We Jews have been called lots of things. Some of the less offensive appellations are stubborn, or obstinate. Yes, we can be stubborn, obstinate or davka. Call it what you like.
But curiously, not all the rabbis see stubbornness as a fault.
In this week’s Torah reading, Eikev, Moses continues his recap of the events of the last 40 years and speaks of the terrible sin of the Golden Calf.
“Then, G-d spoke to me and said, I have observed this people and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.”
The phrase first appears back in Exodus 34 when the original episode occurred. There, it is Moses who is arguing for his people’s forgiveness and says to the Almighty, “For they are a stiff-necked people … V’solachto, and You should forgive our sins.” Various explanations are given as to how our stiff-neckedness might be a reason to be forgiven. Some say it means if or even though we are stiff-necked.
But according to the 14th-century sage, RaLbaG (Gersonides), quoting his sagacious grandfather and referencing the Midrash Rabah, it is a very significant positive quality. The Jews will stubbornly stick to their identity and character no matter what. Precisely because we are stiff-necked and cling to our faith tenaciously, therefore should we be forgiven.
Stubborn sounds difficult? Then call it determined. Obstinacy isn’t that virtuous? Then call it perseverance.
We Jews could have made our lives much easier by not being so stiff-necked and by “cooperating” with our enemies. How many countless Jewish martyrs chose the sword over the cross when those brave knights in shining armor—the Crusaders—massacred thousands upon thousands of us? Those Jews could have chosen to play the game rather than face martyrdom. But they did not. They refused to abandon the One G-d of Israel, even if it meant that they paid with their lives.
In more than 2000 years of active Christian missionizing, the number of Jews who voluntarily gave up their faith for the dominant religion was so few that the campaign can only be considered a massive failure.
It is my speculation that this is why the Jews for Jesus movement came about. The missionaries saw that even non-religious Jews were not prepared to abandon the faith of their forefathers, so they cleverly concocted a more favorable option. You can still be a Jew. Just be for Jesus. Sadly, too many ignorant Jews fell for that line.
Admittedly, sometimes assimilation was a seemingly logical response to antisemitism. Eighty years ago, when being Jewish in Europe carried a death sentence, many who managed to escape fled to the furthest places they could find and never even told their children they were Jewish. They might not have embraced any other faith, but they chose not to put their children’s lives in danger by attempting to lose their identity.
I am reminded of the story of the assimilated Jew who applied to join the prestigious, genteel and very gentile Country Club in his city. When he was rejected, he demanded an explanation. The chairman explained it was because of his religion.
“My religion?” questioned the Jew who had rejected his faith. “What’s wrong with my religion?”
“Sir,” said the chairman. “In your application form, under Religion you wrote Goy!”
A bitter joke. Many believed assimilation to be a solution, but the antisemites found them no matter how non-Jewish they tried to become.
While there was a very small minority of Jews who did opt out in response to antisemitism or to marry the squire’s daughter in Russia of old, the overwhelming majority of Jews throughout the ages have resisted all such attempts. Whether seduced by love or frightened of rejection, Jews overwhelmingly, have not succumbed to either intimidation or temptation and have remained loyally Jewish.
So we are taught that it is to our credit that we can be stubborn and staunch in clinging to our Jewish identity.
It’s a little bit like the old Charlie Brown of “Peanuts” fame. Charlie was absolutely determined to go fly his kite one day. And the fact that the most violent storm of the season was brewing didn’t stop Charlie. Despite all his friends’ arguments and appeals, the last frame of our cartoon finds Charlie marching stubbornly and resolutely out the door and into the howling winds. And the caption reads:
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do!”
Moses said to G-d: “They are a stiff-necked people, and THEREFORE You should forgive them!”
It is our very stubborn determination to cling to our faith that merits the Almighty’s eternal love and forgiveness.