The Jew and the Jewish World

Let us start by expanding some of the ideas that we touched on in Part One. We have already mentioned Beit Hatfutzot, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, which attempts to tell the story of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. On the second floor of the museum’s permanent exhibit there is a large white wall that presents the cultural history of the community, primarily in terms of the various literary texts that Jews have produced in different generations. The casual visitor will not be aware that the wall has a certain secret significance. Besides the information that it presents, it also has a secret message, a sub-text.

The clue to the sub-text lies in the color of the wall. Color plays a very important role in the museum, the most important one being white. White has different meanings in different contexts: throughout the world - and particularly in Jewish life - it symbolizes purity, cleanliness or godliness. In Beit Hatfutzot it has a different meaning: it stands for the universal - in a Jewish context, the things that are common to all Jews. Thus a model of a stage of the life cycle - birth, marriage or death - will be colored white to indicate that the various rituals of celebrating or marking these moments among all Jews share certain characteristics.

It is in this spirit that we should approach the wall. Anyone examining it will see that, starting from the pre-Second Temple period, it is colored white and remains so with the progression through time until the eighteenth century. At this point the wall splits up into many different colors. The idea is clear: until the eighteenth century all Jews shared the same culture and were essentially united. When the Jewish world began to change in the West, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it split into many different groups, who had little or nothing in common with each other.

Anyone who knows their Jewish history will recognize this immediately as a sweeping simplification and idealization. The Jewish world was almost always split in a number of ways between different groups, many of whom maintained very strained relations with rival groups of Jews. However, there is no question that the depth of the rifts between the Jews in the last two centuries have been unprecedented.

The reasons for these rifts within the Jewish people, whose effects we are still suffering from today, are essentially ideological. The clash with modern life brought about unparalleled havoc as many Jews sought to adjust their thought processes and their lifestyle to those of the world around them, and to reinterpret the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’ in new ways. However, another set of influences was also at work. The traditional identity of the Jew as a member of an international people that, for reasons of circumstance and theology, were spread over a hundred different countries, was undermined.

In the pre-modern period, the vast majority of Jews saw themselves as part of one interlocking mechanism of world Jewry. It was clear to them that the Jews were an - a people or nation. The fact that they were split into many different groups and had been so divided for thousands of years did not change the fact that they were part of one organism. Their connections with other Jews living in different parts of the world were clear. There were even certain advantages to this division of the whole into parts. Jewish traders, for example, used the fact of Jewish geographical dispersion to give them an economic advantage over many other trading groups by closing deals easily on the basis of trust with co-religionists who lived in other countries.

In practical terms there were many differences between Jews living in various places. Not only were things like language, dress and life-style different, but the specifics of prayer, custom and halachic understanding also varied keenly from place to place. On the level of subjective consciousness, however, most Jews saw themselves as belonging to a common group with Jews in other countries while they were always aware of belonging to a different group from their non-Jewish neighbors. This was true even in times of very good relations between Jews and their neighbors: Jews would always be aware of the great differences that set them off from the people in whose area or country they lived.

The onset of modernity changed all this in the West. In the wake of the Enlightenment (both the general movement in the non-Jewish world and the Jewish movement that we call the Haskalah) and the movement towards emancipation of the Jews, the relationships between many Jews and the other inhabitants of their country underwent serious change - at least for the Jews - on the subjective level. Many Jews now started to feel a strong feeling of loyalty towards their newly-adopted country, and sought to bind themselves more strongly with their non-Jewish fellow citizens.

This was expressed in a number of different ways. Some - in fact, many - in most of the Western countries stopped thinking of themselves as Jews and in one way or another sought to become something else, usually Christian. There were those who remained Jews but for whom the meaning of the word became increasingly marginal and irrelevant. There were others who remained Jews - even proud ones - but changed their lifestyle, toning down considerably many of the aspects that had defined Jews for generations. There were those who remained halachic Jews but attempted to combine this with involvement in the modern world, holding that there was no necessary contradiction between the two.

We touched on all these subjects in Part One of the program, but this is the place for emphasizing the implications of these trends for the consciousness of Jews in terms of the larger community to which they felt that they belonged. If in the pre-modern period Jews throughout the world saw their primary national allegiance to their own people, this situation now changed for many. In all those Jews in Western lands who, even after all of these changes, continued to define themselves as Jews in a meaningful way, we see the development of some kind of split identity. Instead of essentially feeling their national loyalty as part of a splintered people, most Jews now felt themselves part of two groups: their external political state, with which they increasingly felt that their national identity was connected, and their Jewish grouping. But how could one be part of two nations at the same time?

The problem was intensified by the fact that the nations in which they lived were demanding that the Jews forfeit their self-definition as a nation in order to be accepted as part of the surrounding state or society. We begin to hear the now-famous phrase being used: the Jews cannot be “a nation within a nation.” This demand should not be seen as anti-Semitism in disguise, although many anti-Semites used the argument. It was a point of view that was forcefully held by many who were very pro-Jewish and wanted them to become part of the surrounding society as Jews without giving up their Jewishness. These liberals saw the Jews as a religious grouping and wanted them to integrate into the nation as a religious group. In France, for example, the first country where the demand was put forward that the Jews define themselves in religious terms only, there were French Catholics and French Protestants. There could also be French Jews.

The result of this was the ultimate death of the concept of the Jews as a nation for the vast majority of Western Jews. The prevailing model among Western Jews became one of defining themselves in terms of theology only: they were French, German or British by nationality and Jewish by religion.

This raised many questions, one of the key ones relating to the connection between Jews in different countries. How should a Jew from France, for example, relate to Jews from other countries? Previously, the connection between Jews had been their primary relationship and all other relationships had been secondary. Now the story was different, however. They had two potential primary relationships. If the two were to clash, which would take preference? In this way, the specter of dual loyalties was born. It is to this that we now turn.


Activity

Linking Jews

The aim of this activity is to begin to raise basic questions about the links between the students and the wider Jewish world.


 

 

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30 Nov 2006 / 9 Kislev 5767 0