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Let's Make Ideal

What is an ideal? A goal that motivates us? Or a fantasy that blinds us?

by David Holzel

Something akin to an earthquake hit American Jewish communists in 1956. For almost 40 years they had looked to the Soviet Union as the ideal homeland -- a state where anti-Semitism was outlawed and Yiddish culture was government-sponsored. A country that was created to empower the masses and not the wealthy few.

Then came the revelations that the Stalin regime had wiped out Soviet Jewish culture and had executed two generations of Jewish cultural and political leaders.

I read the swift reaction to these disclosures in back issues of Jewish Life, an English-language communist monthly. Jewish Life condemned the crimes. Then, admitting that published reports of anti-Semitic purges and murders had circulated for years, its editors spent seven pages analyzing how they could have offered Stalin their blind support all that time.

Poster celebrating the First of May
Funet Russian Archive

Readers wrote back about painful soul searching. One described the "emotional shock" those in his circle were experiencing. "The shock is due to the crippling combination of naivete...and unquestioning faith" among Jewish communists," he said.

Or, as Percy Sledge put it, "Loving eyes can never see." The ideal of thousands of American Jews, and millions of people around the world, turned out to be -- to put it kindly -- an illusion.

We don't usually think of ideals as so hazardous. Lately there's been a growing chorus of disapproval about bumper-sticker solutions. But the ideals that stay with us -- "Love your neighbor as yourself" from Leviticus, or "With malice toward none; with charity for all" from Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address -- could fit neatly on a tailgate.

They don't seem to fit as neatly into our lives, though. How often do we act out of maliciousness, or fail to be charitable, despite the fact that Lincoln's couplet so attractive.

So what is an ideal? A goal that motivates us? Or a fantasy that deludes and blinds us?

For David Blumenthal, a Conservative rabbi and professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, the function of an ideal "is to get us to strive toward something. All of us have ideals -- what we think a marriage should be, what our children ought to be," he says.
Scholar Harvey Klehr talks about the special glasses worn by American communists.   The way to handle an ideal is the same way sailors steer a ship into the wind -- by tacking. "On a boat, you go off on a 45-degree angle, then turn 90 degrees," Dr. Blumenthal says. "That's what we all do."

An ideal is modified by a reality check. Which is followed by a turn back to the ideal. Keeping in one direction too long takes you off course, and can lead to discouragement and depression, Dr. Blumenthal says. By tacking, one arrives at a golden mean.

It's a handy analogy when approaching Jewish tradition, which is full of laws surrounded by ideals, known as "hedges around the Torah." Jewish law forbids writing on Shabbat, for instance. But strict Sabbath observers will not even touch a pen (the hedge/ideal). In that way there is no chance of writing on Shabbat.

Sometimes the hedges are so high they obscure the core observance. Dr. Blumenthal calls this "the problem of the right" -- there's always someome out there on the right wing who's more observant than you. And on the left, there's always someone pursuing social justice more vigorously, he adds.

A person could get idealistic whiplash. "The way everybody solves that is we join a community," Dr. Blumenthal says. The community provides a context for ideals. "We say, 'This is where we are at home.' "

We change our homes -- or at least redecorate them -- when ideals and reality clash. Almost 40 years after Jewish communists were jolted from their obeisance to Stalinism, a bit of their community survives. I read about it on the pages of Jewish Life's successor, Jewish Currents. Today, the focus is on Israel and the United States, on Yiddish culture and the ongoing struggle for social justice.

There's a strange sense of continuity. You would never know its editors and readership had hailed as a hero one of the century's greatest butchers. And that, when they finally saw the truth, they had to sail into the real world for the first time.

I wrote this piece in 1995. I've taken out a few lines that were relevant at the time, but now seem dated. As a Zionist activist in my 20s and a struggling Jew and parent today, I'm still saddened by the natural process of ideals becoming tarnished by reality. I find Rabbi Blumenthal's antidote--community--quite comforting.

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