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Rabbi Streiffer


Antisemitism is Not A Good Enough Reason to be Jewish

(But It’s Really Important to Talk About Anyway!)


Emil Fackenheim may have been one of the most creative Jewish thinkers of our time. He was a German Reform rabbi who was arrested on Kristallnacht and survived Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, before making his way to Canada and serving as a professor at the University of Toronto.


One of Fackenheim’s most important contributions to Jewish thought was the idea he termed the 614th Commandment: “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that in the post-Holocaust world, it is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure Jewish continuance.


This is a powerful notion, and an empowering one, because it says that even though some others might hate us - indeed, perhaps because some others hate us – we will survive and thrive nonetheless. And truly, for better and for worse, antisemitism does sit quite centrally in our Jewish identity. Organizations like CIJA and the ADL spend a lot of time focused on them. (More as we see a rise in antisemitic voices and incidents around us.) In Toronto, we have a Federation agency and a week of our year dedicated to Holocaust education. Israel’s society and psyche have been shaped by the trauma of the Holocaust in very deep ways. We even half-jokingly summarize our holidays in terms of antisemitism: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”


As a minority people, we have been shaped by the experience of persecution. With a few exceptions (several of them, fortunately, existing today), Jews have been oppressed outsiders for much of our history. Though no one would ever choose this, it has served us in a few ways: it has built a unique sense of cohesiveness and peoplehood; it has shaped our commitment to social justice and Tikkun Olam. It is fair to say that Judaism would not be what it is today if we had a different history.


That being said, antisemitism in itself is not a strong foundation on which to build a Jewish future, especially for a younger generation that lives largely in freedom and is 70 years removed from the Shoah. Jews today (like Jews in every age) are seeking positive, joyful connections to their Judaism, through community, learning, spirituality, ritual, and social action. This – far more than either fear about assimilation or a sense of responsibility to past generations – can be passed on from generation to generation. As Rabbi Mark Gellman put it bluntly in Newsweek in 2005: “I am Jewish… because I believe Judaism is loving, just, joyous, hopeful and true. I am not Jewish, and I did not teach my children or my students to be Jewish, just to spite Hitler.”


Thus, in 2019 we have two parallel responsibilities:


  • To continue to talk about antisemitism, to understand its origins and combat its adherents, for the good of our people all over the world.
  • To continue to fashion a Judaism that is not a response to antisemitism – one that is hopeful, joyful, meaningful, and forward-looking – for the good of ourselves and future generations.

This year, our Bernstein Family Scholar in Residence is Professor Kalman Weiser of York University. Dr. Weiser will teach us on the topic of “Antisemitism: Then and Now.” Please see below in the Voice for more details, and please consider joining us the weekend of May 24-25 for talks Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening.


We are deeply thankful to Dawn and Barry Bernstein for their generosity in bringing this important learning program to Kol Ami for over ten years.


I look forward to a weekend of learning on an important and fascinating topic.


Bivracha – In Blessing,


Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Sun, February 5 2023 14 Sh'vat 5783