A

mong the many great detriments of this technological age for Torah Jews is the way it has opened us up to the influences of a marketplace of ideas where all sorts of merchants hawk the wares of ostensibly Jewish concepts and values. With free rein to speak authoritatively about Judaism and the Jewish people, they are rarely, if ever, challenged on their credentials or sources. Were they to try this at a scientific conference, they’d never get past the registration desk in the lobby, but when it comes to Judaism, it’s Dodge City in the 1870s.

There is no Federal Trade Commission monitoring this marketplace to ensure that the conceptual merchandise on offer is authentic, nor a Better Business Bureau to check the bona fides of these dealers for spiritual bankruptcies. You’ve got a platform, whether as a magazine editor or leader of a nation? The floor is yours. You’ve got a social media account and sheep-like “followers”? You can take center stage to spout off.

As the frum Jew reads and listens to this stuff, it has perhaps an imperceptible effect at first, but over time, there’s a deeper imprint on the mind and heart. No big deal, you say, so long as he keeps up his shemiras hamitzvos? The Chazon Ish felt differently. When asked by someone about joining the army where, he admitted, he felt certain his mitzvah observance wouldn’t suffer at all but his passion for Yiddishkeit would likely cool, the Chazon Ish replied, “Kalt veren iz yehareig v’al ya’avor [Becoming spiritually cold calls for mesirus nefesh].”  

An example of this is the topic of anti-Semitism. In light of recent events, there’s been an uptick in the number of idea merchants purveying answers to the age-old question of, “Why the Jews?” These explanations, though, are really just the warmed-over versions of the profoundly misguided ones that have been proffered in the past.

The Jewish People isn’t just another nation among nations; it is a unique spiritual phenomenon, created to do G-d’s work in this world. As such, its beginnings, history, destiny, and purpose are all delineated in detail in the singular record of G-d’s thoughts that we call the Torah. And if your answer to “Why the Jews?” isn’t in there somewhere, it’s just off, regardless of how plausible it sounds or how fast it makes Jewish hearts beat with pride. 

When Benjamin Netanyahu tells elite commandos, as he did recently, “you are the Maccabees,” and Israel’s military strength is the “best answer” to anti-Semitism because “once… anyone could massacre us [but] today we have strength to respond,” he has the lesson of Chanukah, and all of Jewish history, precisely backward.    

The common theme of the two holidays that punctuate the long, dark, and cold winter, Chanukah and Purim, is that of Jewish survival through the long, dark, and cold exile we still today endure. Decrees of physical annihilation by a world empire, assimilationists within our own ranks, attempts to coerce us spiritually in our own land — these two times of the year have it all, offering a comprehensive response to the Jewish Question (but since it’s Jews we’re talking about, they get two questions): How do we survive the seemingly unsurvivable? And, what is the Jew’s response to Jew-hatred?

Throughout the Tanach and the words of Chazal about Purim and Chanukah (and much else), the voice of Torah is univocal: Physical effects in This World have antecedent spiritual causes in the Other World, which are in turn triggered by the actions of people, primarily Jews, in This World. And since the causes are spiritual, the primary resolution and response must likewise be spiritual, and it is for us, not G-d, to make that response.

In a thought-provoking piece in First Things two decades ago, writer David Klinghoffer put it this way:

When we want to understand the Jewish soul, religious and secular Jews alike can agree that there is no better way to do so than to read the Hebrew Bible…. What, then, does the Bible tell us about anti-Semitism? The answer is nothing, and everything.

For, to put it simply, the Bible has never heard of such a thing as anti-Semitism…. The difference between us and the Jews of the Bible, and indeed the Jews of every generation until a century or two ago, is this: They understood gentile hostility to be an expression of G-d’s displeasure with us as a community. We understand it to be essentially meaningless.

This is the consistent theme of both Purim and Chanukah. When the Talmud asks why the Jews were slated for destruction, the causes identified are spiritual ones, including their participation in the bacchanal celebrating their downfall with which the Megillah opens. Haman, citing their spiritual slumber, plots to annihilate them. Esther, citing their sins, calls for fasting and repentance, which leads to salvation.

In the case of Chanukah, spiritual rather than physical oppression calls for taking up arms in resistance. Spiritual apathy leads to the falling of the Temple into alien hands, and the holiday marks the Temple’s repatriation, not the regaining of sovereignty that occurred only years later and was short-lived.

There may be many purposes to the oppression we endure, whether cleansing retribution for past misdeeds, or a goad to right our spiritual ship, or a way to move us forcibly apart from an embrace of non-Jewish society, or anything else. We may not know precisely what the purpose is, but we know that the response must be spiritual in nature.

Another oft-heard response to anti-Semitism is the one in this month’s Commentary, where editor John Podhoretz shares the words he spoke to his daughter at her bas mitzvah a week after the Pittsburgh massacre. He explained that the words in the haftarah, “May my lord King David live forever,” mean that

David’s line should live forever, that the Jewish People should live forever. After the unspeakable event last weekend… it is an obligation upon you and upon us to do what we can, every one of us, to make sure [that] wish is fulfilled.

The theologian Emil Fackenheim said Auschwitz had required this of us — that we were not allowed to grant Hitler any posthumous victories. He called it the Commandment of Auschwitz… So here is my charge to you: If you want to make Robert Bowers’s words turn to ash, follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah. Live as a Jew. Have Jewish children.

With so many Jews today estranged from any semblance of Judaism, it’s no small matter that a Jewish father is encouraging his daughter to live as a Jew and have Jewish children. May he have great nachas from her. 

But his message — that it is our enemies’ hatred for us that creates an obligation to live as Jews in order to deny them posthumous victories — falls far short of the mark. Emil Fackenheim famously would refer to his “Commandment of Auschwitz” by another name, too — the “614th Commandment” — which makes sense since it has no place within the system containing the first 613.

Before he was an academic philosopher, the German-born Fackenheim was a Reform clergyman. He was also intermarried.  Of course he needed to create a “614th Commandment” — he’d jettisoned the first 613.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the tragic American-Jewish experience has taught us that it is a very unwise idea to promote Judaism as a suffering-based religion centered around the Holocaust, one which obligates Jewish kids not to intermarry and to live as Jews in order to ensure the Jewish people’s survival — in other words, for the sake of some high-minded, abstract ideal rather than for the selfish reason that there’s no greater good fortune than to be Jews in love with Judaism.

Nor does Jewish continuity provide a rationale to live anything more than a culturally Jewish life; both Hitler and Robert Bowers, after all, wanted to kill secular Jews too. Jewish kids will live as Jews and have Jewish children when they see their parents excited and proud as can be to lead full Jewish lives faithful to G-d’s will as expressed in the Torah, and willing to expend the time and money and effort that requires.

John Podhoretz can give his daughter no better bas mitzvah present than that kind of Jewish father. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com