Dear Rabbi Fried,
In the June 14 edition of the TJP, there appeared a dispute concerning the commencement speech by Jewish author Michael Chabon to graduates of the HUC in May, where he railed against in-marriage, calling it a “ghetto of two,” and urged the graduates to embrace intermarriage as an ideal. One article called his views abhorrent to Judaism and the respondent, although not against in-marriage like Chabon, was also not against intermarriage and called for its inclusion as a viable expression of Judaism. Obviously, I would expect you, as an Orthodox rabbi, to not welcome intermarriage as does Chabon, but is there a middle ground that you can accept within this debate?
You struck a nerve with me on this one, as I have been profoundly pained by this discussion.
This, unfortunately, is not the first time in our history that Jews have suggested that the path to solve our problems would be to assimilate, essentially to disappear. It is, however the first time that such an opinion has been expressed under the banner of a mainstream movement of Judaism (at their graduation ceremony, without a condemnation by that movement but rather a defense that those views are worthy of being expressed at that hallowed forum).
Over the course of Jewish history, we have had two categories of those who would seek to annihilate our people. There have been those who attempted to destroy us physically and others who attempted to destroy us by erasing our spirituality and have us melt into their culture and cease to exist.
Our patriarch Jacob, fearful of the threat of his brother, Esau, who sought to kill him, prayed, “Save me from the hand of my brother, of Esau…” (Genesis 32:11). The commentators raise the question of the redundancy of adding “of Esau”; since Jacob had only one brother, obviously “my brother” meant Esau?
The answer is, Jacob was fearful of two dangers. The obvious peril was Esau’s plot to kill him outright. The more subtle danger, although no less sinister, was that he would seek to be together with Jacob as a loving brother, with all his wickedness, in order to water down Jacob’s holiness and slowly but surely assimilate his brother into his own camp, rendering him a spiritual non-entity. This is the meaning of Esau’s offer to “…let us travel together and I will travel adjacent to you” (ibid. 33:13). Jacob explained how that would not work and said he’d meet up with him at Mount Seir, hinting to their final showdown before Messianic times (see Rashi loc. cit. and Beis Haleivi, Parashas Vayishlach, for overall explanation).
Haman was one of the first to propose a physical “final solution” and kill every Jewish man, woman and child in one day. We celebrate his defeat in a physical way, by eating and drinking on Purim. The Greeks sought to destroy us spiritually with their decrees against Torah and its observance, forced intermarriage and rendering the holy Temple a museum. We celebrate our victory against that attempt in a spiritual way, by kindling candles on Chanukah.
The first proponent to annihilate us is not so well-known, Laban, who sought to kill Jacob and his camp, as we read each year in the Haggadah of Passover. Later Laban, with the nom de guerre of Balaam, sought to destroy us by curse, a spiritual way to wield the sword. When that didn’t work, he finally attempted to destroy them by enticing them with assimilation, sending the Moabite women to seduce the Jewish men. This caused a plague that cost us 24,000 Jews and could have even meant our end if not for Pinchas saving the day and putting an end to the plague caused that assimilation.
Chabon rallied for the cessation of all Jewish practice besides what he deems relevant in today’s world, namely thought processes related to critical thinking such as “learning, inquiry and skepticism.” In his world, any practices other than these create dangerous walls between us and the nations and prevent the assimilation of all peoples into one mass of humanity with no differences.
In fact, it is precisely that “ghetto of two” that preserves our identity, our holiness and our essence. Marriage is called Kiddushin, which means holiness and separateness, which are two sides of the same coin. This is the very essence of the Jewish people, who were commanded “kedoshim tihiyu,” be a holy, separate nation (Leviticus 19:2).
As we approach Tisha B’Av, we lament the many attempts at our destruction. The famous story tells of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues on Mount Scopus who burst our crying when they observed a fox exiting what was the Holy of Holies in the Temple after its destruction (Talmud, end of Tr. Makos). The fox, of all animals, epitomizes the utter obliteration of the Temple, as the fox represents the sly, sneaky attempt to wipe out the study of Torah and end the spiritual world of the Jews (see the story of Papus and R’ Akiva, Talmud Berachos 61b). That is why Balaam, on his way to curse the Jews, was caught in a mishol hakeramim, literally a tight place in an orchard, but hinting to a place of foxes attempting to destroy the Jews who are compared to a vineyard (see Midrash Rabah Balak 20:14 and Tanchuma Balak 8 to Numbers 22:24).
Chabon and those in his camp join the foxes — the Esaus, the Greeks and many others in our history who sought to destroy us through assimilation. We have to realize that the Chabons of the world mean nothing less than the annihilation of our people. This, today, is a lot of what Tisha B’Av is about; when we sit on the floor and mourn the destruction of our Temple, we mourn the assimilation of our people.
With the utmost respect to our neighbors with whom we work, befriend and appreciate, we only ensure our Jewish continuity by retaining our separation through the practices and beliefs which truly and eternally make us different.
Dear Rabbi Fried,