Varieties of Never Again

March 09, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


As a deeply invested stakeholder in the condition of diaspora Jewry, I keep returning of late to the purported Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” On the one hand, our present moment of blessing is without precedent. We live with comforts that our predecessors could only have dreamt of. Our problems – the challenge of intermarriage, the challenge of negotiating hyphenated identities – are high-class problems, more often than not resulting from our warm reception in the diaspora. Yet our insecurities are evident beneath the veneer of our security. Six months have not yet passed since the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, a shooting motivated by homegrown right wing nationalism. Two weeks ago, Argentina’s Chief Rabbi was brutally beaten in his home. Last week, a carnival float in Belgium featured huge puppets of hook-nosed Jews, a rat, and money bags. Israel, home to half of world Jewry, does not lack for enemies. In the run-up to Israel’s elections we are witnessing the rise of nationalist sentiment by way of a political coalition between the Netanyahu government and Otzma Yehudit, heirs to Meir Kahane’s Kach party – a racist, violent, and outlawed political movement no longer marginalized. It is a development that further tears at the bond between Israel and a historically left-leaning American Jewry, who themselves are contending with an emboldened and militant left that cunningly blurs the line, Corbyn-like, between being anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Elected officials have made vile suggestions of dual loyalty while crouching behind the flag of free speech. Just think about how surreal our world has become: yesterday President Trump, a man who has enabled some of the most unseemly hatreds of Americana to bloom, who himself referred to Israel as “your country” when speaking to American Jews, called out the Democratic party as anti-Jewish. It’s happening not just in Washington but in our own backyard, literally. I was in touch yesterday with the leadership of Asphalt Green on 91st Street, where my children and probably your children have grown up playing, and where this week vandals painted swastikas in the locker room. In a Jewish community as strong as ours, anti-Semitic graffiti understandably puts us on high alert. Security coupled with deep insecurity, a fear of assimilation alongside charges of dual loyalty, an embrace of Jewish power coupled with fears of its abuse. Our time, to say the least, is an interesting one – a blessing, a curse, something for everyone.

This morning, I want to take a crack at untangling some of the knottier issues of our time. Not so much by offering solutions, but by providing the thing so often missing from the rapid-fire news cycle and our clipped attention spans, namely, context: historical context. You may think the greatest threat to the Jewish community comes from the left; you may think it comes from the right. You may believe that our existential challenge is assimilation; you may think it is anti-Semitism. There are a lot of things you may think and I may think, but the first step strikes me as to ask that most basic question: How did we get here in the first place? Why do we respond the way we do? How has such a small people allowed itself to be further subdivided and at odds within its own ranks? I would like to approach these questions by way of two texts, one ancient and relatively well-known – the book of Esther – and one recent and less known, a chapter by Dr. Shaul Magid in his book American Post-Judaism. (Indiana University Press, 2013. Chapter 8.)

Yesterday the new month of Adar began and with it the countdown to the festival of Purim and the reading of the scroll of Esther. The book of Esther has an immediacy that is no doubt due to its eerie parallels to our own time. Here we have a Jewish community living comfortably at a distance from the Jewish homeland and accused of dual loyalty. “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples . . . of your realm,” announces the wicked Haman to King Ahasuerus, “whose laws are different . . . and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8) I have no idea if Haman’s politics leaned left or right, but I do know that he knew how to stoke the latent anti-Semitism of his time toward his own gain. Neither in the time of Esther nor in our own is it totally clear how the mercurial figurehead at the top (with Jewish family members of his own) actually feels about the Jews. To him, the well-being of the Jews never seems personal, but secondary to questions of political expediency and survival. For the Jews of Shushan, however, their near destruction is altogether personal. Once they have stared at the face of their own destruction, the second half of the book of Esther may be read as a meditation on response to trauma, on how a diaspora community responded to its near destruction.

And here is where Professor Magid’s thinking comes into play. Magid holds that in order to understand the last seventy years of American Jewish life, one must appreciate the perfect storm of forces that have shaped our existence. We are, on the one hand, a deeply scarred community. The Holocaust not only wiped out six million of our brothers and sisters, but it left the surviving Jewish community traumatized by cataclysmic loss. Anti-Semitism long preceded the Holocaust, but the Holocaust was the savage exclamation point to a long history of anti-Jewish persecution and to the forlorn possibility of Jewish acceptance in a non-Jewish world. We are all, knowingly or not, post-Holocaust. And yet, and this is equally important, the story of American Jewry over these last seventy years has not only been a response to catastrophe. These decades have seen unprecedented social acceptance, upward social mobility, and the acquisition of Jewish power. The exceptionalism of the last seventy years is due not only to the establishment of Israel, but to the fact that we are, no different than the Esther story, a post-traumatic community whose diaspora existence is playing out in circumstances as comfortable and secure as any Jewish community has ever known.

Here is where things get interesting. Both in Esther’s time and our time we can identify at least four primary responses, which, inspired by Magid’s work, I will label 1) Never Again: Universal, 2) Never Again: Tribal, 3) Never Again: Jewish Establishment, and 4) Never Again: Jewish Renewal.

Category 1. Never Again: Universal. This is the response of those people and institutions who, in recognizing the horror of the Holocaust, have chosen to universalize its message. Never again can we let the trauma that befell the Jewish people befall any people. Intolerance that leads to hatred that leads to persecution. Whether in Darfur, in Rwanda, in inner cities, or in any of the places that are the focus of so many progressive causes. No different than the commandment to know the heart of the stranger for we were once strangers in Egypt. Much the same way that HIAS says, “We used to take refugees because they were Jewish. Now we take them because we’re Jewish.” Much the same way Queen Esther’s final ordinance calls for universal shalom v’emet, equity and honesty. (Esther 9:30) For this group, given the blessings of American Jewry, given an awareness of our own near destruction, “Never Again” must be the cri de coeur of American Jewry on behalf of all of humanity.

Category 2. Never Again – Tribal. This group stands in stark opposition to the previous one in that they believe that the universal liberalism of American Jewry is delusional. If nothing else, the Holocaust proved the inability of non-Jews to countenance the presence of Jews in their midst. In every generation, as the Haggadah teaches, Gentiles will come to destroy us. This “Never Again” is a Jewish self-defense that has many forms: Entebbe, Osirak, the saving of Soviet Jewry. The thesis is that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews must take their defense into their own hands. This ideology found its sharpest expression by the aforementioned Meir Kahane. In a book that was actually called Never Again, he argued that Jews must refuse to wallow in the self-defeating, house-slave self-hatreds of liberal politics. It is an attitude that is altogether present in Esther as the Jews attack those who would hurt them. It is a tribal summons to self-defense that explicitly or not, legally or not, explains some of the sentiments and activism we are witnessing today.

Category 3. Never Again: The Jewish Establishment. If there is one lesson that Esther and Mordecai learn from the threat of Haman, it is the obligation to be engaged at the highest reaches of power in order to ensure our people’s survival. We need to create the ADLs, the AIPACs, the AJCs, JCRCs, the JDCs, the UJAs, the Conference of Presidents, the entire alphabet soup of American Jewish life, which, at their most basic level, are the civic organizations of a “never again” mentality. Their concern – and this is not a criticism; I myself will be at the AIPAC conference – is not Jewish content; it is Jewish survival. Most of these organizations, of course, existed prior to the Holocaust. But the trauma of the Holocaust coupled with the deep-seated guilt that American Jewry could have done more then to save European Jewry, together with the newfound posture of postwar American Jews, gave rise to the Jewish establishment as we know it today.

Finally, Category 4. Never Again: Jewish Renewal. The Nazis murdered six million Jews, wiping out entire worlds of secular, religious, cultural, and intellectual Jewish life. In the wake of such horror, some Jews, for good reason, turned their back on Judaism. But many, thankfully, did just the opposite, doubling down on Jewish renewal. Think about the rise of Chabad; the rise of the Jewish Renewal movement under Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow; the music of Shlomo Carlebach; the JCC movement; the intellectual legacies of Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Borowitz among others; the establishment of Jewish studies programs across the country; the Jewish camping movement; the growth of the Lakewood Yeshiva from a few hundred to tens of thousands and growing. Think about the daily labors of synagogues of all denominations, this one included. Our tactics differ and we operate in different spheres of the Jewish world, but at the end of the day, we are all just doing our level best to create the most vibrant expression of Jewish life for the Jews of our time. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, academic – we are all leveraging the freedoms of American Jewry with an aim to leave this world with more committed Jews than when we started. It is worth noting that in Jewish legal literature, the significance of the book of Esther is that it marks when Jews took on their Jewishness with a full and willing heart: kiyemu v’kiblu, they undertook and obligated themselves. (Esther 9:27) This final category is a different sort of “never again” in that it does not necessarily lead with the Holocaust in mind. We will never understand the absolute evil of Nazism nor the thinking of a God in whose world six million Jews could be killed. But what we can do is create a Jewish future so bright that the next generation cannot help but opt into Jewish living and into communities of deep meaning.

Four “never again” responses of diaspora Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust: Universal, Tribal, Establishment, and Renewal. There is some overlap, and this discussion is not complete without mention of Jewish memory and Israel. The establishment of Holocaust memorials – in DC, in Battery Park, on the calendar, in history departments, and otherwise – is also part of the post-Holocaust story. So too, any discussion of post-Holocaust Jewry must take into account the most significant game changer in the past 2000 years of Jewish history: the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state. There are probably other responses too. Indeed, if there is one thing I have learned as a pastor, it is that there are as many different responses to trauma as there are people who have suffered trauma.

Which, ultimately, is my point this morning. If one believes that the arms of American Jewry may be understood as varied “never again” responses to the Holocaust, then one begins to understand the complexities of our present moment. Our nerves are exposed and raw – an unspoken PTSD in the collective Jewish psyche. No matter our self-evident blessings, anti-Semitism evokes a heightened and varied response. There will be universalists who understand contemporary anti-Semitism in the context of other prejudices, all the while holding that the Jewish state – of all nation states – should know better than to impede the rights of the minorities in its midst. There will be tribalists who reject such liberal self-delusions, believing that it is just a matter of time before the shoe drops, and that any criticism of Israel or Jews is just the latest incarnation of the world’s most ancient hatred. There will be the Jewish establishment who believe that we serve Jewish interests best through the machinations of civic engagement, fighting the fight in the public square. And finally, there are Jews like me, who, while understanding and often supporting those engaged in all of these efforts, have chosen to spend our careers bringing Jews closer to Jews and their Judaism. All four have their place, all four are worthy of support, all four are responding to the challenges of our present moment.

Have we solved anything? I am not sure. But maybe, just maybe, we have an outline, or at least a language to understand why we feel and react the way we do and why others feel differently than we do, and the beginnings of a roadmap for how to be in dialogue and work constructively towards addressing some of the vexing issues of our age.

La-y’hudim hayetah orah v’simhah v’sasson v’yikar, the Jews shall enjoy light and gladness, happiness and honor. (Esther 8:16) Purim holds the promise that the Jewish people should live in peace, comfortable in their own skin, comfortable amongst their neighbors, enjoying light, gladness, happiness, and honor. It is a day not yet upon us, a day which we nevertheless work toward. May we all live to rejoice in its arrival.