Avrum Burg, the JPPPI Conference and the Chareidim
“Let thy Speech be Better than Silence or be Silent”
Dionysius the Elder
Two events have lately pre-occupied Israeli society: The publication of Avrum Burg’s disturbing book, Defeating Hitler and the JPPPI conference, “The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute” conference, recently held in Jerusalem. The former is a frontal attack on the State of Israel and the latter was an attempt to solve the problems of the Jewish People. Nothing more and nothing less.
Avrum Burg is the son of the venerable Dr. Josef Burg who was the main representative of the National Religious Party in the Knesseth for several decades. The younger Burg entered Israeli politics at the age of 33 and became the chairman of the Jewish Agency and later the Speaker of the Knesseth in 1990. In his book, Avrum Burg makes a blazing critique of some of the most sensitive elements of Israel’s ethos. Central is its treatment of the Holocaust. According to Burg, Israel has used the Holocaust as a justification for the existence of the State and all of its actions in ways which are ethically deplorable: “The Shoa is our life.” “We have removed it from its historical context and turned it into a claim and reason for every deed. Everything is compared to the Holocaust.”
He goes so far as to accuse Israel of using it as a justification for the way it deals with its enemies, being obsessed with the belief that we are the eternal victim, constantly haunted and self righteous, panicky and brutal, remembering and vengeful. While Burg takes the argument much too far and at times becomes so captivated by it that he no longer sees the realities on the ground (as well as making other observations which are far off the mark, to say the least!) one cannot deny that he touches on one of Israel’s greatest problems: the justification of its existence. Why does Israel actually exist? Is it a response to thousands of years of anti-Semitism and consequently a haven for Jews to escape to from all their enemies, especially after the Holocaust? Or was the State built so that Jews could live their lives as fully fledged Jews enabling them to fulfill their mission as a unique moral entity in this complicated world? Said differently: Is it a place where Jews have a chance to survive for the sake of survival or is there more to it? Hence the question: why should Jews survive if there is little more to their existence than the need for the so often used argument of “continuity”?
This brings us straight to the JPPPI conference. Like so many others, this conference was organized “to rescue the Jewish people from its maladies!” So called “experts” from many continents discussed the future of the Jewish people from every angle, all under the guidance of Chairman Dennis Ross, who has no doubt a lot to say about Middle East Politics, yet is hardly an expert on Jewish survival. But as with most conferences one wonders what it actually accomplished. Regretfully, the answer seems to be clear: nothing and again nothing. (In fact many predicted this before the conference even started!) There were learned presentations by people, eager to convince their audiences that they had the answer to the most acute problems of the Jewish people such as assimilation and Diaspora-Israel relations. But the constant call “to do something” evaporated in hot air. Nobody seemed to know what should really be done to bring the Jewish people out of its impasse and sail it into a bright future.
While there is little doubt that all participants had only the best of intentions, one is reminded of Spinoza’s famous remark: “Surely human affairs would be far happier if the power in men to be silent were the same as that to speak. But experience more than sufficiently teaches that men govern nothing with more difficulty than their tongues, and moderate their desires more easily than their words.”(1)
However, here is really much more at stake here: when one carefully analyzes the content and the need for this and all such other conferences, one comes to the following conclusion. They function as a cover up. They are an escape from all that is essential. They are a sophisticated attempt not to hear what needs to be heard yet nobody wants to hear – and that is, that without some deep commitment to Jewish religious life there is no future for the Jewish people. All calls for a commitment to “Jewish culture” and “Jewish history” etc are in vain. For decades, there have been those who have tried to follow this path. But all that it did was create confusion among our people. By now we should know better and realize that we cannot predicate our future survival on a constellation of fading memories, nostalgia or just the academic study of religious texts or Jewish history. None of these have worked. All what they can do is to carry meaning as a byproduct of the real thing, i.e. Religious Judaism.
It is for this reason that the observation, as stated in one of the conference brochures, that “if ritual is not followed, Jewish identity …. may survive if there is a commitment to history and a sense of mission.” is wishful thinking for which there is no evidence whatsoever. There is a prodigious selfishness in this kind of thinking which is absolutely deaf and invulnerable amid the cries of the real world.
In fact such conferences are really an expression of a great fear. When it comes to the future and survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, the only people who seem to have it right are the chareidim. After all, they are the only ones who really grow in numbers. They are not beset with a crisis about their future. They build schools after schools and have the most successful outreach programs among all denominations. They are more effective at combating mixed marriages than anybody else. And above all they bring a feeling of mission to their followers which all other streams of Judaism are not able to deliver.
The great irony is that the organizers and participants, not just of the JPPPI, but of all such conferences, subconsciously know this yet do not realize this or do not have the courage to admit it. The proof for this is most telling: there are virtually no chareidi educators ever present at any of these conferences. True, officially they sometimes are invited but no major effort is ever made to really make them feel welcome. A subtle message is sent to them and that is that nobody is really interested in what they have to say, or as one French delegate stated: There is a almost “unbridgeable cultural gap between the types of people attending the conference and members of the chareidi community.” “They have no good grasp of geopolitical realties.” This is nothing else but self deception. The truth is that there is fear that the chareidim will say the unbearable truth, so let’s keep them out!
It may quite well be true that there is a large gap between the chareidi community and the rest of the Jewish people, but is that not good enough reason to carefully listen to them since, as I have already stated, it is they and nobody else whose numbers are growing and who are successful. They have no need for conferences, birthright trips and other emergency measures. Apparently they are doing something right! So who should listen to whom?
In fact the efforts which we make to escape our destiny only serve us to lead us into it and that is what happens at this hour in Jewish History. Avrum Burg is right that we became obsessed with the Holocaust but not just for the reasons he gives but also because it became a substitute for Judaism. For years many Jews in Israel and even more so in the Diaspora saw the Holocaust as their raison d’etre. It was the suffering of the Jewish people which became the central issue creating a “community”. Holocaust studies, museums, memorials, books and papers took the place of a Judaism which was abandoned as old fashioned and incapable of steering the Jewish people to better times. But as David Hartmann correctly observed: One cannot build the future of the Jewish people on the ashes of Auschwitz. Unless one gives the younger generation a feeling of how great it is to be a Jew and that being Jewish carries a powerful religious moral mission for all mankind, there will be no continuity. Instead the Jewish people will not only experience interruption but also a serious breakdown as all those conferences have witnessed. What becomes clearer each day is that Jewish identity can only flourish and survive when it is understood in religious terms. Without a call to kedusha, (holiness), the need to observe Shabbath, eating kosher and a greater attention to ethics, the Jewish people will not survive in the long term, not even in the State of Israel. There are no substitutes and there is no escape from this truth.
Does this mean that we should accept the chareidi life style, lock, stock and barrel? Definitely not. Not everyone is capable of this way of life nor could everybody agree with its weltanschaaung or its beliefs. Neither can I. (Although many of us could at least try a little harder and be more open to some of its values) The chareidi community is struggling to cope with the modern world and its leaders are stuck too much in the past to understand today’s challenges. They encounter major problems and will have to rethink their positions on many issues. The Chareidi leaders will have to detach themselves from the sandbank in which they are stuck.
Likewise it is so for the modern orthodox society. While more open to the world, it has become too academic and too detached from real religious life with too little inspiration. They also are in need of new way of thinking.
A new kind of Judaism is called for which will not be “honored”, “valued” or “well respected” but will make Jews to shiver in their shoes because of its grandeur and wisdom. It will have to cook up a storm turning the whole of the Jewish people pale. In a totally unprecedented shift, it should lead the ship of the Torah with full sails right into the heart of Israeli society causing such a shock that it will take days, weeks or months before it is able to get back on its feet. With their knives in their teeth, and just like the prophets in biblical days, its rabbis should create an uproar which will scare the wits out of all the attendants of the JPPPI conference. And all those confused people who are unable to think other than to organize these conferences will wake up and know that it is only through a new encounter with Torah and nothing else that Jews have a future.
So, why not carefully listen to the chareidim, and adopt some of their advice? Sure, they are wrong on many issues, but they seem to be right when it comes to more than just the issue of survival.
(1) Benedictus de Spinoza, Ethics, chapter 3, translation Andrew Boyle.