The Miracle of Modern Jewish Experience (COMMENTARY MAGAZINE) Matthew Ackerman 04/04/12)
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News about the Jews these days is dominated (for good reason) by
negatives. Their homeland is threatened by an Islamist regime in Iran
that openly seeks its destruction while rushing to acquire the means
to do the job. Meanwhile, their other great population center in the
United States slowly withers, lacking the confidence or will to do
much about it.
Yet it’s worth taking a step back to wonder at the many miracles of
contemporary Jewish life. A video posted recently by Warren
Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, is an opportunity to do
Goldstein begins the video by quoting Yaakov Emden, an 18th century
German rabbi, who wrote in a siddur he published that he considered
the simple existence of the Jewish people in his own day a greater
miracle than all those performed by God in the Exodus from Egypt.
Why? Because the continued survival of a people thousands of years
following its dispersion from its homeland and persecuted across the
globe was a historical fact without precedent.
Emden lived in the period of the aftermath of the rise and fall of
Shabbetai Tzvi, who for a brief period in the 17th century was
hailed – likely by a majority of the world’s Jews – as the messiah.
His ultimate forced conversion to Islam forced most of his many
followers to reassess his significance, the entire episode
representing perhaps the greatest collective spiritual crisis in
Jewish history. The affair rose not long after (and was likely, as
drawn immortally in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel Satan in
Goray, influenced by) the Chmielnicki Massacre, a series of pogroms
accompanying a nationalist uprising in the Ukraine that killed as
many as 100,000 Jews and that stood, for 300 years, as the greatest
collective murder of Jews in Europe.
Emden, in other words, had immediate reasons for feeling satisfied
solely by continued Jewish survival.
As Goldstein notes, we today have our own reasons and many more of
them. We are the generation that has merited to see the Jewish state
reborn in the Land of Israel, and to watch it flourish culturally,
economically, and scientifically in ways past counting. So too in an
extraordinarily short period of time have we witnessed the explosive
rebirth of a world of traditional Jewish learning decimated by the
Many Jews, especially those of the United States, may be put off by
an Orthodox feel to the video. That quibble though shouldn’t rightly
dissuade anyone from enjoying the video’s celebration of a Jewish era
whose heights match any other.
For all the problems, the world today is witness to a perhaps
unprecedented flourishing of one of its most ancient peoples. The
festival of their original redemption should serve as an inspiration
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