Why are we Jewish?…a two-part essay by Rabbi Chaim Ingram

August 27, 2018 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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If I am I because I am I

and you are you because you are you

then I am I and you are you.

But if I am I because you are you

and you are you because I am I

then I am not I and you are not you

(R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotsk 1787-1859)

 Writer’s note: Some may find ideas contained within this essay challenging and confronting, others may find them exciting and liberating.

 I am happy as always to receive feedback and to debate these issues with anyone who would like to engage.


Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Last year, a survey of Australian Jewry (Gen17) was commissioned jointly by the NSW-based Jewish Communal Appeal (JCA) and Monash University, Victoria.

In his report in the latest JCA Source Magazine, its President, Mr. Stephen Chipkin (whose late father Mervyn I remember fondly from my post-morning minyan Shiur group at Central Synagogue), summarises its main findings as follows:

Remembering the Holocaust (95% of respondents)  and upholding “strong moral values” (94%) are the two most important identifiers of Jewish identity.

Additionally, 91% of respondents declared that “combatting antisemitism” was crucial to their sense of Jewish identity.  But only 46% rated “believing in G-D”, just 36% cited “prayer”, a mere 34% valued “observing halacha” and a paltry 31% considered important “studying Jewish religious texts”.

JCA demographer David Graham interprets the survey data as

reveal[ing] an Australian Jewish community that is gradually secularising, shifting away from traditional/Orthodox positions towards more progressive and secular streams

 I should state at the outset that I am somewhat sceptical of the accuracy of this survey. For one thing, it was submitted by only around 8 per cent of the community. For another, I believe, further to my own admittedly rough and localised poll, that a considerably smaller-than-average proportion of the most orthodox section of the community, completed the survey.  For a third, a goodly slice of the most committed segment of Australian Jewry have made Aliya since the previous Gen08 survey.

However the important thing is that whether I or others like it or not, the findings of Gen17 will be used by the JCA as well as the Institute for Jewish Civilisation (IJC) at Monash University as the basis for future communal planning.

And the most graphic finding of the survey, even if it may be slightly skewed, is still terrifying, Namely that more than three times as many respondents find the Nazi Holocaust critical to Jewish identity as engaging with the Jewish texts which have shaped our civilisation for more than three millennia.

The Two Responses at Sinai – A Paradigm

Most of us will be familiar with the celebrated response of our ancestors on the eve of the momentous stand at Mount Sinai.  Just like in my childhood at the cinema (well, no, not really!) the Bnei Yisrael were granted a preview of the ‘forthcoming attraction’  – the unveiling, by Moses, of certain selected sections of the Torah.  Whereupon the nation felt no need to wait until they saw the whole picture the next day, including all the small print.   There and then, as one, in a passionate outburst of faith they declared na’aseh ve-nish’ma– “we’ll do it – we’ll accept the Torah even before we’ve heard and digested all its details and nuances(Exodus 24:7).

However, as a counterweight to that almost, there is a curious passage in the Talmud which seems to unravel all our preconceptions(Shabbat 88a).There, Rav Avdimi expounds on the verse vayityatsvu be-takhtit ha-har.  The verse is normally rendered “they stood at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17). But be-tachtit  literally means “underneath”. Hence R’ Avdimi’s fabulous exposition: “This teaches that G-D overturned the mountain on them like an inverted tub and said to them ‘If you accept the Torah, fine, if not, sham te-hei kevuratam, there will be your grave!’”

 Extraordinary! Less than 24 hours earlier Bnei Yisrael had accepted the Torah unconditionally. How come they now needed threats and coercion?

The Midrash Tanchuma (Nitsavim 3, based onDeut 29:13-14) tells us that the souls of all future generations of Am Yisrael  – “those who are with us today and those who are not with us today” (Deut 29:14)stood at Sinai.  But it was only those physically present who declared na’aseh ve-nishma (on behalf also of those as yet unborn).

 Therefore it could be that R’ Avdimi is hinting at future generations of Jews who will not be so enamoured of keeping the covenant into which they were born. For them, G-D is, as it were saying  sham te-hei kevuratam, there is no easy escape from being Jewish.  if it isn’t the living Torah that buttresses your Jewish existence and infuses it with meaning it will be graves, crematoria, the stench of mass human butchery, memories of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Which would you prefer?  

The Parable of a Strange Marriage

In seeking to convey powerful messages, our Rabbis of old used the medium of the mashal, the parable. I in my own puny way will attempt to do likewise.

Once upon a time there was a man who loved a woman and married her.  However over time the marriage turned sour. The woman’s parents who had never liked him from the outset became the in-laws from hell.  They cursed him, spat on him and abused him in every possible way.  Yet instead of this being the catalyst for the man to end his deteriorated marriage and free himself of his hated in-laws, he became more and more determined to perpetuate the union.  Barely was there a happy moment, scarcely a civil word spoken between husband and wife. And day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year, the conduct of the in-laws towards him became more and more spiteful, more and more intolerable, more and more threatening. And as it did, so the man became more and more determined to hold on to his sham of a marriage.  His rationale:  I don’t want to forget, to let it become a distant memory.  I want to preserve the memory of their abusive behaviour fresh in my mind so that I can the better convey to my children (for there were indeed unfortunate offspring from this sad marriage) and indeed, one day, my grandchildren what I have experienced, for I would not want them to have the sorry experience I have had to undergo.  And besides that, I would rather suffer all their indignities than give these wretched in-laws of mine the satisfaction of getting rid of me.

The Parable Unravelled

Were the in-laws not to have behaved in the abominable way they did, this man would have ended his marriage long ago.

The love that had once blazed brightly between husband and wife was now a dying ember. The man knew there was no turning back. He did not even consider trying to reignite the brilliant spark of love they had once had.  In the event, he would have been much happier with a clean divorce and a fresh start. But he was not going to let his in-laws win. And so the marriage was perpetuated but in name only, and he continued to suffer.

I am sure my readership doesn’t need me to spell out the nimshal (moral).

If it is only our haters and persecutors, if it is only the anti-Semites, if it is only the bitter experience of the Holocaust and our ongoing determination not to suffer another that keep us Jewish then where is the virtue of our Judaism. Where is its beauty? Where is the love?

What is the point?

The Kotsker Rebbe, in his brilliant insight, taught us a profound secret.  If we are Jewish only because of those who hate us, only because of Auschwitz and Treblinka, then our Jewishness is not real Jewishness. But if we are Jewish because we recognise our souls are Jewish, they stood at Sinai and they experienced a unique theophany resulting in the Torah which our ancestors accepted unconditionally with love and bequeathed to us and if we want to hold on to and perpetuate this gift by our celestial Lover, then let our detractors be what they are – no matter, our Jewishness is real and indeed there is nothing more real in all existence!

The Eternal Nation – Despite Everything.

In the Sifrei (Be’ha’alotskha69 to Num 9:10), R’ Shimon bar Yochai declares “it is a given fact that an Esau will hate a Jacob” – that in our unredeemed world antisemitism will always exist and that while it exists Jews will exist!

But can that really be the reason for our existence?  Are we truly prepared to define and measure our Jewish identity according to the yardstick of Hitler and his satanic determination to unearth a Jewish great-grandparent? 

The Way Forward

Here is surely an instance when our Jewish communal leadership must not be content with merely reflecting communal trends but must shape them!

The survey is telling us that the Jewish leadership, religious and lay, have failed.  Dare I say it, rabbis have failed. Jewish educators too have failed.

If despite Chabad, despite Limmud-Oz, despite 70% of Australian Jewish children attending a Jewish day school, only 31% of the community wish to engage with the sacred texts of our heritage, something somewhere has gone terribly wrong.

How does the JCA propose to go about righting that wrong?  Hopefully not by building more Holocaust museums or instituting more Holocaust studies departments in schools and universities, despite indications from the survey possibly pointing that way.

Let them instead plough more funds and yet more funds into Jewish day schools and after-school educational centres. But let the money be channelled wisely.  Let it be used to recruit the world’s best Torah teachers and pay them top bucks. Let it be available to bring top Jewish educators and rabbis to Australia not just for fly-in-fly-out visits but to run inspirational seminars of meaningful length and intensity. This could lead to a demand, a clamour even, for the day schools and part-time centres to implement regular structured, enticing family-education weekend retreats where parents (and maybe grandparents) and children learn and grow together.  Let there be eliminated such scenarios where children return enthused from Counterpoint and other inspirational experiences wanting to intensify their observance of Shabbat only to have their parents pour icy water on the very notion. Let such parents be helped to understand that by such negative approaches they are suffocating their children’s very souls.

In this way we will be raising a new generation which, come Gen-26 or whenever in the next decade, will turn this year’s statistics on their head and declare that they, or at least 95% of them, want desperately to develop the tools to grapple intensely and at first-hand with the Torah, the Tanakh,the Mishna and the Gemara in their quest to be authentically Jewish. In so doing they will save Australian Jewry from being a footnote in Jewish history.

Stranger things have happened!

Part 2 will be published on Wednesday.

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