One of the central truths for the majority of Jews over the last few thousands of years is that, in some way or another, they lived in two worlds. It is incorrect to say this about Diaspora Jews alone. In the last centuries of the Second Temple period, Greek was a key language; many Greek customs and habits found their way into the lifestyles of many of the Jews of the time, including those whom we do not usually associate with ‘Hellenization.’
Nonetheless, the story is clearer for Jews who lived in the Diaspora. All Jews were inevitably forced into some kind of contact with the outside Graeco-Roman culture. Some actively sought it out, while others had it thrust it upon them. One reason for this is obvious, when one reflects on the general situation of the Diaspora communities. It has already been mentioned that Jews were tolerated or encouraged to live in different Diaspora societies because of their perceived value to the outer society, primarily in economic terms. The Jewish story in the Diaspora is largely one of a community that was called upon to play certain roles and to perform certain tasks to which they were seen as being particularly suited. If and when Jews became economically superfluous, the society tended to marginalize them or, worse still, persecute and ultimately exile them.
The implications for the individual Jew were clear: even those Jews who were not interested in interacting with the outside society were very often forced to do so. The implications for the Jewish community as a whole were even clearer: no Jewish community could think of cutting itself off from the society in which it dwelt. It would be communal suicide to do so. The Jewish presence in the outside society was dependent on the role that they played. No role, no community.
In communities such as those of Moslem Spain or Renaissance Italy, many Jews sought and achieved considerable cultural and even social interaction with the surrounding societies. In such places, it was possible to find Jews learning in the institutions of the outside society, speaking the same languages and - to a certain extent - living the same lifestyles as their class peers among the host nation. It was more common, however, to find Jews seeking economic positions and jobs that would bring them into contact with the outside society even while they sought to minimize the cultural and social aspects of such interaction. In the centuries immediately preceding the modern era, this was true of almost all Jews in every country and society.
We find a very poignant record of this in a sequence of poems that were written by the great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, in the last years of his life. These poems, which go by the collective name of Yatmut [the state of being orphaned], tell the tale of Bialik’s early years: he lost his father when he was a young child, and was brought up first by his mother and then by his grandfather. The first poem, written in 1928 and recalling events in the 1870’s, records his memories of his innkeeper father, in the Pale of Settlement in Western Russia. In some of the most wrenching lines in all of Hebrew literature, he records his father’s situation, serving alcohol to his Gentile customers while trying to maintain his dignity and his self-image as a traditional religious Jew. We offer a few of the relevant lines here:
Strange was my way of life, its paths bizarre,
Midst intersecting spheres of filth and light
Where sacred wallowed in profane, sublime
In sickening abomination groveled.
In sty of pig-men, in a tavern’s squalor,
In steam of liquor, smoke of lewd incense
Above the barrels of mixed wine
And pages of a yellow parchment book,
My father’s head appeared, a martyred skull
As if chopped off and floating in the fog,
Tormented face, eyes oozing tears of blood.
Silent between his knees I stood, my eyes
Fixed to his moving lips. Around us heaved
Hubbub of drunkards, flood of obscene speech,
Vomiting sots and monstrous dissolute face.
The very walls blanched at the sounds; the blinds
Covered the window’s face; my ear alone,
A child’s untainted ear, caught the soft stream
Of whispered syllables from my father’s lips -
Pure prayer, and Law, the words of the living God…
Thus did I see him, and my soul bowed down
As every day he left the lap of God,
Removed his prayer shawl and phylacteries -
His source of life - his eyes still turned within,
His heart still humming like a wondrous harp,
His ear attuned to song of furthest stars,
And downcast, mute, as if moon-struck,
Returned to suffering days and shamefaced toil,
To sit whole scorpion days in the tavern’s stench,
Swallowing the foolish speech of rioters’ gaping mouths,
Revolted by the sour breath;
Daily to mount the scaffold, daily to enter
The lion’s den, returning home disgraced,
In self-disgust, repugnant to his soul
As if dredged up from a sewer’s pit.
My heart went out to him, his silent pain.
Chaim Nachman Bialik
Here is the Jew caught between the need to serve his customers and the need to serve his God: a Jew who attempts to keep a division between the world of the holy and the world of the profane, between his inner world and the outer reality, but simultaneously is plunged into that external reality because of economic need. How pathetic and tragic an attempt that clearly was, to keep his integrity and ‘wholeness’ even as the outer world tore pieces away and forced him into an unwanted compromise with a reality of which he wanted no part. In this, he stands not just for a whole generation of like-minded Jews, but for countless other Jews scattered over place and time - especially in the world of the Diaspora - who were forced into similar compromises, realizing that they had no alternative.
The modern world created many changes in this situation. The Jew was much more directly sucked into the modern world. The inevitable, heavy price he paid was the ability to run one’s own life through one’s own institutions, keeping the outside society at a certain distance. For the most part, the majority of modern Jews have been more than willing to pay such a price.
If we liken the modern world to a luxury liner steaming towards a better future, an image that would certainly have been acceptable to many in the last century or so, we get the following picture. Most Jews have gratefully grasped the rope that the captains and crews of the modern world have thrown out to them, essentially an invitation - at least officially - to climb aboard the great ship of modernity and to mix with the rest of the passengers. Climbing aboard has occasioned many existential dilemmas concerning the type of Jewish life that individual Jews wish to lead, resulting in the categories already mentioned.
Some Jews have tried to resist modernity, preferring to stay in their small rowboats and trusting the future to God’s providence. For them, the modern ship is a trap and a threat. Others have climbed on board without hesitation, seeking to be accepted by the crew and the other passengers, and showing themselves willing to throw all their previous baggage overboard into the water, ensuring a lighter and easier transition into the new society.
Many Jews have accepted modernity with a number of reservations regarding any potential compromises that they may be called upon to make. These people come on board thankfully, but remain wary and suspicious of the intentions of the captains and the crews, and seek to keep their luggage close by them, not willing to entrust it to anyone else. The fact is that not all of those who are determined to keep their Jewishness intact have shown suspicion of the modern world. There are those who have accepted it happily, believing that it will bring great benefits to the Jews and will not demand that they give up the essence of their Judaism.
One such figure in the past who expressed great optimism regarding the modern world generally, and regarding the situation of the Jew in the modern world specifically, was the thinker who is seen as the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. A German Jew whose life spanned most of the nineteenth century, Hirsch believed that a Jew could live a synthesized life that would bring together all the essentials of Judaism with the best features of the modern world. He believed that, if one had to choose between the benefits of the modern world and Jewish principles, it was clear that the latter would win and the modern world would have to be sacrificed. He considered such a choice unnecessary, however. This becomes clear from the following excerpt from an essay that he wrote in 1854:
Civilization and culture - we all treasure those glorious and inalienable possessions of mankind. We all desire that the good and the true, all that is attainable by human thought and human will-power, should be the common heritage of all men…
The more, indeed, that Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the four cubits of a synagogue and the four walls of a study. The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will his views and aspirations be, the less aloof will he be from anything that is noble and good, true and upright, in art or science, in culture or education… [The more the Jew is a Jew], the more joyfully will he devote himself to all true progress in civilization and culture - provided, that is, that he will not only not have to sacrifice his Judaism but will also be able to bring it to more perfect fulfillment. He will ever desire progress, but only in alliance with religion.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch
Whether Jews were confident that the virtues of modern society could be attained without a need to compromise, as Hirsch believed, or whether they were more suspicious of the consequences of the transition to membership in the modern world for the Jew, the fact is that the majority of Jews did decide to come on board the ship of modernity when it docked at their particular port. With time, many relaxed and felt much more comfortable on board, but nevertheless remained conscious of the fact that they were different from the rest of the passengers. These are the Jews who keep one foot in the Jewish world and one in the outside world, as part of the great Jewish balancing act that to a large extent defines the situation of contemporary Jews. It is to the feelings of the students, as representatives of this latter category of Jews, that we now turn.