The Same Old Egg Salad?


Who We Are and What We Should Do
By Rabbi Adin Steinstaltz
224 pages. Jossey-Bass. $24.95.

For a very different view of We Jews, click here.

The High Holiday season always brings back memories of egg salad. This was the mainstay of the repast laid out for us after services at the conservative suburban temple where I worshipped as a kid. I can't be sure of this, of course, but I think the recipe was four parts mayonnaise, one part egg, which would explain why its consistency was more like that WASP delicacy, ambrosia, than any Jewish dish I knew of.

The practice at the synagogue was for the rabbi to deliver his final and most important sermon of the High Holidays around half an hour before Yom Kippur ended. It would begin with the obligatory thanks to Herb Berman, the congregation’s treasurer for 20 years until someone asked how he could afford his BMW on a teacher’s salary, and then turn into a screed on the dangers of assimilation. Too many Jews were intermarrying, the rabbi said. No one came to Shabbat services anymore. We were doing more damage to ourselves than the Nazis.

And that's when I’d smell the egg salad. It was laid out in the adjoining room, a pungent sulphuric smell wafting over the partition just as we congregants reached the apogee of our hunger. I suppose for some egg salad aficionados in the audience the odor foretold of the delicacies yet to come, but for me the smell drove home the warmed-over staleness of the rabbi’s message.

I swear I could smell egg salad while reading this book. The Jews are on “the verge of death,” Steinsaltz warns. Our community has been torn apart by an unfettered individualism that has put the needs of the self before the good of the religion.  And so on, and so on—if you haven’t heard this before, you’ve never had the great misfortune of watching Alan Dershowitz on CNN.

Steinsaltz is a Hasidic rabbi living in Israel, where for the last several decades he has been translating the Talmud—all 36 volumes—into modern Hebrew and English. (The original is in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic). He won the Israel Prize, the nation’s highest honor, for this undertaking and is consistently praised as one of the greatest Jewish scholars since Maimonedes or Rashi.

But this is what this once-in-a-lifetime scholar has to tell us after pouring over the text of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “it is evident that its whole aim and purpose is to stir anti-Semitic feelings." Here’s what he says about individualism that runs rampant: "if each person is so important to himself, it is hard for him to yield to discipline or to act as a public entity." As for the answer he provides to the main subject of the book—How do you define the Jews?—he says they are a people with a "high degree of individualism," "deep need for faith," and an "ability to express themselves in words." I guess the Rabbi doesn't get out all that much because I know a lot of goyim like that too.

If there is one interesting moment in this book, it comes in the first chapter where Steinsaltz likens assimilated Jews to actors who have become so engrossed with playing their parts, they’ve forgotten their true identity. I can remember as a cub reporter for the New York Post covering the death of Lubavitcher rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Thousands of black-robed clad Jews, a good number of them adolescents, were gathered outside a Manhattan hospital either praying for the rabbi to recover or at least hoping Shneerson's prophecy would be fulfilled and his death would lead to the arrival of the Messiah. I spent most of the time being asked by the Lubavitchers if I wanted to lay tefilin—so much so that I was very tempted to answer that I'd laid her already. Finally though, a young boy, I'd say no more than 10 or 11, came up to me and right-off-the-bat asked me how I found it possible to live without a father. I said I sometimes felt as though I had one father too many, but he then went on to bombard me with questions: how could I live without a God to worship and follow? Didn't it bother me that I was living in a country that was not my true home and in which I was only a temporary visitor? I always tended to feel sorry for Hasidic kids since they seemed to be trapped in a cult from which they could not escape. But this kid said he felt pity for me—I was lost, rootless, a wanderer and didn't even know it.

This bleak blight Steinsaltz calls "tragic aspect of the double life" of the assimilated Jew—he desperately tries to behave like a gentile while deep down he remains ineradicably a Jew. Steinsaltz right too about what happens to the gentiles who become too enamored of our performance. They grow convinced our "act" actually represents who they are. So seduced,  Steinsaltz says, the gentile "becomes the shadow of a figure that is only an imitation of him." The Jews' indentity in an even more deracinated form becomes the gentile's.

But from these lofty intellectual heights, Steinsaltz quickly descends into tripe-dom. He calls Marx, Freud, and Einstein quintessentially Jewish thinkers because they strove to find an underlying explanation for everything that happens in the world much in the same way the ancient Hebrews pinned a similar role on a single God. That these men also shattered the pillarsof Western thought into shards that will probably never be put together again, Steinsaltz never acknowledges. He does admit that the three did their best thinking at a time in their life when they'd rejected Judaism, but says that only proves just how Jewish they were as disavowing your religion, according to the Rabbi, is also a quintessentially Jewish trait. But surely sometimes apostasy is just apostasy and the distance Marx, Freud, and Einstein interposed between themselves and their faith speaks more to the constraining if not suffocating qualities of Jewish thought than it does to its powers of inspiration.

Steinsaltz's solution to the moribundity of the Jewish people is a centralized rabbinate that would have ultimate authority over Jewish congregation’s everywhere similar, I suppose, to the Vatican control over Catholics. Jews have gone off in too many directions, Steinsaltz believes, so it is only by reestablishing a single authority that the religion can again be unified and preserved. Steinsaltz recently joined a group of rabbis in Israel looking to revive the tradition of the Sanhedrinn, which in ancient times was a committee of rabbis charged with resolving all questions of Jewish laws. The group also wants to rebuild the temple.

I am sure plenty of devout Jews will find Steinsaltz’s vision, however bland and lacking in specifics, very compelling. The thought of all those secularized Jews pouring back into temple this holiday season and then going home to study up on the Talmud will seem exactly what their religion needs. But unless any of them can give all us apostates some more compelling reasons to do any this, it’s all just a lot more of the same old egg salad.