Throughout our history, Jews have experienced a cycle of dominance, persecution, and freedom. There have been times where Jews have ruled their own land and been in charge of their own people. This is almost inevitably followed by a period of having been conquered and living under the auspices of some empire or another, usually one who does not tolerate Judaism and promotes persecution or exile and forbids Jewish practice. Then, Jews were often lucky enough to come under the rule of a different empire who tolerated or even encouraged Jewish practice and a generally “free” way of life.
What’s interesting about this cycle is how the level of Jewish practice among average Jews fluctuated within this cycle.
When the Jews were in charge of themselves, the spiritual leaders often had a heck of a time getting Jews to be strictly Jewish. See the Prophets in the Bible for plenty of examples of the Jews falling into idolatry – which really basically means, they started acting like the non-Jews around them. When the Jews were living in a “free” society, where they were free to practice Judaism or not, where the Temple was still standing and operating, or later when the government of whatever country they lived in allowed the free practice of religion, many Jews assimilated into the larger culture, becoming Greek or Roman or – dare I say it? – American.
But, when the Jewish people in a particular location found themselves under a persecutory rule, when the Jews found themselves victims of pogroms or systematic persecution or blood libel, that’s when the Jewish communities banded together to be the best Jews they could be, to defend themselves and their practice and their religion and their culture. One needs an Other to define the Self, right?
Maybe the pattern doesn’t hold exactly, but I think we get the gist of the problem. And we American Jews are suffering the same kind of lack that the Greek Jews under Alexander the Great did: There is no one trying to stop us.
Not that I’m saying that I wish there was! Far from it. What I’m saying is, shouldn’t we be grateful to live in a country where we can practice whatever religion calls to us? Shouldn't we give thanks every single day that we don’t have to worry about armed vigilantes breaking down our doors and raping our wives and daughters, killing our husbands and sons? Shouldn't we strive to be the best Jews we can be in recognition of the fact that we live in a place where we can do exactly that?
And yet, the allure of the secular, the American (or the Greek or the Roman or the Israeli) calls to us. It’s easier to assimilate. It’s more fun. We can do what everybody else is doing. We don’t have to worry about Judaism dying out, because there are still the religious ones there to carry on the traditions, and we don’t have to worry about anything happening to them (G-d forbid!) because we live in a country where they are free to be strictly Orthodox. Right? And if we wanted, we could always start being Orthodox, because, again, there’s no one trying to stop us.
Believe me, I understand that philosophy. I can hardly claim to be a religious Jew. But I’m an American Jew, and I have a healthy respect for the thousands of years of persecution, compared to, say, hundreds of years of freedom, our people has endured. I think it’s so important to put down in words, in print, that I am so grateful to live in a country where I am free to be a Jew. I am so grateful that the six million or so Jews living in the United States don’t have to look over their shoulders every time they recite the Shema or light the Shabbos candles. We are so blessed to have found a place where we are safe.
I learned an interesting story today, regarding the Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad rebbe. When Napoleon was bringing his army to Russia, the Jews rejoiced that they could be free under French rule, instead of oppressed under the czars. But the Alter Rebbe said they should not rejoice, because if they were freed from this oppression by the ideals of the French Revolution, the Jewish communities of Russia would lose their cohesiveness, their spiritual health.
Was he right? Very probably. After all, look at me. Look at many American Jews. And French Jews. And British and Canadian and Australian and Israeli Jews. We are free from oppression, sure, but how’s our spiritual health?