Can We Assume Too Much Responsibility?

This article first appeared on jewishideas.org

Jewish Guilt, at least the European/western/Ashkenazi stereotype, is a cliché that is featured in much our unique, Jewish humor, and it is often seen as a positive trait that reflects our traditional values of personal responsibility and hard work.  Although it has the potential to effectively cripple us, we are rather fond and protective of it.  However, it’s capacity for damage shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Two ironic phenomena illustrate the danger, the irony being how often seeming rival segments of our Jewish spectrum so clearly mimic each other.  On the one hand you have the “centrist” orthodox world, where I certainly see myself, focusing on the shortcomings, intolerance and extremism within the haredi circles.  If only, we teach and tell each other, these folks wouldn’t make Jewish observance and practice so distasteful to modern, educated,sophisticated Jews, so many more of them might at least test the waters and see if there is at least some part of our tradition which engages them.

At the other end of the spectrum, the mainly non-orthodox “peace camp” regularly places all the blame for our continuing state of war with our Arab neighbors on “the settlers” and on “right-wing extremists”.  The implication is that if these folks would only behave themselves, violence against Jews and Israel would vanish and we could all live together in peace.

While it is true that there are extreme factions in both of these groups, not only are they generally much smaller and much less potent than they’re depicted, but this surprisingly similar approach also refuses to recognize that there truly are, in both cases, very real opponents.  The attitude that all the blame lies with ourselves, albeit to those far to the right of both mainstreams, and that if only we could get our own guys in line everyone would love us is unrealistic, self-serving and enables avoiding the actual threats.

The violence, constant threat of war and terrorism against Israel is intentional and actively directed by those in the Arab world who have never accepted Israel’s existence or the right of Jews to live anywhere in our ancestral homeland.  The “naqba”, shame, that they mourn began even before 1948’s birth of the State of Israel with frequent and systematic massacres, and not with the supposed “occupation” of 1967.  There has never been a change of heart among any of our foes accepting our existence in any part whatsoever of the Holy Land.  Instead, as we hear too frequently, there are daily proclamations to “wipe the Zionist Entity off the face of the map” and the like.

Nonetheless, the self-elected “elite” of the extreme “peace camp” persists in blaming fellow Jews for inciting the hatred against us.  While it might seem admirable to assume all the responsibility for the failure of a peaceful resolution, in fact it’s not only arrogant to think we have that much power, but it perpetuates this deadly situation by avoiding actions that might actually lead to a solution.  Only when there is a massive change of attitude in the Arab world, at least grudging acceptance of, if not true welcome to, our presence and right to live in our home will there be peace.  Even though the vast majority of Israelis, living on either side of the “green line” have repeatedly expressed willingness to make painful sacrifices for peace, we’re still not granted legitimacy by the Arab world to inhabit even a fraction of our territory.  Until then, we must, however reluctantly, defend ourselves militarily.

Likewise, although we are often be embarrassed by what we feel are backward attitudes and approaches issuing from the extreme haredi world, by a culture of chumrot (extreme interpretations of Jewish tradition beyond the generally accepted), withdrawal by many from civic duties and suspicion of other Jews who have chosen to not join them, this is not the main reason why most Jews today are minimally, if at all, observant, more often unaffiliated and completely alienated from Jewish tradition.  I know how easy it is to blame the ultra-orthodox–I’m ashamed to say that I do it myself too often.

Yes, they often do present a side of Jewish observance that isn’t so inviting, but our job goes beyond apologizing for them.  We are pretty successful in presenting a face of traditional Judaism that can be quite palatable to the less committed, but even that isn’t sufficient.  We need to admit to ourselves and confront the reality that just as there are terrorist leaders who vow to keep their lands judenrein and preach to their children that Jews are the “descendants of pigs and monkeys”, there are “liberal” Jewish leaders who teach that “Judaism will never evolve until all the orthodox have died out” (I have heard this opinion more than several times).  We need to work with the realization that no matter how attractive, relevant, spiritually uplifting we work to make a life of Torah observance, there is a sizable group that will continue, for their own reasons, to attack our traditions.

Of course, even though we all too often seem to operate by the same modality, assuming all the guilt and responsibility for this failure on ourselves, we need to approach the two threats quite differently.  We must employ all necessary resources, including military force, to ensure the physical survival of Jews and the State of Israel.

With our fellow Jews, however, on both sides of ourselves, we can only reach out with love and have faith that ultimately that love will overcome our differences.  We don’t require all secular Jews to become observant, nor do we need all haredim to become “modern orthodox”.  Perhaps our opportunity and charge as “centrists” is to act as a bridge between different constituencies of out people.  Actually, I believe that the solution to the political/military problems as well as our internal battles to be the same, Achdut and Ahavat Yisrael, unity (although not uniformity) and the communal love within our people.  After all, as I often say, Judaism is the art of unreasonable optimism.

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