Diaspora Judaism

The greatest miracle of history is the survival of diaspora Judaism. The greatest question is where it is headed today.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Diaspora Judaism has been a problem for the community of nations from time immemorial. It is a unique phenomenon that only the Jew has experienced. Exiled from our country for nearly two thousand years, we stubbornly refused to assimilate and dissipate. We clung tenaciously to our Jewish identity and maintained autonomous communities wherever we lived.

How can a host nation tolerate a foreign nation, albeit a peaceful one, in its midst? The truth is that I can find many answers to that question, but if a nation seeks total hegemony within its borders, which is a historical right of nations, the stubborn Jew becomes a problem.

Pharaoh solved the problem by enslaving the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar, by exiling them. Haman, by threatening to annihilate them. Titus, by defeating them. The Crusaders by decimating them. The Inquisition, by burning them. The Czars, by inciting Pogroms. Stalin, by deporting them, and Hitler, by gassing them. Everyone sought to destroy us, but we never went away.

On the contrary, as the Torah says of the Jews in Egypt, the more they were tortured, the more they proliferated. This has been a problem for all tyrants who attempted to destroy this nation within their nation. No matter how much they worked to stamp out the Jews, we miraculously survived. The greatest miracle of history is the survival of diaspora Judaism.

The renaissance and enlightenment posed a new and profound challenge for Jews. Unshackled from the constraints of the Church, free-thinkers began to advocate tolerance for all people. For the first time, Jews were welcomed by their non-Jewish neighbors.

This acceptance came with a price—the renouncing of traditions and rituals that make us different. Jews would be free to believe as they chose, but they would need to adopt the conduct and laws of the host nation. The secular legal code would supplant Halachah. Jewish courts would no longer adjudicate disputes among Jews or conduct Jewish marriages and divorces. Jews would need to dissolve their separate schools and insular communities. In short, the price of admission was to join. Another way to put it, Jewish emancipation was a paradox. One could either cling to traditional Judaism or be emancipated, but not both.

This created a new mold for the Jew, secular Judaism. Until that point, there was no such thing as a non-practicing Jew. You were either fully observant or converted into Christianity or Islam. There was nothing in between. Suddenly, Jews had an option. It is said that when Benjamin Disraeli was asked to define his identity, pointed to the page between the Old Testament and the new one, and said, this is where I belong. This was simply not an option before the renaissance.

But now, secular Judaism became an option. As Yehudah Leib Gordon put it, one could be a Jew on the inside and a mentch on the outside. You could straddle both and find respectability. This created a huge strain on the Jewish community as people wondered whether it would survive. If the rituals and traditions were no longer necessary, what would become of the Jewish community? Would Klal Yisrael survive if Reb Yisrael didn’t need it?

New Options
Many Jews began to rethink the meaning of Jewish identity. Some concluded that the only path forward is to reform Judaism in the mold of Protestantism. A religion that maintains a core set of beliefs but models its rituals and practice after the host nation. It abandoned Kashrut and Shabbat, symbols that set the Jew apart, and adopted the guise and lifestyle of their non-Jewish neighbors.

Others concluded that there is no future for Diaspora Judaism and turned their focus on the formation of a Jewish nation in Israel. Stripped of the tassels of old, this nation would be as Jewish as the British are British. It would be a nation, rather than a religion.

Yet, others hunkered down and created islands of orthodoxy in a sea of assimilation. Some sought to build bridges between Judaism and the Enlightenment. Led by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, they utilized the methods of the Enlightenment to explain ancient Jewish teachings. Others such as the Hassidim and the Lithuanian Yeshivot, rejected the Enlightenment outright, focusing intently and exclusively on traditional Judaism. Then there was the response of Harav Kook, who taught that this dilemma can only be resolved in the sacred aura of the Holy Land, where the dichotomy of diaspora Judaism is synthesized through the power of mystical thought and the mitzva of settling the land..

There were many other Jewish responses, the common denominator was a burning need to respond to the new question. What is the future of Judaism? Should it join the global village, or should it focus on particularism to the detriment of Enlightenment?

Failed Predictions
For Jews, the Enlightenment was a terrible disappointment. Its promise of Jewish emancipation failed to translate from theory to practice. Despite the majestic clarion call for tolerance, the idea never germinated on the streets. No matter how Jews tried to disguise their Judaism, no matter how much Jews tried to emulate their neighbors, antisemitism persisted. As Moses Hess put it, “they hate the peculiar faith of the Jews less than their peculiar noses.”

This burgeoning hatred reached its zenith in the Holocaust. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, “The great experiment of European humanism, Jewish emancipation, died in the ovens of Auschwitz.” The prediction of the Enlightenment died in the Holocaust, but the promise of Abraham survived.

Many survivors tried to put the Holocaust behind them and move on. They hoped it was an aberration of human history. Many denied their Judaism and concealed it from their children hoping that this would spare them further persecution. Even the return of the realization of the Zionist dream in 1947 did not awaken Diaspora Judaism from its slumber.

But the Six-Day War changed everything. The nation of Israel stood imperiled, threatened with annihilation by murderous armies bristling with rage and trumpeting their aims in the Arab streets. The world stood by silently and the Jew was, once again, alone. The stunning victory in six short days convinced Diaspora Judaism that something special was happening to the Jew. We might be a small nation, but we are shielded by the divine promise made to Abraham.

The Pintele Yid
Diaspora Judaism began to thrive again. Not because of antisemitism bur despite it. Not because of Zionism and the return to Israel, but alongside it. Jews were proud again. Jews stood tall again. Jews were willing to stand upright and declare their Jewish identity unabashedly.

The pintele yid was awakened. The quintessence of the Jewish soul, bound inextricably with G-d, stirred to life in our collective breast. Nothing can quell this flame. It can be banked for a while, but it can never be extinguished.

The miracle of Jewish survival is not accomplished by G-d alone. It is accomplished by the stubborn tenacity of the pintele yid that refuses to go away. It drives us to rise from the ashes and embrace life. It drives us to stand up to persecution and thrive. Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish nation is well and alive.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.