Oct 2001 Journal

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Survival and identity

Jonathan Sacks
Harper Collins, 2001.

“When Jews ask the question ‘Why be Jewish?’ we know that we are in the presence of a major crisis in Jewish life.” So says Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks. He views the current era as the prolongation of the fourth major crisis in Jewish history, provoked by “a crescendo of antisemitism” culminating in the Holocaust. Fifty years after the liberation of the concentration camps, in conditions of unprecedented prosperity, the future of the Jewish people is threatened by ambivalence, indifference and assimilation.

In this book, conceived originally as a wedding gift for his son, Sacks makes an eloquent attempt to answer the initial question and convince today’s young Jews of the value of maintaining their heritage. He presents Judaism as a radical attempt to transform the world. The biblical proposition ‘God created man in His image’ is, he argues, a revolutionary concept of equality, overturning the order prevailing in ancient myths and rituals, where kings aspire to be gods and ordinary human beings are expendable.

Tracing Jewish history from biblical times to the present, Sacks makes use of some striking images. Abraham, according to Jewish legend, is confronted with “a palace in flames”, the symbol of a perfect creation being destroyed by evil, chaos and disorder. It was Abraham’s task to protest against this senseless destruction and, in partnership with God, become the forefather of a people dedicated to create a moral society where the dignity of each human being is respected and order restored.

All too often in Jewish history, however, corrupt, power-seeking kings or priests failed to heed the rebukes of the prophets and disaster resulted. In contrast, Sacks observes, it was in their moment of greatest powerlessness with loss of land and sovereignty that the Jewish people showed their greatest strength, creating communities that survived two millennia, in the face of hostility and persecution, while the civilisations of their oppressors came to nought. It is the values that preserved them, a passion for social justice and education among others, that mark the continuing vitality of the Jewish contribution to wider society.

Concerned at the preponderance today of intermarriage and loss of Jewish identity, Sacks makes intriguing use of the story of Jacob and Esau as a metaphor for the Jew who negates his Jewishness. Jacob was always modelling himself on Esau till he struggled with the unknown force and came to know himself. Only then were relations between the brothers restored to harmony. Similarly, Sacks claims, it is the Jew who is secure in his identity who is respected in the gentile world.
Emma Klein

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