A TALENT FOR LIVING: JUDAISM AND THE EXISTENTIAL ATTITUDE

bild_anne_frank_02By Richard Mather….

Who has made us Jews different from all other people?  Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up until now?  It is G-d who has made us as we are, but it will be G-d, too, who will raise us up again.  Who knows it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and only that reason do we suffer.

– From the diary of Anne Frank, April 11, 1944

This is an absurd world. It is less than a century since Eurocentric anti-Semitism reached its nadir in the Final Solution: the industrialised slaughter of six million Jewish men, women and children. But even in 2015, anti-Semitism is an outstanding and pressing problem in European countries such as France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and the UK, as well as Turkey, South Africa, Australia, the USA, and vast swathes of the Middle East.

Take a recent example in which two Jewish residents of Paris were assaulted by a gang of forty anti-Zionist thugs belonging to the BDS movement. The incident happened in broad daylight, which shows that even after the terror attack on a Jewish delicatessen in January, the French authorities are doing little to clamp down on the scourge of anti-Zionist Jew-hatred. And what about the daubing of anti-Semitic graffiti on election billboards in Britain or the new blood libel in a Turkish newspaper accusing “Israeli spies” of kidnapping Nepalese people to harvest their organs? Depressingly, I could go on.

Anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. It can be found almost anywhere in the world, even in places where there are no Jews. There is little agreement why anti-Semitism is such a persistent problem. Various theories relating to theology, race, identity, culture and ideology have been put forward, but the changing nature of Jew-hatred and its persistence across cultures and throughout generations defies simple explanation.

In all likelihood, anti-Semitism is a problem of psychology. In 1882, Judah Leib Pinsker, an early Zionist, wrote that anti-Semitism is an incurable “psychic aberration.” More recently, historian Paul Johnson has described anti-Semitism as “a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone.”

Perhaps anti-Semites and Israel-haters are projecting their own negative features, characteristics and beliefs onto the Jewish people, who have acted as a lightning rod for the world’s neuroses for millennia. Indeed, anti-Semitism is not a coherent response to some perceived Jewish misdemeanour, but is a social pathology characterised by hysteria and paradox. No other group of people is hated for being lazy and power-hungry. No one else is held responsible for communismand capitalism. Only the Jews could be blamed for killing Jesus and inventing Christianity. And only the Jews could be told to “go back to Palestine” and then told to “get out of Palestine.”

So how do we reconcile ourselves with the endurance of Judeophobia, even after the Holocaust? Maybe anti-Semitism should be understood by Jews as an imperative – an imperative requiring Jewish self-reliance: to carry on Jewish existence, to ensure the survival of the State of Israel and to frustrate the anti-Semitic desire to eliminate Judaism/Israel from the planet.

All of which follows on from Rabbi Emil L Fackenheim’s 614th commandment – that we shall not hand Hitler posthumous victories. “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish,” stated Rabbi Fackenheim.

“We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of G-d, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of G-d, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which G-d is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”

In other words, Jews are compelled to learn from the past and to survive. The Holocaust, the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish nation-state and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century all contrive to make Jewish existence an act of faith, even a sacred duty. Perhaps I am biased but it seems to me that the Jewish people embody the basic premise of the existential attitude: how to live a meaningful existence in an absurd and unfair world.

With meaning, it is possible to survive anything, including the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. This was the view of neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who, in his book Man’s Search For Meaning, stated: “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” Wise words.

In a sense, simply being Jewish is meaningful, especially in a world that seeks to eradicate Judaism and Israel. Isn’t it simply amazing that in spite of all the exiles, purges, pogroms and tragedies, the Jewish people have not only survived, but prospered? The creation of the State of Israel and the revival of Hebrew as a common language are testament to the Jews’ uncanny ability to reinvent themselves while simultaneously staying loyal to their biblical roots.

But there is something more remarkable about the Jewish people. And it is this: the Jews have cultivated meaningfulness by affirming life. Unlike some Christians and Buddhists, Jews have not sought sanctuary in a Schopenhauerian negation of the will but have said Yes to life. This Yesstands in stark contrast to the anti-Semites who say No to Judaism, No to Israel, No to Jewish identity and even No to life (hence the death-obsessed terrorists who are so keen to blow themselves up along with everyone around them).

It is the Jewish affirmation of life – the wholehearted Yes that began when the Hebrews said Yes to the giving of the Torah at Sinai – that is the Jews’ greatest legacy. But it is also the reason why the Jewish people are so resented by a cynical and contemptuous world. In other words, the Jews have a remarkable talent for living. And after the horrors of the Holocaust and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century, that is something to be proud of.

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