Rabbi Jonathan Sacks derives two messages from Jeremiah 29. One is that Jewish life may continue, even flourish, in the adverse soil of exile: “Build homes and dwell in them, take wives and have children.” For Jews, spiritual purpose survives the loss of power, when the prosperity and fullness of life attainable in exile falls far short of the ideal. The rabbi offers this lesson to Christians for whom minority status is a new experience.
Jeremiah also instructs his fellow Jews to seek the welfare of the city in which they dwell. The justification is instrumental: “For in its peace is your peace.” When Jeremiah’s counsel is reformulated several centuries later in the Mishna, it takes on a Hobbesian flavor: “Pray for the peace of the realm, for if not for the fear [of the king], men would swallow each other alive.” Here, too, Sacks draws the lesson that a creative minority, even a beleaguered one struggling to survive and to flourish, is capable of contributing to the welfare of the majority culture.
The prophet couches his advice in pragmatic terms. To be under foreign domination, in the biblical period, required the Jew to adapt to the priorities of the ruler rather than to try to shape them. Among those Jews who attain high positions in the courts of kings, Mordechai and Nehemiah use their standing to help their Jewish brethren; Joseph and Daniel shore up the monarch they serve as best as they can without challenging the ethos of the empire.
Our situation is different. The contemporary secularism we confront in the West is not yet monolithic, nor is it the official ideology of the realm. The welfare of the city, right now, has no uniform incarnation. Therefore Christians and Jews have the opportunity to formulate their countercultural alternative to secularism. Furthermore, under democracy, we are citizens, not mere subjects. Seeking the welfare of the city requires us to accept responsibility for our society rather than be satisfied to find some safe haven for survival.
Jewish emancipation comes late in European history. The opportunity to participate as Jews in Western culture, without bracketing convictions and commitments, is even more recent. In theory, the task appears to be impossible. As a minority under threat, Jews who care about the survival and flourishing of Judaism are predictably preoccupied with the urgent task of safeguarding their rights and tending their religious, ethical, intellectual, and social gardens. As citizens of their city and the world, they must respond, not merely react, to the dominant culture. In practice, creative minorities, and creative individuals among them, find ways to cope with insurmountable dilemmas. Sacks himself, in speaking effectively to Jews, Christians, and secularists, has helped to redefine what we may hope to accomplish in our time.
Some religious adherents all of the time, and all of us in certain contexts, believe that the best way to discharge our responsibility to the larger world is precisely by not being of it but instead exemplifying, on a limited social scale, the life of the faithful community. One may do so as an affirmation of the value and centrality of communal existence, as a positive appreciation of particularity, or in despair at the surrounding darkness; Alasdair MacIntyre has articulated both themes. Cultivating communal intimacy is an attractive option because it captures an important ingredient in the Jewish quest for holiness and resonates with many Christians as well. And it minimizes the risk of corruption by the world or assimilation to the world’s values. Yet, as Sacks argues, genuine concern for the world mandates a degree of measured openness, and vulnerability, to neighbors who differ from us.
Jeremiah 29 is sufficient to counter despair, to motivate a constructive engagement in our own religious communities and a benign attitude toward the welfare of the city. When our internal needs are many and urgent, I am not sure that most religious Jews will be impelled to the kind of creative involvement Sacks calls for, with its attendant sacrifices. Christianity, by its very nature, is more outwardly oriented, and for Christians, therefore, as they adapt to minority status, the message of Jeremiah may provide adequate motivation. For Jews, I believe, it may be important to emphasize more robust theological reasons for our creative concern.
In Genesis 23, while negotiating a burial plot for his wife, Abraham describes himself as a “resident alien,” a man committed to his host society even as he stands apart. The same Abraham had earlier argued and prayed on behalf of the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. Interestingly, he exerts himself for them shortly after the circumcision that marks his separateness from his environment.
In the passage preceding his prayer, the Torah makes us privy to God’s reasons for allowing Abraham to participate in his decision regarding Sodom. First, God says to himself: “Abraham will be a great nation, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through him.” And then: “I loved him, for he will command his descendants to keep the way of God to righteousness and justice.” The first reason for confiding in Abraham is that his people have a stake in what happens, either because Sodom belongs to his vicinity or because his influence is destined to extend throughout the world. Abraham thus becomes God’s partner in creation. Second, Abraham is committed to the divine path, to the principles of righteousness and justice—and therefore he is also God’s ethical conversation partner.
Abraham, who has overheard that God will judge Sodom but does not know the reasons he has been apprised of God’s plan, chooses to argue along the moral question without referring to his own stake in the land or to his nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom and for whom Abraham had fought in chapter 14. In any event, however valid the practical hope counseled in Jeremiah 29, we cannot meet the challenge the rabbi lays down without seeking our ground in additional, more idealistic strands of universalistic teaching in the Bible.
One more point: The proximate cause of the exile to which Jeremiah responds in chapter 29 is Babylonian military prowess. Elsewhere, Jeremiah attributes the punishment to sin. In this chapter, as Sacks brilliantly observes, the note of “I told you so” is conspicuously absent. Whatever has caused the present eclipse of traditional religion’s influence in the public square and the weakening hold of the traditional morality of human dignity in private life has nothing to do with the verdict of war but with internal weakness.
We are not compelled to submit to the force and authority of external enemies and powers. The Christian West remained standing when the two great secular empires of the twentieth century fell. It must now contend with its own internal weakness, beleaguered by its own domestically produced “negation and despair.” It is in the context of that internal struggle that we, harking back to Jeremiah’s prophecy, must summon our affirming, unironic flame.
Shalom Carmy is co-chair of the Jewish Studies Executive at Yeshiva College and editor of Tradition, the theological journal of the Rabbinical Council of America.