Time To Stop Dwelling in the Past

Time To Stop Dwelling in the Past

We, the Diaspora Jews, have become a people committed to the past.

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld was born November 8, 1925. He is the oldest son of a book store owner in a small town in Czechoslovakia and a holocaust survivor.

Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Mattathias in 37 C.E., studied Jewish law and wrote the "Antiquities of the Jews," a 20-volume historiographical work.
Flavius Josephus, born Joseph ben Mattathias in 37 C.E., studied Jewish law and wrote the "Antiquities of the Jews," a 20-volume historiographical work.

Nine months after my bar mitzvah on July 25, 1939, I completed my first of the two most important annual fasts in the Jewish calendar, the first being Yom Kippur, and the second, Tisha B’Av. Of course, if one chooses to express his Jewishness through fasting as a commemoration of Jewish tragedies, then there are far more than the two fasts. There is the 17th day of Tamuz, the fast of Esther, the fast of the first-born. But just the two fast days are more than enough to commemorate historic Jewish tragedies and our yearning to return to our homeland. In the two millennia of living in the Diaspora, with the constant threat of being punished for who we are we, the Jews living in Europe, and for that matter also Jews who lived in Muslim countries, became a broken people, a state of existence that became significant in Chassidism, known in Yiddish as zebrochenheit.

We became a futureless people living a life emphasizing that the best life to be had does not lie in dreams of the future, but in our return to the past. We looked at the two temples, symbols of our homeland, and hence we looked backward and concomitantly recounted our sad fate, reminding ourselves and G-d of the great tragedies we endured, and glorified our historic tragedies.

We believed in the coming of the Messiah, even though he may tarry, but this belief is also rooted in the past, a belief that G-d will ordain that redemption.

Isaiah Berlin, the noted Jewish cultural historian at Oxford, tells us about his colleague and friend, Lewis Namier, a Jewish historian, an Oxford don like himself, who was asked by an English Lord why he, a Jew, chose to concentrate on the history of England and not on his own Jewish history. Namier’s response was: “There is no modern Jewish history. There is only Jewish martyrology, and that is not amusing enough for me.” And, that, my friends, is not enough for me either, and moreover, as a Holocaust survivor, I do not wish for that great tragedy to become an annual event just by retelling the tragic stories. Rather, I wish to be able to recount how we overcame tragedy, and that started by seeking dreams for a new future.

We, the Diaspora Jews, have become a people committed to the past, and because of it, we have spent, and still do spend, a great deal of time recounting the world’s opposition to Judaism and Jews. For instance, we treat the Roman and Babylonian destruction of the Temples, the reason for the fast days, as anti-Semitic acts in the same manner as we treat the Germans and the Holocaust. Of course it isn’t so. Both the Romans and the Babylonians treated Jews and Israel as they treated any other rebellious people in their quest for world domination.

I gave up reciting Musaf services altogether because, in that service, we blame ourselves for having lost our homeland. It is time that we stop our self-flagellation. We were defeated, just like so many other smaller countries, simply because we lacked the power to fight the armies of mighty nations.

We need not only to stop living in the past and thinking that G-d wants us to return to the past and restart our ancient religion of cultic primitivism founded on the efficacy of animal sacrifices. Hasn’t Isaiah told us that G-d doesn’t want us to trample his courtyard, and he gave us another model for Jewish life, one based on a different set of G-d’s wishes? G-d wants us, declares the prophet, “to learn to do good, to seek justice, to vindicate the victims, to render justice to the orphans, and to take up the grievances of the widows.” And while G-d created us in a human form, He wishes that we add the letter “e” and change us to become humane entities.

Josephus, in his book, “Antiquities of the Jews,” tells us that one could smell the approach of Jerusalem long before seeing it simply by the pungent odor of burning sacrificial offerings. Is this what present-day Jerusalem should be noted for?

My grandfather observed Tisha B’Av the whole year round. I saw him late at night performing the ritual of tikkun hatzoth, the midnight services, sitting on a low stool and acting as a mourner, lamenting the loss of the Temple. The real Jewish tragedy is not the loss of the Temples, it is the glorification of the past. Our dream is not the realization of a future to come, as found, for instance in the prophecies of Micah. We were not seeking an improvement and advancement of the past even when the new future will be established by a supposed Messiah who will return us to the old ways. Can a people who do not have a dream of a future indeed have a future?

It took a rejection of this commitment to “the past,” when Theodor Herzl could say that we have the capabilities of creating a new Israel and declared his motto to be: “If you will it, it is no dream.” This idea was boldly inscribed on my classroom wall in the Zionist oriented school that I attended. With the advent of Zionism, we once again became b’aal hachalomoth, the people of dreams, a people with a new vision of Jewish life with a future, and a people who could achieve that dream. We dreamed of building a new land, a new society not yet seen by the world, one committed to social justice and to chayim, to a quality of life for all people. It was a shame that for 2,000 years we committed ourselves to the tragedies of the past.

We have had enough of martyrdom. We need a commitment to beliefs that glorify the future of a people who believe in the social philosophy of the Torah and the universal peace advocated by Micah.

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