Op-Ed: The American Babylonia
Rabbi Berel WeinRabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history.
I know that it is not nice to kick anyone while that person is down. In fact, it is not nice to kick anyone at all at anytime. A substantial portion of the American Jewish community has sustained great physical and monetary, psychological and social damage as a result of the devastation wrought by hurricane Sandy.
So now is perhaps an inauspicious time for an article dealing with, what in my opinion, is the troublesome future of that community. But I have just recently done quite a bit of study and research on the Jewish community of Babylonia in the previous millennia and I was struck by certain similarities to the current American Jewish community.
After the eleventh century the Babylonian Jewish community lost its preeminent place in the Jewish world, and though a Jewish community continued to function in Iraq/Babylonia until the 1950’s it never again was the force in Jewish life that it once was for almost one thousand years.
There were many reasons, external and internal, that led to the decline of Babylonian Jewry but I have noticed three main forces that sapped its strength and beclouded its future. The first was the rise and spread of Karaism, a sect founded in Babylonia and that later spread throughout the Jewish Middle East and was especially strong in Egypt and Babylonia.
The Karaites denied the divinity and efficacy of the Oral Law and created a type of Judaism that had new rules, new mores and was a distortion of Torah law and Jewish tradition. Karaism has long since disappeared from being a force in Jewish life but much of American Jewry today operates under a so-called Judaism that bears little relationship to Torah knowledge, Jewish observances, and true values.
Instead it is inundated with sloganeering and high-sounding phrases that bear little or no relationship to Judaism. Intermarriage, ignorance and political faddism are the Karaism of American Jewish society.
Secondly, Babylonian Jewry, though possessed of great yeshivot and Torah scholars, did not adjust to the demographic, economic and political changes that were occurring. It did not foresee the coming of the Christian crusaders, the decline of the spice and silk routes, the triumph of the Ottoman Turks over the local Arabs, and the change in the location of the fulcrum of Jewish life to Spain, France and Germany.
It was smug in its own traditional wealth and influence and did not sense that its central position in the Jewish world was slowly eroding and fading. For many decades American Jewry believed that Israel was dependent upon it for its actual survival. Much of that mistaken notion was encouraged by cynical Israeli leaders for various personal and political reasons.
Today it should be clear to all that in spite of all campaign rhetoric and hype, America generally is in decline. There is a permanent economic and social underclass that has been created and will not disappear.
Eventually this situation will affect American Jewry, currently so certain of its status and confident in its no-longer-minority viewed position in American society. The long exile of the Jewish people has allowed for no exceptions to Jewish particularism, which leads to anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior. It is certainly something to ponder.
Finally, Babylonian Jewry was riven by internal disputes between its religious and temporal leaders. Disputes, especially disputes that touch on religious matters invariably lead to extremist views and unacceptable behavior – all under the guise of following the will of Heaven.
There is much extremism under display in American Jewry today. Ah, but you will counter, how about the extremism in the religious circles in Israel. But there is a fundamental difference between Israel and America. Here in Israel the extremism is mostly political in nature - the quest for patronage and budget allocations, and the personal ambitions of politicians for office and power.
With all of the trappings of piety surrounding them, the contests here are basically much more personal than ideological. The anti-Israel groupings in Israel have waned in numbers and influence while, unfortunately, they have increased in the American Jewish society. More and more, the hareidi society in Israel sees itself as part of the general apparatus of the state, and the nineteenth century battle over Zionism has ended here. It is a moot question.
Not so in American Jewish society where actual hatred of the State of Israel exists in many sections of that society, from the intellectual Left to the extremists in the religious world on the Right.
When Babylonia saw itself as the substitute for Jerusalem as a safe haven for all eternity, its decline immediately set in.
It is always foolish to predict the Jewish future so it could be that all I have written here is nonsense. I certainly hope so. But studying about Babylonian Jewry and seeing the parallels with American Jewry troubles me.