Thought of the Week: 3 March 2016

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 3 March 2016

Yehudah Leib Gordon was one of the earliest poets of the modern Hebrew language. In 1871 he published a poem, “For whom do I toil,” ending it with the words: “Oh, who can foresee the future, who can foretell? Perhaps I am the last of Zion’s poets; and you, the last readers?”

More recently, in the 1980s, there was great concern about what was called ‘The Missing Generation’ – those 20-something Jews who were not in evidence in our synagogues and who were seen as having abandoned their Judaism. Jonathan Sacks wrote a book about this entitled “Will we have Jewish grandchildren?”

Eventually the so-called ‘Missing Generation’ piped up and said “Hang on! We are here. We’ve not abandoned our Judaism, we just don’t find anything of interest in our synagogues.” They sought their Jewish fulfilment largely outside the organised community. This Missing Generation went on, amongst other things, to ‘found’ Limmud and to apply to the Leo Baeck College to enter the rabbinate. Many of them are, in fact, heavily involved in Alyth and other Reform synagogues.

But is it just a Jewish ‘thing,’ or a minority ‘thing,’ for each generation to see itself as the last? Simon Rawidowicz, philosopher and historian, spoke of us as the ‘Ever Dying People,’ and showed how, throughout Jewish history, each generation laments the dilution of Jewish life and believes that the next generation is simply not going to maintain it. Yet somehow here we are, here we continue, assirei hatikvah, ‘prisoners of hope,’ as the prophet Zechariah called us. We remain, imprisoned in an impossible hope, reciting the Alenu daily which speaks of a better world, a hope for all humanity.

If you’ve only read this far because you wanted to know “how does Eimer explain our dogged persistence?” you might as well stop reading now, for I’m infinitely better at identifying the phenomenon than explaining it. The world Jewish population, so I am told, is less than a statistical error in the Chinese census, We are scattered all over the world, pockets of Jews here and there: in Cochin, La Paz, the mountains of Ethiopia, Uzbekistan; Spaniards reclaim their Sephardi heritage; every self-respecting tourist centre seems to have rediscovered its Jewish connections.

Demographers predict that the world Jewish population is dwindling. Emil Fackenheim, one of the major Jewish philosophers of the 20thCentury once said that “demographers are inherently anti-Semitic: they are always predicting the imminent demise of the Jewish population. “ He concluded by reflecting that “Jews consistently stand at the graveside of their demographers!”

Fackenheim also coined the idea of the ‘614th Commandment’ – an extra one, post-Shoah, to add to the traditional 613 Commandments. This one was, he said, “it is incumbent on us not to give Hitler posthumous victory, by doing his work for him and making Europe judenrein, free of Jews.” In the 1960s and 70s it was frequently quoted. But I felt slightly uneasy with the idea that we have to survive because of what Hitler did. Put very bluntly it leads to the view “I am Jewish because there are people out there who hate me, or who hated me.” It seems a somewhat decadent reason for being Jewish or raising the next generation as Jews. It’s ‘decadent’ because it looks to the past as the raison d’être for being Jewish now and in the future. If there is a reason for us to continue as Jews it must be, surely, because we still feel there is a task and a purpose in the world that still remains to be accomplished and we have a role in that.

See you next week in synagogue……