PERSPECTIVE ON JUDAISM : Back to the Fold, Not to the Faith : Since the Six-Day War, formerly indifferent Jewish intellectuals discovered not the Torah, but Jewishness.
Monday in Washington, the United States Holocaust Memorial opens its doors on the Mall in the nation’s memorial corridor, a powerful symbolic statement that America mourns the mass murder of millions of Jews in World War II Europe. American Jewry’s obsession with remembering the catastrophe, to the near-exclusion of all else, comes to triumphant conclusion. With Holocaust museums and memorials established in every sizable city in this country, American Jews have made their statement to the country. What, precisely, have they tried to say?
The answer lies in the beginnings of the Holocaust memorial movement, which some of us have called “the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption,” and others, “the Judaism of blood and fire.” The Holocaust memorials bear the message that (1) Gentiles are not to be trusted, most of them having stood idly by while many of them murdered Jews, and only a pitiful minority did anything to save lives; therefore, Jews should remain Jewish. And (2) the state of Israel, where Jews bear arms to defend themselves, offers the last best hope of survival.
The organized Jewish community has spent a quarter of a century, from the Six-Day War of June, 1967, to today’s triumphant conclusion, to deliver that message to itself.
Before the late ‘60s, by contrast, Jewry had busied itself building synagogues and community centers, organizing itself as an ethnic community wearing a religious cloak. Nathan Glazer’s classic, “American Judaism” (1955), does not refer to the European catastrophe and treats as peripheral Zionism and the state of Israel. Judaism, a supernatural, otherworldly religion, was recast into an ethnic identity in a country that accepted religious, but not national or racial or ethnic difference. The Jews’ ethnic cheerleaders called themselves clergymen, rabbis, though politics and practical affairs, not prayer and study of the Torah, captured their best energies. In those years, the word Holocaust did not exist, Israeli affairs played a modest role in American Jewish consciousness, and the destruction of European Jewry scarcely entered public discourse, let alone defined its terms.
What changed everything was the 1967 War, or, rather, the three weeks between Nasser’s closing of the Suez Canal and Israel’s destruction of the Egyptian air force on June 5. During that awful time, when the Israelis came to the West with the contract of 1956--the pledge to keep open the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Eilat--no one remembered their name. It seemed like a rerun of the events of 1933-1945. With Arab spokesmen on TV every night declaring that the Jews soon would be driven into the sea, many of us fearfully waited for the second, and final Holocaust. Once more, no one cared.
So, vast numbers of Jews, left indifferent by the ethnic religion that explained why they should be Jewish, returned to the ethnic fold, not to the ancient faith. American Jewish Holocaust mania was born with the Israelis’ spectacular defense of their lives and homeland and the establishment of Israel as a permanent and powerful presence in world affairs. The Gentile nations had failed us. But we had not failed ourselves. We had learned the lessons of the Holocaust.
Holocaust without redemption bore no plausible message. But threatened destruction prevented by wondrous salvation through one’s own efforts--that was something else. Here, Jews found the benefits of religion--purpose, meaning, promise and fulfillment--without the price of otherworldly faith in things unseen. Returning to the fold, an entire generation of formerly indifferent Jewish intellectuals discovered not the Torah, but Jewishness.
Emil Fackenheim, certainly the best mind of Holocaust theology, discovered a 614th commandment in addition to the 613 commandments of the conventional faith: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler any more victories.” By this people understood: “Be Jewish.” How or why, no one had to ask: Give money, support Israel--self-evident answers.
Now, 25 years later, an entire generation of Jews has grown up with the ethnic Jewishness of Holocaust and Redemption--don’t trust the Gentiles; depend on Israel for psychic security. Living as a minority of about 2% in the United States, where Gentiles have elected a Senate that is 10% Jewish and the federal budget dependably provides Israel with billions from year to year, and rarely even visiting their supposed “spiritual center” (scarcely 20% of American Jews have set foot in Jerusalem, even for a day), Jews have defined for themselves a life that is lived somewhere else than where they are.
Appealing to the “self-evident” meaning of events they have not experienced, in places where they do not live, an entire generation has explained to its children the reason they are Jewish, therefore in some ways different from others. And how have the children responded to this Judaism consisting of only memory?
The same years that mark the triumph in American Jewry’s civil religion of the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption also have witnessed an unprecedented wave of marriage between Jews and unconverted Gentiles. In the past eight years alone, more than half of all Jews entering marriage did so with Gentiles. That proves two things. First, Gentiles want to marry Jews. So America is not Germany, where they didn’t. And, second, Jews vote not only with their feet--choosing not to live in the state of Israel--but also with their hearts--choosing not to raise another generation of Jews. Holocaust-and-Redemption Judaism simply has failed in its chosen mission to keep Jews Jewish.
Today’s celebration comes to climax in the recital of the Kaddish, the prayer in honor of the dead. Tears will flow. But some may wonder whether on high, above the Mall, the angels weep, too, for that tough, otherworldly Judaism, the religion set forth by the Torah, oral and written, that for American Jews is now mostly a faded memory.