Jewish survival – it has always been a choice

Every single Jewish victim of the Inquisition had already officially converted to Christianity; those refusing to convert being expelled from Spain shortly after the Inquisition began. Throughout almost every era in Jewish history, in almost every context, massive numbers of Jews have abandoned Judaism, and/or the Jewish people.

The Maccabi revolt was aimed at Hellenistic Jews as much as it was a war against the Syrian-Greek Empire. Every single Jewish victim of the Inquisition was a convert to Christianity, those refusing to convert having already been expelled from Spain. Moses Mendelsohn, the physical embodiment of the Jewish Enlightenment, did not have a single Jewish descendent and we all know that the great persecutors of Jews in our living memory, the Nazis and Soviets, counted amongst their victims no small number of Jews who hardly identified as Jewish.

The current rates of assimilation occurring throughout the Jewish world are not a break from Jewish history; they are the continuation of millennial old trends. When we speak about Jewish survival, we can only really speak about the survival of Judaism as maintained by a relatively small number of Jews who actively chose not to assimilate. Remaining Jewish is the conscious undertaking, not abandoning Judaism, which often requires little effort at all. At one point or another in a person’s life, staying Jewish necessitates a sacrifice. Sometimes that sacrifice is to remain or become the target of violence or discrimination. Sometimes that sacrifice is social or cultural. In other instances, it is financial.

Queen Esther faced her own personal test when she was informed of Haman’s intended annihilation of the Jews. Mordechai asked her to speak to King Ahasuerus, her husband, on her people’s behalf. This posed a problem for Esther. Esther (meaning hidden) was her non-Jewish or Persian name. Her true name was Hadassah, identifying her as a Jew and unknown to her husband. If unsuccessful, Esther’s appeal would certainly lead to her sharing the fate of other Jews, from which she was otherwise protected. Esther waivered when faced with that choice. Sensing her deliberation, Mordechai tells Esther, “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.”

Mordechai predicts that Esther will experience what all Jews who have attempted to ‘escape’ Judaism eventually learn. It is not possible. It does not work. All that occurs is that individuals and their descendants are detached from all of the beauty that Judaism could have otherwise brought to their lives. Despite that loss, the world still considers assimilated or even converted Jews to be Jews, subjecting them to the same fate, but without the wisdom of Judaism to help make sense of their suffering. Ultimately, Esther responds to Mordechai by declaring that she will, “…go to the King, though it be contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish.” This is the moment when Esther became a hero of Jewish history.

Natan Sharansky is perhaps one of the greatest living embodiments of Mordechai and Esther’s spirit. Born in Ukraine during the Soviet era, Sharansky was a chess prodigy and rising star in the Soviet scientific community. He could, in theory, have hoped to receive all of the privileges Soviet society had to offer (although in reality such opportunities were rarely, if ever, afforded to even the most assimilated Soviet Jews). Instead, he chose to sacrifice everything in favour of his Jewish identity and apply for an exit visa to immigrate to Israel. Not only was Sharansky’s visa application denied, he was arrested and spent nine years in Soviet prisons. When asked if giving up everything he lost for his Jewish identity was worth it, Sharansky famously answered, “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither.” After a massive international human rights campaign, Sharansky was released from prison and raised a family in Israel, serving as a government minister multiple times, as deputy prime minister and Executive of the Jewish Agency. Whilst the Soviet Union, one of the greatest institutional persecutors of Jews and their identity in the modern era is no more, Sharansky survives as a Jew with his head held high.

If we, like Esther and Natan Sharansky, realise that the best things in life are worth sacrificing for, that they are worth prioritising, our Judaism will not feel like a burden that limits our lives, but rather the flame at the centre that makes our lives worth living. 

Zachary Gomo
Director of Jewish Life

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