• Jewish Responses to Crisis

Dr. Jeffrey C. Blutinger | CSULB, Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies


The study of Jewish history reveals certain recurring patterns in Jewish culture over time. Many of these things you already know: Jews like to argue, Jews like to analyze, Jews passionately disagree with each other about our arguments and analyses. But there are other, more important patterns too.


Jews respond to crises in two really remarkable ways. The first response is one shared by many cultures, but one Jews specifically emphasize: we organize. We form committees, projects, associations, and initiatives. We donate our energy, our resources, our funds, and sometimes even our lives, to fix the world. Whether you are a secular Jew with no connection to the tradition, or one who prays every day and goes to synagogue regularly, you know that we only have one world.


Jews put very little emphasis on ha’olam haba, the world to come. Take a look sometime at Maurice Lamm’s famous book The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. While the book is over 300 pages long, only 17 of those pages concern the fate of the dead in the afterlife. The rest of it concerns the living: the mourners who must cope with loss. “Choose life,” the Torah tells us (Deuteronomy 30:19), and Jews do. We understand that the first priority must be to save and preserve life, to comfort and to make whole those who have suffered, and to heal and rebuild our communities.


So, I expect that we will see both Jews come together to support each other during both this health crisis and its concomitant economic crisis. Even if the problems seem insurmountable at times, the community will persevere. After all, as Rabbi Tarfon taught (Pirkei Avot 2:15): “it is not your duty to finish the work (of repairing the world), but you are not free to neglect it.”


But there is a second, less recognized but specifically Jewish response to crisis: the need to record. When a crisis hits, Jews start to write. We do so for a variety of issues: to document what is happening, to make sense of what is going on, and to try to preserve knowledge from being lost. This is how the Torah comes out of the Babylonian Exile. This is how the Mishnah is preserved and redacted after the great revolts against Rome. This is how the Gemara is put down on parchment after persecutions in Galilee and Babylonia.


Again and again in Jewish history, Jews recorded what was happening to them. Even during the Holocaust, the elderly historian of Polish and Russian Jewry, Shimon Dubnow, is reported to have called out “Yidn, shraybt un farshraybt,” (“Jews, write and record”), as the Nazis dragged him away from the Riga ghetto to murder him.


Thankfully, the crisis we face now is nowhere near as dangerous as the ones listed above, but I do expect a fair amount of Jewish texts to come out of it. The amazing thing is that you, too, can be a part of this project; it’s not just for historians or philosophers. When Dubnow said, “Jews, write and record,” he wasn’t addressing scholars; he meant everyone.


So keep a journal of this plague year; write down how your life is changing. Not just because this will be a wonderful resource for future Jewish historians, but because it will help you understand what is happening, what you have lost, and perhaps also, what you have found. In this way, you are participating in a three-thousand-year-old Jewish tradition. After all, the 613th commandment is to write your own Sefer Torah; keeping a journal is just a secular way of fulfilling it.