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How Jewish History Helps Us Understand These Current Times

04/20/2020 10:11:58 AM


by Rabbi Samuel Gordon

The story is told about an encounter between Henry Kissinger and Chou En Lai. Kissinger, knowing Chou was a student of history, asked him about the impact of the French Revolution. Chou answered: “Too soon to tell.” (The story is a bit of a myth, but it contains a truth about the long view of history.)

The current Covid-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on the world as we know it. Many of us have the sense that our society will be radically changed by this experience, but the truth is, it is too soon to tell in what way that change will be manifested.

Through a Jewish lens, there have been other great social ruptures in history. For Jews, the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE and the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE represent two of the most significant disasters in Jewish history. But in both cases, Judaism did not die but rather radically transformed itself in a dynamic and creative response to threatening events.

In Babylon, Judaism became universal and worshipped a God who dwelled everywhere. After 70CE, the rabbis reimagined Judaism as a religion no longer tied to Temple, sacrifice, and priesthood, but located now in homes and tables. Rabbis were not priests but students and teachers of law and lore. Prayer replaced sacrifice, synagogues were now the central gathering places, and rabbis would be the teachers.

The Passover Seder and Haggadah represent one of the most lasting innovations of that time. Using the pretext of the Exodus story, the rabbis crafted a ceremony to take place in individual homes that had, at its core, the commandment to remember, to retell, to pass on the tradition from generation to generation.

Two thousand years ago, Judaism went through a revolution that ensured its survival. Centuries later, when the Jews were forcibly exiled from Spain in 1492, they responded by creating a new form of worship and a radical way to relate to their God. A small band of exiles gathered in the Galilean Hills and sought to heal the breach that they perceived had developed between God and God’s people. They imagined each Sabbath night as a wedding and honeymoon between them and the Divine. Whatever misunderstandings that had caused the great rift between God and God’s people, the love that once united them could be reawakened with love poetry and song. They would once more welcome the lover, the Sabbath bride, and unite the lovers in sacred union. By the middle of the 16th Century, the entire Jewish world had universally adopted this radical and mystical response to a world that had radically changed.

The Age of the Enlightenment and Emancipation similarly required a radical reformation of Jewish thought and practice, eventually giving birth to the Reform movement and the various progressive denominations that followed.

The late 19th century brought the rise of nationalism and anti-Semitism to Western Europe, and pogroms in Russia helped propel mass immigration to the West. The Holocaust—the Shoah— represented one of the greatest crises of Jewish history, but it was followed by the birth of Israel and the dynamic growth of American Jewish culture. Looking back at those profoundly disruptive moments, it might seem obvious to us today that creative adaption was inevitable, but it wasn’t. Thankfully, there were those who thought in radically new ways. Jewish life moved from Tohu Vavohu—chaos and disorder—to a new design of Jewish life that could continue to inspire and engage the Jewish people.

It is far too early to know how the Covid-19 pandemic will change our Jewish world. Many traditional definitions of Jewish success and stability will be questioned. Legacy communal institutions may fail as financial concerns limit donor responses.  The post-World War II suburban synagogue, with budgets based on imposed membership fees, may suffer as their members seek spiritual meaning elsewhere and question the synagogue’s place on their family’s budgets. Having had to find alternative ways to observe rituals and life cycle events, people may continue to find greater meaning outside the walls of the traditional houses of worship.

But there is good news as well. The imposed distancing and orders to shelter at home forced many to connect to each other using technology. Synagogues touched their own members as well as non-members who found worship, study, and spirituality through the internet; live streaming, Zoom, Facebook, all platforms that expanded the walls of sanctuaries and classrooms. Many synagogues reported surges in those “attending” worship services and other programs. Certainly definitions of “membership” became irrelevant when programs were available to Jews and non-Jews, as well as people connected from all over the country and world.

This year’s Passover Seders were unlike any in the past. Anecdotal observations appear to show innumerable households holding virtual or Zoom Seders, able to include friends and relatives who in “normal” times may not have been able to join together in real-time or real space. Participants often found or created their Haggadahs on open access internet sites, sharing readings, designs, and alternative prayers. Out of necessity, people responded with great creativity making this year’s Passover observances particularly meaningful.

Perhaps most striking of all was “Saturday Night Seder” watched on YouTube by more than one million viewers. This was an extraordinary event in American Jewish history. Some of the most creative minds in the entertainment industry, within a mere two weeks, put together a Passover Seder filled with humor, music, content, and emotion. American Jewish culture was proudly displayed for all to see. Jewish stars and those who “play” Jews in film, television, and the stage all participated with engagement and pride.

This pandemic crisis will change the ways Jews relate to their culture, heritage, and faith. If we are lucky, a dynamic and creative response will emerge out of this crisis. A people that have adapted to disruptive change has survived for more than three thousand years. The Jewish people have been resilient. It is too soon to know all the ways Jewish life will have changed because this pandemic has forced us to adapt and reevaluate. The one thing we should know, however, is that our old assumptions and methods will be different in the future. As we have done throughout the centuries, we must be open to and embrace change. Let this unique moment in history provide the catalyst for a bright future.


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

Congregation Sukkat Shalom

Wilmette, IL

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784