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On August 9, 2001, in the worst days of the second intifada, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt in a crowded downtown Jerusalem location of the international pizza chain Sbarro, killing fifteen people and wounding more than 130. The restaurant itself was entirely destroyed. Two months later, after construction crews worked around the clock to rebuild the facility, Sbarro reopened as a “stand against terrorism.” Some of the patrons who had been at the restaurant at the time of the attack returned on the day of the reopening to the very tables at which they had been sitting.
Some two years later, with the intifada still dragging on, another suicide bomber attacked Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa. Twenty-one Israelis were killed in the attack, and another 51 were injured; the interior of the restaurant was shredded to pieces. Yet two months later, the reconstructed restaurant likewise reopened to throngs eager to enter and to make a statement.
Less than a year ago, on Saturday night, December 29, 2019, a man with a machete attacked the Monsey home of the ḥasidic rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, where a Hanukkah candle-lighting celebration with almost 100 people in attendance was under way. A number of those present were injured, including two who were taken to the hospital in critical condition. One subsequently died. Almost immediately after the attack, once the injured had been cared for, the rabbi reconvened with his followers in the synagogue next door. One of the men present filmed and tweeted a video clip of their joyous singing (in Hebrew) of the verse, “The Lord’s kindness has not ended, for His mercies are not exhausted” (Lamentations 3:22), which resounded just moments after they had exited the rabbi’s blood-soaked home.
Contrast these attacks with the one that took place back on October 28, 2018. A gunman assaulted the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven people and wounding another six, in what remains the deadliest attack on an American synagogue in history. Unlike the Sbarro in Jerusalem that opened two months later, or Maxim’s Haifa restaurant, or the congregation in Monsey that broke out in songs of gratitude and praise—unlike those other settings of Jewish persecution, the Tree of Life Synagogue has not reopened to this very day.
Almost two years after the attack, the synagogue has “hired a consultant to create a plan and one to come up with a fundraising campaign to pay for renovating the site.” It will take the community years to plan and refurbish the building, and it appears that the besieged congregation will not worship there during this period of reconstruction, just as it has not since the day of the shooting. “We have a desire to make something new,” the synagogue’s executive director said; “we’re not erasing anything, but we need to look forward.”
While it is natural that communities navigate grief in ways that are complex and often private, it is nonetheless noteworthy that in the abovementioned attacks, the Israeli and Orthodox regrouped and rebuilt as soon as possible. From the liberal American synagogue, by contrast, the violence seems to have elicited precisely the opposite response: worship will not resume until the building has been remodeled, so that re-entering it will not evoke agonizing reminders of the terror that unfolded there.
What explains the different reactions of these institutions? Assuming that the reactions are representative—and for present purposes let us make that assumption; we will explore it further in this essay—what in the halakhically observant and Israeli settings seems to endow their members with the capacity to bounce back, to endure, to overcome? Something in these communities is making them more resilient, replenishing the Jewish psyche, refueling the Jews’ ability to carry on as they have for millennia, an ability we may need in the years to come far more than we might have expected. What is it?
I. Living Inside Heartbreak
To answer that question let’s begin in the pages of the traditional Jewish liturgy:
Look down from heaven and see how we have become an object of scorn and derision among the nations. We are regarded as sheep led to the slaughter, to be killed, destroyed, beaten and humiliated. Yet, despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. Please, do not forget us.
The desperation at the core of this passage sounds as if it was taken from the liturgy of one of Judaism’s days of mourning and sadness, perhaps the Ninth of Av, the day on which Jews mourn the destruction of both Temples and an array of other calamities, or otherwise the Fast of Esther, when Jews confront the vulnerabilities inherent in Diaspora life.
But the anguish of these lines is not reserved for a special day of the Jewish calendar. Rather, this passage is taken from the taḥanun liturgy, a series of prayers of supplication recited on weekday mornings and afternoons (and extended on Monday and Thursday mornings to include the lines cited here), that is intentionally repetitive. The recitation, time and again, of the trauma at the heart of Jewish life can feel relentless, but it has a poetic effect of evoking the relentlessness of our historical experience. Taḥanun continues: “Strangers say, ‘You have no hope or expectation.’ We are exhausted. We are given no rest. . . . Please turn away from Your fierce anger and have compassion on the people You chose as Your own.” There is more. “Have pity on us, Lord, in Your compassion, and do not hand us over to cruel oppressors. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God now?’” Then, once again, “Please turn away from Your fierce anger and have compassion on the people You chose as Your own.”
Those who recite this part of the liturgy essentially accuse God of violating His own promise: “Do not abandon us into the hand of our enemies to blot out our name. Remember what You promised our fathers: ‘I will make your descendants as many as the stars of heaven’—yet now we are only a few remaining from among many. . . . Lord, God of Israel, turn away from Your fierce anger, and relent from the evil against Your people.”
The brokenheartedness that taḥanun evokes is part of Jewish prayer’s regular fare. It creates the expectation that Jewish communities will almost invariably experience anguish, and it demands a willingness to look squarely at our own travails in order to foster a view of the world in which it is normal for the Jewish people to bear hardship. And then, to persist.
In this it reinforces a worldview set deep at the foundation of the Jewish tradition. Taḥanun is not unique in its focus on trauma and heartbreak as inescapable realities of Jewish history. Classical sources too numerous to count suggest that a “healthy” Jewish psyche places anxiety about the fate of the Jewish people front and center and acknowledges that the Jews will inevitably suffer. “The Holy One, Blessed be He,” said Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai, “gave the People of Israel three precious gifts, all of which were given only by means of suffering, and they are: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.” In this view, suffering is a medium of God’s providence.
Continued Jewish suffering is even understood by some sages as coterminous with history itself. The Talmud asserts that we will know that the messiah has come when we are no longer on the receiving end of history’s horrors. As the sage Shmuel put it, “The only difference between this world and the messianic era is with regard to Israel’s servitude to foreign kingdoms.” Everything else that is wrong with this world will remain true even in the messianic era—except for the singular difference that the Jews will not be reviled and harassed by the nations of the world.
And so, until the messiah delivers the Jewish people from history, our ability to survive will depend on our ability to live inside heartbreak, to see our fear and our inner turmoil both as burdens to bear and as challenges to shoulder with integrity and determination.
Jewish history has thankfully been much more than a series of traumas, as Salo Baron memorably noted in a 1963 essay urging historians to avoid what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Yet as Baron’s critics have noted, we would do well to ask what “the focus—one might almost say fetish—on avoiding the lachrymose conception might have caused us to lose in our understanding of the Jewish past.” To minimize the trauma at the heart of the Jewish past is no less a distortion than exaggerating it. The history of the Jewish people is tragically riddled with exile and expulsion, persecution, and harassment. Jews have been attacked and murdered, subjected to genocide and accused of genocide, have been excluded from society’s top professions and accused of undue privilege—all simply because they are Jews. Hardship is not a break in the structure of Jewish history; it is an enduring feature of Jewish history. That is why Jewish resilience—enduring and overcoming hardship—is so noteworthy, and why understanding it is so critical in our own uncertain times.
II. Toward and Away From Vengeance
The Jewish tradition’s acceptance of hardship as inescapable did not confer upon suffering its own, independent, moral standing. Mainstream Jewish voices never valorized the ethical stance, articulated in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that one should “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39).
Quite the contrary, in fact. At times, the Jewish reaction to suffering was to lash out in search of revenge, or at least to hope for it. The Sabbath morning prayer Av Haraḥamim (Father of Compassion), composed in the wake of the destruction of northern European Jewry during the Crusades is perhaps the classic liturgical example in which exhaustion from suffering gives way to a plea for Divine retribution.
Father of compassion, who dwells on high: may He remember in His compassion the pious, the upright, and the blameless—holy communities who sacrificed their lives for the sanctification of God’s name. Lovely and pleasant in their lives, in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions to do the will of their Maker and the desire of their Creator. O our God, remember them for good with the other righteous of the world, and may He exact retribution for the shed blood of His servants as it is written in the Torah of Moses, the man of God; “O nations, acclaim His people, for He will avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and make clean his people’s land.”
Nor is Av Haraḥamim alone. The Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) prayer, which traditional Jews just recited repeatedly over the course of Yom Kippur, pleas for God to “avenge before our eyes the spilt blood of Your servants.” Other examples abound.
Admittedly, a prayer for vengeance may not be the loftiest of human emotions. But neither Av Haraḥamim nor Avinu Malkenu requests that we Jews be the agents of extracting revenge from our enemies. The Jewish tradition actually denies us that agency, channeling the understandable if ignoble desire for revenge away from us. Instead we ask God, the True Judge, to avenge the wrongs done to His chosen people. In this way, yearning for God’s vengeance is actually a hope for justice, an affirmation of self-worth reflecting indignation at the wrongs Jews have endured, a determination not to allow our enemies to triumph, and a commitment to not fade away.
Perhaps for this reason, a desire for vengeance was never the most common Jewish response to trouble. More often, the expectation that suffering was part of Jewish life contributed to a mindset which sought ways to point our energies inward toward self-reliance, not to justify revenge but to strengthen the Jewish commitment to steadfastness. To resist our lot, to survive, Jewish tradition says, we need to embrace—first to acknowledge and to accept, and only then commit to combatting—the difficulties and hardships that invariably pursue us. Seeing suffering as an inalienable part of Jewish existence is the only means of ensuring that when tragedy or complexity confront us, we will not find ourselves paralyzed, unable to respond. It may seem counterintuitive, but the regular embrace of pain and disappointment is what enables us to move forward even in the face of tragedy.
III. Resilience in Israel
If the world of traditional Judaism fosters resilience through liturgy, the Jewish calendar’s fast days, and an ongoing engagement with the Jewish canon, life in the state of Israel cultivates resilience in other ways. Israelis have never had the luxury of telling themselves that theirs would be a story without heartbreak. They learn that lesson early in life and they are reminded of it continually.
Engaging the classic liturgy and traditional observances might enable Israelis to see their disappointment as part of a larger, redemptive Jewish story, but to a degree, they do that anyway. For Israelis live in a land endlessly dotted with monuments to losses of the past century, and their capital is home to an ancient city adorned with remnants of a Jewish life that once was but is no longer. Military service—and the reasons for its necessity—loom large in the lives of most teenage Israelis. On Memorial Day Israel comes to a complete halt, cemeteries are filled with families visiting the graves of loved ones, restaurants and cafes are closed, television and radio are devoted almost exclusively to stories of service and loss. Since 1973, the same has been true of Yom Kippur: in the days leading up to what is Judaism’s most sacred day, Israeli airwaves focus much more on the horrific losses of October 1973 than they do on the religious valence of the Day of Atonement.
Formed by modern Zionism’s hard-won successes, or by the Jewish people’s endurance in the face of unceasing persecution in the Diaspora, Israelis and traditionalist Jews are not caught unawares by misfortune. For them, to live is to stand firm against the winds of hatred and violence.
IV. The Costs of American Optimism
On the other side of the oceanic divide, most Jews have crafted a very different image of themselves and their destiny. Indeed, a defining element of American Jewish life, outside of the observant communities and a few passionately Zionist enclaves, has been a desire to avoid the engagement with Jewish sadness that is simply assumed in taḥanun and Av Haraḥamim. As the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift says of its main character, a European who had come to live in America, “He said that history was a nightmare during which he was trying to get a good night’s rest.” Or, as Jonathan Sarna notes in his description of American Jews’ reactions to the beginning of the Nazi onslaught on European Jewry:
The editor of the Jewish Publication Society, concerned about the “psychological effect” of so much bad news on the Jewish community’s morale, decided in response to “call a halt to terrorizing the Jewish population in this country,” and peremptorily rejected several manuscripts dealing with Jewish persecutions in Europe. In 1941, JPS actually published a joke book for its readers, the only one in its long history, with the significant title Let Laughter Ring.
Though these responses were dramatic deviations from traditional Judaism’s default setting, they were very much in keeping with the zeitgeist of America. America has long believed that it has, as C. Vann Woodward wrote, “apparent immunity to the tragic and ironic aspects of man’s fate—that charmed and fabled immunity that once made America the Utopia of both the common men and the philosophers of Europe.” Americans have long had a sense that history is what happens to other people. The liberal Jewish movements in America absorbed this cheerful delusion.
There are reasons that American optimism came to be so deeply rooted. Unlike in Israel, where few families are untouched in some way by the personal sacrifices of war and no city or town is immune from the threat of attack, the American experience in battle has allowed most Americans to watch history unfold from a distance. The United States has had the good fortune of fighting almost all of its wars in someone else’s country.
An observation of Woodward’s in his 1991 collection of essays, The Future of the Past, locates the roots of American optimism in America’s security and prosperity.
Optimism presupposes a future that is unusually benign and reliably congenial to man’s enterprises. Anxieties about security have kept the growth of optimism within bounds among other peoples, but the relative absence of such anxieties in the past has helped, along with other factors, to make optimism a national philosophy in America. The freedom of American youth from the long period of training in military discipline that left its mark upon the youth of nations where it was a routine requirement could hardly have failed to make some contribution to the distinctiveness of national character.
The assumption that nature’s providence would always satisfy American desires, coupled to a relative absence of concern about security, is precisely the opposite sensibility of that which is formed by traditional Jewish devotion. And the assumption in America that peace and not war is the default condition of nations is precisely the opposite of the worldview that Israeli life inculcates. (It is thus striking that Salo Baron decried the lachrymose read of Jewish history when he lived in New York and taught at Columbia, while the most vociferous opposition to his view was that of Yehuda Bauer, of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.)
Of course, there have been notable American exceptions, entire segments of the United States on whom history has left deep scars of heartbreak. The annals of African American history are rinsed with the tears of enslavement and oppression, persecution and prejudice. It should thus perhaps not surprise us that Old Testament depictions of human life spoke so deeply to this community. When Black Americans gave voice to their struggle for freedom, they did so in distinctly Hebraic tones, seeing ancient Israel in themselves, as they sought to leave behind the Egypt-land that held their ancestors in captivity. The tragic sensibility that they found in biblical re-imaginings—clinging to hope without ever forgetting or denying their own suffering—would be preserved in spirituals and then in the blues idioms that emerged from them.
But for a great many Americans, particularly since the 1950s, dwelling on the inevitability of suffering was increasingly relegated to the margins of their experience and their consciousness. And that was also true for the Jews who most wanted to integrate into American society. Embracing America meant thinking like a certain kind of American. Taḥanun and Av Haraḥamim did not fit the promise of American progress. Because exile was synonymous with homelessness, vulnerability, and pain, being at home in America meant excising the very notion of the Jews’ ongoing exile. And that is precisely what has unfolded in American Jewish life.
Time and again, American rabbis have tweaked the ancient liturgy to accommodate a new, American Jewish worldview. While taḥanun and Av Haraḥamim appear in every American Orthodox prayer book I have seen, not a single modern Reform siddur includes either one. The Conservative movement’s now 30-year-old 1989 Siddur Sim Shalom contains both, but a quarter of a century later, its 2016 Siddur Lev Shalem (which is for Shabbat and festivals and therefore by definition would not contain taḥanun, a prayer never recited on those days) relegated Av Haraḥamim to the back as an optional selection, with scant explanation of why it has been (re)moved, nothing more than a comment in the margin that “its call for revenge represents a terrifying cry of those who had no power to protect themselves or their loved ones.” (Note the use of “had,” as though Jews in need of defense are a thing of the past, as if there are no Jews who are vulnerable to contemporary threats, lacking the “power to protect themselves or their loved ones.”) Prayers like Av Haraḥamim are meant to remind the fortunate that their comfort is hardly the Jewish norm and to assure the suffering that hardship such as they experience has been similarly experienced by many previous Jewish generations. In America, Jewish communal leadership sought to portray Jewish life in the new world as secure and comfortable, an entirely new beginning. Taḥanun, Av Haraḥamim, and countless other expressions that form Judaism’s religious sensibility did not fit.
Comfortable and settled, American Judaism would also eradicate the sense of dislocation that had been typical of the diaspora experience. Few captured it better than Rabbi Gustav Poznanski of Charleston, who already in 1841, at the dedication of a new synagogue building, famously proclaimed, “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple, that city, and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city, and this land . . . America is our Zion and Washington our Jerusalem.”
Even today, the inexorable march of liturgical conformism to America’s optimistic worldview continues. Perhaps the most recent example of this liturgical revision to fit America’s ethos appeared this past Tisha b’Av. Beyond fasting and reading the biblical book of Lamentations, one of the customs associated with Tisha b’Av is the recitation of Kinot, mournful dirges written specifically for the day, almost all of which weep bitterly over the loss of Jerusalem and the slaughter of the Jews. Perhaps the most famous of all these kinot is Eli Tsiyon, “Lament, Zion.” Here’s a taste of it:
Lament, Zion and her cities, like a woman in her labor pains,
Like a maiden girl in sackcloth for the husband of her youth. . . .
For the wounds and many blows with which her sainted ones were struck
And for the smashing upon the rock of her babes, her young ones. . . .
For the joy of her enemy rejoicing over her downfall,
And for the torture of those once free, her noblemen, her pious ones. . . .
The trenchant particularism and raw gore of images such as a mother seeing “the smashing upon the rock of her babes” runs counter to the idealized sense of Jewish life that has emerged in America.
Prior to Tisha b’Av this year, two American Jews, Daniel Olson and the Conservative Rabbi Benjamin Goldberg, published a new version of Eli Tsiyon (along with a translation) on the website opensiddur.org, updated to sidestep the particularism and graphic imagery and instead to focus on the coronavirus. A few sample verses:
Wail, O Zion and her cities, as Torah trapped in all of its arks,
And like its scroll left alone, unread, each letter distant from her thirsty ones. . . .
For the troubles of her parents who take care of her children all day
And for the arrogance of her consumers, who rush her openings . . .
For the voices of her scorners at the time of her increasing dead bodies;
And for social distancing, and the loneliness of her people . . .
COVID-19 has devastated millions of human beings across the globe, and it is natural that Jews would wish to reflect on it in their worship. There are, of course, already passages in the liturgy about healing the sick, and feeding the hungry and comforting the grieving, but still one can understand the desire to compose something more specific. What is telling about this translation of Eli Tsiyon is not that devoted and highly literate Jews would wish to add to the liturgy—that is a longstanding and completely legitimate tradition. What is telling is that Olson and Goldberg chose as the locus of their liturgical engagement with COVID-19 the one day of the year that Jews have long devoted to our suffering, to our trauma as a people.
Their new Eli Tsiyon substitutes for Jerusalem’s destruction and the evisceration of Jewish independence a discussion of a plague that has ravaged all persons equally, across the entire planet without distinction. (In fact, a footnote to the word “Zion” in the first line of the new version’s translation reads, “Possible to change Zion to tevel [universe] . . . for a more universalistic thrust to the poem.”) This “renewed” Eli Tziyon thus transforms Tisha b’Av from the paradigmatic day for remembering Jewish national suffering at the hands of others into a cri de cœur about a natural virus which has beset all of humanity with equal viciousness.
In this updated version, the suffering depicted in the original Kinah is thus generalized, and the horror made less vivid. In the world of this new Eli Tsiyon, Jews are encouraged—even on Tisha b’Av—to focus on humankind rather than on their own covenantal community, to grieve for parents who take care of their children all day rather than wives and mothers in sackcloth mourning for the murdered husbands of their youth.
Have American Jews lost the ability, even on Tisha b’Av, to do what taḥanun does more briefly every day? Will the capacities of Jewish resilience really be cultivated by telling a story about ourselves in which the worldviews of taḥanun and the original Eli Tsiyon are cast off to the sidelines? Is “the terrifying cry of those who had no power to protect themselves” to which Siddur Lev Shalem refers really a relic of the past? Children in the Israeli town of Sderot, today, having grown up with regular bombardment from neighboring Gaza, could tell us a great deal about that terror. The slain victims in the Tree of Life Synagogue had no way to defend themselves. The victims in Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg’s house had no means of protection.
The shapers of the Jewish tradition put taḥanun’s narrative at the center of our liturgy, our canon, and our way of life first and foremost because it is true. But they undoubtedly were also certain that threats and challenges had hardly disappeared from Jewish life, and they hoped that the recitation of that prayer and others like it would help prepare for the traumas that are still to come. The denial of Jewish vulnerability corrodes the habits of heart that lead to Jewish resilience. Among other reasons, by blinding us to the hardships that have always been part of the Jewish story, it makes it harder for us to recognize that anti-Jewish hatred is on the rise. As Eve Barlow describes matters:
American Jews and the organizations that purport to represent them continue by and large to be curiously quiet about this ever-widening river of cultural sewage [of contemporary American anti-Semitism]. America’s superlative example of successful assimilation has spawned a unique antidote to intergenerational trauma; an internalization of the false assumption that Jews are fine, or that Ashkenazi Jews are in fact too privileged to be targeted.
Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Jewish history of the 20th century knows that Jews deny what should be undeniable at their own often unimaginable peril.
V. What a Rewritten Liturgy Rewrites
What one cannot diagnose, one cannot cure. But when we gradually come to understand an illness, honesty requires that we plainly point to its cause. And here is what we are discovering, and what we must begin to acknowledge: without the arduous responsibilities of national sovereignty, or the religious consciousness and legal structures of traditional Judaism, it is almost impossible to preserve the narrative that Jews have long had about their extraordinary experience.
The genius of the Jewish tradition lies, in part, in its recognition that Jews could sustain their nation even without political sovereignty by intentionally reinforcing their covenantal way of life through canon, liturgy, and calendar. But as increasingly “Americanized” Jewish communities have ceased engaging that canon, have ignored much of the calendar, and have rewritten the liturgy, they are finding that a rewritten liturgy is now rewriting them.
What is unfolding on today’s American college campuses and throughout American Jewish communities is an ominous indication that the progressive Jewish vision has made it harder for Jews to embrace hardship as part of what has shaped us and our worldview, to acknowledge unabashedly both our broken-heartedness and today’s darkening clouds, and by doing so to steel ourselves for painful and enduring battles that may well lie ahead.
VI. The Attenuation of Resilience
The two grand experiments that the Jewish people have created in the aftermath of the 20th century’s great trauma are each in their own way successful. Rarely in Jewish history have we had two such extraordinary centers of Jewish life at the very same moment. Israel is a bet on a Jewish future rooted in a return to Jewish sovereignty, while American Judaism is a bet on the exceptional character of what has long been thought the most hospitable diaspora setting the Jews have ever known.
Yet both are vulnerable. Israel is an extraordinary success, but not without its existential challenges, both internal and external. We can hope and pray that Israel will survive and will comport itself with the requisite wisdom for ensuring that survival. But we cannot know what will be.
The same is true of American Jewish life. It is comforting to point to the accomplishments of American Jews and the communities of great passion and learning that exist across the nation. But we must not ignore the signs of an attenuated communal resilience: an unwillingness to stand up for ourselves, to summon pride in our distinctiveness, to rebuild when we need to, to figuratively (or actually) recite the tachanun of old, or our own, but to find some way to put our own tears at the center of who we tell ourselves we are.
Living with an awareness of heartbreak does not mean being resigned to victimhood. Quite the contrary, embracing the heartbreak of our history is the way that we steel ourselves to confront the future with courage. For sorrow will come: in the form of terrorists or knife-wielding anti-Semites, in the form of war or a host society abandoning its moral confidence in pluralism. When it does, those women and men who have borne the messy, tragedy-laced burdens of statehood, like those whose Jewish souls have been shaped by the traditional Jewish mindset, will be buoyed by both the strength that comes from the recollection of our people’s pain, and by the hope that comes from knowing what our predecessors endured.
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