So what’s with us Jews?
We are unique in world history, for one thing; there has been no people like us. For that reason, we have a unique obligation to understand the world around us, and to model responses to it.
For another thing, our world has changed immensely, totally, and shatteringly since the middle of the last century. Our ability to make sense of that information, to assimilate it and to use it, has lagged — that’s not surprising, given that we still have very little distance from it — but still we must adjust our thinking accordingly.
That’s according to Dr. Ruth Wisse, the Yiddish scholar and social critic who recently retired as Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, and will speak at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck on Sunday. (See box for more information.)
Dr. Wisse, who is an expert on American Jewish culture as well as the Yiddish culture both in the hemisphere and in Eastern Europe, uses all those filters to look at the world around her, and to explain it to us.
“The political situation of the Jews is very complicated, and it has changed dramatically in the last century,” she said. The two events that “are indisputably momentous are the destruction of one third of the Jewish people.” We can call it the Holocaust in English or the Shoah in Hebrew; in Yiddish, however, it is the Chorban, “which means destruction. In Yiddish parlance — and Yiddish was the language of most Jews in 1938 — chorban was the same word that was used for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. There is no new term for it; it was a destruction of the magnitude of the worst destruction.
“The word ‘chorban’ used to be used for the First World War,” Dr. Wisse continued. “That was considered to be the great destruction. But then the Second World War so dwarfed everything that happened before that it was almost forgotten that the Jewish towns of Eastern Europe were ravaged, and thousands of Jews were killed, because they were caught between the warring armies.
“They weren’t killed because they were Jews, but Jews were conscripted in the armies of whichever country they found themselves. There is a story that might have been apocryphal but was widely circulated about a Jew in the Russian army and another in the German army. One bayonetted the other, and heard the other one say the Shema as he died.
“The Jews had no protection, so when, say, the Cossack armies swept through, they pillaged, raped, and killed Jews and Poles and everyone else, and of course they killed Jews, and of course Jews were visible as Jews because of the way they dressed. But it was not a wholesale extermination of all Jews.
“But then one third of all Jews were murdered, and a new word was created in 1942 — genocide.”
The second cataclysmic event — although of course a very different one — was the creation of the state of Israel. “The infrastructure had been in place since the end of the 19th century, when Jews starting going over, buying land, and draining swamps, but the state of Israel was formally declared in 1948.
“So now, in the middle of the 20th century, in the 1940s, you have these two extraordinary changes, the most profound changes that have ever happened in the history of any people, let alone the Jewish people.
“Since that happened, the whole political situation of the Jews has been transformed. But we just continue. History doesn’t stop. Now it is 2017, and it is time for us to take stock, and to see that the political situation of the Jews, which had existed for 2,000 or so years in a certain way, has changed dramatically.
“How much have we read about this? How much is it talked about? What we talk about is the Holocaust and the rise of the state of Israel — we talk about and think about and live all these things — but Jewish thought has not caught up yet. This is not because you don’t have some great minds — you have some extremely thoughtful rabbis and commentators and academics, and in Israel you have a military and political establishment that thinks about them too. But although these changes have taken place, you don’t have the corresponding change in political consciousness.
“Schoolchildren in Jewish day schools are not instructed in a different way.
“In a sense, there is no collective language that takes account of how our political status in the world has been completely altered. It is interesting and compelling — and not just to Jews. If a new word like ‘genocide’ is introduced because of something that happened to the Jews, that means that the example of the Jews is of world importance. It is not a parochial issue. And the responsibility of thinking about these things is not just a Jewish responsibility. But it is a Jewish responsibility that Jews have to themselves and the rest of the world. They have to get straight why it happened.
“It is hard to get distance from it, and also it is hard because we are used to speaking in certain categories. Jews are a minority — and a minority by choice — and remain a minority by choice — so you find yourself always responding, and particularly responding to enemies.”
So who is an enemy?
“That’s the question,” Dr. Wisse said. “You have to know who your enemy is.”
She grew up in Montreal, and “in the synagogue where I pray there, it says, over the ark, ‘Know before Whom you pray.’ In the synagogue, that means the Supreme Judge. But you have to understand this on another level. When you stand before God, you bare yourself, and you come to terms with what you’ve done wrong.
“But the minute you do that — in your head or in your body or in your posture or in your military or in any other way — in front of the world, in front of people who wish you ill, in front of your enemies — then you are so stupid that you deserve to be killed.”
Many Jews make that mistake, Dr. Wisse said, and many others believe that God will take care of them. But history teaches us that we must rely on ourselves in the political arena. “Even if you believe in God’s justice, you have to do your part,” she said.
Jews live in history differently than other people, she continued. “This is our DNA. This is how we are structured. We are very self-reliant. It’s exceptional. And that’s not better or worse. It’s just different. Of course we think it’s better, but from a political point of view it’s just different from the way other people have acted.” Because we are such a small people, “it has created a very asymmetrical position,” she said.
This may seem obvious, and it may not be original, but often it is overlooked, Dr. Wisse said. “I see young religious thinkers who are setting up new seminaries, and going back and forth talking about theology and the theological implications of the Holocaust. Okay, that’s wonderful — I’m not criticizing it, even though I am not given to theological language — but if don’t understand the political aspects of the Jewish people, then their theological thinking is of absolutely no use to me.
“If God spoke in modern times, he’d say, ‘You have to do it yourself.’ And if I have to do it myself, I’m going to think it through politically.
“So this is a national desideratum. Not only do we have to start thinking about it, we have to start talking about it. What does it mean to teach the Holocaust? It means nothing. Because we haven’t really done it — haven’t analyzed how it worked politically, why anti-Semitism developed, why Hitler could go into one country after another, and no matter how much they hated Germany, he let them kill the Jews and it was a great gift to them. And why were the Jews set up so they had no idea about what was happening to them?
“It is our responsibility to ask the questions. Why does it happen? What is the political rationale for it?”
Dr. Wisse thinks about very broad questions; when she speaks to congregations, she says, she has to break off small bits of her thoughts, because otherwise there could not possibly be enough time.
A subject that is occupying her a great deal now is Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whom she sees as a great improvement over her predecessor, Samantha Power, and over the administration Ms. Power represented. “You have to understand why at least one third of the Democratic party today is anti-Israel, in a very classic way anti-Jewish,” Dr. Wisse said. “And why the Republican party as it is constituted today is a pro-Jewish party. This is not a joke. It is your responsibility to understand it.
“I don’t care whether you choose to remain in one party of the other, but you have to account for it. What does it mean that you are not willing to explain your decision? You have to explain why you think that Democrats act in a certain way and Republicans act in another way. This is what Jews are reluctant to do. I understand it — the truth can be very difficult.”
Dr. Wisse goes back to Yiddish literature to explain why it is necessary to look at the world as inescapably run by political forces. “I understand from it why there are some Jews who are temperamentally incapable and so unwilling to recognize a certain kind of reality that wouldn’t know how to live in the world if they had to see it that way,” she said. “So denial becomes their religion. And many retreat to the synagogue. I think that the synagogue is wonderful, and that the number of people who join is wonderful — but I think that if your synagogue life is devoted to denying or escaping from political reality, then this too has to be acknowledged.”
Who: Dr. Ruth Wisse, distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund (along with many other accomplishments and honors)
What: Will tackle the question “Are American Jews Their Own Worst Enemies?”
When: On Sunday, May 7, at 8 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 W Englewood Ave., in Teaneck
For whom: The shul’s adult education committee and the Tikvah Fund
For more information: Call the shul at (201) 837-2795 or go to www.rinat.org