Is Jewish survival proof of God?
Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with rabbis tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.
It feels like an untouchable idea: that God, whom no one can see or prove, is the reason the Jewish people have endured, despite centuries of persecution. If God indeed had the power to ensure our survival, why wasn’t that power sufficient to stop the persecution in the first place, or at least rescue Jews from their slaughters sooner?
But what if it’s God’s force within us — not so much God’s orchestration of events but a kind of inner fortitude inspired by God — that enabled Jewish survival against all odds. That was the narrative posited by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, spiritual leader of a huge Chabad congregation in Surfside, Fla., known simply as The Shul.
I sought Lipskar out for this project, Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God, for a number of reasons. He’s Haredi, with a deep, devoted following among the thousands who belong to The Shul, which he founded in 1981. He spent his earliest childhood in a German Displaced Persons camp. And he was one of the first high-profile rabbis in the United States to be hospitalized with Covid-19, and went public about the diagnosis when others chose not to.
Lipskar, who is 74, recounts the litany of history’s attempts to wipe us out — from the Babylonians to the Crusades to the pogroms in Europe and the Holocaust. The list is long and the upshot hard to ignore: so many other cultures and religions folded, but not the Jewish people.
Is that a miracle or something else at work?
‘There’s something that drives us’
Sholom Lipskar: There should be none of us left, and yet we are here. And not only are we here, but we somehow rose to the top of the pinnacle. In finance politics, diplomacy, law, and medicine, we’re at the top — just one generation away from the Holocaust.
You know, I’m not trying to diminish anything that’s going on with other groups in America, but we never had affirmative action. Nobody ever gave us a chance.
We came out of the Holocaust losing a third of us. I lived in a DP camp for the first four years of my life — from the time I was born, 1946, until 1950, because no other country would receive us. The Nazis had taken away our homes, we lost multiple members of our family. But nobody opened up their doors and said, ‘We have to have a bell curve here because the Jewish people were just destroyed —a third of them — so open up Yale or Harvard.’ Nothing like that ever happened.
Abigail Pogrebin: You’re saying that despite centuries of persecution, Jews have not only survived, but succeeded — even without society’s help?
SL: Yes. And how do you explain that? What is that? There’s something about that which speaks to the existence of a very powerful force. It says that there’s something that drives us. And what is the most common element?
AP: God or some divine strength?
SL: Look at Jewish history from the beginning of time: in every instance we were persecuted. Harassed. There was an Inquisition. We were thrown out of countries. We had to find places to go.
You know there’s a joke — “How come Jews are such great violinists? Because it’s an instrument that you can carry with you.” The Jews were always packed, ready to go. So many generations. We Jewish people should have been given a chance somewhere, somehow. But we were never given an opportunity. We had to start from the bottom.
AP: And you believe that there’s some divine energy that allowed the Jewish people to push through?
SL: My parents came from Europe and my father worked three jobs to make a living. One was taking chickens to the kosher slaughterer. He did it in order to feed us and to send us to a Jewish school. My mother worked behind the counter in a bake shop just to make a few dollars so that we would have a better life.
What drives that? It’s not just the social environment. There’s a drivenness that comes from some divine origin that’s part of our existence. That’s the reality, and history tells you that story, confirms that reality. To deny that is just to be looking for some kind of excuses.
‘To accept God is to accept authority’
AP: So if this divine force is inside the Jewish people by birth, how do you explain the number who don’t — or choose not to — believe in God?
SL: You know, a very famous child psychiatrist at Harvard said that all children start out believing in God, every child. But when we grow up, we stop believing — not because we suddenly have intellectual questions, but because of behavioral patterns.
To accept God is to accept authority and a way of life. And because we don’t want to have those kinds of restrictions — keeping kosher or keeping the Sabbath or other restrictions — maybe our minds get in the way of our hearts and our souls. It’s not that a person came to some kind of intellectual conclusion that it’s hard to believe in God. The person came to a behavioral pattern that makes it easier for them to reject that kind of authority.
AP: I can hear the skeptics saying that they don’t embrace Jewish behavior because they don’t feel a connection to God or Judaism.
SL: Unfortunately, that’s because most of American Jewish society was not raised Jewish. They were raised like non-Jews. They just have this smattering of Jewish culture.
Having a Bar Mitzvah was just an event in their life. They didn’t have any kind of commitment to it, no element of Jewish thinking. They live like non-Jews, eat like non-Jews, dress like non-Jews. That’s why there’s a high number of assimilation that continues to rise. So you’re dealing with a community that has lost any conscious touch with their Jewishness.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: And you’re positing that if one follows the restrictions of Jewish law and submits to the authority of God, faith will follow?
SL: The key here is not your intellectual or emotional understanding of God; that comes after the fact. The key is your behavioral pattern, and we know today that the most powerful level of impact on a human being is behavior.
AP: In other words, first you act, then you feel.
SL: The world should not be based on emotion and intellect; the world is based on what you do.
AP: I can hear those who will say that your prescription for divine connection rejects the rational.
SL: Look at the Ten Commandments. Why is “Do not murder” part of the Ten Commandments? Any human being who has any sense of decency or morality knows that you’re not supposed to murder.
But rationality is not good enough. Because in our own generation we know that the Nazis were the most rational nation of the world. They had Kant, Feuerbach and Hegel — the most sophisticated philosophers and thinkers. They developed the most extraordinary machines. They were at the top of the game when it came to their intellect. They rationalized the extinction, the murder of about 7 million Jews and other peoples — including 1 million children. So the Ten Commandments says don’t rely on your rationality alone. You have to subject yourself to a higher authority.
‘Whether in prison or in a penthouse’
AP: So as we do the work of Elul — the month when we’re supposed to prepare for atonement and judgment — how should we think about how much we control versus God?
SL: From a Hasidic point of view, we have no controls over almost every aspect of our life — whether you’re going to be born male or female, black or white, beautiful or hideous, bright or not, born to a wealthy family or to a poverty-stricken one. Divine providence put you there.
The only control you have is how you behave at that moment: whether you will do right or wrong. And in order to determine right and wrong, you need an objective standard. The objective standard that we have found to be the safest is the word of God, which we believe to be the Torah.
Whether in prison or in a penthouse, there is a right and wrong in everything we do. That’s the difference between what is predetermined and what is directed by God.
AP: Can you give a practical example of where you saw both divine providence and then your own free choice in response?
SL: I was the first Covid patient at University of Miami hospital on March 15th. It had not hit the United States yet with any vengeance. And I was standing in the hospital with high-level physicians — people I respect and continue to respect, they were all dressed in masks talking to each other, not even knowing what to say.
And the thing that concerned me most was not the fact that I had this virus — I have faith, so whatever happened, happened. What concerned me was the fact that the doctors knew less than I did. And I said to them, “You know something, gentlemen, you’re all scientists, but there is one area — something else that is operating in the universe that is beyond us.”
‘I know that there’s a reason I stayed alive’
AP: You went public with your diagnosis at a time when many people were worried about the stigma and might have made a different choice.
SL: I got my results March 15. Up until that point, everybody was moving through their routines like nothing was happening. I decided to put out an email to my entire community, thousands of people, saying that I have Covid, it’s very serious, and we would like everybody to quarantine.
And the entire community went into quarantine at that moment. And thank God nobody was afflicted in our community at that time. So people were saying, “You know, Rabbi, you saved the community.” I don’t accept that kind of credit, but there was a reason that I got it and not somebody else in the community. Because if anybody else would have gotten it, it would not have impacted the community in the same way, and they would not have listened in the same way.
I lost many dear friends to this pandemic. At the same time, I know that there’s a reason that I stayed alive.
AP: So are you comfortable saying that God had some role in this pandemic?
SL: There’s no question that HaShem has a role in everything.
It’s happened three times in history that the entire world stopped. Even during the World Wars, the entire world didn’t stop — not in America, New Zealand, Central China, Siberia. But during this pandemic, the entire world stopped. It stopped only twice before — the first during the flood with Noah, the second during Revelation [when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai]. The third time is right now. And each time that the world stopped, there was a reset button.
It’s time to reconsider our priorities, our lifestyle. The world had been moving in a maelstrom, a downward structure, in a very significant way, even though this was the most modern, technologically advanced society. It’s a moment when God says, “Why don’t you take some time to reconsider your life? See how you live with yourself. Who are you?”
Because outside there’s so many diversions. When we feel bad, we go shopping, have dinner with friends and we party a little bit and we get lost.
You know, before the pandemic, the darkest moments here in South Florida were early in the morning, in South Beach, when suddenly the lights went off in the bars at 3 o’clock in the morning, and everybody had to leave this topsy-turvy, dancing, frivolous, no-limits kind of space where everybody was laughing and jumping, and go home. And there was a certain loneliness, waiting for the next moment when it opened up again.
So suddenly HaShem says, “It’s not opening up for a while.” You’ve got to spend some time with yourself and figure it out. And know: what’s your value in this world? Are you making a difference? Are you only here to take from the universe what it has to offer, or are you also here to make the place a better place, a holier, happier, more constructive place?
So all of this is, in my opinion, the silver lining in the dark cloud. It gives us an opportunity to go to the next level. And as we know, the darkest moments are just before daybreak.
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter @apogrebin. Sholom Lipskar is the spiritual leader and founder of The Shul in Surfside, Fla. Find him on Twitter @RabbiLipskar.
Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.