Friday, June 23, 2006

Is it Good For the Jews?

For 21st century Jews, the question seems old fashioned, a vestige of the era of Yiddish and chicken shmaltz. However, on occasion, this question slips through our minds: “is it good for the Jews?”

I understand why we think these narrow-minded thoughts. As Jews, we have spent the last 2,000 years focusing on survival. Years of persecution have taught Jews to be sensitive to changes in the political environment. Survival often depended on figuring out if a news story was “good for the Jews”.

Yet this question, so critical to one generation of Jews, appears absurd to a generation of Jews raised in a secure milieu. This question now seems funny, good material for borscht belt comedians. For Canadian Jews, news is not a life and death affair.

Unfortunately, an enduring byproduct of this question is narcissism. Compulsively worrying whether or not everything is “good for the Jews” means you stop worrying about what is good for the world. While we no longer fear for our survival, we have not outgrown a self centered focus on exclusively Jewish concerns.

That is why there is no shortage of “old fashioned” Jews, who may not worry if anything is good for the Jews, but are too cynical to worry if it’s good for the world. They mock Jews who worry about human rights. Helping outsiders is futile, na├»ve Jewish kindness that will simply be ignored. Their view is that Jews should worry about Jews, period.

It is critical to care both about oneself and the rest of the world. The famous Rabbi, Hillel, put it so well: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?”. Of course we must worry about survival. But what are we surviving for? To remain a ghettoized curiosity, cutoff from the world? God told Abraham that “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” If we ignore the world, we are ignoring Abraham’s legacy.

That is why I took a trip to Ottawa, with a group of March of the Living students, to talk to MP’s about the situation in Darfur. For the past three years, the Government of Sudan has been massacring tribes in the Darfur region. Between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes. Our group felt we just had to raise our voices in protest.

We went to Ottawa not just as Canadians, but as Jews. We went because we had just visited Auschwitz, and felt compelled by history to make our voices heard. We went because the Torah obligates us to love the stranger. We went because you cannot be a good Jew without caring about humanity.

We went, because if you think about it, human rights is “good for the Jews.”