Living in the edge is the Jewish thing to do

By Daniel Chejfec


Al throughout history, Jews have figured prominently in many revolutionary movements, even more so in recent times. Considering Jews have lived as a vulnerable minority in most places this is a remarkable fact that in many ways defies logic. Yet apparently it doesn't – because it happens.

So how do we explain Jewish propensity to put him/herself in the forefront of revolutionary movements in politics, as well as in sciences and art?. This remains true even in places like the United States, where Jews have achieved an unprecedented degree of integration.

Perhaps a good point to start to unravel the mystery would be a commentary by Israeli President Shimon Peres. He described Jews, in his essay “The Dissatisfied Nation” in unique terms: “It is my definite belief that what characterizes Jews above all is dissatisfaction”. Since our beginnings as a people, however you prefer to define it, we have been always striving for a different order, for different rules in our relationship with each other and also with those outside our group.

After the destruction of Jewish independence at the beginning of the common era, Jews became the quintessential outsider practically everywhere they lived, with very few exception – and even those exception would have to be qualified. At the same time, Jews were never able to accept the sidelines as their natural place to be, seeking always to perfect the world out of both, a religious as well as a cultural imperative. Jews defined from the beginning their relationship with the Divine as well as their relationship with the physical world in terms of Tikkun Olam – The restoration of wholeness to the world.

Many times Jews disagreed of what “the wholeness of the world” really means. For some, it is the fulfillment of the 613 Mitzvot listed in the Torah. For others, it is the perpetual search for Social Justice. For others yet it is the ongoing struggle for freedom than began on the Exodus from Egypt. And these are just some prominent examples...Sometimes these ideas of wholeness overlap, sometimes they complement each other, and sometimes they are at odds – but they are always a Jewish approach to living in this world.

This perpetual state of dissatisfaction makes the Jew the perfect candidate for the role of the outsider. Yet in many cases, the Jews are the quintessential insiders. So how do we reconcile that dual state of insider and outsider? By being Jews. In my opinion, it is that position of the insider looking from the outside and at the same time the outsider looking from within that gives the Jew a unique perspective about the world – moving the Jew to distrust prevailing wisdom and to learn to think outside the box.

Einstein revolutionized Physics by refusing to accept that the physical world is only defined by out senses. Freud refused to accept a mechanistic explanation of Human psychology; Durkheim and Marx are considered two of the three “fathers” of modern sociology; Marx created the concept of Political Economy. These are just some examples of how Jews tend to live in the leading edge of change and transformation. This probably helps explain the disproportional number of Jewish Noble Prize Winners.

Being a Jew is in some ways like being Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Nahuatl myth. This serpent is mostly described as a flying serpent marking the boundary between Heaven and Earth. Like Quetzalcoatl, Jews live in that boundary between the inside and the outside being at the same time the quintessential insider and the quintessential outsider; the ones who push the envelope to the limit and beyond – the ones taking risks to restore a sense of balance and justice to the world in which we live.

While it would be the high of Chutzpah to believe that only Jews occupy this particular role, it is nevertheless clear that occupying that role has been a defining element of Jewish identity from the beginning. Even King David is described in the Bible as the outsider who became an insider; Moses was the son of slaves who became an Egyptian prince only to again become a challenger to the power of Pharaoh. Abraham himself, the son of an idol-worshiping Priest in Ur, rejected the status quo and broke the idols his father worshiped.

The Federation is also a challenger of the status quo. We believe that nobody should go hungry or lack access to education. We believe that the perfect world is always over the next hill, and we keep working toward it, finding ways to achieve the impossible, only to find out that the biggest reward is not in arriving but in the trip itself.


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