Even on the shortest sightseeing tour to Israel, visits to the kotel and to a kibbutz are de rigueur. They are required because for all the cosmic differences between the two places, taken together they are paradigmatic of Israel. Have they now become anachronisms? Lyrics of nostalgia?
For nostalgia, consider a still popular song in Israel today.
Pictures on Classroom Walls
Once in our school
There was a picture on the wall
With a farmer plowing
Against a setting of fir trees
Pale summer skies.
The farmer will grow bread
In nature study
The teacher says
“It’s almost Fall”.
She shows autumn flowers,
Names the early rain, Yoreh,
As through the rain drops
We see the Emek
With its fields outstretched.
This is how it was,
Beautiful, childlike, innocent.
And then there is:
Yearnings For the Temple
May the Temple be rebuilt
Speedily in our time
And make a place for us
In Your Torah
In the hey-day after the Six Day War, there were more than two hundred kibbutzim with a population that approached two hundred thousand, or three percent of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants. But the relatively high number of young kibbutz members who volunteered for high risk units in the IDF was three or four times as high as the national average. Which was true of the numbers of Knesset members too. Agricultural productivity, industrial design, educational innovation, etc. etc. –the kibbutz was at the cutting edge of Israeli society.
By the late ’80s, the social and economic slump which hit the kibbutzim had begun. It was reflected in the large-scale departure of young members to the cities which only aggravated the situation and added adding to the core of despondency and loss of self-esteem of those who remained
The Temple in Jerusalem had not one but two hey-days. (When the Second Temple was built, a midrash would have us understand that “Whoever did not see the glory of the First Temple, never saw glory”.) It also had two destructions, proving that nothing succeeds like calamity. As mourning for both Temples consolidated into official remembrance on the Ninth of Av, the day became a catch basin for all the persecutions and misfortunes of the Jewish people, for the loss of national independence and the sufferings of exile.
Nothing but a memory is left of either the first or second Temple. The kotel is a mere remnant of an old glory, a supporting wall of the compound on which the Second Temple once stood.
By their very definition, hallowed places are not meant to be held up to rational analysis or measured by mundane standards. The Hebrew word kadosh , holy, implies something set aside like God who is famously incomparable. That is because sanctity is absolute, unlike beauty which is relative and lives in the eye of the beholder.
Each site, both the remembered splendor of the Temple and the actual greenery of kibbutz lawns stands for a spiritual in-dwelling essence that extends beyond and outdistances their clearly defined borders. The tension between these two venerated locales – the kotel and the kibbutz – is defined by polar belief systems fervently maintained in highly articulated ideologies: Labor Zionism and Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is theistic, believes that God created the world, that He is benevolent, loves His people Israel, and has given them the Torah as a token of that love. Initially, the Israelites believed that God’s presence dwelt in the Ark of the Covenant, that they were obliged to make pilgrimages to the Ark’s holy site where sacrifices to God were offered in accordance with the priestly cult. As a matter of fact, it was a holy site gone astray. The Ark, topped by cherubim and containing the Ten Commandments, was nomadic. After the settlement in Canaan, the Ark lodged at Shiloh in the mountains of the tribe of Ephraim, but time and again when great battles were fought, it was brought from there to the front as a stalwart talisman.
Jerusalem itself was a topographical afterthought. The original grid-coordinate of the Temple’s place is found in Deut. 12: “to the site where the Lord your God shall choose to establish His Name.” Intermediate like God, equivocal and unspecified. Once King David established Jerusalem as his personal fiefdom the notion of God’s permanent home in the Temple became bound up with David’s tribe, Judah, in the Judean hills and with the eternity of the Davidic monarchy.
Much later, exiled by Rome, Jews began the two thousand year mourning marathon for the trappings of God’s sovereignty. Today’s Orthodox Jews believe that following the destruction of the Temple when the physical locus for sacrifices was destroyed, in order to justify God’s choice of the Jews as His people, they are bound to immerse themselves in studying the minutiae of His bequest.
This people-shaking paradigm shift is connected to a man and a town. Legend recounts that Rabbi Johannan ben Zakkai left the besieged Eternal city and arrived at Vespasian’s camp. His request to the Roman general was that the sages of the generation be saved. The town of Yavneh with its sages would be established as a supreme center of learning for the nation. The Talmud was off and running. And the outcome of Talmudic give and take became the Law, the Halakhah.
Labor Zionism is a post Enlightenment, anthropocentric movement which is to say that Kibbutzniks considered human being and their existence, not God, as the most important and central fact in the universe and were inclined to evaluate reality exclusively in terms of human values. Dialectical materialism and the pattern of conflict and resolution which underlay the early thinking in many kibbutzim was pivotal to their understanding of social reality and the material world. They believed in rational man and his perfectibility, nevermind relying on an all-knowing, benevolent and judgmental God.
The kibbutzim used to be the preeminent public spaces for a new secular and egalitarian Halakhah. Kibbutz egalitarianism effected the social theory and economic practice of the entire new society of the country. When one spoke of the New Jew, the kibbutznik was the self-reliant, pioneering, innovative, culturally creative model that came to mind.
Well, was the kibbutz an impermanent, if innovative, century-long episode. Has that modern Judaic departure in Israel run its course?
Looking at the centuries-long persistence of the kotel paradigm one concludes that nothing is as enduring as a debacle. Just as the mourning for the destroyed Temple could be rendered into reverence for a perimeter wall, so too, could the egalitarian assumptions of the kibbutz be transmuted from a fixation on the communal dining hall into the empowering notions of a welfare state. Banks would have a mashgiach minding the kashrut of their directors’ obscene salaries and the equally outrageous interest payments they charge. Schools would have tutors provided by public funds for pupils with learning hardships and hot lunches for all students in a hadar ochel. Esthetic, well maintained housing would be made available at affordable rents. (The test of affordability being the minimum wage.)
Is there room for an ideological movement today with such social goals? Similar goals? Is Labor Zionism the seed bed in which such ideas could be nurtured and propagated? In the best secularist tradition we repeat, Haverim, thank God there is work to be done.