The Jewish Mission: We Are Witnesses

The Hours

By Leonard Fein

Published March 03, 2010, issue of March 12, 2010.
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With some hesitation, I confess: I am growing tired of tikkun olam.

Oh no, I do not mean I am growing tired of efforts to mend the world’s many fractures. It is the words themselves, and not the associated actions, that have become altogether too common, too easy and, to be blunt about it, too vague. For under the heading of healers we can place the neurosurgeon and the novelist, the community organizer and the honest broker and the devoted teacher, the benefactor of the arts and the heritage farmer, the caring bartender and the FBI agent.

When a term lacks all specificity, it is rendered meaningless. Plus: Altogether too many American Jews believe that when they endorse tikkun olam, they have made a complete statement of Judaism’s message.

Judaism — or, if you prefer, Jewishness — has multiple messages. How could it not, after all these years and all the places we’ve been, all the cultures we’ve observed and here and there internalized?

Here is one such message: The Jews are the tribe that “discovered” the universal God. The core Christian indictment of the Jews was that we refused to follow our astonishing insight to its logical conclusion — to wit, to become universal ourselves. Our stance was, and in large part remains, “You can have our God, but you cannot have us. There is an urgency to the tribe and its boundaries.”

I’ve written that before, and left it there. But lately I have been wondering about the content of the urgency. It cannot be merely that the tribe offers a cuddling propinquity that comes as an antidote to the inherent instability of modern life, that Judaism is home and that Jews are family. That is so, but to stop there is to present a Judaism that is essentially a sociological/psychological category, and that feels too empty.

I recognize the hazards of imputing a mission to the Jews. From mission one can move all too easily to election, and “election” is a theological construct that lies outside all evidence-based analysis.

So here is a bit of content to try on: The Jews are the quintessential witness. By virtue of our longevity, by virtue of our classic marginality, by virtue of the need for self-preservation, we have been precocious observers of our typically multiple worlds, witnesses to grandeur, to folly, to evil, to redemption. Our task is to speak out, to tell what we have seen, to say what we know.

I mean witness still more comprehensively. I mean witness as the bringer of honest testimony.

That is not a particularly pleasant undertaking. Those against whom we testify are bound to resent us. We risk being dismissed as professional witnesses, and therefore must repeatedly explain that we do not testify in expectation of reward. Though we may long to be insiders, we confirm our outsiderness every time we tell the truth, the more so when we tell, as we must, the whole truth.

Truth? How to speak of truth in an age when narratives are all the rage, when the sincerity of the teller has priority over the truth, always a fugitive?

The jury will decide. Ours is to tell of the journey from slavery to freedom and all that follows therefrom, to report on victimhood and all that precedes and enables it, ours is to speak truth to power and to be chroniclers of injustice. We will bear witness against our own shortcomings, sins, transgression, betrayals; in this drama there is no Fifth Amendment, no right to escape self-incrimination. Self-serving truth is not permitted.

And we will be admired for none of it. We will not only be resented, we will be disbelieved. How can the witness who is both immensely successful by every modern standard and, at the same time, inescapably the victim, be taken seriously? What costume shall we wear to the witness stand, how do we establish our credibility? And how can we avoid going blind, we who are not allowed to blink, to turn away from what is happening?

We mastered commerce. We mastered law, we mastered medicine, we mastered physics, we mastered psychology, we mastered everything verbal, but oh, the chimneys, symbol of our victimhood, object of envy in an age when victimhood is taken as evidence of virtue. So let us be clear: None of this is about virtue. Not the mountaintop nor the Kingdom of Night. It is about the knowledge we have acquired by being both within and outside, by living in the interstices and learning there to keep our balance.

Pity the Jews who seek unambiguous insiderness. Pity the Jews who hide in the enclave, pity the Jews who hide in the city. Pity the Jews who lust for power and wealth, pity the Jews who wallow in penury and powerlessness. Pity the Jews who want to forget that exile is not a place but a condition, the human condition. Pity the Jews who have ears but refuse to listen, who have eyes but will not look. Weep for the Jews who look and listen but who will not speak out, speak up.

There never was a “wandering Jew.” Wandering is rootless and aimless. We have roots, we have aims. We are purposeful. Among our purposes: To testify, to bear witness.


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