthodox education officer about a traditional blessing in which men express thanks to God for not making them women was told that, “Reform and Conservative Jews are not Jews to me. The Reform and Conservative movements caused the assimilation of eight million Jews, and this is worse than the Holocaust, in which only six million Jews were lost.”  

Jewish Zealotry  

“Well before my own quest,” Viorst writes, “eminent scholars pointed to parallels between Jewish zealotry in the first century, which led to the demise of the Temple and state, and Jewish zealotry in our own. Jews who see a scary portent in the parallel are not necessarily mistaken. ... In making the transition to the third stage of their history, Jews have revealed an immoderation not unlike what they demonstrated in the tumultuous Judean era.”  

The murder of Yitzhak Rabin, Viorst declares, “is the product of unresolved religious conflict, dating back centuries. It emerges from the faith’s grievous failure to solve the challenge imposed by modern times. In exile, the dispute was conducted by shrill invective. In sovereign Israel, it spills blood, climaxing in a murder that has no precedent in Jewish history. Can this murder be looked upon as an unfortunate growing pain, which time and further maturity will relieve? Or is it the expression of a religious extremism that, removed from the constraints imposed by exile, will continue to exact great cost? Jews would surely be wise to contemplate the warning that Rabin’s murder contains. History may be telling us that the Jews’ descent into violence casts doubt on the ability of the state, and perhaps the community itself, to survive.”  

The wariness which many Jews continue to feel with regard to the non-Jewish world, Viorst states, “impairs our ability to take responsibility for ourselves. Some Jews believe we have paid with our suffering for the right to blame others for our flaws. Many attribute the predicament that Israel faces today to the hostility of the gentile world. How long shall our innate wariness remain an obstacle for our living amicably - not just with outsiders but with ourselves?”  

Declining Numbers  

In the United States, where concern for declining Jewish numbers is growing, few leaders ask themselves if their own stress on Israel and Middle East politics rather than Judaism’s moral and spiritual message may be responsible. While Jewish groups have made Israel the number one issue on their agendas, most American Jews seek religious and spiritual fulfillment. While Jewish groups are promoting campaigns against religious intermarriage, fifty percent of Jews in a recent poll declared that it was “racist” to oppose marriage between Jews and non-Jews. The fact is that narrow parochialism may be the force driving people away and those who speak of a demographic “emergency” are the very ones who have produced that dilemma.  

When it comes to Israel, Milton Viorst believes that it may be running out of time: “The principal lesson of Rabin’s traumatic death may be that we Jews are running out of time. Must we resolve our basic differences, as other peoples have done, by massively spilling one another’s blood? And if we do, will it be too late? Debilitated by ‘causeless hatred,’ even the Maccabean state lasted for only a century, and the Zionist state is no less vulnerable ... Unless Jews give priority to mastering the art of living together, its duration may be as brief. After two thousand years of strenuous survival in exile, it would be a grim irony if homecoming is remembered by history not as the seed of the Jews’ redemption but of their self-destruction.”  

Original Interpretation  

Discussing this book, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, senior rabbi emeritus of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, says that, “This is the most original interpretation of Jewish history I have ever read and in ways the most frightening. The Jewish community can no longer ignore his plea for an end to interfamiliel violence in the name of God.”  

Everyone concerned with the future of Jews and Judaism would do well to read Milton Viorst’s work. There is, he shows, no such things as “the” Jewish tradition, but a number of Jewish traditions, some of which, filled with intolerance, have led to disaster. He hopes that his warning about following such a path at the present time will be taken seriously, but he fears that it may not. Only time will tell whether the lessons of history are learned by the current generation.  

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