One of the great dangers in life, both national and personal, is looking backwards and dwelling upon what could have been, had we but chosen to behave and choose otherwise. There is much to be said for knowing history and appreciating the past. Yet the past, glorious and correct as we may wish to make it in our memory, is simply no longer here and many times it is no longer relevant to the issues and challenges that we currently face.
I have studied Jewish history, as well as world and American history for most of my life. The one lesson that I think that I have learned from all of these decades of study and reading is that there is much to be learned from the past but that the past is never the present.
The Jewish people have hallowed the concept of tradition and past custom, and in many sectors of the Jewish world the past is more important than the present. The Talmud even goes so far as to say that in certain instances custom can override halacha. Perhaps, as with no other people, the Jewish past holds us in its grip and in many respects prevents us from dealing successfully with the current problems and challenges that face us.
Not only do we treasure our past, but we willingly recreate it and falsify it to meet current political correctness and beliefs. Additionally we fantasize it in order to avoid dealing differently with the current troublesome present. The complete fictionalizing in much of the Jewish Orthodox world today, of nineteenth and twentieth century Eastern European Jewish life, has had dire consequences for us today. We deal in what could have been rather then in what actually was.
Part of the problem lies in our inability to admit that mistakes might have been made in the past. In our devotion to Torah and its scholars and leaders, we have built a wall of infallibility and a false portrayal of unanimity of our leaders about the issues and events of the past two centuries.
The traditional Jewish community that comprised most of eastern and central Europe began to dissolve and fracture in the 1800s. The false prophets of Marxism and of the Left seduced much of the Jewish youth of the time. Zionism arose as an antidote to Marxism and ironically as a movement that assimilated much of the ideas of the left into its nation building ideology.
There were many great rabbinic leaders who endorsed and joined the Zionist idea or at least the idea of the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. On the other hand, there were many rabbinic leaders who opposed Zionism in all of its forms and counseled strongly against leaving the “old home” of Eastern and Central Europe. The opposition to emigration was not only applied to moving to the Land of Israel but perhaps even more vehemently to leaving for America.
No one saw the Holocaust on the horizon and the resulting annihilation of European Jewry at that time but there is no question that our Jewish world would have looked quite different today had mass emigration of Jews from Europe occurred, leaving either to the Land of Israel or to North America. I am of course writing from perfect hindsight. But I do so because of the fact that the past has been so falsified and deified, that it has become a detriment instead of an asset to us in our current struggles for survival and growth.
One thing the past should have taught us is that politics and religious beliefs do not and perhaps should never mix or become identical. I cannot believe in my heart of hearts that voting for one political party over another is a fundamental matter of Jewish faith. The political battles of the religious and secular sections of the Jewish people, and perhaps even more so the bitter political battles between various factions of the religious community itself that we witness today, are little more than the continuity of those struggles that took place over the past two centuries in Europe.
And the irony is that none of the combatants in today’s struggles seem to realize the déjà vu involved in their current political and ideological disputes. One would think that the Jewish left would have been cured of Marxism by the experience of the Soviet Union. One could also think that the events of the Holocaust and of the enormous success of the state of Israel would cause many in the religious world to rethink their view of the state and its place in Jewish life.
owever, since many of us are always more concerned with what could have been than in what really was, this is pretty much a forlorn hope. Nevertheless, we should be wise and truthful about our past, practical about our present, and optimistic about our future.