The Secret of Jewish Survival

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 25, 2019 / 19 Shevat 5779

Summary: As Congregation Neveh Shalom marks its 150th year, Rabbi Kosak explores the secret to Jewish longevity. Along the way, he debunks some of the reasons traditionally given.

The Secret of Jewish Survival

At a recent dinner I attended, our two rabbis emeritus discussed what Jewish life in Oregon was like 150 years ago. Those early settlers were courageous pioneers, and rabbis were hard to come by for a new congregation. Despite difficult beginnings, our ancestors built a home for future generations of Portland Jews. We are their beneficiaries, and as happens in cases like this, the only way we discharge our obligation to them is by paying it forward. Over the course of this year, we will therefore celebrate what was, even as we envision what yet can be.

Of course, those first settlers couldn’t begin to imagine how their blood, sweat and tears would be repaid in today’s thriving Neveh Shalom. It was beyond their conception, and yet they built nonetheless. Their imagination led to things they themselves could not have imagined. I have no doubt that will be the same for us—nonetheless, we will lay the ground by strengthening our kehillah so that our great, great grandchildren will wonder at our foresight.

Of this I am sure—Judaism has proved remarkably durable over thousands of years in cultures impossibly distant from one another. Why didn’t we get swallowed up in the surrounding host countries through a process of acculturation and assimilation? Why didn’t we lose our way?

There are many explanations for our cultural endurance. Some don’t hold up—for example, that we are deeply committed to family, community and culture. Yes, that is true, but I am sure that the Hittites and Jebussites were also committed to family and community. As were the Nabateans, who carved Petra out of desert rock in modern day Jordan. What of the Native American Clovis and Anastazi peoples who disappeared without explanation? Were they somehow lacking in their commitment to family and tribe?

It’s not because we are well-organized. The Romans and the Babylonians were also highly sophisticated and organized societies. Yet they are nothing but a memory.

Despite an anti-semitic stereotype that we tend to embrace, it’s not because we are smarter than others. The ancient Greeks birthed philosophy, natural science and even the basic modes of Western music. Yet while there is a country called Greece, the essential aspect of the Athenians died when they did.

It certainly isn’t because we are numerous. If you are a large enough people, you can probably survive turmoil and upheaval, because at least some segment of your society or culture will adapt. I doubt that the Chinese or Indians, or even the Christians or Muslims will disappear anytime soon, regardless how much the world changes. With over a billion members in each of those groups, the evolutionary odds are in their favor.

But even today, in what is arguably the greatest golden age the Jews have known, we are still only .2% of the world’s population. Moreover, we arguably have endured as much or more upheaval, turmoil and persecution than most of the peoples who have disappeared from history’s stage. There’s a mystery here that we can only guess at. The secret of Jewish survival must lie elsewhere.

Here’s my conjecture. I think two names played an essential role in our longevity.

One is God’s sacred name of Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey, which we pronounce as Ado-nai.

The other name is “Ivrim,” or Hebrews.

God’s most potent name is a strange verbal form of the present tense becoming the future tense. The Ivrim, meanwhile, seems to refer to a boundary-crossing people (perhaps the Habiru?), and the Torah calls Abraham “Ha-Ivri,” the one who stands on the side. Each of these names, one for God and one for us, is an essential part of our identity. Each strikingly celebrates change and transformation, the ability to travel through time and change while remaining the same.

How is that even possible? At the heart of Jewish culture and Jewish thinking is an embrace of flux. For some cultures, change is deeply disturbing because it threatens to erase one’s identity and values. So much of America’s culture wars are fought precisely over how to manage that change, or prevent it from happening at all. Most religions, at least before the modern period, were also highly conservative in nature—conserving what was venerable in the face of changing times. There is deep value in that. We do that as well.

For us, however, exodus and galut, dispersion and exile, are a part of our essential nature. We are the wandering Jews. We are found around the globe, quite often engaged at the forefront of human endeavor, because we embrace that which is new. It is who we are. Even our notion of God, the one Moses found in a flickering, protean fire, is one of change and newness—“Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh, I will become who I will become.”

We are the ever-changing people, and our identity is maintained precisely because by changing, we give the deepest expression to our unchanging core.

As Neveh Shalom celebrates 150 years, and looks forward to its next 150, we too will proudly continue to grow and adapt. We will strengthen our foundations so that we can soar anew. Given that, it seems fitting to periodically examine some of the ways our people is already preparing for what comes next. Please stay tuned for a future column where we will learn about preparations for Jews to live in space.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D


Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What sort of change do you most enjoy? What sort of change do you try to avoid at all cost?
  2. Why do you think the Jews are still around after so much time?
  3. Are there unique challenges associated with being Jewish that stem from how long we have been around? What do you think they are?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

In Place of Torah Sparks Commentary This Week