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Why the Jewish Way of Living Matters

11/28/2023 03:19:29 PM


Dear friends,

Perhaps like me, you have found the recent debates about antisemitism - particularly as they have taken place on college campuses - extremely frustrating.  Antisemitism is an insidious disease that ultimately destroys all it touches and linking it to Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice (as even the best statements from college administrators invariably do) is to miss its corrosive power.  There is more at stake in Israel's war against Hamas than the fate of the Jewish state or the comfort of America's Jews.  The hatred that is being unleashed against Israel is ultimately attacking the very core of Western civilization.  I have yet to read a statement from a college administrator that adequately explains this to its ignorant, rebellious students.  

To that end, I want to share with you an opinion piece that appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal by the noted physician, educator, and ethicist Leon Kass.  The article is entitled "Why the Jewish Way of Living Matters" and to my mind, it best captures what is at stake in Israel's war.  He argues here that Israel has become the moral capital of the West and I believe he does so convincingly.  

I hope you will read through Dr. Kass's article and share your thoughts about it with me.  We are in the midst of a long struggle and I believe it crucial that we of all people understand what that struggle is really about.




Why the Jewish Way of Living Matters

Since living here, I’ve come to think of Israel as the moral capital of the West.

By Leon R. Kass

November 23, 2023


Why do Jewish lives matter? Why do we suddenly care so much about Israel or Jewish survival? Is it merely from a nativist love of our own or a need to deny posthumous victories to Hitler? Is it only the Jew as eternal victim that we cherish? God forbid. “Never again” is never enough. What matters are not only Jewish lives, but the Jewish way of living.

Jewish identity, purpose and meaning are highly contested notions, not least in Israel. The nation’s recent political battles have been about nothing less than the Jewishness of the Jewish state: whether and in what ways “startup nation” should remain the people of the book.

Yet both sides of these debates appeal to Jewish principles—the Israeli left to the prophets’ demands for justice and regard for the other, the Israeli right to the law’s concern with holiness. Beneath these differences are widely shared beliefs and values, also Torah-based: A cultural disposition to gratitude for the astonishing gift of life and world. A belief in the equal dignity of all human beings, each in the image of God. The duty to honor father and mother, the foundation of family life and cultural transmission. Reverence for life and limb, body and soul. Equality before the law. Commitment to care for widows, orphans and the poor. Humane treatment of the stranger. Moral seriousness: a felt need to give an account of one’s life, to practice atonement, to seek and offer forgiveness.

There is a more fundamental feature of the Jewish way of life, a chief reason why Jews are hated. We are summoned to bear witness against idolatry, that universal temptation to fill the God-shaped hole in our hearts with things that cannot satisfy and that invariably lead astray. Idolatry was once the worship of the sun, moon and Earth and the golden calf. In modern times, it has come in the diabolical form of ideology: national socialism, communism, Maoism and radical Islam, deadly false gods to which millions of innocent lives have been sacrificed. Idolatry also includes worship of the market, of art and culture, and of human choice and fiat as the sole source of value. Against these, the Jewish people bear witness to the presence of a higher power and source of goodness.

Although the Jewish people are few in number, they are of enormous consequence for the Western world. Ideas central to our civilization first entered through the Hebrew Bible: all men are created equal; respect for life; the Ten Commandments. America’s political ideas may come from Locke and Montesquieu—modern science and technology are largely of European and North American origins—but humanly, morally and religiously speaking, the West is a biblical civilization.

In this time of moral confusion and social fragmentation, Israel by its example has something to teach us. Since I started living long stretches here in 2016, I have increasingly felt it is the moral capital of the West.

Israel is the only Western country that lives with a vital devotion to its future. Alone in the developed world, it has a birthrate above replacement, with a low level of out-of-wedlock births. In my neighborhood in Washington, people have dogs; in my neighborhood in Jerusalem, people have children. Extended families are strong, tradition alive and rich. Most Israelis, religious or secular, have Shabbat dinner with their parents. The holy tongue is the vernacular; the calendar orders sacred time; ancestral ghosts walk the land; popular music expresses spiritual longings in biblical idiom. National service is the norm. Memorial Day is marked with ceremonies in every neighborhood and with a national minute of silence, as people and cars stop in place to pay respect for the fallen soldiers to whom we owe our freedom.

As the past several weeks have shown, Israeli national solidarity runs deep. Thousands have organized to provide for those in need. Haredi men are volunteering for the army; secular soldiers are requesting tzitzit. Hamas’s barbarism revealed one nation, indivisible: an island of cultural and moral sanity in a world gone mad.

In synagogues around the world last month, Jews read the weekly Torah portion “Lech Lecha,” or “Go Forth.” It recounts God’s call and promise to Abraham and his people, summoned to carry God’s chosen way of righteousness. That meant life against the wild and bloody ways of antediluvian man and the soulless ways of the builders of Babel; against the tyrannical and technocratic ways of pharaonic Egypt; against the licentious and child-sacrificing ways of the Canaanites. We Jews survived the Babylonians, Romans, crusades, inquisition, European expulsions, pogroms, Shoah, gulag and murderous attacks of the modern Middle East.

And here we are, warts and all, still doing battle against these enduring human tendencies and evils, still aspiring to realize our covenantal promise to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We fall short, but we don’t abandon the summons. We continue to stand for creation against chaos, life against death, good against evil, meaning against nihilism. We still aspire to be a light unto the nations. With God’s help, we shall overcome.


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