Saint Benedict, as depicted in the stained glass at the English Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey
Saint Benedict, as depicted in the stained glass at the English Benedictine monastery Downside Abbey

How a 5th-century Christian saint can help us save the Jews

If you care about the fate of the Jews, it is past time to start worrying. But worrying is not enough. The signs of distress are everywhere: right and left, Israel and the diaspora, campus and cities, a cloudy present and an increasingly dark future.

This is not to say that there isn’t an abundance of Jewish pleasures and Jewish joys, or that the 21st century has not brought great Jewish success. But that only increases the urgency to protect what we’ve built against external threat and internal decay. Things are more precarious than they look.

A sense of the problem’s scale is necessary for planning the counter-offensive.

In the United States, the world’s largest diaspora community, right-wing anti-Semitism has made blood run in the streets, and left-wing anti-Semitism denies Jews the right to political and cultural self-determination. In addition, Islamist terror menaces Jews everywhere, but particularly in the tiny Middle Eastern strip of land where most Jews live.

What is to be done?

I propose appropriating an approach from what initially appears to be an impossibly different context. Two years ago, the Catholic writer Rod Dreher released a remarkable book, “The Benedict Option.” It was his answer to what he saw as an increasingly desperate set of circumstances for traditional Christians besieged by a secularized society.

Lifting the name from a saint who reformed and reinforced the church amid the cascading wreckage of the Roman Empire, Dreher proposes a retrofitted project in analogous circumstances. Believers need to find each other and form communities of strength and purpose. The job of changing the world is built on the imperative to survive its ravages. The task is no longer to change minds, but to build resilience.

Dreher calls for “a strategic withdrawal — a limited kind of culture-war Dunkirk operation …in which to regroup, retrain and re-engage in the long struggle.”

The pressures of modern life mean that “we are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways.”

To win a struggle Dreher sees as both protracted and marked by long odds, he advocates a dramatic turn in strategy.

Jews need to heed this advice.

There will be those Jews who resist taking guidance from approaches embedded in a theology and worldview alien to their own. This is shortsighted. Dreher explicitly cites the shape and structures of Orthodox Jewish communities as models; thickly woven, physically concentrated and world-building units able to encounter modernity with enough ballast as to avoid falling apart.

But there are even deeper reasons to borrow and build. The original Saint Benedict saw Rome collapsing around him and intuited that what was falling was not just a city but a civilization. In this he echoed the Jewish sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who snuck out of Jerusalem in a coffin as the Romans were poised to sack Jerusalem.

His retreat led to a reinvention that created rabbinic Judaism, which has been durable enough to make meaning for two millennia.

Contemporary Jews need to envision what a Benedict Option looks like for them today.

Jews should not wash their hands of a world increasingly seamed by hate and prejudice. On the contrary; it is for the very love of that world that Jews must realize that they must preserve themselves and what they have built.

Zionism was one such effort. Theodor Herzl looked around Europe, and what he saw was unsustainable. The Jewish State was an answer to a very pressing Jewish Question. Some part of the Jews needed to leave Europe because the continent could no longer be trusted with them.

Herzl was right, but now the state he envisioned is part of the global Jewish landscape and defending it, and being defended by it, are baked into the Jewish condition.

The Jews are still under assault everywhere, and their friends are precious few.

As difficult as it is to say, the question that needs asking is no longer “How do we build?” but rather “How do we preserve what has been built?”

Jews, more than anyone else, know that once anti-Semitism appears in a society, it rarely dissipates — there is always a storm.

A Jewish Benedict Option would be the shelter against that coming storm. It would refuse to modulate the essential Jewish convictions under pressure from any external ideology. It would refuse to engage in the sinister exercise of debating Jewish whiteness more than 70 years after Auschwitz. It would reject the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, because both threaten Jewish lives. It would forgo convincing others in favor of securing the convictions that have ensured Jewish flourishing and survival.

It would not be lachrymose, but it would be alert. It would affirm that all Jewish lives matter equally, from Petah Tikvah to Park Slope to Pittsburgh. It would not only remind Jews that the struggle is joined regardless of whether they opt in or out; it would teach them how to fight.

It would refuse to stand in solidarity with those who hate us, even as it would demand a public square informed by our values.

The Jewish Benedict Option must ensure survival in other ways, as well.

Against the deluge of Jewish illiteracy in America and elsewhere, it would prioritize the sensibilities rooted in Jewish tradition, religious or secular. It would have to concede that the glories of Jewish American civilization exist alongside the catastrophes of a melting Jewry, falling away from treasures they never saw in the first place. It will look with clear eyes at “culturally Jewish” Jews and see the ground vanishing beneath their feet. It would do the hard work of rebuilding that ground.

The underlying insight of the Benedict Option applies seamlessly to the current Jewish moment.

A community cannot afford to be naive about its own future, nor thoughtless about its own preservation. The persistence of tiny Jewish minorities in the diaspora and in the broader Middle East is by no means assured. As the storm brews, we best learn how to build our ark.

Ari Hoffman
Ari Hoffman

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist for the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an adjunct assistant professor at New York University, and has a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.