JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review August 17, 1999 / 5 Elul, 5759

Wake Up Call?

By Rabbi Avi Shafran

THE PHOTOGRAPH is still tear-wrenching, even days later. The string of tiny children, arms stretched taut, holding hands as they are led by policemen from the North Valley Jewish Community Center in the Grenada Hills section of Los Angeles.

They look, of course, no different from any other street-crossing child-care troupe. But something shaped like a human being had just shot five people at the center, and tried to kill them all, for no other reason than that they are Jews.

All decent people are appalled at the attack, appalled by Buford O. Furrow Jr., who reportedly confessed to the crime, and to the subsequent cold-blooded murder of a Filipino-American mail carrier.

Econophone How, we ask, could anyone conceivably want to kill innocent people, even children? And how could anyone want to kill Jews only because they are Jews? Grant Furrow the madness he will likely claim in his defense; but there are assorted nonviolent madmen, even perfectly pleasant ones, on the streets of most American cities. For madness to so obscenely express itself, it must have bottom-fed for years on evil.

And such evil is nothing new. Jews have been killed by Christians and by Moslems, by Nazis and by Communists, by white haters and black ones. And even today, when assertions that our matzos contain Christians' blood and accusations of deicide have, at least for the most part, slid back into the muck of ignorance that spawned them, Jew-hatred is still alive and all too well.

Yet, amazingly, so many Jews today not only persevere but persist in holding fast to their Jewish identity. Indeed, it is the contemporary Jewish world's great merit that it refuses to run from - indeed, tightly embraces - its religious identity, despite the ever-enduring dangers.

A very different approach, though, has been voiced by the eminent British scholar and science writer Jonathan Miller.

Leiters Sukkah "I feel," he once said, "that the Jew must constantly readventure and reventure himself into assimilation. He owes it to himself and to humanity to try and try again."

"I just think," he continued, "it's the nobler thing to do, unless in fact you happen to be a believer in Orthodoxy, in which case there are self-evident reasons to keep doing it. But, if it's done for the sole purpose of making sure that in the future you'll be able to say the prayers for the dead when the Holocaust is finally inflicted again, then I think it is a damnable device."

His logic would appear to be unassailable. No Jews, no anti-Semitism. And all too many Jews, over the course of the past century, have followed Mr. Miller's course, truncating their Jewish names, dropping Jewish religious observance, marrying non-Jews, moving to the "right" neighborhoods, trying in every possible way to pass as non-Jews themselves.

Interestingly, though, Jewish assimilation does not seem necessarily to protect Jews. Among the most assimilationist Jews in modern times were those who comprised much of German Jewry in the 1800s and the early part of this century, who adopted many of the trappings, practices, beliefs and attitudes of their surrounding non-Jewish neighbors. But when a leader who hated Jews viscerally came to power, even those who had ceased to call themselves Jews were unequivocally and tragically reminded of just who they were.

And so it is heartening that so very many Jews today feel an inexplicable but powerful urge to stand firm in their Jewish identity. Even Jews who are minimally observant, or non-observant altogether, often still refuse to relinquish their connection to what is, after all, not a racial or even ethnic but religious heritage.

Some Jewish leaders, like Conservative Rabbi Harold Shulweis, insist on viewing attacks like the recent one in a universalist mode, as, in his words, "an American issue, not a Jewish issue." But heinous as racism and xenophobia are, only Jews are hated even when they they are both white and native born. Is it not odd that some haters hate blacks and Jews, others hate Christians and Jews, and others still hate foreigners and Jews? There is something about anti-Semitism that defies all logic, even racist "logic".

But it does not defy prediction. In mere weeks, Jews the world over will hear the weekly Torah-portion (Nitzavim) recount how, exiled to the Diaspora, the Jews will drift away from observance of the Torah, pursue foreign belief-systems and come to be targeted for destruction in the lands of their sojourn. And, finally, return to G-d and His Torah.

Only then, the Torah continues, when we re-embrace our religious heritage, will we be spared the hatred of those around us, and merit our ultimate redemption. Jonathan Miller may think clearly and logically. But, the Torah teaches us, he is dead wrong.

Buford O. Furrow was reported to have characterized his attack at the Jewish Community Center as a "wake-up call" to other like-minded individuals to kill Jews. We can only pray that his would-be imitators sleep soundly through his hellish alarm. But his murderous rage and cynical smirk might well indeed serve as a wake-up call for us Jews.

This past Friday, synagogues around the world began the month-long ritual custom of blowing the shofar after morning services. The shofar's call, according to Maimonides, hints at a message: "Awaken all you who slumber, examine your actions, return and remember your Creator."

The way for us Jews to protect ourselves from the degenerates of the world - and the way, more important, to fulfill our destiny - is to thank Professor Miller kindly for his advice but to determinedly take the very opposite path from the one he suggests. To, in other words, "invest and readventure and reventure" ourselves not into assimilation and Jewish oblivion but into vibrant, holy Jewish life and observance.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is American Director of Am Echad, an international organization promoting Jewish unity. He may be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Rabbi Avi Shafran