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Friday, September 19, 2014

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Moving from fear to faith

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As Jews, we’ve never had it so good. This assertion is contrary to the received wisdom in many circles in the Jewish community. Its leaders, often primed by cynical fundraising professionals, erroneously assume that by presenting Jews as a hounded minority and Israel as if on the brink of destruction, they’re helping to promote communal cohesiveness and individual loyalty. 

The 12-page supplement to the July 28 issue of the influential international weekly the Economist presents a very different and more accurate picture.

Its opening paragraph reads: “Judaism is flourishing, both in Israel, where 43 per cent of the world’s Jews now live, and throughout the Jewish Diaspora. The Jews as a nation are flourishing too. Israelis, for all their problems, are the 14th-happiest people in the world, happier than the British or the French, according to a recent global happiness report commissioned by the UN. In the Diaspora, Jewish life has never been so free, so prosperous, so unthreatened.”

At least three reasons come to mind in support of this assertion. First, wherever in the world Jews live today, they do so by choice, not of necessity. Second, Jewish movers and shakers in our voluntary Diaspora are out of proportion to our numbers. Third, the dramatic success of the Jewish state has led to a historic transformation of Jewish self-confidence and power everywhere.

The ghetto is no more, even though naysayers pretend otherwise. They point to the allegedly dwindling Jewish population, the persistence of antisemitism, often in the guise of anti-Zionism, and the political and military dangers that Israel is facing.

Without seeking to deny any of this, there’re nevertheless compelling reasons to celebrate the overwhelmingly positive aspects of contemporary Jewish life. The cynical stress on doom and gloom may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a growing number of young Jews are being put off by it and, as a result, choose to withdraw altogether from Judaism and Jewry.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman in Jerusalem, is well aware of it. He writes: “As a people we have replaced vision with crisis as the central force and motivation of identity, philanthropy, and unity. We have found amongst the plethora of demographic studies an inexhaustible gold mine. We now have an unending source to feed our fear.”

The fear of demography is being augmented by the fear of antisemitism. There are organizations in our midst whose main objective seems to be to identify enemies in the vain belief that this will strengthen our commitment to Judaism. Not that we should be blind to prejudice and discrimination, but we must see the incidents in proportion, not in distortion. And we must never allow our enemies to define our Judaism!

And if the fears of demography and antisemitism aren’t enough, there’s the fear of the annihilation of Israel, promoted by reactionary forces that assume a catastrophic prognosis will galvanize the Jewish people.

Rabbi Hartman’s critique of the fear of demography is, therefore, equally relevant to the other fears that cloud our sense of reality and poison our efforts to enjoy being Jewish. He writes: “We don’t need a demography of fear; we need a demography of aspirations and responsibility.” And again: “We need to marshal our talent to create a different reality, to remove self-destructive policies, and through the power of ideas offer an alternative and compelling vision.”

Rabbi Hartman challenges us to repudiate fearmongering. I understand him to imply that, for example, instead of bewailing intermarriage and the low Jewish birthrate, the community should reach out to all Jews, including non-Jewish spouses and their children, to make Judaism sufficiently attractive for them.

Instead of consistently playing the antisemitism card, we must promote interfaith and intercultural understanding in the service of an open and healthy society, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Thus, for example, although the recent malicious United Church resolution to boycott goods from Israel should be decisively repudiated, contact with the organization must be maintained, and even intensified. It’ll also effectively strengthen those who’re pained by the apparent anti-Jewish direction of their church.

As for Israel, in addition to protecting ourselves from enemies from without, we must face the problems within by helping to bridge the potentially self-destructive gaps in Israeli society in economics, religion, politics, gender equality and many other areas.

In this season of collective introspection, we turn to our religious and communal leaders to help us move from fear to faith.

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