Assimilation goes much deeper than intermarriage, dropping out of synagogue or eating at McDonalds. It has much more to do with integrating and adopting “foreign” values which, though they be popular in, sometimes even predominate, the surrounding society, are actually inimical to Jewish values. But with an almost two-thousand year history of dispersal and exile throughout the world, it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t even more pervasive; as protective coloration, as camouflage, the technique has been an essential and time-tested survival tool.
There are two values, each from a different spiritual path, that seem to inspire some elements of progressive and secular Judaism these days. The first, usually parading as “non-violence”, “social justice” and “universalism”, especially in response to the life-and-death threats currently facing Israel (and, increasingly, European Jewry), comes straight from the New Testament: “turn the other cheek”. Misapplied, it self-righteously justifies suicidal appeasement and falsely claims to be a true expression of Jewish values. Not only could nothing be further from the truth, but it attacks one of the crucial foundations of Jewish values which is Jewish survival. If one finds value in any authentic Jewish values at all, it should be obvious that those value will never contribute to the “betterment of mankind” if there are no Jews left to model and teach them. Additionally, it insults the very Jewish concept of Justice which requires rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior, not the other way around.
There is another very popular value, one much closer to an authentic Jewish one, which is self-surrender/self-sacrifice/demolishing-the-ego. Often these words are offered as a translation of the holy concept ביטול היש (bitul ha-yesh), but with a major difference. Since the contemporary concept is largely borrowed from Buddhist practice (ignoring the Jewish expression of it), and Buddhism doesn’t contain, or even contain the room for, the concept of God as experienced in Judaism. Thus, “killing of the ego” is often described as a gentle falling into Nothingness, or into The Universe. I’m not evaluating Buddhism or Buddhist practice, but recognizing distinctions between Buddhism and Judaism is as valid as recognizing distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in our first example.
Especially as we approach Yom Kippur, we can take advantage of our tradition’s path. The Kedushat Levi, mines the last section of the Mishna Yoma (which presents the Oral Torah of this festival), אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין, וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם (Rabbi Akiva says, Rejoice Israel! Before Whom are you purified and Who purifies you? Your Father in Heaven!) He relates the word מי (mi) in this passage, which means who/whom with מה (mah), meaning what (the essence of the unknown/unknowable)–then, through comparison to Biblical statements of Avraham and Moshe, he explains that, in a much deeper and more profound sense of understanding the passage, they are “code-words” for the state of being of self-nullification (ביטול היש) where a person is at-one with The Simple Unity, אחדות פשוט (achdut pashut), i.e. God. When Rabbi Akiva asks “Before Whom”, he uses the phrase לפני מי (lifnay mi), with the word לפני (lifnay) meaning “before” in a sequential/spatial sense. In other words, the process of purifying ourselves on Yom Kippur involves ascending to a spiritual level even above the “mere” losing of ego/identity and separate existence, to an elevated state of דבקות (devekut), merging with God!
We don’t seek to self-destruct into Nothingness, but rather to fully surrender ourselves into God. It makes a vast difference, merging with a spirit of universal benevolence and wisdom rather than letting ourselves slip into a value-“free” void which, in many ways, is the ultimate selfishness of irresponsibility. And by means of this, we are purified.
We should, indeed, rejoice in our Jewish tradition, in the paths of wisdom revealed to us that enable and encourage us to be the most responsible and thus the most loving beings we can possibly become. Modeling this is a good portion of the concept of being אור לגוים (Or l’Goyim) a light to the nations. It’s one of our critical roles, as Jews, in the human endeavor, and one demanding our survival.
As a friend once wrote me, they feel fortunate to have something so worth fighting for to protect.
G’mar Chatima Tova