Does The Past Determine Who We Are And Want To Be? Are Our Personal Choices Pre-determined By A Sense Of Obligation To What Others Expect? – An Interesting Story Illustrates This Point

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By Paolo von Schirach

August 4, 2012

WASHINGTON – An interesting radio report from Warsaw dealt with the story of Polish people who now have the opportunity to consult Jewish archives and other documents. In some doing, some discover that they are in fact of Jewish origin.

Rediscovering Jewish origins

It is not surprising that many in Poland grew up in the post war period having lost track of their Jewish origins. Jews had been horribly persecuted by the Nazis in a country with its own anti-Semitic traditions. Untold numbers of families perished in concentration camps during WWII. A few survived simply by disguising themselves as Catholics. In many instances, the old faith was left aside and forgotten. But now young Poles have the opportunity, if they so wish, to dig. And some discover their Jewish roots. Fine. It is always good to learn more.

The revelation

Still, I was surprised by one particular story included in this radio report. A young man, raised Catholic but not particularly religious, had actually joined a group that professed antisemitism.

Well, his wife did some research and then brought him documents showing that his family was in fact Jewish. As he recounted the story in the radio interview, he was really confused by this revelation. He checked and rechecked and then realized that it was indeed so. His family was Jewish.

Choosing as a matter of obligation?

That said, what followed seems strange to me. The young man concluded that he simply had to rejoin the faith of his ancestors. And so he did, choosing to become an Orthodox Jew. May be this was the right thing to do.

But I am surprised that in our own modern world in which freedom of choice is a fundamental value, the way the story is reported indicates that this young man believed that he really had no choice. Whatever his past beliefs, including his own professed antisemitism, he had to surrender to the reality of his origin and rejoin the Jewish tradition.

We always have a choice

So, he felt that he had no choice. But in my mind he did have a choice. Learning about one’s origins is not learning that one has signed a contract that must be honored. Origin is one thing, personal choices about one’s own life are something else. Or are we saying that “birth is destiny”, whereby one “has to follow” the faith of one’s ancestors, no matter what, as a matter of obligation?

This young man had grown up without any knowledge of his heritage. If indeed, upon learning of his family’s Jewish origins he had decided to inquire about Judaism and then make up his mind about what he wanted to do on the basis of a personal feeling, then this would be another matter.

Our world is founded on the principle of freedom

Whereas the notion that, having learnt about the past, one has the obligation to follow it denies the basic principle of freedom of choice based on one’s own inclinations and tastes that is supposedly at the foundation of our modern world founded on the notion of individual liberties.

More broadly, we can engage in pursuing the new, whatever that is, precisely because we are not totally wedded to the past. This does not mean that “the past” should be rejected as a matter of principle. Most certainly not. But one should opt to follow the past, including the religious faith of the ancestors, not out of a sense of obligation but out of genuine personal choice, freely expressed. “I do this because I want it. Not because I have to”.


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