The Seven Jewish Survival Skills

The Seven Jewish Survival Skills

HISN 155: Survive Jewish History I

  1. Divine Providence

Two things: first of all, this isn’t a “skill” per se, since it is not directly dependent on human choice, and second, it’s very difficult to discern exactly when and how it operates. This is an academic course, as therefore we tend to use the tools associated with scientific, rational thought: how can we reasonably discuss something of supernatural origin? Such an approach would be more appropriate in an explicitly religious setting like a Yeshiva, not an undergraduate college-level survey course. (Also, helpful reminder: your Guide to Survival (me) is not a Rabbi. I know, the beard and the kippah and everything, but not a Rabbi nevertheless, just a regular guy.)

As we shall see as we proceed through the course, however, Divine Providence is undeniably the most important element in Jewish survival. Think of it like oxygen—we are completely dependent on it, conscious or otherwise, but because it is ubiquitous we tend to forget about it altogether. It’s only when we go places where it’s not normally found—outer space, for example, or underwater—that we think to bring it with us. So too, when Jewish history gets to those frequent Existential Crises, there is inevitable an element of the unexplained, the fortuitous, the uncanny coincidence: our clean breath of fresh air once again.

What, exactly, is Divine Providence? The Hebrew term is hashgahah, and it comes in two well-known varieties: the most popular version is called hashgahah pratit (השגחה פרטית), which might be translated as “individual supervision.” Chances are, this is what you think of if you use the term hashgahah at all. This concept argues that G-d watches over every single human being (indeed, every creature in the universe) at every moment and exercises specific supervisory activities related to that person. On the other hand, there is another version of this concept, also well-supported by traditional Jewish thinkers, called hashgahah klalit (השגחה כללית) or “general supervision.” According to this approach, G-d exercises a more laissez-faire approach to Jewish history, supervising the overall destiny of the Jewish people—but not necessarily directing and shaping the lives of individual Jews. In other words, the Jewish people as a whole are promised survival—but not necessarily any specific community or individual.

Theologically, the Rabbis have generally been hesitant to argue for complete and utter reliance on Divine Providence alone in practical matters. There are notable examples of what me might want to call “blind faith,” like Psalms 55:23: “Cast your burdens on G-d, and G-d will support you; G-d will never turn away the righteous.” Perhaps because the will of G-d is fundamentally inscrutable, impenetrable to our puny human minds, the Rabbis have urged the counterbalance of hishtadlut (השטדלות), or “effort”—humans are required to put in their best effort to affect their personal status and improve their chances of survival, trusting in hashgahah for the parts that are out of their control. Consider for example the comment of Rashi on Deuteronomy: “You do your part, says G-d, and I will do the rest,” or the classic teaching of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “you are not required to finish the task—but neither are you free to desist from it.”

So, Survivors of Jewish History: when you engage in the assignments associated with the Existential Crises, I suggest you bear in mind the power of Divine Providence, but do not rely on it until you have exhausted all other avenues of conventional effort. Be conscious of the role that Divine Providence plays, and it is certainly inspirational when you point it out to the rest of us, but in general I would suggest you look to the next six Survival Skills for your first responses to the Existential Crises.

2. Scholarship and Creativity

Some scholars have characterized Jewish history as an alternating series of “books and pogroms, pogroms and books.” An over-simplification to be sure, but there’s something to be said for this pithy assessment (another popular one is “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”). On a more significant level, however, we should understand that a major part of Jewish survival may be attributed to having something worth surviving for.

Imagine, for example, that all left-handed people were brutally persecuted for nothing other than their failure to be right-handed. If you were a left-handed person, what would you do? Probably teach yourself as best as possible to use your right hand! There is nothing especially glorious or earth-shattering to do with left-handedness, nor would you be abandoning a population of shared goals, values and heritage were you to assimilate to the right-handed majority.

Not so with the Jewish people. Despite the periodic and often unimaginable persecution, they have nevertheless achieved incredible works of human creativity. Many of them are expressed in the gloriously heroic works of spirituality—including the Prophets, the Talmud, Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, to choose just a few examples—but there are also incredible works of art, contributions to science, landmarks in virtually every aspect of human endeavor.  Unlike the left-handed example, which is a mere physiological feature—the apparent accident of Jewish birth, or the intentional act of conversion to Judaism, effects a bond between the individual Jew and the larger scope of Jewish scholarly and creative contributions to world civilization. Each achievement separately represents a point of pride that lends meaning to Jewish existence, and bolsters efforts for Jewish solidarity and, ultimately, survival.

So, Survivors—use this strategy to create reasons for Jewish survival. And unlike the Survival Points, which will only get you past the current Existential Crises and into the next, Scholarly and Creative Contribution points, if awarded, retain their value throughout the course. You can use them to bail yourself out in the future, or even give them to others to help them survive.

3. Servant-Leadership and Inspired Followership

Throughout their millennial history, the Jewish people have been blessed with a large number of great leaders, distinguished not only by their brilliance and courage but even more so by a key characteristic of “Servant-Leadership.” These leaders have exemplified dedication to the larger community, often putting themselves in harm’s way rather than expose their charges to danger, like David, the young shepherd who would be king, defended his flock from the attack of a lion, or like Don Isaac Abravanel defending the Spanish Jews before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. In many cases these servant-leaders sacrificed themselves for the benefit of their followers, as Janusz Korczak accompanied his orphan charges to Treblinka rather than have them enter alone.

At the same time, no matter how heroic a leader may be, it takes followers to create a movement: visionary people who recognize the significance of the moment and choose to throw their lot in with the brave servant-leader who will identify the path forward. These inspired followers are, in a sense, leaders as well—the first person to choose to follow is also a leader. Consider the case of Nachshon ben Aminadav in the Midrash, who plunged into the waters of the Sea of Reeds before all the other Jews fleeing Pharaoah’s army in complete confidence that Moses’ leadership would win the day. He fearlessly demonstrated inspired followership, advancing into the waters until they reached his neck—and then split, allowing the Jewish people to reach safety.

Identifying the Servant-Leaders and Inspired Followers in a given Existential Crisis may be used to earn a Survival Point. Be sure to describe why you think they deserve that exalted nomination.

4. Communal Authority and Personal Autonomy

Stepping back from the individual level to the communal, there’s no question that one of the most important elements affecting Jewish survival was the composition, structure and power of the traditional Jewish community organization known as the kehilah. Invested with considerable authority, the kehilah acted to enforce community norms based on Talmudic law, ensuring support for the weaker elements of society. Recognizing the beneficial impact of this important communal institution, however, does not limit the fact that it could be forceful, even coercive, in maintaining group standards. Independent-minded individuals could chafe under its authority, and in fact in the modern period the kehilah was forced to adapt to a much more limited scope for various external and internal reasons.

On the other end of the spectrum, Personal Autonomy allowed individual Jews to identify paths to survival in areas outside the more invasive areas within the purview of the kehilah. Individual freedoms to pursue specific goals—for example, women managing businesses (even, in some rare cases, Rabbinical seminaries), or circles of enthusiasts focusing on mystical texts—prevented the kehilah from becoming a stale, desiccated institution with little growth or change.  At many points in Jewish history those arguing for greater Communal Authority came into conflict with others demanding Personal Autonomy, yet their symbiosis contributed to the overall vitality of Jewish civilization.

To earn Survival Points with this Skill, be sure to identify the important trends—whether in favor of Communal Authority, Personal Autonomy, or some combination—and articulate how they improved the chances of Jewish Survival.

5. Communal Solidarity and Altruistic Self-Sacrifice

The Jewish people often survived Existential Crises because of incredible levels of Communal Solidarity, when communities of Jews with little in common with each other would rise to the aid of their coreligionists. A great example of this is the outpouring of support and political activism in United States to force the late Soviet Union to relent in its persecution of the “refuseniks,” Jews who were sent to labor camps and otherwise abused because they had applied to leave the country (and were “refused”). “All Jews are connected to each other,” teaches the Talmud—demonstrations of communal solidarity are excellent ways to earn Survival points.

Some of that communal solidarity comes at a very personal price. I was just a young man during those heady days of anti-Soviet agitation, and I recall well how Rabbi Baruch Taub addressed his congregation with a very clear directive: every member of his community was to mortgage his or her home, if necessary, to provide significant monetary support to the cause. Jewish survival often happens because people go beyond simply showing up for the rallies: individual Jews will make huge, completely altruistic sacrifices to benefit other Jews they have never met.

Survival Points can be earned by identifying and analyzing aspects of Communal Solidarity and Altruistic Self-Sacrifice that contributed to Jewish survival. Note that while these behaviors are virtually proverbial, there are many sad examples when some Jewish communities failed to live up to these lofty standards—the many Jewish communities on Mediterranean shores, for example, that refused to take in refugees from the Spanish Expulsion. These Survival Skills should not be taken for granted.

6. Textual Commitment and Adaptive Innovation

As we discussed above in Jewish Survival Skill Number Two, the “books” part is pretty much as important as the “pogroms” part of Jewish history. In Survival Skill Number Four we looked at the tension that sometimes existed between Communal Authority and Personal Autonomy. In Survival Skill Number Six, we see these elements come together in terms of fidelity and innovation regarding traditional texts. The former is easy to understand: the Jews are known as “the people of the book,” and maintaining steadfast attachment to books and their interpretations is key to Jewish survival. At the same time, there are moments in Jewish history when innovation—often challenging the status quo—has resulted in brilliant creativity and positively advanced Jewish survival. Consider, for example, the explosion of spiritual activity in the northern Israel town of Safed (Tsfat) in the sixteenth century, or the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth century. From time to time textual innovators have been excoriated by more traditional elements in society (most infamously, opposition to Maimonides’ writings resulted in some public burnings, for example), until ironically—like Maimonides—their work is accepted as mainstream. On the other hand, it is impossible to deny that some “innovations” are hugely corrosive to the Jewish body politic, and have a massively negative impact on Jewish survival.

So tread carefully here when identifying Textual Commitment and Adaptive Innovation for Survival Points. It’s a double-edged sword; whatever challenges the status quo may result in danger to Jewish survival just as it promises to benefit the community.

7. Fight, Fee, or Flee (The Kenny Rogers Rule)

Well, the title says it all, but Kenny Rogers says it best.

You got to know when to hold ‘em—Jews need to know when to argue and fight.

Know when to fold ‘em—and when a situation is hopeless.

Know when to walk away—perceive when flight is the best option.

Know when to run.—now now now

You never count your winnings—Avoid ostentation.

While you’re sittin’ at the table—as long as you want to be part of society.

There’ll be time enough for countin’—One day you will enjoy peace and prosperity.

When the dealin’s done.—In the Messianic era, may it come speedily in our days.

2 thoughts on “The Seven Jewish Survival Skills

  1. I’m very excited about your New Experimental Jewish History Course. I’m hoping that Bridgette and I can study it together. I’m pleasantly surprised that throughout my life I’ve employed these seven survival skills at one time or another. You have always produced the best educational lectures on the internet and this is a perfect way to encourage your followers to become more involved. I’m sure that it will be a real blessing to your students and followers.

    Thank you,
    Norm

    1. I was pondering these ideas this morning and realized that there are cultures, religiously defined and otherwise, that use some or all of these strategies to survive. Other cultures may be dominant in one part of the world, and have been dominant for centuries, but when people of those cultures migrate, they blend in with their host culture over 2-4 generations. They may have cultural centers, but they’re not actively preserving their identity in resistance to the pressures of the world around them.

      Knowing what I know about the Sikhs, for example, shows that they preserve themselves as a minority cultural and religious community with the same strategies cited here. While they may appeal to Guru Nanak instead of Moses, their experience has many similarities.

      By contrast, the attempts of the Puritans to create a society with an identity in the Americas could not compete with the other ways of life that soon surrounded them. They had an identity, but it lost its distinctiveness over time. It is that second strategy, “For what purpose do we struggle to survive?” that seems to me to matter so much over time. If a culture or religious community has *that* to guide them, then it seems to me that they will collect the other six strategies in due course of time so that they can preserve their purpose.

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