Jewish Allegiance to God After the Holocaust Has No Precedent
Jews across the world recently celebrated the start of their new year. Admittedly, we didn’t hit the bars the way that New Yorkers do on New Year’s Eve. Nor did we parade down the streets with a massive paper dragon as they do in Beijing. And no, we didn’t even have a Buddha-themed citywide water-fight the way that the Thai do on Songkran.
What did we do? Well, we prayed and repented.
True, it doesn’t sound all that fun — and I won’t pretend that I enjoy it as much as Judaism’s more festive holidays, which offer a lot more celebration, singing and dancing. But what I can say about the first month of the Jewish year is this: it’s beautiful. Beautiful, because on these days, we re-commit to our relationship with God, drawing ourselves ever closer into his divine embrace.
But the High Holy Days are not meant to be moments where we wallow in sin, and feel that we’re spiritually inadequate. Judaism has no concept of original sin — or of humanity perpetually falling short — whereas these concepts are central to Christianity. Would anyone really imagine that on the holiest days of the year, God wants us to see ourselves as worms who can do nothing right?
Having been taught to see these days as ones of love and joy, I try to teach others to see them that way, too.
Still, there are those who see it differently.
In an op-ed recently published in the Wall Street Journal, the former chief rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, offered a more rigid conception of the Jewish High Holidays. The question posed by these holidays, wrote Rabbi Sacks, is not about how we prove our own faith in God, but rather, how God continues to have faith in us.
The High Holidays, he argued, are less days of holy love, than of holy judgment. They present “a courtroom drama like no other,” one where “the judge is God himself” and “we are on trial for our lives.”
Stranger than the idea of Judaism’s holiest moments being only about trial and judgment, Sacks opined, is the fact that we may be found guilty. After all, “in an otherwise law-governed universe, we are able to break the law — a power that we too often relish exercising.” And so, all we can do is ask God to forgive us — which he does, because He’s God, and He always gives another chance. Thus, Rabbi Sacks argued, these days prove God’s incredible faith in us despite our “shabby and threadbare moral record.”
Shabby and threadbare?
Find me one nation that has been more devoted to God throughout history than the Jewish people? Find me one nation that has stuck with God despite pogroms, auto-de-fes, expulsions, inquisitions, ghettoization, non-stop persecution, and, ultimately, the Holocaust. Find me a people that continues to honor the Sabbath, put on tefillin, affix mezuzot, keep kosher, marry in the faith, build synagogues and go to mikveh, even after their parents and grandparents were turned into ash at Auschwitz.
Find me one nation, like the State of Israel, that honors the complete rights of its 1.5 million Muslim citizens in the heart of a Jewish state. Find me an army that is more moral than the IDF, despite having genocidal enemies completely encircling it.
What threadbare moral record? This very idea is a calumny.
Sure, Jews can be sinful. And the fact that God forgives us for our sins deserves our humble recognition and gratitude.
But there’s another question we ought to ask: have we really been that bad?
I imagine that some of us might have fudged the lines of Judaism’s dietary laws. Perhaps we didn’t wait six hours after eating meat before putting milk in our coffee. Some may not have prayed with full concentration. Others might not have prayed at all. On the micro-level, we are not without our errors.
But in the wider spectrum, at the macro-level, the Jewish people have shown a faith in God that is more fervent and formidable than any commitment ever held by man, or all mankind, toward anything at all.
We suffered two brutal centuries of slavery in Egypt, and still circumcised our sons. We watched twice as our holy Temples burned, and still our love of Judaism kept burning with it. We were marched off to Rome as slaves, but never forgot our true master above. And for nearly two millennia afterward, we lived scattered throughout Europe, Africa and Asia, always as second-class citizens subject to relentless oppression and blood libels. And still, our own blood ran strong with a devotion to our faith and our fellow man.
In 1492, when forced to publicly abandon our faith, we preferred to board our families onto ships rather than follow the impossible Spanish orders to abscond our Judaism. In the 17th century, the Jewish people would witness as many as half a million of their brethren put to the sword by the Polish warlord Bogdan Khmelnytsky.
Remarkably, what followed was a popular explosion of religious love and zealotry, with millions of Jews taking upon themselves a new enthusiasm for God and Judaism in what we now call the Hasidic revolution. And never has Jewish commitment to God been so brilliantly displayed as it is today, where, just a generation after the Holocaust, we’ve continue to march forward with love for and pride in our identity.
The untouchable faith in God held by his people is, in my opinion, at least as impressive as God’s faith in us. Indeed, it is as impressive as the wonders of all God’s creation — the completion of which we just commemorated.
So, this year, let’s experience Jewish grandeur rather than Jewish inadequacy, and Jewish light rather than a fraudulent belief in Jewish defectiveness.
Enough of Jewish self-hatred. The Jewish people have been the great light of humanity for 3,300 years. And it’s time we recognized and celebrated it.
So, now, with the holiday of Sukkot upon us, let’s celebrate our Jewishness more with love than with fear, more with joy than with dread. If, after everything we’ve been through as a people, you’ve still made it to the synagogue, God knows that you’re pretty damned amazing.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America” is the founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including, “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.