What’s at the core of our Jewish identities?

In 1982, Rabbi David Hartman wrote a powerful essay titled, “Auschwitz or Sinai?” There, Hartman asks himself about the defining event that should be shaping our Jewish identities today. 

During a big part of the last seventy-five years, the Shoah took that role. In the aftermath of possibly the biggest catastrophe ever known to humankind, the Jewish people adopted a narrative of defiance, making sure that everybody knew that, “Never again will we be vulnerable.” The State of Israel was born and raised on those premises. Now we are strong, now we have a Nation of our own, and nobody will ever cause us to suffer and die as we did during the Shoah. 

This is, without a doubt, a very powerful narrative. At the same time, it is rooted in pain and trauma and is a discourse that came as a reaction to what happened to us in the hands of others. That is why, among other things, Rabbi Hartman was not entirely sure that we should make the Shoah the cornerstone of our Jewish identities. He wrote: “I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history and of our national renewal and rebirth. It is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history. Our bodies have painfully tasted man’s indifference and inhumanity to his fellow man. We have witnessed in our own flesh the moral evil present in human society. But this should not tempt us to become morally arrogant. Our suffering should not lead us to self-righteous postures, but to an increased sensitivity about all human suffering.” 

Writing in 1982, I’m fairly sure that Hartman’s reflections are somehow related to what was going on at that time with the Lebanon war. Consequently, he wanted to make sure that our pain wouldn’t translate as some sort of blank check to justify any and all pains that we may pass on to others for the sake of our own survival. Walking that line was never easy. Not in 1982 and not today. And that’s why I think that Hartman’s essay is still pretty much relevant in our days. 

Instead of focusing exclusively on the Shoah, Hartman wanted us to shift gears and to see Sinai as the cornerstone of the Jewish identity. For him, that was the defining moment in our history and its echo had to become our anchor today. He wrote: “The model of Sinai awakens the Jewish people to the awesome responsibility of becoming a holy people. At Sinai, we discover the absolute demand of God; we discover who we are by what we do. Sinai calls us to action, to moral awakening, to living constantly with challenges of building a moral and just society which mirrors the kingdom of God in history. Sinai creates humility and openness to the demands of self-transcendence. In this respect, it is the antithesis of the moral narcissism that can result from suffering and from viewing oneself as a victim.” 

I’m sharing these ideas because between the end of April and the beginning of June, we Jews mark in our calendars both Yom HaShoah, the day in which we honor those who were murdered by the Nazis, and Shavuot, the holiday in which we are called to receive the Torah. All throughout these weeks, Auschwitz and Sinai are connected, and so this season becomes a good opportunity to ask Hartman’s question once again: What should be the defining historical moment that shapes our identities? 

And, perhaps in countering Hartman, I’d like to claim that we don’t have to choose one or the other, but we need to learn how to integrate both, and how to learn the right lessons from both Auschwitz and Sinai. 

A few years ago, there was a piece in the Washington Post claiming that two thirds of American millennials do not know what Auschwitz is, and twenty-two percent of them haven’t even heard of the Holocaust at all. It might be that one or two generations ago the Shoah was a defining moment for Jews and a well-known historical event for everyone else, but that doesn’t seem to be our current situation. And we need to make sure that we do something about that because, as philosopher George Santayana used to say: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

The Shoah must be our constant reminder of how alive anti-Semitism is in our days, and about how pervasive it is, even within the realm of worthy causes that then become deeply toxic. The Women’s March is but one example of that. Something that should unite everyone around the creation of conditions that will shape an egalitarian society with equal opportunities for realization, recognition, and payment for all, is now hijacked by voices supporting BDS and trashing the State of Israel at every step of the way. How can that be? The double standards of those leaders are appalling. As is their blatant anti-Semitism, even if disguised as anti-Zionism. We should always pay attention, because anti-Semitic feelings are always around, sometimes dormant, and sometimes pretty much awake. That is why, among other things, we must continue talking and teaching about the Shoah. 

But as we remain conscious of the poisonous anti-Semitism around us, I think that Hartman has a point when speaking about the centrality of Sinai in our identities. Sinai was the moment in which we fully became a people. From that time on, we were not only free from the Egyptian tyranny but also free to do something meaningful with our freedom. And that is what living a life of Torah should be all about. A calling to be present. An invitation to make a difference in our world. A reason to get involved in shaping a moral society. Sinai was about the development of a particular practice that would create the Jewish people as such but also about the commitment to do things way beyond the scope of our synagogues and homes, and way beyond our rituals and traditions. All of those are important because they remind us of who we are, but then we are expected to jump higher and get involved in creating the type of society we want for ourselves, for our neighbors and for our children as well. 

Coming back to the edge of Mount Sinai is a wonderful reminder of what is being expected from us. It is an opportunity to get a glimpse, once again, not only of the beauty of our tradition but also of the powerful nature of its message. And it is a good time to recommit to it, to take ownership, and to figure out ways to transform those ideas into concrete actions because that’s how we make sure that Judaism remains a positive and relevant force in our times. 


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