In 1933, a letter was written by the Orthodox Jewish leadership in Germany. It was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The letter was a plea for safety and security, describing the terrible impact that the Nazi laws had caused the Jewish community, and the fear in which they lived. In pleading their case, the rabbinic leadership, the authors of this letter, attempted to find common ground with the ruling party, the Nazis:
“Marxist materialism,” they wrote, “and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition, as handed down through Orthodox teachings obligatory on the Jewish People. … We (too) have been at war against this religious attitude.”
They went on to say that they would accept restrictions and laws that would limit their autonomy and opportunities. What they wanted was clarity; are the Nazis truly intent on removing Jews from the land, in which case they would leave, or, are those just empty words, campaign slogans meant to curry votes that have no teeth to them, in which case they would happily reside in Germany as second-class citizens.
You could call the letter utterly naïve, or disgustingly reprehensible. With hindsight, our judgment is likely unfairly harsh. What I can say definitively is that this position of the Jewish leadership was an expression of what is called, a Golus (exile) mentality, or what I would call, a Golus complex.
Some may blame this way of thinking, their willingness to accept hateful rhetoric and discrimination, on two thousand years of exile. Living under Romans, and Christians, and Muslims, with no rights and regular pogroms, conditioned these leaders to think this way. But it goes back even further. Nachmanides, addressing the question of how it could be that the family of Yosef, the most powerful man in Egypt, how his family could become slaves, suggests that it was not an overnight transformation. Rather, the Egyptians first started describing the Jewish People as vermin. Then, without taking an official policy, the ruling class encouraged – with words – the populace to attack the Jews. Eventually, they introduced legislation that discriminated against the Jews. And then, they made them into slaves. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
What would have happened had the Jews stood up for themselves at that very first stage and said, we aren’t vermin, we’re human, just like you? What would have happened had they spoken up when the peasants were attacking them? What would have happened had they lobbied against the discriminatory laws?
What we do know is that the few words we find in the mouths of those Jews in Egypt are words of apathy, of indifference, of preferring the predictable life of a slave over the challenging life of a free person. When Moshe tries to rally the Jews to demand justice with his act of killing the Egyptian, they are apathetic to his cause and mock him (Rav Moshe Lichtenstein). When Moshe tries to secure their freedom, the Jews push back at every stage.
Our Golus complex goes back to before we were even a nation and it lives with us still.
How is this complex expressed?
Our Golus complex is expressed when we bicker over which form of anti-Semitism is worse, right-wing or left-wing, when no form of anti-Semitism should be acceptable to us.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we choose candidates based exclusively on their relationship with Israel or the Jews and nothing else, completely losing sight of our raison d’etre, of being a light unto others, forgetting that our survival is not an end to itself but a means for the betterment of the world.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we don’t allow for honest reporting of what goes on in our communities because we’re afraid of a shanda, of a scandal or embarrassment to the Jewish People.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we are so busy being defensive that we cannot extend ourselves to other “types” of Jews or to minorities who could use our support.
And like most pathologies, there are terrible inconsistencies.
On the one hand, we act like we are being endlessly persecuted, like we are complete strangers in this land, and at the very same time, we act like our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, and that there is no alternative to living in the USA.
On the one had we vote as if we are complete strangers in this land, and at the same time, we identify so deeply with our political party of choice that its leader becomes our prophet and its platform our creed. Yeshiva boys could quote Ben Shapiro but not Bava Basra, and Jewish Democrats would sooner criticize Moshe Rabbeinu than Barack Obama. Our political identity is such that rabbis are petrified to weigh in in any substantive way on the most pressing issues facing our nation because they’ll alienate people who put politics before faith. And when religious leaders do weigh in, after-the-fact, and make a little tiny peep, it’s heralded as heroic. That’s a golus mentality?!
On the one hand we pray to return to our land three times a day, and at the same time, we build beautiful, over-the-top houses, we live lavish lifestyles, we soak up the comforts of this country even when we can’t afford them because Western materialism is so much a part of our Jewish culture. (Don’t believe me? Read the ads in any Jewish publication, or just walk down the street.)
I sometimes wonder to myself – if the shofar of mashiach would blow right now, would we really be able to pull ourselves away from our homes and move to Israel? In a little two or three-bedroom apartment? Without a brand-new Honda Odyssey?!
If we’re going to have a Golus complex, let’s at least be consistent! Living with a packed suitcase, stop rooting for the home team – they’re not our team, and live like we’re in exile.
Now it’s very easy to diagnose a problem, it’s far more difficult to suggest a solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, but perhaps we can gain some inspiration from the very first golus (exile) and geulah (redemption):
If we go back to the very first Pesach seder, we would notice something very strange; it was celebrated while the Jews were still living in Egypt. Pretty amazing isn’t it? They were living in their slave barracks in the land of their oppression, but they were celebrating z’man cheiruseinu, a holiday of freedom.
Freedom, it would seem, is not a location, it’s a state of mind. And that night the Jews lived in a free state of mind. The message that G-d had conveyed to them through Moshe in this week’s parsha, finally penetrated:
“Hashem Elokei avoseichem nirah eilai, that G-d, the G-d of our forefather appeared to Moshe,” – that they were the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. And, “A’aleh es’chem mei’ani Mitzrayim… el eretz zavas chalav ud’vash, I will lift you up from Egypt and take you to a land flowing with milk and honey,” – that they had a future. (Shemos, 3:16-17)
That night they were reminded of their legacy; how Yaakov refused to make concessions or political partnerships with the likes of Eisav and Lavan despite leaving himself vulnerable in the process. How Yitzchak was willing to give up everything, even his life, for the sake of G-d. And how Avraham cared not only for his own family, but for all the families of the world.
That night they were reminded of the future; how they did not belong in Egypt, how they had a calling, how they were to set up their own country, with their own set of laws, and from Jerusalem, a light – a light of ethics and morality would one day shine.
That night they were free. That night they broke off the shackles of that terrible complex.
You could live your whole life bound in chains but unless you try to move around, you may not feel them. I feel like I’ve been moved around a lot this past year. I imagine we all feel like we’ve been moved and shaken quite a lot this year, and especially this past week. This past week, many in our community changed their view of our President. The president has been adored by many in our community, and not only adored but idolized (you know, from the word, idol). We can have an honest discussion and debate about who we should have voted for, I truly believe that. But the idolization of such a person?! That’s unacceptable. And this past week, that adulation has subsided, and people have finally acknowledged that dangerous words can have dangerous consequences. Watching the capital of the country stormed caused many of us to feel a deep sense of fear, especially as Jews, with even a limited knowledge of history. “Brave” op-eds and hushed whispers, acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, we were mistaken, maybe he wasn’t our savior.
So right now, we are all awake to the fact that we are in chains. We suffer, as a people, in one way or another from a Golus complex. The truth is, until that great shofar is blown, we will all be slaves, in Baltimore and even in Jerusalem. But the process of freedom can begin, even here and especially now. By reminding ourselves of our legacy, of our values, and not pandering to whomever will hate us less. By reminding ourselves of our calling and extending ourselves to our neighbors. May G-d bless America, may He watch over this wonderful country which has treated us so well, and may WE act in a way that brings blessing to the world.