The Catastrophic Jew
I am still shaken by the Rebuke in last week’s portion. (Leviticus, Chapter 26) What does it take for us to face our Jewishness?
In 1940 Simone Weil wrote to the French Minister of Education about the Vichy government’s legislation prohibiting the employment of Jews in government schools:
“I don’t know the definition of the word Jew, this subject has never been part of my program of studies. Does this word designate a religion? I have never entered a synagogue and I have never witnessed a Jewish religious ceremony. Does this word designate a race? I have no reason to suppose that I have any part of tie, either through my father or my mother, with the people who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago. Having pretty much learned to read through French writers of the seventeenth century, such as Racine, and Pascal, if there is a religious tradition that I consider as my patrimony, it is the Catholic tradition. The Christian, French, Hellenistic tradition is mine; the Hebrew tradition is foreign to me. If nonetheless the law demands that I regard the term “Jew,” whose meaning I do not know, as an epithet applicable to my person, I am disposed to submit to it as to any other law.”
What is most disturbing about this darkly ironic passage is that it does not protest a racist decree that will deprive hundreds of thousands of Weil’s people of employment; it solely vents her anger at being defined as a Jew. The French scholar and Auschwitz survivor, Jean Amery, refers to Weil’s Judaism as “Catastrophe Judaism,” people who will only identify themselves as Jews in the face of evil on the magnitude of Naziism.
Why do so many of us hide from our Jewishness until forced by such horrifying evil? Why are so many embarrassed by Israel’s struggle for survival in a hostile world? Why are so many blind to Israel’s incredible commitment to morality even in the face of war?
We can find a hint of Weil’s struggle in a letter she wrote to a Free French official from New York:
“I beseech you to obtain for me the measure of hardship and danger that alone can save me from being wasted by grief. The suffering all over the world obsesses me and overwhelms me to the point of annihilating me, and the only way I can …release myself from this obsession is to take on a large share of danger and hardship myself.”
Even de Gaulle is said to have responded with the phrase, “Mais elle est folle!” (“But she is mad!”)
We have too have been “wasted by grief.” Many cannot bear to think of our suffering over the ages. People are convinced that our suffering must sensitize us to all suffering, even that of people who have sworn to annihilate us. We castigate ourselves for our imperfections, and we are as unforgiving of our mistakes as we are forgiving of our enemies’ intentions.
And yet, even as we were so fresh from the horrors of war and slavery in Egypt, even as we were building our community in the desert, we prepared ourselves for war. We camped as soldiers. We were constantly reminded that we were once strangers in Egypt. We were urged to be compassionate and caring, but always ready to stand up for ourselves and fight.
“There is no country in the history of warfare that has shown more compassion and care for their enemies even in the heat of battle than the State of Israel,” testified a British Major before the UN. No one in the audience cared or even paid attention. His comments were ignored by the media and politicians.
Some of us heard and are determined to do all we can to protect us from becoming, God Forbid, Catastrophe Jews.
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