The phenomenon of Jewish renewal
RAV ILAN HERRMANN
Remarkably, the Jewish people have proven the exception to this rule. This is in spite of so much adversity.
There is clarity about the apparent enigma of the destiny of the Jewish people – the assertion of a supernatural dimension that has guided the Jewish people to preservation. This is clearly testified in the Torah through multiple divine promises, and is the key to understanding the eternity of the Jewish people.
“And I [G-d] will establish My covenant between Me and you [Abraham] and your descendants after you, throughout the generations, an eternal covenant to be your G-d, and the G-d of your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7)
“Yet, even so, even while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject or spurn them, lest I break My covenant with them by destroying them, for I am their G-d. (Leviticus 26:44)”
In response to history’s cataclysmic events, the Jewish people have persistently demonstrated the ability to rise to the challenge of the ages, thereby manifesting the promise of immortality in real time.
The trait that lies at the core of the national character of the Jewish people throughout millennia is the capacity for renewal and renaissance. Instead of critical moments causing a diminishment of the Jewish people, each chapter of calamity has brought with it a counter-response of innovation, creativity, and growth.
We will trace just a few of these over the past 2 500 years:
Renewal stage 1
When Babylonian forces led the Jewish people in chains from a Jerusalem that lay in ashes (3 338 AC to 423 BCE) to a foreign land to be adopted into a culture of opulence and aggressive and brutal governance, how did they respond?
Establishing a community in Babylon, the exiled Jews produced an unprecedented creative energy and consolidated their strength with works of perpetuity, namely the final editing of the Pentateuch, the Books of Samuel and Kings, and other prophetic books.
The nevi’im (prophets) of the time also put together new literary works of history, such as Ezra, Nechemiah, and Chronicles. These addressed the issues of the day, empowering the displaced people as they sought to adjust and perpetuate Jewish life in a new land.
Continued faith and resolve was rewarded as many of the exiled Jews returned to establish the new commonwealth with the rebuilding of the second temple.
Renewal stage 2
The Assyrians and Persians attempted seduction and moral corruption on a national level followed by the eventual threat of annihilation and genocide of the Jewish people. The Jewish response was as the story of Purim recounts (3 406 AC / 355 BCE).
Renewal stage 3
When ancient Greece infiltrated Israel with its Hellenist ideology, it reached deep into the hearts and minds of the people of the pure faith, determined to contaminate and impurify the holy and divine dimension Judaism held sacred.
At the critical hour, perhaps the most glowing chapter of Jewish heroism was written as the pure oil of Chanukah was re-ignited and the defiant Maccabee spirit led the charge to re-establish Jewish control over Israel and regain Jewish life (3622 AC / -139 BCE)
Renewal stage 4
The Roman devastation of Israel in the year 69 ACE was the harshest of all. Consequently, it led to the dispersion and decentralisation of the Jewish people, the effects of which still ripple today. The “wandering Jew” was born, never finding rest or respite. A saga of continued persecution pursued the Jewish people lasting not centuries, but for millennium.
Not only did the Jewish people not buckle under a pandemic of atrocities perpetrated by virtually every culture and religion culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust of 1939-1945, but the results proved startling and unprecedented.
The richest and most vast compendium of scholarship was developed at this time – the Mishnah and the Talmud. Medieval and Middle Age commentators composed shelves and libraries filled with works of the noblest and finest content. Contributions were advanced in every field of secular knowledge in their myriads.
Renewal stage 5
Moving closer to our time, perhaps the most extraordinary and inexplicable feat of all was the establishment, survival, and blossoming of the modern state of Israel. A generation, many of whom were survivors of the Holocaust, converted a barren desert into flower and bloom all the while as hostile and bloodthirsty neighbouring Arab nations, vastly superior in number and munitions, fuelled by hatred and venom, sought every opportunity to exterminate the fledgling nation. Evidence of the quantum leap of a nation from possible extinction to sublime advancement is visible for all to see.
Renewal stage 6
Jewish life was dealt a near fatal blow by the Holocaust as European Jewry was wiped out. Many sought out the modern world which beckoned with an opportunity to live freely and unobtrusively. While assimilation began to corrode the Jewish people, a new phenomenon also emerged, the baal teshuvah (returnee) to the Jewish faith. A generation later, there was a return towards to Judaism, a spiritual renaissance, fantastically realising a prophecy of thousands of years before. This continues across the globe today.
We are entering the 80th year of the century – Rosh Hashanah 5780. The number 80 is cited with significance in the Ethics of Our Fathers, describing 80 as “for power [strength]”, meaning, the particular power of something – or someone – is expressed at 80.
If a core characteristic of the Jewish people is the capacity for renewal, then it is this that we are charged to bring to the fore in this auspicious year. These days of introspection are a time to dig deep individually and collectively as a people, to draw in the power that lies at our essence, and to renew the sense of our divinely mandated mission as am Yisrael (the people of Israel) and a light unto the nations.
Not only will we then be ready to respond to the challenges of the year ahead, but as history has shown, we will thrive to transform adversity into abundance.
- Rav Ilan Herrmann is the rabbi of Soul Workout Shul and runs the Soul Workout outreach organisation. He publishes Soul Sport, a Jewish sports magazine.