The Essence of Being a Jew -Exile and Self-alienation of the Modern Jew
Yom Kippur 2020
I have a favorite story that is part of the repertoire of High Holy- day literature
in Jewish lore. It has been recorded in a great variety of versions, from
antiquity, up until modern times, but the general gist is as follows:
A certain king had an only son whom he loved and raised in the
ways of righteousness,
Yet the good, he exchanged for ugly, and went after the stubbornness of his
heart. His father, the king
turned against his son, and. banished him.
The son wandered for many years-his clothes became torn and tattered. His face
changed till it was
not to be recognized that he was the son of a king.
When many days had passed,
and he had his fill of wandering, he remembered his father, the king. He
yearned to return, and made his way back to the palace.
When he came back to the palace, he cried and begged for forgiveness.But his
father did not recognize him, so greatly had he changed, until he began to
“Father, father, if you do not recognize my face, you must at least recognize
my voice, for my voice has not changed.”
His father indeed recognized him, and had pity on him, and they were reconciled.
In a later, even sadder version, the king recognizes his son, but the son has descended
so low, that he imagines that he is, indeed, only a peasant. Even the memory
of royalty is forgotten.
It is the metaphor for the human
condition within Judaism. The individual, betselem elohim, in god's
image, a child of god, has fallen into low state because of the sins of the
year. At this time,
it is possible,
as the theme bears out, to achieve a return, to attain Teshuva and to find wholeness once
again. This wholeness, is itself, the intention “kapparah” , as we
translate in English , Atonement, a word we use so much at this season.
Atonement is At-one-ment, a union, a statement of completion, which we seek with God.
The opposite of this wholeness, this at-one-ness, is alienation, to use a term
of philosophy and psychology. These tales are not just tales of sin, but tales of alienation,
alienation on many levels.
That alienation is described as “karet”, as when a Jew refuses to partake of
the Passover Seder, he or she
denies affiliation with the Covenant of the People and God, and willfully cuts
himself off. That Jew is alienated.
estranged from our God, estranged from our ideals, estranged from our goals. The
Jews, as a people, are estranged from the land, estranged from the ancient
Temple, estranged from their gentile neighbors. Now,
in a time of pandemic and lockdown, many of us have been physically alienated
Alienation, a sense of isolation, of separateness, pervades the universe in Jewish thought--the Jew is in Galut, in
exile, and, as a corollary, even God's presence, the Shekhina, is in exile. In mystical
metaphor, a part of God is captive, held by the sitra achara, the other
side, the realm of evil.
Even the Divine
becomes mired in the grind of daily existence.
The worst alienation, however, is that alienation from our own selves,when we, as Jews, feel alien from our fellow Jews, and alien from ourselves,
as Jews. That is when the child of the king forgets
completely, who he was and is. That has been a well
documented malaise of exile from our Jewish self in the age of modernity.
A common Jewish atttltude was described by the Jewish poet, Heine, who
converted to Christianity,for economic success.
His attitude was, and is, common: “Doctor, the mischief take the old Jewish
religion! I don't wish it on my worst enemy. It brings nothing but abuse and
disgrace. I tell you, it ain't a religion, but a misfortune.”
This Jewish struggle with not being at one, with being alienated, is itself
very ancient. The constant refrain of the prophets is inveighing
against the rush of the children of Israel to adopt every new foreign god and
A few weeks ago, I was with a few friends bicycling along the beach at Venice.
All of a sudden, we saw a big commotion, drums, chanting, and a procession of
giant wagons, decorated with Hindu imagery. I realized that we had come upon
the annual Festival of the Chariots.
It’s nothing unusual in LA to have a variety of religious experiences,
certainly nothing unusual about residents of Indian
origin celebrating their heritage. But,as I looked at the
participants, I realized they were mostly Anglos, very few from south Asia, and probably those were spectators like us .
The devotees, to put it simply, were members of ISKCON, the International
Society for Krishna Consciousness, or , in short, Hare Krishna It has long been noted
that a great number of the key leaders in its founding years were Jews.
So I ask my
self—how many of these celebrants
were born, not of the Brahman caste, but of the Cohen, Levi, or Yisrael caste?
Here’s a recent story
that surely takes the cake, that I have excerpted from an essay in Jewish News
Service https://www.jns.org/?post_type=opinion&p=128221 ( Jonathan
Her colleagues and students, as well as the editors of magazines
and journals where her writing was welcomed, were under the impression that
Jessica Krug was a black and Hispanic woman from “El Barrio” in the Bronx, N.Y.,
fighting systemic racism and becoming an
outspoken and aggressive critic of white racism who honored her African and
Caribbean “ancestors” with her radical activism. Krug …
incorporated attacks on Jews and Israel in rants in which she vented her rage
as an aggrieved person of color. [She] claimed that the NYPD was being trained
by the Israel Defense Forces in “counter-insurgency methods” in order to harm
blacks…she denounced Jews for oppressing the “indigenous” people of “Palestine.”
[By the way, she would pronounce her name as “Cruz”
and often write as “ Jess Labombalera.”]
But as it turns out, Krug wasn’t black or “Latinx.” Nor was she
from “El Barrio.” Instead, she was a middle-class white Jewish woman who grew
up in suburban Kansas City and attended a day school.
She finally confessed to her years of fraud [but only because she her true background was
about to be made public].
Her emotional troubles made her
flee her “lived experience as a white Jewish child in suburban Kansas City.”
Oh, the tragedy- to be a white Jewish girl in a
Kansas City suburb!
The contemporary examples, of our young Jews,
so eager to be accepted into the circles of the revolutionaries, abound. During
the protests over police violence in Kenosha a few weeks ago, a synagogue had
been graffitied with” Free Palestine”. If Not Now, a prominent Jewish
anti-Zionist organization, tweeted a denunciation of the graffiti.
good. So what happened? They were pounced upon by their fellow protesters forced to take down their denunciation. To
object to the defacing of a synagogue was to distract from the message of the
Now caved to the cancel culture.
The Jew, you see, has always been expendable in
the revolution.Krug and IfNot Now are “Deja Vyu all over again.”
We have many members from the former Soviet
Union, so many of you will be very familiar with what I will say.
When the Communists took over Russia, the
leaders, many among the top, were concerned that the Jewish workers were not
loyal to the cause. They established the Yevsekzia, the Jewish Section. This was
their mission: the "destruction
of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement,
and Hebrew culture".
In other words, it was to fulfill the older, Tsarist vision, of the total Russification
of the Jews. "In time, every Jewish cultural and social organization came
under assault" (Pipes). Acting together with local Soviet authorities,
Evsektsii organized seizures of synagogues in Gomel, Minsk and Kharkov, which
were subsequently converted to clubs or Communist centers.
was the reward for their great loyalty?
“ The Yevsektsii were disbanded as no longer
needed in 1929. Many leading members were murdered during the Great Purge of
the late 1930s, including the Chairman, Dimanstein.”
for their loyalty to the cause of the revolution, they were axed, along with
the father of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky.
What happened to Jews in the
west, happened to Jews in the Arab world. Jews in the Middle East were in the
forefront for the cause of independence of the newly emerging Arab States, what
has been called “ The Second Great Arab Awakening.”
One of the most prominent figures, for Arab
independence was Albert Memmi, of Tunisia. Once Tunisia became independent, though, he had a rude awakening.
"One way or another,the day comes when you discover that you are a Jew,
just as you discover that you are mortal. Sooner or later, each Jew discovers
his little Jew, the little Jews he sees around him, and the Little Jew who according
to others, is within him. “
Memmi was made
to leave his Tunisia, as were countless other Jews who ancestors had been there
for over two millenia.
of the world could not allow room for Jews, whether openly Jewish, or
We, as Jews, are always
split between two identities. We are heirs to the Torah, which was the first
work in human history to propound that all humans are descended from one shared
human. Yet we are also heirs to the Torah, which taught us that we exist as a “goy
kadosh” a sacred nation, with a special task and responsibility in the world,
but never to be lost or melt into the melting pot of the greater civilization.
Yes, we want to be in the forefront of social justice,
here or in the world. But we also are not going to be the world’s scapegoat
again and again. “Im ain ani li, mi li”. If I am not for myself, who will be
for me, and if I am not for myself, how can I possibly be of good to any one
else, of any race, religion, ethnicity, or intersectional identity.
We need to always conscious of our part in an
ancient covenant, that going back to the gathering at Mount Sinai, and even
before, between Abraham and God. All Jews who have entered that covenant,
whether 3000 years ago, or yesterday, are caught up and bound in it. We are all
of us party to a covenant with the divine, made by our predecessors millennia
ago, in our name There
is a collection note due on our souls with the divine, which is called in from time to
time, a divine debt which
keeps us from completely assimilating, from totally merging within the
anonymity of history.
Yisrael af shehata, Yisrael hu--a Jew, even though he has abandoned his faith and
his actions, is still a Jew. It is a category of existence.
This High Holy Day season, is the season of Teshuvah, which we explain as
Return; it comes to remind us reminds us that we are never so far gone, never so
far removed, that return is impossible. The sense of alienation can be put to rest.
One of the verses that stands out during this season is form the Prophet,
Jeremiah. The children of Israel, Ephraim, plead to God to accepted back from captivity and exile. God responds:
“Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to me, a child that is dandled! Whenever I
have turned against him, my thoughts would dwell on him still. That is
why my heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love. "
May we be all be accepted in love. Amen.