Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in The Hague, 1777.
Unlike many other ancient people and tribes, and despite intense persecution and tragedies, the Jewish people has managed to survive for over 5 millennia, The destruction of the first and second temples, the expulsion from Spain, pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust are but a few of the calamities that almost wiped out the Jews. What is in the Jewish DNA that has enabled its People to survive to this day? I don’t mean DNA in the biological sense (there are studies on this) but in the societal sense. What is it about the Jewish value and belief system that has enabled us to survive?
One element is the ability and capacity to question and analyze ourselves (“Heshbon ha-nefesh” in Hebrew) and the world around us. Why was the temple destroyed when God is supposed to be on our side? This important question led the Jews to fundamentally question their religion and practices, resulting in many movements and sects, each with their own answers, leading to Rabbinic Judaism as we pretty much know it today. This urge to analyze and re-calibrate is perhaps most evident in the Rabbinic tradition of debating and interpreting the written texts of the Bible. In 1583, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi wrote in “Ma’asei Hashem”:
For in all that affects human faith…each one of us…is bound until the end of all generations to investigate the secrets within the words of the Torah and to conduct his faith in the straightest and most correct way…and to accept the truth from whatever source,once we know of it. And let not the opinion of others, though they preceded us, hinder us from inquiry.
In the Judaic tradition, belief in renewal comes from respect for mature and intelligent interpretation of the texts, and even self-criticism. Heshbon ha-nefesh (self-examination) is a necessary condition for teshuva (repentance and renewal). So what’s in the Jewish DNA? One the one hand, a stark adherence to the concept of One God, and to an enlightened system of values, but on the other, an unrivaled capacity for interpretation of the application of this value system, which over the centuries has enabled the Jewish People to survive.
Rabbi David Hartman
Where to start? Perhaps with Rabbi David Hartman’s landmark 1992 essay “Auschwitz or Sinai?“. What drives the Jewish people, and in particular, what drives their feelings towards Israel? In his essay, R. Hartman articulated the dichotomy between what he calls the Auschwitz model and the Sinai model.
The Auschwitz model suggests that a driver of Jewish feelings towards Israel is preservation of the Jewish People. The state of Israel is there to ensure the perennial existence of our People. Israel has become the refuge of the Jewish People, and consequently, any action required by the State of Israel to sustain and guarantee the existence of the Jewish People is warranted. “Never again” is the refrain used by defenders of this model.
The Sinai model, on the other hand, sees the role of Israel as fulfilling the covenant between God and the Jewish People at Sinai, namely to become a holy people by building a moral and just society. This call for action is central to the Jewish DNA (more later on this) and to the religious and traditional system that has sustained the Jewish People over the years. “Torah study is not a substitute for actual life”, says R. Hartman. This is a purpose greater than establishing a country and a national identity.
Is preservation of the People as in the Auschwitz model a sufficient goal? Can Sinai be attained from Diaspora, without a national identity, or is the State of Israel a necessary platform?