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Today’s Shabbat is named after the Shira, the Song of Praise, sung by the Israelites after they had safely passed through the Sea of Reeds and watched their oppressors drown. I have often wondered about the purpose of song, especially nationalistic songs of triumph in history. This is as good a place as any to investigate this issue. After all, we know that music played a key role in civilization, and we know of the Levite choir in the Temple and the instruments that accompanied them. Marching bands accompanied soldiers to battle, and instruments often played a role in battle, with the bagpipes or fife and drum serving as a convenient example from British military history.

Many documentaries of the World Wars record occupying armies formally marching through newly conquered territories in full dress uniform accompanied by music as a rite of conquest. Often citizens were forced to stand in the streets and watch. Our sages have been cognizant of this misguided and brutal triumphalism. A famous midrash pictures the angels bursting into song and being silenced by a Divine voice proclaiming: “My creatures drown in the sea, and you sing?” From this one gathers that the liberated have the right to feel triumph, but even then an enemy, however evil—and the Rabbis accused the Egyptians of burying Israelites between pyramid bricks —remains human beings. Jews do not demonize their enemies.

But, despite the midrash, the modern eye reads “and the Israelites saw the Egyptians [liter ally “Egypt”] lying dead by the sea shore” as a needless triumphal insert into the text, or at the least, especially when coupled with the opening lines of the Shira itself: “Sing to the L-rd for the great salvation—G-d has thrown both horse and rider into the Sea.” But contemporary commentator Avivah Zornberg argues that “the Song that cannot be delayed is that of the “Children of G-d”, mortal, flesh and blood, with time’s Winged Chariot audible behind them.” There is nothing wrong with some joy when your enemies perish—as long as you remember their humanity. We are the religion that believes “do not oppress the Edomite, for he is your brother; do not oppress the Egyptian, for you were once a stranger in their land.”

So we walk the tightrope between authentic joy at the destruction of our enemies while remembering that they too are human. Certainly some people committed great evil, yet—we all began, as the Siddur puts it “from a putrid drop.” We can still only theorize about what makes certain people act in unspeakably evil ways, or worse, catalyze whole nations into paroxysms of hatred. This is the paradox of our kind, capable of both great good and great evil. The more aware we are of this, the more humble we will be when judging others, and the more careful we will be about the choices we make in life. And the more we will enjoy the pleasure of rejoicing when the spirit tells us too.

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Our parasha relates that as dawn broke on Passover morning, the Hebrews streamed out of Egypt. It would take 40 more years for them to reach the Land of Israel, which would be their home for the next 850 years. After a 70 year exile in Babylonia, some would return for an additional 585 years. Therefore, between Joshua’s conquest and the destruction of the Second Temple, our ancestors lived in Israel for 1,435 years. But their exile after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE would last for 1,878 years. This second period of exile exceeds the period in which we lived in Israel during the time of the Bible and Talmud.and was far longer than the first, stretching out for over 18 unbroken centuries.

Our lens of Jewish identity is thus dominated by memories of successfully surviving as a minority in a sea of European Christianity or of the Islamic domination that continues today in much of the Middle East and North Africa. The importance of religion in Europe did not significantly diminish until after World War Two. The slaughter of the Shoah meant that European Jewry’s numbers and importance were seriously weakened, while the importance of American and Israeli Jewry increased.

These observations suggest that the very nature of the Diaspora has changed so drastically that our mythology of heroic Jewish survival—useful though it is for nostalgia—needs to be laid to rest. Simply put, our people survived the Second Exile in Europe best when they were surrounded by adversaries of a different religion who erected significant barriers to assimilation and conversion. This condition is no longer true. Europe has become secularized and the world has become far more narcissistically individual-oriented. Jews have responded to these social and cultural shifts by abandoning religious practice. Every major study, despite methodological flaws, reflects decreased ritual observance. Out marriage is up, the Jewish population in North America is beginning what appears to be a lengthy and increasingly precipitous decline.

We live in unprecedented times, and history will not be our guide this time. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of non-religious Jewish identity in North American and Europe. Israel is hosting a renaissance of Judaism as a culture and nationality. Only in a country with a Jewish majority can Jews safely choose a non-religious Jewish identity and assume their children will still identify as Jews. Only in Israel can Jews observe Yom Kippur by riding bicycles, and celebrate Pesach by reciting kibbutz haggadot recalling their founders’ flights from modern day Pharaohs. Only in Israel can students learn about the Bible and then unearth, on the same day, artifacts attesting to its narratives.

This is a direct contrast to the future of North American Jewry. Within two centuries, given current rates of intermarriage and population increase, the vast majority of North Americans who identity as Jews will be observant—but they will be vastly reduced in absolute numbers by between 50 and 75 per cent. North American Jews who define themselves as ethnic or cultural Jews will all but disappear. So will much of the communal infrastructure that they have built. Observant Jews need shules and schools more than BJCC’s and agencies seeking to promote identity.

Put another way, the Exodus from Egypt was demographically clever and crucial to our history. It showed that ultimately, we can only survive as a majority in a society, like other nations. The last 18 centuries “successful survival” in Galut are an aberration. We need to either come home to Israel, or, if we wish to survive in Exile, keep going to shul and finding more meaning in religion if we wish our children to marry Jews and our grandchildren to practice what we do. At least Intelligent Judaism offers the best chance for survival.

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Moses, a man of conflicted ancestry—both a prince and the descendant of Hebrews, watches an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew brutally. It seems to Moses that the beating will have a fatal outcome. His response is famously described: “and he [Moses] looked first one way and then the other, and he saw that there was no one [literally “no man”/ “no person”], and he struck the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, the originator of Daf Yomi study, offers a fascinating interpretation: “After Moses saw all that the Egyptians were doing to the Hebrews, he realized that basis of Egyptian civilization was enslavement, subjugation, and terror” –he looked one way and then the other—“he turned left and then right looking at the obelisks and monuments built by slaves who begged for help”—and he saw there was no man—“no one would stand up to assist the weak”—and he struck down the Egyptian—“and Moses struck down the Egyptian inside himself, he parted forever at that moment from Egyptian civilization that was all materialistic.”

Shapiro powerfully interprets this as the vital moment at which Moses’ spark of Hebrew identity trumped his Egyptian upbringing. This reading is based on Shapiro’s ingenious use of chol which means both “sand” and “secular”/“materialistic”. Shapiro clearly saw powerful parallels between Egypt and the interwar Poland in which he lived. In both cases some Jews desperately tried to distance themselves from their original identities and find acceptance in their adopted lands. Both attempts ended in failures. The Egyptians ultimately believed that they were the superior race and wished to enslave the Hebrews, while Polish nationalism was too steeped in Catholicism to accept even Jews as secular as Janusz Korczak. The celebrated expert on orphans used a pseudonym when he hosted a weekly show on Warsaw radio. When his true identity was revealed he was asked to leave despite his international fame. It should be noted that our commentator Rabbi Shapiro died well before World War Two, so “Shoah hindsight” did not influence his opinions. For Shapiro, Judaism and modern society were ultimately antithetical. Egypt and Poland also represent great Jewish population centres in which Jews ultimately could not survive religiously or even culturally. In the end, they are compelled to depart. But where to go? Is Israel the only place for Judaism today? Can we ultimately not survive in societies in which we form an increasingly small minority? It seems doomed to failure. Given the combination of rapidly increasing intermarriage rates among all but Orthodox Jews in both Europe and North America, and the fact that increasing numbers of Jews have decreasing levels of Jewish observance however defined, it would seem that the number of Jews by religion will continue to decline in North America and that decline will soon become steeper.



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Part 2...


Some may be inclined to protest that this analysis ignores the survival of Judaism as a culture, or a people connected to a history. The voice of ethnic sociology responds: to measure the success of an ethnic group in surviving away from its homeland, we must measure not just the breadth of its institutional foundation, but whether the population is increasing or decreasing. While it is very clear that the Western world’s Jewish community has established a tremendous breadth of institutions (we have hospitals, federations, old age homes, and the like) in the days of our success, our numerical decline underscores Rabbi Shapiro’s conclusions: Judaism finds it difficult, if not impossible, to survive in an open society. Religious Judaism fares better than other forms, but it seems that demographic doom is part of the Diaspora.

Does this mean that Israel is the only land in which one can be Jewish? An interesting question depending on how you parse “Jewish.” The fact that in Israel there is a legal, religion-based definition of “Jewish” has produced more alienation than consensus. A significant portion of the population is chiloni, secular Jewish, in a way North American Jews can barely comprehend. Our member Deborah Maes told me that some secular Jews call Yom Kippur “Yom HaOfanayim”—Bicycle Day—because no Israeli will drive in a car on Yom Kippur, so many will ride their bikes! This is actually a natural progression in Israeli cultural development from a Socialist generation that built the country, to kibbutzim that had Haggadot that described how their members escaped contemporary bondage, to Shabbat at the beach in Tel Aviv. This is a type of Cultural Judaism that only survives and thrives in Israel. Religious Judaism also thrives, and its Chareidi versions wield triumphalist power that inspires hatred among other Jews who are deemed “lesser mortals.”

The real question is: is chiloni-ism an authentic expression of Judaism? Or is religious Judaism ultimately the only authentic expression? This is the final question we must ask, and its answer has great resonance for us today. Stay tuned next week for the FINAL –yes, I promise –part of this analysis.

Posted By The Stash

Part 1


Last week I suggested that the last verse in the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), by telling us that the family of Jacob “settled in the Land of Goshen and took possession of it,” was an attestation to the power of acculturation. Joseph’s brothers had been instructed to tell Pharaoh that “we only seek to settle in the land for, there is no grazing land for our flocks.” But within a few short years, they had no intention of leaving when the famine ended. By the time the fourth generation after Joseph was born, we can speculate that many of the family had to marry Egyptian women; after all, they could not marry their own relatives. As Egypt became more populated, the previously empty territory of Goshen became less of an isolated ghetto and more of a desirable location for Egyptians to live.

It is at this point that the narrative of the Book of Exodus, which we begin reading today in the annual Torah reading cycle, begins. Note that this book is deliberately linked to Bereishit by the word “and”, “AND these are the names…” Many commentators have observed that this is to indicate the close connection between narratives of these books. Roughly a century after Joseph saved Egypt, a new Pharaoh ascends the throne “who does not know Joseph.” Rashi famously proffers two explanations: either the Pharaoh truly did not know who Joseph was, or he pretended not to remember. We have seen enough examples of either case in more recent history to convince us that there is no point in arguing over which is the more believable explanation. The key is that this new ruler wished to solve what would later become known as the “Jewish problem.” His solution interestingly did not include expelling the Hebrews. Indeed, he warned the Egyptians that one of the reasons that they must turn against the Hebrews was that “if there were to be a war, then they [the Hebrews] would ally themselves with our enemies and they would leave the land.”

Why keep the Hebrews in Egypt? So they could build for the Crown. Rambam ingeniously draws on medieval society (and Solomon’s behavior in the First Book of Kings and Saul’s before him) to suggest that Pharaoh first suggested that the Hebrews were disliked by the Egyptians because they did not have to perform royal work for the king for a certain number of days per year. This was part of their legacy from Joseph, who had not only ensured them a land of their own in Goshen, but an exemption from royal work. Rambam pictures Pharaoh offering the Hebrews a chance to be just like the other Egyptians—all of whom owe service and fealty to Pharaoh. A new irrigation canal to the Nile was being built. Pharaoh would dig the ceremonial first shovel and the Egyptian nobility and then commoners would follow. The Hebrews eagerly accepted and got to work. For a while all was well. Then little by little, the Egyptians began to absent themselves from the work. One day, when only the Hebrews came, they became alarmed. But it was too late, they were quickly surrounded by soldiers who informed them that Pharaoh had issued a decree declaring them slaves. They were ordered back to work, but under guard and with far less mercy.







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