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Why Should Jews Survive

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 1996

The fear that American Jews may "disappear" as a result of religious inter-marriage and further assimilation has led to a variety of programs instituted by various Jewish organizations to promote Jewish "survival" and "continuity". Often, these programs relate to forging a connection with Israel, or with promoting consciousness of the Holocaust.  

Avraham Burg, the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel, has called this "catastrophic Judaism, a parade of horribles that once linked Jews abroad to Israel: war, persecution, a new nation’s struggle to survive and memories of the Holocaust." He recently declared that, "Catastrophic Judaism will come to an end in the very near future, and then we must ask a difficult, penetrating and poignant question: Can the Jewish People even exist without an external enemy?"  

In the fifty years since the Holocaust, the Jewish concern for "survival" has been an overriding basis for communal action. The ghosts of the murdered six million, along with the living generation of survivors, have called out the unifying cry, "Never again." In 1948, this concern found a second focus in the creation of the state of Israel. These twin pillars of Jewish identity, writes Michael Goldberg in the persuasive new book Why Should Jews Survive?, are now brittle and have already begun to crumble. They will hardly be sufficient to support or sustain the next generation. He asks the all important question: Why should Jews survive?  

"The Holocaust Cult"  

In this book, Goldberg, rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Los Angeles and formerly a professor of Jewish Studies at the College of William and Mary and St. John’s University in Minnesota, launches a sharp attack on what he calls the "holocaust cult," challenging Jews to return to a deeper, richer sense of purpose. He argues that this cult — with shrines like the U.S. Holocaust Museum and high priests such as Elie Wiesel, and rites like United Jewish Appeal death camp pilgrimages — is deeply destructive of genuine Jewish identity.  

For many Jews, the story of the Holocaust has become the "master story" of Judaism, and has been used to depict Jews as uniquely victimized in human history — transforming them from God's chosen to those who manage to survive despite God's silent complicity in their persecution. This Holocaust-centered survival-for-survival’s-sake Judaism is, he contends, already showing its emptiness. The generation that survived Hitler and founded Israel is dying, and the new generation is adrift. Goldberg argues that Jews need positive reasons for remaining Jewish and calls for a return to the Exodus as their master story — the story of God leading the Jews out of slavery and making with them an eternal covenant that gave the Jews a unique place in God’s plan. The Jews should survive, in Goldberg’s view, because they are the linchpin in God’s redemption of the world.  

"On one level, the Exodus and Holocaust seem to tell the same story: the Jewish People, having suffered slave labor and genocide at the hands of a maniacal tyrant and his all-too-willing people, nevertheless survive while their oppressors go down to ignominious defeat," Goldberg writes. "Themes of oppression, deliverance, liberation course through both narratives. But there the similarities end. The Exodus narrative would have us see Israel’s outliving Egyptian persecution as evidence of a powerful God who makes and keeps generation-spanning covenants. But if we view Jewish existence through the perspective of a Holocaust-shaped narrative, neither God nor covenant worked to save the Jewish People from Hitler: If Jews survived, it was simply because the gas chambers failed to work quickly enough to kill them all. For the Israelites, deliverance meant more than merely getting out of Egypt; freed from Egyptian servitude, they were free to enlist in God’s service as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). By contrast, for those rescued from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, there was no goal beyond getting out alive. For such as these survival itself became not a means to an end, but instead an end, a mission, in and of itself. And while the land of Israel beckoned the fugitives from Egypt as a place of promise where building a people could go hand-in-hand with fashioning the kingdom of Heaven on earth, for those who lived through the camps, the land fundamentally represented a place of protection...in other words, a sanctuary in which to observe their most sacred Jewish rite: survival."  

Jewish Self-Understanding  

The real threat posed to Jews by the Holocaust, Goldberg points out, did not die with Hitler: "Instead, it still imperils the Jewish People today in the form of a story that mutilates Jewish self-understanding. Within the context of the Holocaust-framed story, there are no positive reasons Jews can give for remaining Jewish. At most, they can only point to their enduring determination to exist in spite of their enemies’ enduring desire to eradicate them. But over the long run and against sometimes even longer odds, the sustenance such a bitter story provides is thin, unappetizing gruel, insufficient to nourish a people — or its children. The challenge to Jews today is not outliving Hitler and the Nazis but overcoming the life-threatening story created in their aftermath."  

The "master story" which animates the life of any people involves "more than just an ethos," declares Goldberg. "It also involves an ethic. An ethic deals with much more than the narrow constraints of a people’s mere existence, because in it lie a people’s larger ideals and aspirations. That is why we cannot let ourselves be lured on by stories that promise survival only. If a story is to be truly life-sustaining, then it must also tell of dreams of hopes. For Jews living at the end of the 20th century — near the close of the fourth millennium of Jewish existence — the choice of stories at this time is critical. For today, something is more endangered than the Jewish People’s survival: its soul."  

From the viewpoint of the Exodus master story, what enabled the Jewish People to outlive Egyptian servitude was God’s own bond to the covenant he made with the Patriarchs. From the perspective of the Holocaust-based master story, the survival of the Jewish People is not ensured either by a powerful God or an empowering covenant, but "holding grenades in our hands." From that perspective, writes Goldberg, "The Holocaust’s lesson for Jewish survival is unmistakable. If the Jewish People is to survive, such survival rests in its own hands and in its own armed hands alone. At Sinai, Jews are offered the chance to be a people who serve God by being in service to the world. Hence, the Exodus narrative ultimately bears a world encompassing hope. By contrast, what the Holocaust holds out to both Jews and the world is a hope-less story."  

Philosophy of "Civil Judaism"  

The philosophy of "civil Judaism" to be found in the U.S. at the present time, with its promotion of the Holocaust and Israel as the twin pillars of Jewish existence, has, Goldberg charges, corrupted Judaism’s moral mandate. He points to the fact that civil Judaism’s "minister-fundraisers invoke the need for Jews to bear ‘mutual responsibility.’ As support, they often trot out a favorite maxim from the Talmud: ‘All Israel is responsible for one another.’" He laments that, "Civil Judaism’s idea of Jews’ moral responsibility for one another extends no further than arm’s length reach into a wallet — certainly not to the trigger finger of a West Bank Jewish settler who has murdered an Arab child. As part of the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy seeking God’s forgiveness, Jews are required to confess in unison: ‘We have committed violence.’ But civil Judaism is absolutely silent as to what, if any, communal responsibility Jews bear for such savage outbreaks, let alone how Jews should atone for them."  

Elie Wiesel, referred to by the author as the "high priest" of the Holocaust cult, has, Goldberg writes, "made a virtual career of reminding people how silence made the Holocaust possible. But during the intifada, when Israel was routinely using its army with disproportionate, often lethal force, against Palestinian civilians while rounding up scores of Palestinians for detention camps, where was Wiesel’s voice to be heard?" He quotes Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, editor of the classic text The Zionist Idea, who asked that very question in an open letter to Wiesel: "In the memory of the Holocaust we have been reminded by you that silence is a sin. You have spoken out against indifference and injustice. Why are you making an exception of Israel? Do you think our silence will help Israel? The sacred texts that Jews study and restudy teach the contrary...To be silent gives free reign to the armed zealots of ages past, and of this day."  

Jews are not called upon to defend what other Jews do, Goldberg points out, but to follow the moral commandments set forth by God in the covenant at Sinai: "For the Bible and much of the rest of Jewish tradition, Jews’ ongoing physical existence is a necessary part of Jewish survival, but by no means a sufficient one. For such survival to be identifiably Jewish, from an historical as well as from a theological viewpoint, it must include the worship of God. That holy service is performed by enacting the commandments which are at the heart of God’s covenant that made the Jews a people in the first place. Ignoring those practices and ignoring in whose service those practices ultimately are, the Jewish People ignores who it is. Without those practices, Jews may as well as be Amorites, the prior inhabitants of Canaan mentioned in the Bible’s condemnation of Ahab, those pagans whom God dispossessed because of their ungodly practices. Such words cannot be glad tidings for the adherents of civil Judaism and the Holocaust cult."  

False Prophets  

Among the "false prophets" within today’s Jewish Establishment, Goldberg believes, is Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg. He writes: "Like the court prophets of old, he and his organization CLAL, are heavily dependent on the major powers of the Jewish community such as the Council of Jewish Federations and the UJA. Like his predecessors, Greenberg has fashioned words that are ready made to turn aside any criticism of his masters. He has written, for instance, ‘I have come to see that anyone who insists that Israel be consistently judged by a higher standard of behavior than...others is an anti-Semite.’ By Greenberg’s standard, Jeremiah must have been an anti-Semite. So also must have been most of Israel’s other prophets, as well as most of the Bible’s writers — including God. For God, Jeremiah, the other prophets, indeed the Jewish tradition itself, all hold Israel, both the political entity and the people, to a higher standard. Certainly the Jewish People are no worse than the Assyrians, the Babylonians, or the Romans. Nonetheless, Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans were not picked as benchmarks of behavior, anymore than Palestinian terrorists or Syrian thugs ought to be. Instead, another yardstick was chosen — Torah."  

Worshipping not God but "The Jewish People" or "Israel," is, Goldberg notes, simply another form of idolatry: "historically...to identify as a Jew meant serving a particular God in a particular way as part of a particular community. But civil Judaism has discarded the God and disregarded the way, regarding only the community’s survival as important. Civil Judaism and its Holocaust cult have become quite literally self-serving. And that may be the most dangerous worship of all — as the Holocaust cult’s devotees should know better than anyone else, given the terrible powers unleashed by such idolatrous worship fifty years ago."  

At the beginning of the intifada, an Atlanta synagogue sponsored an educational program designed to acquaint the local Jewish community with the issues surrounding the uprising. Authorities had been trying to crush the intifada by indiscriminately firing at Palestinian men, women and children. Then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave orders "to break their bones." One speaker concluded his remarks by urging the audience to remember that in the words of practically every story-based blessing that Jews utter in acknowledging their Lord, he is not only Eloheynu, "our God," but also Melech Ha-olam, "King of the World," and hence the Palestinians’ God as well, Palestinians who, like Jews, are created in his image. At that point the community’s leading Orthodox rabbi got up and declared, "There may be times to pray to God, but now is the time to pass the ammunition?" The crowd broke into tumultuous applause. "By responding to that rabbi’s call," states Goldberg, "those assembled had abandoned their God to serve two other gods — brute force and raw power, idolatrous Nazi gods if ever there were ones. Their ‘voice of tradition’ had in fact issued a call for mutiny and desertion from the cause."  

Truth About Ourselves  

Part of the Exodus narrative’s compelling power, Goldberg writes, is its ability to tell us the truth about ourselves, especially when we would prefer not to hear it: "In our time, the jarring truth it would have the Jewish People hear is this: Even victims can still sin. We Jews have certainly shown over the last several years just how much we have learned from our historical abusers. In January 1987, an Israeli government panel, the Landau Commission, reported that over the previous two decades, Israel’s secret service...had routinely tortured Palestinians during interrogation. The commission nevertheless gave the Shin Bet permission to continue the practice according to certain unspecified ‘guidelines for limited psychological and physical pressure,’ that is through the continued use of torture and intimidation. As for the Shin Bet officials involved, the commission recommended that they be let off because those officials — and here the commission used words with a chilling familiarity — ‘were just carrying out orders.’"  

Rabbi Goldberg is as critical of Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, as he is of current promoters of the holocaust cult. It was Herzl’s view that Jews were forever doomed to lead an abnormal existence and that the remedy would be the creation of a place where Jews might live a "normal" existence as a people like any other, that is, as a people with its own nation state. But, Goldberg states, "For Jews to be a people like any other, they must stop being Jews." He cites Genesis (12:1-3): "Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him who curses you; and all the families of the Earth shall bless themselves by you." Both Americans and Israelis, Goldberg shows, have distorted the meaning of the Jewish role in history and in God’s master plan.  

In the version which dominates American Jewish thinking, he points out, a climax is reached "at the crossing of the Sea. That version relates the story as though God’s command to Pharaoh were simply ‘Let my people go!’ But according to the honest-to-God Exodus story, God’s repeated directive to Pharaoh is significantly different: ‘Let my people go that they may serve me!’ (Ex. 10:3). Contrary to a Judeo-American reading, the Exodus’ goal was not merely to set the people free from Pharaoh’s service. It was to make them free for God’s service. Entering into God’s service meant entering into a covenant of mutually binding commitments. It was by virtue of entry into that covenant that the community of the Jewish People came into being."  

Defective Reading of Exodus Story  

The Israeli reading of the Exodus story is also defective, according to Goldberg: "The Judeo-Israeli version also misses the story’s climax: Sinai. Many Israelis mistakenly assume the climax is the Israelites’ entry into the Land. And yet, the story shaped world fashioned by the Exodus portrays a people ‘on the way’ but not yet home. Note where the Jews’ paradigmatic Torah (i.e. the Five Books of Moses) ends: with the people preparing to enter the Land, but having not yet entered... Starkly put, they knew that even in the Land, a Jew could still be in Exile. For what constituted the Land’s promise was not some special quality of the land itself (the way pagan nature-worshippers would have it), but the kind of communal life practiced in it...Breaches of the Sinai covenant can — and do! — result in the removal of the people of Israel from the land....Any Jewish state that fails to recognize the central role of the covenant for its politics is illegitimate as a Jewish state....In the form of modern political Zionism, it would have us believe that the fate of the Jewish People is in the hands of the Jewish People alone, a people whose task in history is to do nothing more than survive."  

Another widely quoted Jewish spokesman who has replaced Judaism’s master story of the Exodus with that of the Holocaust is Emil Fackneheim. Traditionally, Jews believed that 613 commandments were given as Torah at Mt. Sinai. But Fackenheim formulated a new 614th commandment: "Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler a posthumous victory." This "commandment" has been cited by those who argue that assimilation and inter-marriage are, in effect, the equivalent of yet another "Holocaust" facing the Jewish People.  

Rabbi Goldberg provides this assessment: "...there are other ways to let the Nazis triumph. One way is for Jews...to forget the Exodus story and adopt the Nazis’ master story in its place. The Nazi story says that the outsiders, the alien, the stranger are threats to the well-being of the body politic, bacteria and vermin that must be extirpated without mercy. If Jews succumb to the Nazis’ story by implicitly adopting it, the Holocaust will have claimed its final victim: the Exodus master story and the people, God and covenant of which it speaks. Ironically, the so-called ‘religious’ Zionists from whom we might expect the greatest sensitivity to the Torah’s oft-repeated commandment about treatment of the stranger often seem the Jews most oblivious to it. They are frequently those Jews who, as settlers in the territories or as supporters of various religious parties, defend the use of terrorism and other acts of retribution against innocent Arabs. Some have even proposed expelling Arabs en masse through a policy of ‘transference,’ a code word reminiscent of another cold-blooded euphemism used not so long ago, ‘The Final Solution.’"  

God’s Covenant with Israelites  

Those who genuinely believe in the covenant made by God with the Israelites at Sinai need not be concerned about Jewish "continuity" and "survival," Goldberg argues. But the devotees of civil Judaism and its Holocaust cult "share the conviction that, ultimately, Jews can count neither on God nor on other, non-Jewish human beings to make Jewish existence safe in the world, a world that will never cease to be hostile to Jewish existence in it. So, in the last analysis, theirs is a triune faith: There is no God, humanity is incorrigible, and the world is irredeemable. But even supposing the cult’s adherents could marshal support to ground any of those doctrines, a fundamental issue would still remain. Who would want to live with the faith? Indeed, who would want to live at all?"  

Michael Goldberg has no doubt about the real answer to the question of why Jews should survive. "Whatever responses there may be," he writes, "God’s is the one that matters: Jews should survive because they are the linchpin in his redemption of the world. Bluntly put, the Jewish People is indispensable to the redemption of the world and to the redemption of God’s good name in that world. At Sinai, God pledged that the people Israel would be his unique instruments of redemption... But should the Jewish People be unable or unwilling to function as God’s promised instrument of redemption, that would break whatever hope the world would have of its redemption, for at least one highly visible, highly touted part of it — the Jews — would have shown itself to be utterly irredeemable, even by God himself. God may have assured the Jews’ survival, but as to their redemptive mission, even he cannot guarantee their success."  

Preserving "Jewish identity," maintaining "Jewish continuity," safeguarding "Jewish values" — Goldberg declares that all these aims "pale besides Jews’ true purpose in the world: to serve as God’s People upon whom the redemption of God’s world and God’s own name uniquely depends. It is that purpose, that mission, that once empowered Jews to ‘walk through fire and water,’ and which can capture Jews’ imagination again if Jews will dare speak it aloud once more — not merely to the world, but more fundamentally, to themselves. Unfortunately, those who serve at the altar of the Holocaust cult may have so deadened Jews’ spirit and sense of hope that that mission to God and to the world no longer stirs them. And yet, should Jews give up on Sinai, on the pact and purpose offered them there, they will revert to the same paltry rabble they were prior to entering the covenant. Instead of persevering in God’s quest, they will have embarked on a life of endless wandering in a wilderness, always ready to re-enslave themselves to the oppressive powers that claim to rule this world."  

Abandon False Gods  

Rabbi Goldberg concludes that for Jews to survive, they must abandon the false gods they now worship — the Holocaust, the State of Israel, the "Jewish People" — and return to what makes them uniquely Jewish, the covenant entered into at Sinai. Real survival demands that Jews "continue to be the bearer of a master story about redemption — not only theirs, but the world’s, not only humanity’s, but God’s."  

In writing this book, Michael Goldberg has identified the various forms of idolatry which dominate contemporary Judaism in America, Israel, and elsewhere in the world. Those who speak about Jewish "survival" and "continuity" — and think that, somehow, this can be achieved by programs such as sending teenagers on trips to Israel — would do well to understand that their own pursuit of such false idols is what has put genuine Jewish survival at risk.  

The unique role for Jews in the world, as set forth in the Exodus story, is not to worship themselves but to embark upon a far more noble undertaking. Michael Goldberg knows why Jews should survive. Many others, sadly, are of the survival-for-survival’s-sake school, which is doomed to fulfill its most pessimistic predictions unless it quickly changes course. A careful reading of Rabbi Goldberg’s wise words might be the beginning of such a change in direction. •  

WHY SHOULD JEWS SURVIVE? by Michael Goldberg, Oxford University Press, 191 Pages, $23.00.

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