Identifying with One’s People: An Emotional Journey

I attended a modern Orthodox Jewish Day School from 1st through 8th grade, and then a similar high school. The secular education was quite good, and the Jewish part – at least from the standpoint of “do’s and don’ts” – wasn’t bad either. But something was missing, although I didn’t realize what until I went to college and took a course in Jewish History. For me, that’s when everything changed…

This essay is not about “Judaism” per se; it’s relevant to anyone and everyone of whatever ethnic, national or religious background – each with their own variation. But the underlying premise is the same: there is a difference between “knowing the rules” of your group and “feeling the connection”.

In those twelve years, I learned about the stories in the Bible; what a Jew is commanded to do; and how to study the sacred books. The approach was hyper-rational and didactic: this is what the Bible states; that is what the Talmud’s Rabbis argued. What was completely missing? Any real historical framework that would give “life” to those people and events of yesteryear. Sure, the Bible’s heroes were “heroic” (although each with flaws as well), but they existed in a world without socio-cultural context.

One central example: the Talmud (including the Mishnah) covers 500 years of history in the Land of Israel and Babylon, but not once were we taught that “this Rabbi lived in the 2nd century CE in Palestine” (the name given by the Romans), whereas “that Rabbi lived in Babylon in the 5th century CE”. In and of itself the specific “century” was not all that important; what is critical for understanding was the political, social and cultural milieu in which these rabbis worked and argued – and the impact of their environment on their argumentation and law rulings. To mix metaphors, this was teaching Jewish history and law from “Olympus” on high, and not within the messiness and complexity of real life, evolving over time.

In registering for that Jewish History course, I thought that I would be merely be filling in some lacunae in my knowledge. What I got was a double shock. First, I wasn’t missing a few pieces of knowledge; it was more like 450 pieces of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle had gone AWOL without my knowing! Second, whatever I did “know” about Judaism was cut and dry, without much emotional resonance. Yes, I knew about the destruction of the two Temples – but more as a Fast day (the 9th of Av) with some specific prayers, than any flesh and blood detail about who, why, and how those catastrophes occurred.

The rest of Jewish history? The word “history” never arose in my 12 years of education; again, the Jewish calendar is taught as a litany of holidays and commandments, with almost no historical context (and certainly without questioning the extent to which “history” that was taught is actually accurate). But far more important, any event that did not have a place in the Jewish calendar was simply invisible: the 8th century BCE exile of ten (!) tribes, never to be seen again; Byzantine Emperor Theodosius’s persecution of the Jews in the Holy Land; periodic, Christian campaigns of mass conversion of Jews; Crusader pogroms through the mid-Middle Ages; the Spanish Inquisition; Chmielniki massacre of Polish and Ukranian Jews in 1648; the false messianic, Shabtai Zvi mass movement (most of Western European Jewry following his lead); and other significant, lugubrious events.

Of course, Jewish history is full of other, more positive (or “neutral”) developments, and these too were never mentioned: post-Temple Jewish Babylonian society with the “Rosh Golah” (Diaspora Head) opposite the Yeshiva rabbis; the various Jewish mass migrations from East to West, setting up huge, new communities in North Africa and later in Europe; the literary and commercial effervescence and affluence of Spanish Jewry under Moslem authority; Spinoza and later the Jewish Enlightenment (e.g. Moses Mendelssohn). And astoundingly completely missing from Jewish Day School (or modern yeshiva) education is Zionism, as this was largely a secular movement of national independence.

Confronting all this in my college course – the good, the bad, and the really ugly things in Jewish history – was a wrenching experience for me. When the emotional dust settled, I had a much greater appreciation of Jewish history. Far more important, I now had a greater visceral attachment to the Jewish people and my heritage. Judaism wasn’t only 613 Commandments; it was the product of a 3000-year journey from depths to heights and back again – over and over – each time with the Jews exhibiting the highest level of fortitude and adaptability in the face of some of the greatest challenges that any nation has ever faced. And still the Jews endure(d).

I started this essay with these words: “it’s relevant to anyone and everyone of whatever ethnic, national or religious background.” So I’ll end with an example. Today is Christmas. Why does it fall on the 25th of December? Indeed, why is Hanukkah also celebrated around this time of the year? (The Jewish calendar is lunar so that the “civic date” shifts by a few weeks back and forth every annum.) After all, the Maccabee revolt against the Seleucids went on for seven years; however, Hanukkah’s date does not celebrate the revolt but rather the rededication of the Temple when its Menorah was relit. The answer to both these questions is the same: throughout the ancient (pagan) world the 25th of December was celebrated as the first day that it was possible to see that the sun actually “regenerating”, i.e., until Dec. 21 the days got shorter and shorter – only four days later could it be discerned that the days started getting longer and “the world was saved”.

That’s why Hanukkah is celebrated mainly as the holiday of LIGHTS!! That’s why Jesus was (supposedly) born on that day, as the harbinger of a “new era”. Both these religions understood that in order to survive they had to “piggyback” on the pagan world’s age-old holiday festivals.

Does this “cheapen” Hanukkah? In my opinion, quite the reverse. It is but one example of many as to how Judaism over the millenia adapted to the exigencies of the time, turning something “unholy Gentile” (a superstitious belief in the Sun’s demise) into a holy celebration of national independence and religious rededication. (The Christians, in their completely different way, did this too. And if already on the topic: why is New Year’s on Jan. 1? That’s eight days after Dec. 25 – when Jewish Jesus had his brit milah [circumcision]! Christians too need to understand their religious connection to Judaism – not just to paganism.)

In sum, a true emotional connection to one’s people – whether religious or national – can only arise from a deeper and especially wider historical comprehension of who they were and why, i.e., with what our forebears had to contend. It is only through such an understanding that we too today will be better able to deal with the newer challenges that our people face. 

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