Religions may explode in human history—Christianity conquering Rome in scarcely 300 years, Islam the Mediterranean basin in scarcely a century. But they die only here and there, only now and then, and renew themselves in times and circumstances none can predict. God has a good sense of humor and a still better understanding of ourselves than we can hope to have. Spending last Purim (March 22) in Prague gave me good reason to think about what happens when a religion dies, as Judaism has died or is dying, not for demographic but for religious reasons, in Prague and in most of continental Europe, including all of Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Low Countries—everywhere except for Britain and France.
Who killed continental Judaism? Hitler did much of the work, Stalin finished the job (with—among many others—his willing Jewish-communist collaborators). Judaism flourishes in many forms and in many places, but one of the enduring legacies of Nazism and communism is the utter death of Judaism in most of continental Europe. Apart from France and Britain—the one community rebuilt after the Algerian conflict by French-speaking, highly educated, Jews from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco; the other untouched by Hitler or Stalin—no Jewish community in continental Europe preserves and practices Judaism in a manner appropriate to that religion’s teachings. Having lectured under university and Jewish auspices from Madrid to Helsinki, Rome to Stockholm, Utrecht and Antwerp to Prague, and everywhere in between, I know whereof I speak.
What makes me wonder whether the religion, Judaism, finds practitioners in the lands occupied by the Germans in World War II and especially in the lands ruined by the Russians afterward? Take three norms of the faith. First comes hospitality to strangers, which the Talmud values in the tradition of Abraham and the angels. Second comes study of the Torah, which according to the tractate of the Mishnah called “the Fathers” man is created to do. Third comes prayer and respect for the act of prayer; in many synagogues “know before whom you stand” is written above the ark containing the Torah-scrolls.
The ferocious inhospitality of continental European synagogues (again: except the British and the French, and in some places, Stockholm and Berlin for instance) is famous in the Jewish world. Everybody knows the story. It is not the necessity of armed guards to protect the worshipers from Arab bullets and bombs, but the incapacity of local Jews even to greet new faces in attendance. Continental European Jews serve large helpings of cold shoulder. Whether in Frankfurt or in Berlin or Prague or Madrid or Helsinki, neither clergy nor laity greets strangers in any way, except with scowls and turned backs.
What about Torah study? Not marked by learning or interest, continental Jewry is wholly unable to participate in the study of the sacred books, exhibiting a complete indifference to the academic presentation of these books for a world of cultured people. One cannot point to a single intellectually distinguished rabbi in all of continental Europe (with the repeated exceptions), and most of the scholarship on Judaism that is published comes from Gentiles, Europe is populated by Chief Rabbis, not one of whom (outside of Britain or France) enjoys moral authority or even pretends to the dignity of learning. All of them impress by their ferocious condemnation of everyone beyond their range of vision and uncomprehending rejection of any idea they did not invent, of which, in fact, there is none.
I state very simply that the rabbinate of continental Europe is the first large rabbinate in the history of Judaism that utterly lacks learning, except perhaps in the technicalities of worship and the slaughter of chickens. As for hospitality, I know from personal experience: when I attended the World Congress of Families organized by The Rockford Institute in Prague last March, and my wife and I wanted to attend the Purim worship at the principal synagogue there, we were turned away at the door; foreigners are not wanted. We could not perform our religious obligation of hearing the scroll of Esther read; we were Americans and therefore excluded. We could go to the second floor, in the same community center, where an American Conservative rabbi explained the scroll of Esther but was not allowed by the local rabbi (a convert to Judaism) to read it from start to finish. This would not fulfill our religious duty.
But the conduct of people at worship speaks eloquently about the state of their faith in prayer, and it suffices to say, from the evidence of how they behaved, that they believe nothing. Some examples: in Madrid, on a Sabbath morning, when my family attended the public proclamation of the Torah-lection for the Sabbath, people surrounding the lectern engaged in conversations throughout the scriptural lesson, except for those engaged in reading the morning papers. In Abo, Finland, the week after Passover some years back, the Orthodox synagogue there decided not to take the sacred scrolls out of the ark and read them, the responsible person being too tired to bother to learn the passage; but it is principally to hear the Torah declaimed that one bears the obligation of attending public worship at all. Everything else is a detail. In Prague on the festival of Purim, people attending the public reading of the scroll of Esther simply walked out in the middle of the reading, leaving not in ones and twos but in fives and tens, exiting from a small room the only way they could, which was to walk within three feet of the rabbi as he read from the scroll. So far as I could tell, they were not even embarrassed.
There is not a single Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative synagogue in the State of Israel where such conduct would be tolerated, nor in Britain, nor at least for Reform and Conservative Judaisms in the United States and Canada. Here the Rabbinate enjoys sufficient respect to establish order, and except for some rather degraded Orthodox synagogues that lack all self-respect and decorum, the behavior commonplace in European synagogues at the hour of prayer is simply astounding. It is repulsive and anti-Judaic.
Where do people learn such incivility? It stems from what they have never seen, which is piety in practice. To this they are tone-deaf and utterly dumb. I recall seeing similar behavior in Providence, Rhode Island, some years ago; guests at a bar mitzvah turning the entire worship service of a Reform Temple into a photo opportunity, walking up and down the aisles, greeting one another and taking photographs through the service, standing along the sides and on chairs for better shots, and, in all, behaving like barbarians. At the time I asked myself, “Where did these people, so totally indifferent to the circumstance of addressing God, come from?” The answer was, they all came from Russia. These were among the earliest Russian Jews to come to the United States; they simply had never attended a synagogue before. They did not know what happens there, and they did not believe anything does. They did not know how to behave properly, and they did not observe the conduct of others.
In Prague, too, the Jews I observed at the service I attended simply had no idea of what was going on, though matters were presented deftly and charmingly by an American rabbi of enormous gifts, Arnold Turetsky of White Plains. A man sitting next to me looked simply out of place and miserable. I got him a copy of the scroll of Esther in Hebrew, showed him the spot, with no response; then I did the same (as best I could) in Czech translation, still nothing. He glanced at neither. He just sat there looking uncomfortable, until he left in the first of several mass exoduses. I wondered why he came only to walk out without participating. When I asked the rabbi to explain the mentality that animates that kind of behavior, he had no answer; it is something he had never seen in White Plains. I asked the synagogue president, an American in law practice in Prague, what he thought; he had no answer.
But I think I know the answer. Nazi Germany destroyed lives, Soviet communism destroyed souls. The Germans before and during World War II destroyed millions of lives. The greatest body of faithful Jews in the world died in the holocaust. The massive system of schools, with their teachers and students, mainly perished (a few were able to escape and reconstruct themselves in the United States or in Israel). The thousands of synagogues, with their millions of worshipers for Sabbaths and festivals and weekdays, were destroyed by the Germans or closed by the Russians. The communists destroyed the souls of the survivors within their power. The survivors who could escape in the main turned their backs on Europe, finding refuge and hope in Israel, America, and elsewhere.
Those who survived in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and other parts of the Soviet Empire found themselves cut off from the religion, Judaism. Not only have they endured three generations of atheist teaching, but 70 years of isolation from the practice of Judaism. They had few synagogues, and attending worship could cost a career or worse; they had no schools; they lost such models of piety and faith as had survived the Bolshevik catastrophe. A Jewish community that does not educate its own rabbis cannot endure—and should not.
When a revival of Jewish life began in the 1970’s, it took the form of the study of the Hebrew language and the affirmation of Zionism: “Free Soviet Jewry” meant “Let them go.” But the religion, Judaism, cannot speak through slogans or be realized through political action. We who practice Judaism—study the Torah, say our prayers, keep the Commandments—do not attend rallies and sign petitions; we offer prayers and petition God. Judaism—which calls itself the Torah—speaks of matters other than the political and the ethnic. It talks of God wanting our love and His giving of the Torah to purify our hearts. It speaks of a holy people, a pilgrim people, making their way through time to God’s planned destiny for them. It demands a way of life that sanctifies the everyday, a worldview that endows happenstance with meaning and event with the promise of salvation. Of none of this did Jews under communism know. And now, so it appears, it is too late to learn; the great chain of tradition is broken. Where the tradition flourishes—in Britain, France, the United States, and Israel—the orphans of communism can observe and find a place for themselves. But in places like Prague, prayer without soul and learning without commitment yield a farce, a charade, an offense against Heaven. God is not fooled.