Difficult Judaism

18 Nov 2009
OU Press

I remember hearing or reading that R. Moshe Feinstein blamed the mass defections from Jewish observance in America during the first half of the twentieth century on a simple phrase: “S’iz shver tzu zain a Yid – It is difficult to be a Jew.” Because parents would tell their children how difficult it was to struggle to fulfill the commandments, children abandoned the observant life altogether. Instead, R. Feinsten said, parents should have emphasized how wonderful it is to be able to fulfill God’s commandments.

Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in his recent book Covenant and Conversation: Genesis – The Book of Beginnings (co-published by OU Press [my employer] and Maggid, an imprint for books of contemporary thought from Koren Publishers Jerusalem), takes the saying and, rather than rejecting it, turns it around. Yes, it is difficult to be a Jew. It is gloriously difficult to live up to the high expectations that you use your Judaism to change the world. Here is what he writes (pp. 140-141):

The ideals of Torah are high, and the story told by Tanakh and Jewish history is all too often suffused with failure and shortcomings. Yet Judaism produced generation after generation of prophets, sages, philosophers and poets, who never relinquished the dream, abandoned the ideals, or lowered their sights. They kept going, as Jacob kept going. There is grandeur in this refusal to abandon the struggle, this sustained reluctance to accept the world as it is, conforming to the conventional wisdom, following the herd. Jews have always been pioneers of the spirit, disturbers of the peace.

The path chosen by Jacob/Israel is not for the fainthearted. Zis schver zu sein a Yid, they used to say: “It’s hard to be a Jew.” In some ways, it still is. It is not easy to face our fears and wrestle with them, refusing to let go until we have turned them into renewed strength and blessing. But speaking personally, I would have it no other way. Judaism is not faith as illusion, seeing the world through rose-tinted lenses as we would wish it to be. It is faith as relentless honesty, seeing evil as evil and fighting it in the name of life, and good, and God. That is our vocation. It remains a privilege to carry Jacob’s destiny, Israel’s name.