When I say “Jewish History,” what’s the first word that comes to mind?
I asked this question at Gather’s Beyond the Tent Retreat last weekend. Not surprisingly, the most recurring responses were “Holocaust,” “sad,” “oppression” and “depressing.” I half-joked that this makes Judaism sound like a tough sell for those on the fence about getting more involved.
This very same weekend, the newest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend featured a song that conveyed a similar sense about our past and the way we relate to it. The song – “Remember That We Suffered” – is a minute and half, and it’s worth a watch/listen. Similar to my one-word exercise, the half-joke behind the song is that it’s hard to move beyond our depressing history.
That history, both ancient and modern, is certainly filled with terrible persecution. This Shabbat, Jews will recount our first collective experience of oppression – slavery in Egypt – as we begin reading from the book of Exodus. And though we’ve come a long way since then, anti-semitism is certainly not going anywhere. Just today, at least 25 Jewish institutions received bomb threats.
Nevertheless, I’m concerned that this negative history has become the primary way that many Jews relate to their Jewish identity.
This presents two serious challenges.
First, it can lead to a focus on our own self-interests. When a person or group is in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, it’s impossible to think of others. Yet the Torah makes it clear – our suffering should sensitize us to the suffering of others. “You are to love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
Second, our negative history eclipses the more positive aspects of our identity. Even our history is more expansive than a chronicling of our suffering; Judaism has stood for more than self-preservation and resilience. Besides, there are other ways to connect to Judaism outside of our history. It’s easy to dismiss or make fun of Judaism by defining it negatively; it’s harder to explore the ways that Judaism can be more positive, active and meaningful in our lives.
This weekend, our Beyond the Tent participants did exactly that. The more we can commit to this endeavor, the more we can move past our past and into a more hopeful future.
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