An Old Message As If New

In 1927, a Jewish writer in Paris published one of the most stunning and optimistic memoirs of Jewish identity composed to date. He opens with this, speaking to his yet-unborn grandson:

     When will you be old enough to understand me? My eldest son is nineteen years old. When will you be born? In ten years, perhaps fifteen…. When will you read what I here set down? About 1950, 1960? Will people still read in 1960? What form will the world then take? Will the mechanical have suppressed the spiritual? Will the mind have created a new universe for itself? Will the problems that trouble me to-day exist for you? Will there be any Jews left?
I believe there will. They have survived the Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed; they have survived the inquisition and assimilation; they will survive the automobile.1

Replace “automobile” with “iPad” or “cell phone,” and it could have been composed in 2009.

As we sit on the eve of Ta’anit Esther and Purim, I am keenly aware of how Edmond Fleg’s words ring so true in today’s American and global Judaism. Jews have endured and survived so many trials. I am also keenly aware that, having originally published this book in 1927, he could have never known that Jewish security would come crashing down once more, not a decade later, to face one of the most horrific crimes against humanity the world had yet seen. So, now, we can edit Fleg’s words: Jews have survived Pharaohs, Nebuchadnezzar, Constantine, Mohammed, and Hitler.

Fleg’s work reads like a journal. He dictates his own personal experiences, reflects on epiphanies he had along his journey of rejection and then rediscovery of Judaism, and poses questions he cannot answer. It is clear that Fleg is aware of the contemporary persecution of Jews around him; he addresses the political situation immediately post “Great War” and talks about impressions of Jews that surround him. He is greatly influenced by his immersion in secular society, finding, as all modern Jews strive toward, a sense of balance between the secular world and his Judaic roots.

     A Jewish Race?
It seems that all the anthropological types are found in Israel: broad-headed Jews, long-headed Jews, white Jews, yellow Jews, black Jews. Could Israel then only be a race in the spiritual sense? Could these different bloods for one blood because there flowed in them but one thought?”2

Fleg leaves us to read on his book without addressing this question – he leaves it hanging in the air so we feel it weighing on us throughout the rest of the experience we share with him. It was just twenty-four years before Fleg’s publication that Otto Weininger attempted a self-hating answer to this question. Weininger was a precocious Jewish psychologist (converted to Christianity at the start of his professional career) who published a 600-page textbook entitled Sex and Character in 1903 at age 23. The book contained a chapter entitled “A Jew Must Free Himself from Jewishness,” where Weininger asserted that Judaism was a racial psychosis inherited from parent to child, and undoubtedly irreversible. In contrast to Fleg’s beautiful words, Weininger’s sentiment here is haunting:

The Jewish race offers a problem of the deepest significance for the study of all races, and in itself it is intimately bound up with many of the most troublesome problems of the day. I must, however, make clear what I mean by Judaism; I mean neither a race nor a people nor a recognised creed. I think of it as a tendency of the mind, as a psychological constitution which is a possibility for all mankind, but which has become actual in the most conspicuous fashion only amongst the Jews.3

(Weininger then committed suicide because he felt that was the only way to purge the world of his “inferior” Judaism. The book itself was not published in English until 1906, when it achieved post-mortem recognition.) In today’s day and age, while we might try to be more “P.C.” than Fleg, we certainly recognize the same sentiment: Jews today come in all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Whether we are racially unified is a question more than anything of semantics, and social pressures, since the idea of Jews as a “Race” became taboo after Hitler (inspired, by the way, by Weininger’s work).

At the climax of his memoir, after having dictated his loss of faith and then his exploration through other faiths before his full-force return to Jewish commitment, Fleg leaves his reader with twelve statements, answering concisely and compellingly the question, “Why am I a Jew?” His answer is as follows:

I am a Jew because born of Israel and having lost it, I felt it revive within me more alive than I am myself.
I am a Jew because born of Israel, and having found it again, I would have it live after me even more alive than it is within me.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands no abdication of my mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel asks every possible sacrifice of my soul.
I am a Jew because in all places where there are tears and suffering the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the message of Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because Israel’s promise is a universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel the world is not finished; men will complete it.
I am a Jew because for Israel man is not yet created; men are creating him.
I am a Jew because Israel places Man and his Unity above nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because above Man, image of the Divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.4

As we celebrate commitment to Judaism this Purim, and every day, may we be inspired and able to affirm our faith and our devotion to our spiritual nation, as Edmond Fleg felt so inspired to articulate in 1927. His words resonate today just as loud as they did when he penned them eighty-five years ago.

1 Edmond Fleg, Why I Am a Jew, trans. Louise Waterman Wise (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1929), xiii.
2 Ibid., 63.
3 Otto Weininger, Sex and Character (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1906), 303. Accessed from Cornell Online Library by HTzE, 6 March 2012.
4 Fleg, 93-95.

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