Israel and Existence


         

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By Saul Goldman

History has demonstrated that for Israel nothing is fair or according to the rules that apply to others. Even as we began to form our nationhood, there was something unique. We realized that our distinctiveness and our gifts demanded loneliness in the world. The Torah observed that we are a "people that dwells apart" (Numbers 23:9). Unlike any other nation in the world, we lived, as a people, outside the territorial boundaries that we called home. Despite the vicissitudes of persecution, we never lost our sense of self, nor did we lose our way home. We lived in hundreds of towns and cities, spoke dozens of languages and yet looked homeward each day. How did we survive? Certainly, a part of the answer is that we were unwelcome. Never allowed citizenship, we remained strangers no matter how long our ancestors may have lived in Germany or France. There was no other choice but to see our lives as a journey home. Judaism represented our faith as well as our political structure and through a system of symbols guided us ethically as well as nationally.

Our celebrations and holy days point to an existence beyond the confines of our immediate residence. The places we sojourned were all lumped together under the title of dispersion. While we spoke French, Russian or English, while our grandfathers were buried in their soil, we were exiles, forced emigres awaiting our return. Our lives were not lived in any one place; it was a life lived in time. Perhaps, it was out of this basic understanding that Ahad Haam once wrote that, "more than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel."

Time, Abraham Heschel wrote, is "eternity in disguise". It is the locus of God's existence. History was actually the context in which we lived. But, our notion of history is not merely a record of what was. History was as much looking forward as backward. For us, unlike technological man of today, real time was never the immediate present; real time was the eternal now. If we examine the truly significant elements of our lives, they are all tied to moments rather than objects. All that we possess was endowed with significance by time. This construction of a "palace in time", to borrow Heschel's metaphor for the Sabbath, indicates the nature of sanctity. Hence, if the moment lends meaning to the object, then the moment grants sanctity to the place. Israel is holy because we were transformed in that land. Entering as the descendants of slaves, we authored a code of liberty and equality. Remembering only tyranny, we set out the foundations of justice according to principles of law.

These reflections are especially important as we appear to barter away our very existence. By this, I do not mean the Oslo accords; I mean the rapid assimilation within our very borders. An assimilation that has insinuated itself within the minds of the faithful as well as the skeptical. Those who would speak in the name of Torah have replaced the exacting logic of the rabbinic mind with magical thinking. Their words and deeds have formed an ideology that insults their brothers and mocks our heritage. More harmful than terrorists is the intellectual challenge that we face by historical revisionists who would re-write our past so that it conforms to the cannons of good taste and political correctness.

We have lost sight of time, the real time. We lament the murder of Jews in Netanya and Jerusalem and forget that not too long ago millions were murdered but hardly anyone else was disturbed. It is history that comforts the mourners. We seem to have lost our patience after waiting patiently for two thousand years. We are desperate to find a solution, to pay any price when we should know by now that there is no price on Jewish life. Some of us talk about the secularization of Israel. They argue that a Jewish state cannot be a democratic one. They would have us believe that Judaism would tolerate inequality between Jews and Arabs. But, long ago with the memory of Egyptian discrimination still vivid, our lawmakers wrote that there shall be "one law for citizen and alien alike" (Numbers 15:16). They confuse equality with similarity and would allow Israel to melt down into a middle eastern country of semites. They say, with self-deprecating sympathy, that it is anathema for an Arab to sing Hatikva because of the verse about the Jewish soul. Yet, both Moslems and Christians owe the core of their humanity and spiritual identity to their common origins in ancient Judaism. Have we become so self-hating that the very word Jew is foul?

Context is the fundamental clue to our orientation and history is the context within which Israel has always lived. We have always begun our story with yesterday, we utter our prayers in the past and future tense, but hardly ever in the present tense. For example, the Sabbath is zecher, our remembrance of those things past as well as a token of our future redemption. Living in memory is the core of self-hood. When we look at people suffering from Alzheimers disease, for example, we understand the tragedy of not knowing who we are. And who we are is only understood in terms of the past; in the hypertext of memory. We still eat matzah and marror to remind us that our genius is only apparent if we realize that our "father was a wandering Aramean."

Historical revisionism is an attempt to re-member, to put ourselves together, in a radically different way and thus to change our identity. Was Deir Yassin, for example, a tragic episode in which poorly trained, frightened and ill equipped soldiers were guilty of killing civilians or does it constitute ethnic cleansing? One is a cruel and immoral by-product of war, but the other is the execution of a racist ideology. In law there is a psychiatric defense when it appears that an individual's act is inconsistent with their character. It is called temporary insanity. Is it possible that the descendants of slaves emerging out of the holocaust, could be a bit over-zealous in the prosecution of a war forced upon them by invading Arab armies? In the same vein, could we defend Eichman with an insanity plea? If the answer is no, it is because Eichman matured in a culture that was fundamentally anti-semitic. Nazi "science" merely transformed the Christ-killer into the untermensch; both, in European humanity, worthy of extermination.

Much of the etiology of mental illness, Freud taught us, comes from distortions of personal history or troubled memories. But Freud, too, was a revisionist. Because he could not believe that fathers would improperly touch their daughters, he "revised" memories from fact to fantasy. And only recently has incest and sexual abuse within the family become an issue of open concern.

Individual memory represents the core of self-worth. In Judaic thought, man is b'zelem Elokim, a refraction of a transcendant reality. Without our memories there is no transcendance. People who fail the mental status exam often do so because they cannot remember. To lose our memories is to be dis-eased. The heartache of Alzheimers is to see people who have lost themselves. Because there is no past, there is no future, only an instant no longer connected to other moments. Hence, it is not even a now. The tragedy of contemporary Israeli education is that there is no past and therefore no future. Israel is merely presented as a time warp; an anomaly between two exiles. One that was decreed by Rome, the other by ourselves. Having forgotten our past, we seek our future in the very exile that our ancestors endured. Not understanding that we must dwell apart, we seek acceptance rather than actualization.

How do we know where we are going if we do not understand where we came from (Avot 3:1)? The revisionists would present us as European interlopers cruelly stealing Arab land. But no one pauses to ask why would European, educated cosmopolitan Jews would want arid, malaria infested swamps? Why would they leave Paris and London, New York and Vienna for some sand hill, they re-named Tel-Aviv? Because, we were never really Europeans, the holocaust proved that. In one insightful moment, in one eternal now, we realized that we were the original Israelites who fought the Palestinians! The Romans, in their fury, would have the world believe that the Judeans were annihilated and only the Philistines remained. But that, too, was revisionism. Actually, the Philistines disappeared and only the Jews remained.

As we grow our achievements are further measured by what we were. How can we ever appreciate Tel-Aviv, if we have forgotten Lodz? How could we turn the IDF into a professional army if we remember the design Moses set forth for a peoples army? It is our ideology as much as our technology that will secure our boundaries and our future. Ideology is what we know and think about the world and ourselves. The Power which created Israel, will defend Israel.

It is popular among liberal intellectuals to reject the notion that we were chosen. Our blessings before the Torah reading emphasized that our chosen-ness was not racial but intellectual, moral and spiritual. The biblical narrative makes its clear that we were not chosen because of our size, but because of what we were doing: seeking freedom, writing laws and honoring human relationships. Nevertheless, many reform and reconstructionist Jews found shame rather than pride in that designation. Israelis, too, untouched by these values, probably because they never studied the ancient texts which forged these ideas into action through mitzvot, thought that it was racist to say we are special. But there is a profound difference between racism and elitism. The latter is an ideology of action; to be elite whether in sports, scholarship or business means to work harder. Today, in many schools with a crowded curriculum, the classics of Judaic thought have been replaced by the poems of Palestinians. So our school children will grow thinking that Isaiah and Jeremiah, Yohanan ben Zakkai and Akiba, whose ideas have transformed civilization, are not as important as a Palestinian poet whose writings may touch a few. No longer living in time we see only the moment. We suffer from a national Alzheimers disease; knowing no past, maintaining no bonds to anything or anyone except for the moment. Hence, in the early days of statehood, an ersatz myth was fostered. Jay Gonen calls it the myth of the sabra. Tall, sun-tanned, emerging from the earth, innocent and brave, farmer-warrior, the sabra was to replace the Jew. The Jew was too old, too tired and too bent over by acquiescence. He was a peddler rather than a builder. He wimpered. But history, even if we try to deny it, over-takes us. And the sabra found out that he was just a Jew after all. He continued to wander seeking to find his fortune rather than build it at home. He became a high-tech peddler and we see that he abandoned the earth to Arabs who even serve as day laborers on many kibbutzim. Actually, it is the lie or delusion of the sabra because we cannot be re-invented. Our identity is ancient. There is, of course, a difference between old and ancient. Old is surpassed by the new. Ancient becomes eternal and our future is beyond tomorrow. Israel can only succeed as a Jewish state because it is the Jews that need a state and realities are established only by necessity.

All life has a trajectory; the stars in their courses, the moon in its cycles, the person from embryo to death. Philosophers of history such as Hegel or Dilthy may argue about history's purpose or goal. Some historians referred to the Bible as heilsgeschicte or sacred history. We, too, know that we have our trajectory, our purpose. Homecoming, in that plan, is more than merely settling in an apartment in north Tel-Aviv. Like everything esle we have done in law, ethics and in philosophy, the results impact others. People worship differently and behave differently because of us. Our homecoming, too, contains, historical meaning. It demonstrates against those existentialists who claim alienation. It constitutes a wonderful argument in defense of everyone's liberation. Our homecoming, in an era of amalgamation, insists that each of us has the right to be oneself. And that in the brave new world, each of us has the right to fulfill all their potential. Haitians and Mexicans, Indians and Taiwanese can all be what they want to be without becoming a part of one gigantic melting pot. Our homecoming is about the fact that opportunity belongs to all of us everywhere. And perhaps, as the historical narrative will evolve, people will learn the most important lesson from our homecoming; that even after disaster there is hope. And no matter how long one stays away, or is kept away, a home awaits us.

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from the July 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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