My eldest son, Oren, and my father, Gershon, died a mere six years apart and are buried not far from one another on a pastoral knoll overlooking the Mediterranean in the cemetery of Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv. Oren fell in the Yom Kippur War, his first war in defense of Israel?s sovereignty. He had just turned 21, four years younger than the state itself. Gershon died a 79 year old inveterate, peaceful advocate of Zionist sovereignty, a half year before the Six Day War, never having shot a gun in anger. Standing midway between them in a three generational line of contemporary Jewish independence, I have gone out to all my wars to safeguard Jewish sovereignty.
We thought we had it made. Up to the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Zionist revolution we all subscribed to had weathered seven decades and four wars since Theodor Herzl?s call to the scattered nation at the founding Zionist Congress in Basel. After the astonishing victory in the Six Day War, most Israelis believed that peace would now crown all our other successes: the incredible realization of an independent state governed by a Jewish parliamentary democracy with a burgeoning authentic culture and astonishing accomplishments in agriculture and medicine. The rude awakening of the 1990?s was unmerciful.
Today, pessimists see a kulturkampf in store for Israel over the question of secularism vs orthodoxy; the gloom-and-doomers predict a civil war; the apocalyptically inclined prepare themselves for Armageddon. In each camp, the majority now believe that in the 21st century an escalating Jewish/Jewish enmity will be unleashed which will rival the Arab/Jewish conflict that distinguished the last century. For all of that, it is not a new conflict. How did it transpire that a state established more than 50 years ago on secular, humanist, liberal and radical foundations takes on an increasingly clerical hue?
The issue is disagreement about the source of authority in Israel. All secular and many modern Orthodox Israelis believe that the core of our democracy and the source of its authority is the basic principle which stipulates the consent of the governed, legislation by representatives elected to the Knesset, and interpretive rulings by an independent judiciary. The ultra-Orthodox, and with them many who are not so ultra, claim that the ultimate source of all law resides in God?s Law as it was revealed to Moses at Mt. Sinai. In turn, interpretation of the Law is claimed as the sole prerogative of the rabbinic authorities. Over the centuries, this authority has evolved a corpus of legal decisions, the halakhah. Halakhah has often been fundamentalist and immutable, committed to the notion that hadash asur min HaTorah – meaning that innovation is essentially invalid. The irony here is that the Hebrew word derives from the verb ?to go?, and yet halakhah too often marches stubbornly in place. It has come to embrace core concepts and the minutiae of personal, societal, national, and international relations, along with each and every other observance within Judaism.
Thus, questions of withdrawal from territories conquered in the 1967 Six Day War, or decisions regarding a recalcitrant husband who refuses to grant his wife a divorce, or wearing a garment that blends a mixture of linen and cotton, all come under the rubric of halakhah, and each issue appears to be regarded with the same obsessive gravity.
Who determines sovereign power in Israel? Does God bestow it? Or, since it originates in the consent of the governed, do the people delegate it? Ultimately, there can be only one law in the land. Who will legislate, elected members of Knesset, or a halakhic oligarchy? And who will enforce it?
The Law of Return is a case in point. It was passed by the Israel parliament, the Knesset, on July 5, 1950, the anniversary of Theodor Herzl?s death. One of the earliest and most significant of Israel?s Basic Laws, the Law of Return declares that every Jew has the right to settle in Israel and automatically acquire citizenship. The Law gives confirmation to the age-old Jewish yearning for return to Zion. In presenting the bill to the Knesset for its first reading, David Ben-Gurion said:
This law lays down not that the State accords the right of settlement to Jews abroad but that this right is inherent in every Jew by virtue of his being a Jew if it but be his will to take part in settling the land. This right preceded the State of Israel, it is that which built the State.
There were no stipulations in the Prime Minister?s mind nor were there any in the minds of the other Knesset members to the phrase ?every Jew by virtue of his being a Jew?. Exclusions, exemptions, restrictions came later.
Due to their small number in those early days, the Orthodox were unable to over-run the positions of the ?Zionist enemy? on this Basic Law, so they began their shtik. Resorting to talmudic disputation, ?Ah, but who is a Jew?? they asked, insisting adamantly that only a person born of a Jewish mother qualified. Growing numbers and the exigencies of coalition horse-trading were such that by 1970, the Orthodox were able to impose changes in the Law of Return. Which is how the exclusion of non-Jewish spouses, or conversions not approved by Orthodox rabbinical courts came about.
Like Abraham, on his way to the promised land, my father left Liozno, his eastern European shtetl, moving away from his country, his kindred and his father?s ultra-Orthodox house proceeding ?unto the land that God would show? him.
Forty years later, Marc Chagall, Liozno?s most famous son, wrote about his fiddler on the roof paintings.
Looking down at the small house I shake all over in wonder…how could I have been born here? How does one breathe here? … I was roaming the streets, seeking and praying: ?O God! Show me the way; I want to see a new world.? In answer the town seems to tear apart, like the strings of a violin, and its inhabitants start walking above the earth, leaving their usual places. The familiar characters settle on the roofs and rest there.
Chagall could have found answers to his quandaries and assumptions in a not unexpected quarter. A century ago Zionism argued that exilic Judaism was a scandalous, misshapen and stunted travesty of authentic Judaic roots. Of the innumerable thinkers critical of Galut life, Hayyim Nachman Bialik and Yosef Brenner stand out.
Both were regarded as prophets of wrath castigating Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Readers found Bialik?s anger tempered with pity. Not so Brenner?s prose. In his many articles and essays, Brenner took issue with the views of the eminent Ahad Ha-Am who believed that, for the short run at least, the diaspora was a viable option. The basic point of contention between them was Brenner?s conviction that even if it could survive in the short run, there was no justification for life in the diaspora. Jews in the ghettos of Eastern Europe were, he felt, essentially non-productive; the Jewish socio-economic reality had to be restructured, salvation would be found through labor. And only in Palestine.
Brenner?s works were filled with aggressive assaults on religion and the religious establishment: on the rabbis and ritual slaughterers with their coteries of pious students whom he considered fools for blindly following those who manipulated the Shulhan Arukh, a codification of laws governing Jewish life that was first printed in Venice in 1565. My father?s generation of Zionists read Brenner (who was born in 1881 and was killed in the Arab riots of 1921) avidly.
Bialik, poet laureate of the Hebrew renaissance, wrote that religious life in the ghetto was archaic, that it had become irrelevant. He describes the life:
You will come into the synagogue
And on a day of fasting
Hear the cry of their agony
Their weeping everlasting.
And you will be by fear and trembling tossed;
Thus groans a people which is lost.
And even when God speaks there is no comfort or balm:
Forgive, ye shamed of the earth, yours is a pauper-Lord!
Poor was He during your entire life, and poorer still of late.
When to my door you come to ask for your reward,
I?ll open wide: See, I am fallen from My high estate.
I grieve for you, my children. My heart is sad for you.
Your dead were vainly dead; and neither I nor you
Know why you died or wherefor, for whom, nor by what laws.
Indeed one could not breathe in Liozno?s exile, nor would God show the way to see a new world. As for rooftops, they were a precarious perch for a people, particularly when the houses belonged to others.
So more than a hundred years ago at the First Congress, Zionists insisted that selfhood could develop only on native Jewish turf under conditions of sovereignty. Autonomy was a function of safety that could be assured by commanding the mechanisms of self-determination, self-defense, and an independent Jewish government, secular and democratic. Exile was undignified because it engendered dependence on the unreliable largesse of others, demeaning of the Jewish soul; but worse, it was stalked by terror.
In a 1942 poem entitled Kaddish, imagist poet Charles Reznikoff wrote a chilling dirge about Galut, decrying what it lacked most: peace, safety, a living, life itself.
Upon Israel and upon the rabbis
and upon the disciples and upon all the
disciples of their disciples,
and upon all who study the Torah in this
place and in every place, Peace.
Upon Israel and upon all who meet with
sticks and stones and names
on posters, in newspapers, or in books to last,
chalked on asphalt or in acid on glass,
shouted from a thousand windows by radio;
who are pushed out of classrooms and rushing trains,
whom the hundred hands of a mob strike,
and whom jailers strike with bunches of keys, with
revolver butts; to them and to you,
in this place and in every place, Safety.
Upon Israel and upon all who live as
the sparrows of the streets,
under the cornices of the houses of others,
and as the rabbits, in the field of strangers
on the grace of the seasons
and what the gleaners leave in the corners;
you children of the wind ?
birds that feed on the tree of knowledge
in this place and in every place,
to them and to you, A living.
Upon Israel and upon their children and upon all
the children of their children,
in this place and in every place,
to them and to you, Life.
SHABBAT AS A METAPHOR
Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family. A jubilee shall that 50th year be unto you … Leviticus 25:10-11
Theodor Herzl said that Zionism was the Sabbath of his life. In that sense, the Sabbath and the workday it crowns is a metaphor for my life as a Zionist.
When in April 1948, 30 young members North American Habonim youth movement came to rebuild Eretz Israel, we found Ramat Yohanan, our first home in the land, bloodied but unbowed. The kibbutz had just repulsed a ferocious Arab attack. Understandably, we were warmly welcomed. The beleaguered kibbutzniks considered the newly arrived North Americans some small affirmation of their own Zionism.
They pitched our tents on the ?safe? side of the kibbutz, assigned us two hours each day off the work schedule for Hebrew classes, even though everybody else was working long days on an emergency schedule, and taught us how to use rifles. We were so overwhelmed with the compelling details of our new life, so electrified at being here at this precise moment in Jewish history, that we didn?t pay attention to the passing of time. And then, suddenly, Shabbat was upon us.
Along with everyone else, adult members and children, we crowded into the dining hall. The women in dark jumpers over embroidered blouses; the men in high-collared Russian rubashka shirts. What happened then has remained with me vividly, informing my perception of the Jewishness of the renascent Jewish state. Candles were lit and Bible readings recited, along with poems of Leah Goldberg and Avraham Shlonski; instrumental music was followed by community singing. It was a ceremony ritually repeated on all subsequent Friday evenings. Sometimes the singing was full throated, enthusiastic like a march, sometimes muted and earnest – the secular at prayer. There, by the grace of God and the new Jew, an innovative Temple was reconsecrated each week by the pioneering farmers, Hebrew speaking defenders of their soil.
Sentimental, outdated as the recollections from a by-gone decade may sound, they are sorely absent from the public Jewishness of today?s Israel, an Israel in thrall to exilic whimper and simper with its attendant pieties, tortuous discourse, convoluted priorities, and stultifying rote learning of archaic texts.
We knew then how Jewish our lives were. Unquestionably, the deeds were Jewish as were the songs written about them. Mattatyahu Shelem of Ramat Yohanan wrote, and we sang
Sabbath day, day of rest,
Tranquility and repose,
In this blessed land.
Village youth in finery dressed sing,
How pleasing you are, Sabbath rest!
Gone, departed, the ordinary days.
Beautiful, exalted, Sabbath?s stars.
We exchanged glances as we realized that there was nothing at all sudden about Shabbat. A weekly cease-fire of all the contradictions of the temporal world was established and symbiotic harmony prevailed. Which is what Shabbat is all about.
As we sang Nathan Alterman?s:
Rest now for those who toil
Repose for the worker
A pale night enfolds
The fields of Emek Yizrael.
Dew below and the moon above
From Beit Alfa to Nahalal.
We understood that there could be no repose without labor, nothing sublime if there was nothing prosaic. Indeed the whole mystic point of Jewish history seemed directed so that we should be in Land of Israel at precisely at this moment, the summation of our first week?s labor. ?Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished.?
And there was Y. Rabinov?s song with its pronounced kabbalistic imagery.
Sabbath has descended in the Valley of Ginossar.
From Lake Kinneret a burst of white doves, her hem
Redolent of an ancient fragrance.
Round about the hills attend her as a bridal canopy,
Embrace her flaming spirit.
That was our first oneg shabbat, the ceremony welcoming the Sabbath queen. Its message embroidered creative myths onto the workaday reality of our week.
Israel?s early years joined man?s work to God?s pronouncement, ?Let there be …? First the waters of the Kinneret were pumped from the Valley of Ginossar to the parched Negev. Then water extracted from the sea was desalinated. Crops raised under plastic transmuted winter into summer as we became God?s unselfconscious partners in creation. Farmers and laborers, scientists, artists and authors alike picked up the pale pallet of exilic life to restore a Genesis-like landscape. In an energetic outpouring of revolutionary constructivism, they toiled mightily to jettison the trappings of the exilic shtetl and re-enter history. They were determined to confront the actual, tactile reality of Jewish life in the old/new land.
So when we spoke of the ?green-line?, we meant the edge of cultivated land retrieved from desolation – the secular product of an agro/technical reality – not a jumping-off point for expansionism, not the irredentist goal of a holy war.
Accompanying our poetic secular midrash – we also had a secular halakhah, a normative commitment to self-labor, to self-realization through each individual?s responsibility to work for his or her needs while providing for those less fortunate (and if your brother should become poor and be without means, then you shall uphold and enable him to live beside you… Lev. 25:35-38). Call it social justice. There was a determination to defend the nation, and an ambition to live at peace with our neighbors. It was a secular halakhah that embraced ?tohar ha-neshek? the purity of arms; a pledge taken by all recruits to the Haganah (the pre-state military units that then became the Israel Defense Forces) that the weapons given them should only be used in extremis, to defend life. The objective rationale of Shabbat Shalom was that the two, sabbath and peace were intertwined.
As with all revolutions, Zionism required its own symbols, culture, and myths. While many of these began with the model of the early kibbutz, even in those days most secular humanists never lived on kibbutzim.
So what can serve as a viable model of an authentic Judaic culture for those of us who have jettisoned messianic piety, who are exasperated by the hucksterism of organized Orthodoxy in Israel, provoked by the pretensions of eye-rollers looking to the heavens as they claim exclusive ownership of the sources, of values, of spirituality, and Jewishness, winking all the while as they jostle for the inside track to public funds?
For starters, we return to the Zionist sources. Two of Hayyim Bialik?s most trenchant essays can serve as a point of departure. In the first, ?The Hebrew Book? (HaSefer HaIvri), he raises a simple yet surprising idea. To confront the problem of re-establishing Judaism?s national/cultural definition in place of the exilic/religious one, the process of canonization, ostensibly a religious undertaking, must be reenacted in our time so that the Jewish people can have a renewed secular source for their culture that enjoys an authority free of the rabbinic establishment?s monopoly.
In a second essay, ?Law and Legend? (Halakhah VeAggadah), Bialik speaks about a modern unification of opposites within the Jewish sources. Aggadah is the vision; halakhah is its realization in practice. These are merely two aspects of a single, secular spirituality which is nonetheless thoroughly at home in the seedbed of Judaism.
Indeed, such poet/prophets of the Hebrew renaissance as Nathan Alterman, Yehuda Amihai, Leah Goldberg, Avraham Shlonski, Zelda, and Bialik himself, resonate to the same moral imperative as Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.
Since there cannot be a disembodied morality, implementation is the proof of spirituality. Which is to say that Israel needs
? a mashgiah (a ?supervisor?) in every bank to ensure the socially responsible, indeed kosher, behavior of that institution;
? pikuah nefesh (?sanctity of life?) on the highways as the paramount rule of the road;
? a kashrut (?ritual purity?) which demands that what comes out of one?s mouth is as unsullied as what goes in;
a brit (a ?covenant?) of genuine equality for the minorities, the orphaned, the widowed, the battered and the abused, the homeless, and the landless.
a Shabbat that is crowned by cultural creativity, human dignity, and freedom.
We are left with the question, Who can fashion such a covenant?
There is an fault-line that runs through human nature. Until our independence we believed it was a condition peculiar to Gentiles. Although in the mind?s map of evil it once led from Dachau directly to Hiroshima, now its malignant cells have surfaced here. There are Jews who do not want to share the estate of victimhood with Armenians, Croatians, Africans, Asians. Certainly not Palestinians. In the saga of man?s inhumanity to man, for some Jews, we are history?s unparalleled victims. Now it is time to acknowledge that we no longer hold pride of place, are no longer exclusively chosen. Our vocation is not suffering. We are a common, garden-variety type of humanity. The upside of normalcy is that we are now invited to join the human race as full members. No more special pleading.