Friday, May 27, 2005

Behukotai (Archives)

Blessing and Rebuke: “If you walk contrary to Me”

The central theme of this week’s, concluding portion of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is the promise and admonition, the blessing and curse, promised or threatened to the Jewish people, depending upon whether or not they follow the Torah. This section is closely paralleled by a similar admonition near the end of Deuteronomy (Deut 28); both chapters serve to conclude and reinforce the lengthy codex of laws that precedes it. The principle is simple: each major unit of law presented in the Torah is concluded, “sealed” by a covenant, in which the rewards and sanctions involved are spelled out. (Even the brief code of civil laws that immediately follows the Sinai revelation, in Exodus 21-23:19, is followed by words of admonition in 23:20-33 and a ceremony of covenant making in Ch. 24). Nahmanides makes this parallelism a central element in his schematic division of the Five Books; he sees the laws of the Torah centered around two “covenants”: the covenant made in the desert, in the initial stages of the Israelites wandering in the desert, which he calls “The Covenant of the Tent of Meeting”; and the covenant made at the end of the forty years, the “Covenant of the Steppes of Moab.” Both chapters succinctly describe the multitude of blessings awaiting the people if they follow God’s laws and, at much greater length and in terrifying detail, what will happen if they disobey them.

On the literary level, there is an ironic contrast between the stark eloquence and vividness of the images used here, and the horror of the scenes portrayed. Beyond the overall structural and thematic similarity, there are also many parallels between these two chapters: the picture of the sky above and the earth beneath becoming like bronze and iron (Lev 26:19; Deut 28:23); the mental confusion and terror of the people, leading to irrational fears and total disorientation (“you will flee at the sound of a driven leaf”– Lev 26:36: “you will stumble at noon like a blind man gropes in the darkness”; “you will say in the morning, ‘when will it be evening,’ and in the evening, ‘when it will it be morning’” (Deut 28:28-29, 66-67) ; the resort to cannibalism and devouring their own children by “the most delicate and sensitive among you” (Lev 26:29; Deut 28:53-57). Finally, after drought, warfare, and famine, the people will be sent into exile in a strange, faraway land—where they will ultimately confess their sins and repent.

Ramban sees these two parallel chapters as corresponding to the two great exiles of the Jewish people: the seventy year exile in Babylonia, and the exile beginning with the Roman-Jewish war, known midrashically as “the Edomite exile,” which continued for two thousand years, in Christian Europe and the Moslem Levant. Maimonides mentions that these two portions were originally read on the Sabbaths immediately preceding Shavuot and Rosh Hashana (today they are read two weeks before): both solemn festivals of spiritual intensity and renewal, for which these readings presumably provided some preparatory material for thought and reflection. On another level, Jewish folk custom viewed the very act of reading this chapter with fear and trepidation, so much so that simple people were afraid to be called up to this Torah reading, fearing that they would be personally stricken by all the terrible things described therein. The custom thus developed for the shamash (warden or beadle of the synagogue) to be called to this reading; but in other places, the rabbi himself took this aliyah, to counteract this superstition (such was the custom, for example, of Hakham Moses Gaster of England).

But notwithstanding the parallels, there are also significant differences between these two chapters. The tokheha (admonition) in Leviticus is shorter and less verbose than that in Deuteronomy, and thus starker and more striking. The opening verse speaks, not only of non-performance of the mitzvot, but of “spurning” and “abhorring” or “being disgusted by” the commandments.” As a consequence, it says that God will be “disgusted” with you. More strikingly, this chapter describes the punishments coming in a series of ascending stages of severity: “If you do not listen to me… but go on walking contrary to me (or: “walking with me by chance / as if by accident / hapstance”)… I will smite you sevenfold more for your sins” (v. 18, 21, 23-24, 27-28, with variations). Finally, a central motif here is that, as a result of the exile, the land will finally get to enjoy its sabbaths—that is, the sabbatical years, just described in the previous chapter—which it did not receive as its due so long as you dwelt upon it (vv. 34-35). (It is interesting that the idea of the sanctity of the land, connected with moral violations, returns several times in these few chapters: as sanction for sexual licentiousness in Lev 18 & 20; with regard to the sabbatical year in Lev 25; and here.)


But beyond the literary patterns and imagery, this chapter presents a basic, vexing theological problem. The picture described here, in which the good enjoy rest and tranquility and bounty on their own land, and the wicked suffer disasters and exile, does not correspond to everyday life experience. Sometimes, terrible things happen to those who observe the commandments and live decent lives. The Jewish people have confronted this in full force during the twentieth century with the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Everyone knows of pious Jews who, after undergoing incomprehensible horrors, lost their faith in the God of Israel. “Holocaust Theology” has emerged as a whole sub-branch of Jewish thought. But in truth, this problem has always existed. The Shoah may differ quantitatively and qualitatively from other examples of murder of innocent people; it probably represents new dimensions in man’s inhumanity to man, due to the strange mixture of cruelty and methodical “rationality,” and the coldness and lack of passion with which the decision to “exterminate” an entire group of people was executed—but, in the most essential terms, it did not teach anything about the problematics of God’s conduct of the world not already known to the author of the Book of Job or to Rabbi Yohanan, who buried ten sons one after the other.

The Talmud, near the beginning of Berakhot, already takes on this problem. It counsels a person, when confronted with seemingly unwarranted sufferings, to “search out his deeds” and repent. “If he searched and did not find—then he may attribute it to bittul Torah, to insufficient devotion to Torah study”—a duty perpetually incumbent upon every Jew, at all times. But if he may honestly say that he is innocent even of that sin, then he should know that these are yesurim shel ahavah—“sufferings” or “chastisements of love.” Elsewhere, of course, we read of Olam Haba, Gan Eden and Gehinnom—reward and punishment meted out after death according to a person’s deeds in this life. But this solution is unconvincing and unsatisfying to many, for other reasons. In brief, despite the efforts of the best minds of each generation, this remains a perplexing, insoluble problem.

Two Paths of Religious Service

But one may also look at the problem, not through the prism of theodicy, but from a totally different perspective: that of its implications for the spiritual and psychological issues involved in the service of God. Traditional Jewish ethical and spiritual literature (Mussar) speak of the love and fear of God as the two basic attitudes towards the religious life. (To avoid confusion, one should note that we speak of “fear” here as simple fear of punishment, whether in this life or the next, and not of yirat haromemmut, “awe of God’s transcendence”). This chapter, and others of its ilk (including the second paragraph of Shema—Deut 11:13-21—recited twice daily) appeal to the individual to serve God and perform his mitzvot out of “intelligent self-interest”: that is, so as to enjoy the good life, and avoid punishment.

And yet, we know that in innumerable places in Hazal this path is seen as an inferior one. The preferred path is that of service of God out of love, for its own sake, as a supreme value in its own right: “Do not be like servants who serve the master to get a reward, but be like those servants who serve the master not for the sake of a reward.” Elsewhere, the Rabbis feel the need to seek justification for the person who studies Torah “not-for-its-own-sake,” concluding that, even if a person has some ulterior motif, it is still preferable that he serve God “not-for-its-own-sake, for through that he will come to do it for-its-own-sake,” and “the light in it will turn him to the good.” Maimonides, in the crowning chapter of his Laws of Repentance, extols the path of those who “serve God out of love”; those who do so “in order to receive blessings or to merit the life of the Next World” are seen as following an inferior path, suitable only for “children, women, and the ignorant.”

Having said all that, one should mention an additional factor: that the present wave of return to Judaism—adults, both young and in mid-life, who are doing so out of personal choice and decision—does not seem to be motivated by arguments about blessings and rain and abundant produce, nor by hopes of the Afterlife, but by a genuine spiritual quest, what Maimonides describes as “recognizing the good because it is good.” Is this not a whole generation of “ovdei me-ahavah”?

The question I have posed to myself, then, is: if the path of ahavah is so positive and desirable, what is the point of “service through fear”? What, if anything, does this chapter have to say to the sophisticated, spiritually aware, modern religious personality?

Two answers come to mind: consistency & solidity. If we are honest, it is difficult to image any figures, apart perhaps from Abraham and Moses, who were consistently on the level of pure, altruistic, disinterested one. A man is close to himself. He has higher and lower moments; times of greater and lesser spiritual clarity and insight: mohin degadlut and mohin de-katnut. For the lower moments, the stretches of spiritual aridity in a person’s life (which may last for hours, days, or at times even months or years at a time), one needs the service through “fear,” to encourage one to plod through at least the minimum mitzvot. (Unless one wants to take the “all or nothing,” idealistic position, of those intense young people who may say that, “if it’s not lishmah it’s not worth anything).

Educationally, too, this approach has certain advantages. When raising children, one cannot, at the beginning, expect action motivated by pure love and altruism. Motivation may be based on his seeking the parent’s love—but also fear of the parents’ ire. To those modern, progressive parents who eschew the use of fear and punishment, I would only comment that fear need not be of slaps, but can also be of coldness, of parental withdrawal and displeasure. A pun on the verse Ki beapam hargu ish (Gen 49:6: “in their anger they killed men”), reads “you can also kill (or at least devastate) another person by turning your nose up at them.”

Third, about the neophytes who are serving “out of love”; there is need for a certain honesty and penetrating heart-searching. It is at least possible for there to be a certain admixture of refined pleasure seeking in religious return, too. Sitting in a pleasant synagogue, singing songs on a Saturday morning in concert with other like-minded individuals, and then being invited to someone’s home for a sumptuous repast, can be quite pleasant. I recall on a number of occasions how Rav Soloveitchik would say that the basis for plain, workaday fulfillment of the mizvot is yirah: i.e., simple fear of God.


So we come to the end of Sefer Vayikra, which has taken us through a series of laws: sacrifices; purity and impurity of food, bodily discharges, etc.; holiness in sexual behavior and in general interpersonal ethics; the round of the year, and the grand round of 7 years and 7 times 7 years. And, at the end, concluding with blessing and curse, and the festive (seemingly) final verse: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the Lord made between himself and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai by Moses” (26:46).

But wait! There is still one more chapter: a dry, legal chapter talking about something called “valuations,” with a strange Hebrew name, ‘erkekha, a phrase using the possessive suffix but constructed as a regular noun. And all this, describing a gift that a person chooses to give to the Temple, based davka upon the “value” of himself or his father or mother or child or wife. This whole thing is a kind of anti-climax, a bone stuck in throat. What is it doing here?

I will not address myself here to the substance of this mitzvah. My own explanation for this location (which may be completely off base) is that this is a kind of transitional chapter to Bamidbar, which is most difficult of the five books to understand, certainly in terms of its internal order and arrangement. I shall elaborate this point in Shabbat Bamidbar, which is no longer far away.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Rabbi Milton Feist - In Memoriam

This Shabbat, the 12th of Iyyar, marks the 30th yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir (Milton) Feist, a dear friend and teacher, who profoundly shaped my life. I felt this an appropriate occasion to retell something of his story. What follows is an abridgement and adaptation of an article that originally appeared in Response; A Contemporary Jewish Review 27 (Fall 1975), 109-115, shortly after his death.

I first met Rabbi Feist in 1966, at a weekday afternoon service in a synagogue on the West Side of Manhattan. At first I had assumed he was someone, perhaps an artist or a college professor, who had come to shul simply to say Kaddish. He was in a wheelchair, and conveyed a sense of great dignity, culture and intelligence. He wore a long, flowing grey beard, long hair covered with a beret, and a nondescript dark suit. His face bore a calm, peaceful expression, with the hint of a humorous twinkle in his eyes. He spoke in deep, mellow tones with a native American accent. But something in the way he prayed, and in a casual comment he made to one of the men in the shul—he spoke of a certain place where “Minha on a weekday is like Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur elsewhere”—revealed the deep wellsprings of Judaism upon which he drew.

It was more than a year until I got to know him more than superficially. One evening we happened to take our meals together in the sukkah, we began to talk, and he invited me to visit him. His crowded apartment was filled helter-skelter with books and papers and paintings and Talmud folios. Somewhere in the middle of all this, at a small triangular table where we sat and talked and drank brandy, the many different worlds in which this man lived started to come alive. The world of artists and musicians and writers. The world of the German-Jewish balabatim of the West Side—those stolid, conventional souls who made up our congregation and others like it. The world of the Hebrew poets and mystics of medieval Provence and Spain, figures with whom he seemed to share an inner life. He loved the piyyutim with which they had adorned the liturgical year, and knew them well. The world of Hasidism—but not the Hasidism of those who flock to this or that rebbe, but that which is a teaching about how to serve God. Although he was a devotee of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, he spoke about the need for a “Catholic Hasidism,” one which would foster the study of all of its many streams. The world of Musar—the ethical discipline of Rabbi Israel Salanter and his disciples. The world, finally, of my contemporaries—of college students struggling to discover themselves, seeking to become better Jews, and weathering the storms of relationships with parents and friends. As I was to learn, this man, forty years older than myself, confined to a wheelchair, was a center of vital energy for an entire group of students—as teacher, friend and confidant.

At the end of that first evening he gave me a gift: a large Hebrew book, Likkutei Muharan, the collected teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. He explained that he always kept two copies of this book in his home—one for himself, which he studied regularly; another, which he kept on hand “to give to someone whom he felt might benefit from it.” And indeed, for me this was an entry, not only into the world of Rabbi Nahman, but to that of Hasidic thought and teaching generally. He was born in Mt. Vernon, New York in 1907, the middle son of a family of Alsatian Jews. At the age of four he was stricken by polio, which left him without the use of his legs for the rest of his life. His family was not religiously observant; at some point fairly early in life he chose this path for himself. Already in his youth and early manhood he devoted much of his time to the study of Torah; so much so, that he was given semikha by Rav Mendel Zaks, the protege {son-in-law) of the Hafetz Hayyim. He earned his living in the family business, a music publishing house, which brought him into contact with the unconventional, bohemian life of Manhattan’s creative artists. During a certain period he even lived in Greenwich Village, where he spent whole nights talking and drinking with artist and writer friends, including some of the early beatniks, such as Jack Kerouak.

Around his fiftieth year, he turned towards a more intensive religious life. He grew a beard, began to study Musar, Hasidism and Kabbalah, and to pray using the mystical kavvanot of Rabbi Moshe Cordevero. Some years after we met, he sold his business, left the West Side, and moved to the great yeshiva at Lakewood, New Jersey, where he spent his days and nights immersed in the study of Torah. In 1974, he realized a lifelong dream and visited Eretz Yisrael for the High Holy Days. (I had gone there at the same time to study at the yeshivah at Gush Etzion. I remember my great joy one day when I suddenly encountered him in one of the alley-ways of Meah Shearim.) He made a second trip that Pesah, and began to give serious thought to settling there. But a few days after his return to the States he became ill with double pneumonia, and early in the morning of the 12th of Iyyar, 5735, returned his soul to its Creator.

Some scenes from his life:

Coming home from shul, he holds in his lap his tallit and tefillin, together with a copy of Siddur Tefilla le-Moshe, with Kabbalistic kavvanot on each word of the text. He refers to this tongue in cheek as his “wiring-chart Siddur,” yet he prays out of it with great devotion.

I visit him in his apartment for Melaveh Malkeh (the meal of escorting out the Sabbath) and offer to carry the food from his kitchen to the table. For him to do so, he would have to make a 180-degree turn in his wheelchair —a difficult maneuver. He refuses my offer: I am his guest.

I visit him at Lakewood, and he comments on one of the boys who is suffering from an “excess of Mussar.” Then he leans forward and, in a conspiratorial whisper, quotes something from Teresa of Avila about the dangers of excessive soul-searching for the religious life. He never failed to note the irony and humor in human life, and to comment on it in his own gentle way.

Once or twice I was given deeper intimations of his own inner life. On one occasion, he described to me something that sounded very much like a mystical revelation. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah he had stayed up, struggling to bring himself close to God, meditating on the Enthronement of the Almighty which takes place on that day, until at dawn… “what happened then I cannot tell you.” He spoke constantly about the coming in Messiah, and expected him at any moment. Before I left for Israel, I visited him at Lakewood. When I mentioned that I was leaving the following Tuesday, he said, “In that case, I shall certainly be there long before you.” Yet he did not think of himself as having attained any degree of holiness, would insist that he was a sinful person, and that his attainments in learning were much less than those of even the younger boys in Lakewood.

As a young man pulled in many direction in Cambridge of the late ‘60’s, Rabbi Feist served for me as a kind of focus radiating love and understanding—he, too, understood the attractions of a “counter-cultural,” radical life style—while pulling me back towards the tradition, in all of its uncompromising strength. Several letters he wrote to me during this period reflect his outlook:

Yes, I do think I have emunah peshutah [simple faith]. It is not the result of ignoring intellectual difficulties, but simply the conviction that, since the Torah is true, anything else which is true can be reconciled with it. This, and the realization that secular “truths” go in and out of fashion as fast as tight and loose trousers.

But this in itself does not give one mastery over the Yetzer ha-Ra [Evil Urge]. He is a cunning old malakh [angel] and he has the power to find the right “pitch” for everyone. When one has licked him at some gross level, he comes back at a more refined level. This is true of his use of sex, too… In each shell of sin, there is a spark of holiness (which is ahavah [love] itself) which is what the Yetzer ha-Ra dangles before the more developed personality.

If I have been of any help it is not because of any merit [on my part], but simply that I have gone and am still going through such storms myself. If I have made any progress it is this: I am no longer confused by the fact that things that the Torah forbids can seem to me not only desirable but good.…

To me, the most striking thing about Rabbi Feist was his union of deep piety with warm humanity, insight and love of others. He was not only a man of halakha, who scrupulously observed every detail of the Shulhan Arukh, but one whose Avodat ha-Shem, whose service of God, was full of life and vitality. There was a freshness about everything he did, which reflected his own personality. The presence of God was as real to him as that of another person present in the same room. Yet he was capable of relating to all kinds of people with total acceptance and love. He was unfailing filled with good cheer, humor, and warmth. Nor did his piety prevent him from maintaining a certain sense of irony and a keen awareness and understanding of the world of secular modernity. I was never conscious of the gap in age between us. We talked as openly and freely as two contemporaries. I don’t remember him ever saying a cruel or harsh word to anybody; he was never impatient with people; he never complained about the hardship he had to endure because of his handicap—or, for that matter, about any of the petty things which most people complain about during the course of daily life. Indeed, he was probably the happiest person I ever met. Perhaps this is the highest praise that can be said.

Emor (Archives)

"For the crown of the anointing oil of his God is upon him…”

The first half of this weeks’ portion (Leviticus, Chs. 21-22) consists of a series of laws addressed specifically to the Kohanim, the members of the hereditary priesthood: special regulations governing their personal life even outside of the Temple; rules disqualifying them from offering sacrifices if they have certain physical blemishes or imperfections or if they are in a state of impurity; rules about the bodily integrity and perfection of the sacrificial animal; etc. The first two sections (21:1-9; 10-15) are concerned, respectively, with the ordinary priests and with the kohen gadol (“high priest”), and contain certain prohibitions that apply only to them. These are concerned with three areas: ritual impurity and avoidance of contact with dead bodies; avoidance of pagan-like mourning practices; and restrictions on marriage to certain categories of women. In each of these three areas, the rules applied to the high priest are more stringent than those applying to the rest of the priestly caste. Thus, regarding contamination with the dead, exceptions are made for the regular kohanim for death of immediate family members, while the high priest is allowed no exception whatsoever. In terms of marriage restrictions, the ordinary kohen is not allowed to marry women who have been divorced, harlots, those who have been “defiled” (and, by Rabbinic exegesis, proselytes to Judaism), while the high priest is barred even from marrying a widow, but must take “a virgin from his own people.”

The underlying concept seems to be that the priest must be on a higher level of purity than others, and that this purity involves, not only ritual purity, so as not to “defile” the Temple and its offerings, but also a certain moral purity. (We mentioned the intertwining of these two kinds of tum’a, the “technical” and the moral, earlier.) This includes avoiding contact with women who are seen as somehow impure or “defiled.” Like many things in the Torah, especially in Leviticus (as we mentioned earlier in connection with kashrut), the root of this law lies as much in the realm of what might be called “sensibility” or “aesthetic” as that which can be explained in self-evident, rational terms. There is something objectionable to a woman passing through too many hands. (Vladimir Lenin’s quip—that a woman should be like a glass of water, contact with too many lips rendering her/it unaesthetic— comes to mind) The Torah “sensibility” finds something distasteful in a woman having been with too many men—for whatever reason.

These laws are among those that are most problematic to many modern people, on both the principled and the practical level. On the level of principle: the entire institution of the priesthood seems objectionable, as “anti-democratic,” based on a hierarchical conception of society, and on the implication that one person can somehow be ”closer” to God than another. On the practical level, the objections to these rules focus particularly on the restrictions on marriage. What sense does it make to place so many irksome restrictions on the kohen—particularly as today’s kohanim do not perform any particular religious function, beyond being called up first to the Torah and reciting the Priestly Blessing a few days a year, at least in the Diaspora (it is done daily in most parts of Israel)? Stories of kohanim who fell in love with divorcees or converts, and were unable to marry their beloved, are legion. Moreover, most of us would doubtless agree that there is nothing inherently “wrong” with a divorcée. (All the more so, given the ubiquity of divorce today, and both the absence of stigma to it, and the feeling that many divorces are clearly not in any sense the wife’s “fault”—e.g., situations of philandering, abusive, or even dangerously violent husbands, etc.) So why should they be prohibited to the kohen?

Perhaps we can begin to understand this hierarchical model, at least on the structural level—even if we may find it difficult to accept—by referring to the three “dimensions“ of traditional Jewish (and especially Kabbalistic) thought. These are: Olam, Shanah, Nefesh: “world” (i.e., space), “year” (i.e., time), and “soul” (i.e., the diversity of human individuals). Just as we accept it as natural that there are holy place and holy times—in the realm of holy space, at least, there is even the Mishnah’s model of “ten levels of holiness” (Mishnah Mikva’ot, Ch. 8), in which the world and the Land of Israel are pictured as consisting of a series of concentric churches of sanctity—so too are there differentations among people.

This three-fold aspect of kedusha, of holiness, is described in a famous story attributed to one of the Hasidic masters: There was no holier moment than when the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur: a confluence of holiness in time, space and person. Yet, he added, every person, at every moment, at every place, is potentially able to attain holiness, like the high priest in that unique moment in time and place. This dictum expresses the tension between awareness and acceptance of this hierarchical scheme of holiness, and the “democratic” notion of the universality of God’s presence, and His being “close to all who call upon him in truth.”

Israel Knohl, in his book The Silent Sanctuary, speaks of the religious experience of the priests as being far more sophisticated than hitherto thought. He writes of the underlying conception of the sacrificial “cult” being based upon an intense sense of the Divine transcendence, of being pervaded by an atmosphere of awe and solemnity. God is experienced as the mysterium tremendum, the “Wholly Other”; as transcending the realm of the personal. Hence, worship in the Temple was marked by utter silence. Perhaps the restrictions placed upon the kohanim are somehow related to this numinous quality of their experience.

I might add that I have experienced in my own life some of this sense that there are people who exist on a wholly different spiritual level than the everyday person. My own religious sensibility has been shaped more than a little by certain occasions of encountering or observing Gedolei Yisrael. Some of these men were, to my mind, a testimony to the presence of the Shekhinah in Israel: of the reality of holiness in the life of human beings.

What I have written above are, of course, not definitive answers, but more on the order of personal ramblings and struggle with what is a difficult and unresolved issue.

“Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12)

The festivals and holy times of the Jewish year, treated in Leviticus 23, a chapter known as Parshat ha-Moadot, is a vast subject. Indeed, as Franz Rosenzweig once said, “the calendar is the catechism of the Jew.” I have written about some of the holidays in their turn, and will with God’s help treat them all in due course. Today, I will speak of only one aspect—Sefirat ha-Omer—which is also apt in terms of the season we are in.

The section in vv. 9-22—the longest single unit within the chapter—is striking. It describes the ritual surrounding the harvest of the first sheaf (‘omer) of new grain in springtime and then, seven weeks later, the bringing of the first baked offering of the new grain harvest, on a day referred to only as a “holy convocation.” What is interesting is that, read without preconceptions—meaning, also, without the guidance of the Jewish Rabbinic tradition—this entire section does not specifically refer to Pesah or any other calendrical date at all. (As is well-known, the proper date of the ceremonies described here was the subject of one of the most acrimonious polemics in Rabbinic times between the Pharisees and the Saducees). Read literally, the text simply states that the first sheaf of the grain harvest should be brought to the priest, who waves it before God, “when you reap your harvest”—i.e, when the grain is ripe, which is usually around Passover, but can easily be a week or two before or after!

In any event, we have here a seasonal, agricultural ritual, presumably intended as a sign of gratitude and acknowledgment of God’s bounty and blessing. In this, it is similar to many other offerings and rituals related to the first of just about everything, from first fruits, to the first sheering of a sheep, to the first born of man, cattle, and even of donkey, to the first portion of bread and dough baked in the oven.

The act of counting is interesting. Agriculture is characterized, more than anything, by its hidden character. Like other organic processes, grain grows within the earth, slowly, unhurriedly, hidden from human eyes, much like the gestation of a child within its mother’s womb.

But these seven weeks also correspond to the seven weeks between Pesah and Shavuot, the bridge between the Redemption from Egypt and the Epiphany at Sinai, and the counting described in verse 15 is known as Sefirat Haomer, the “Counting of the Omer.” Interestingly, while the Talmud contains only two or three lines on this practice, it is greatly elaborated in later Jewish tradition: both in terms of its halakhic structure; in terms of the customs of semi-mourning associated with this period; and, especially, in its great elaboration in the Kabbalah as a time of tikkun—of both personal and even cosmic repair. One prayer recited by many people involves reflection upon a series of combinations of the Sephirot, the Divine potencies or building blocks of the universe; others see it as a time of preparation for receiving the Torah and of reflection on the “48 qualities” needed to acquire Torah; popular folk custom has one studying Pirkei Avot, the “Ethics of the Fathers,” during the six Shabbat afternoons between Pesah and Shavuot; etc.

I would like to draw a certain connection between its agricultural meaning and the spiritual and personal/psychological interpretation by seeing Sefirat ha-Omer as focused on the hidden processes of growth within the human soul. I find it interesting that the name of the festival that comes at the culmination of the seven weeks is called Shavuot—literally, “weeks”—a word that refers to time. It is as if to say: personal growth towards becoming a vessel for receiving Torah cannot be rushed or forced; ultimately, it is not dependent or contingent upon human effort or will. One can learn “material”—Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, halakha—but the inner qualities, ethical, emotional, spiritual, that make one a “Ben Torah” are in the final analysis matters for maturation and growth, just like the grain slowly ripening within the earth or in the field.

One can look at the counting of the Omer as a period of meditation on the nature of time. Time is the fabric, the element within which we live our lives. It cannot be altered or hastened. Such a modality brings to mind the ambience of the Eastern religions (and the contemporary interest in “Buddhist-Jewish” synthesis). The Zen koan, a paradox upon which one meditates, intended to “break down logical thinking,” to open our minds to the sense of the ineffable in life, “out there” or deep within. Something similar can happen through simply meditating on time as that through which one flows. Too often, in the “standard” Jewish religious world, one feels that the quintessence of religious intensity and seriousness is expressed in a certain quality of tension, the acme of religious life being a constant sense of effort, of striving, of pushing. We could do with a bit of silence, of feeling the “still small voice” within the flow of time. Again, the art of slow, meditative prayer, of not “getting through the davening” but of “entering into the word” seems to be a lost art among all but a handful. Certain modes in Hasidism seem to point in the same direction: as in the story of the proud Yeshiva bokhur, who strutted around the Beit Midrash, boasting of how “I went through ten pages of Talmud today,” to which his mentor answered, “Yes, but how many pages of Talmud went through you?” Many have observed that Judaism is more hospitable to the aural than to the visual, to the word rather than to the image (see what I wrote on imagery in Yitro). Perhaps one might add that, within the three-fold hierarchy mentioned earlier, holiness in time is far more cultivated by Judaism, and far less problematical, than holiness of either person or place.

Interestingly, the section about the harvesting and waving of the omer, the counting of seven weeks, and the observance of Shavuot, concludes with a single verse containing the mitzvot of pe’ah and leket: the leaving of a corner of the field, and of the gleanings of the harvest of field, vineyard and orchard for the poor—a system set up by the Torah for the benefit and protection of the poor. Its location here is strange: this is the only place I can think of where the Torah, in the midst of a discussion of one topic, that of special days, intersperses a totally non-related commandment: in this case, one related to procedures of harvesting (which is the subject), and of ethical/societal concern. A weighty question, deserving of further reflection.

An Excursus on the Counting of the Omer

First, a brief “lomdishe” (Talmudic-halakhic) excursus on the laws of Sefirat ha-Omer. One of the halakhic disputes concerning this mitzvah revolves around the question as to whether or not a person who had forgotten to count the Omer one day may continue to do so thereafter. The classic position of the Sephardic rishonim (Medieval authorities) is that one may do so, implying that the counting for each day is an independent entity; while the Ashkenazic poskim, most notably the Halakhot Gedolot, state that, if one misses one day, one has essentially lost the entire mitzvah, and cannot resume counting thereafter, as the counting is one interdependent entity; just as in “real” life, if one misses one unit of any thing one “loses count.” Contemporary Ashkenazic practice—that one continues counting, but without the blessing—is essentially a compromise between these two positions. A second difference between the two schools concerns the precise wording to be used in counting: “Today is so-and-so many days and weeks la-omer” (“of the Omer”) or “ba-omer “(“in the Omer”). Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l once explained this dispute as follows: the underlying issue is whether the counting of the Omer involves cardinal or ordinal numbers. Is the mitzvah to count one day after another, until one “accumulates” 49 days, and knows that it is time for Shavuot—making any omission crucial; or is it merely to note ones position within the continuum of 49 days—and thus even if one misses one day, one may continue, so long as it is possible to accurately reconstruct ones correct position within the days?

This discussion seems pregnant with philosophical implications concerning the nature of time. Is time flowing and continuous, or a collection of disjointed units, of which the day, as the basic unit of time, is the most elemental? (Interestingly, Prof. Gershon Brin of Tel-Aviv University, in a new book on the nature of time in the Bible, notes that the word yom is the fifth most frequently used word in the entire Bible.) Is time cumulative, or an “ever-present moment”? One is reminded of the conventional wisdom as to the difference between concepts of time in Eastern and Western religion. Judaism (and in its wake Christianity and Islam) is said to see time as an arrow, moving towards ultimate eschatological redemption. In Eastern thought, time is perceived in more cyclical terms, as an eternal continuum, ever-returning to its starting point; or, even more radically, as an illusion (maya), to be pushed aside to reach inner psychological enlightenment. Is it possible that within Judaism too there is a valid sub-current which sees time in less arrow-like ways?

"“He who curses the name of the Lord shall be put to death”

The incident described towards the end of Emor, in which a certain man, during the course of a quarrel, blasphemed and cursed the name of God, and was subsequently stoned (24:10-23), seems very alien to our way of thinking. The idea of putting a person to death merely for a certain use of words, no matter how shocking, seems to us moderns “primitive,” chilling, frighteningly inhuman and uncompassionate.

What is it about this story that is so distant to us? Ultimately, the assumption made in the Bible is that words are taken with utter seriousness. A word, a name, in some sense not only symbolizes or represents a given thing, but also captures its essence, or may even in some sense BE that essence. For us, words are more often thought of as arbitrary signs, symbolic means of referring to that which is, in fact, “real.” During the 1960’s, one of the important expressions of the youth counter-culture was the use of explicit language as a way of combatting what was perceived as the “hypocrisy” of established society, particularly in sexual matters. Girls began to use four-letter words, hitherto considered unladylike. Significantly, the first massive student movement of the ‘60’s, even before the Columbia revolt of’68, was the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink some of these issues amd attitudes. I recently came across an aggadic passage that stresses the importance of seemliness in speech, noting that the Torah deliberately uses wordy circumlocutions to avoid “impure” forms of expression (Pesahim 3b). In any event, it is clear that biblical man felt that words contained real power, and hence the man who cursed God’s name was challenging and undermining something very central to society. Precisely because God is ineffable, unknowable as He is in Himself, unutterably transcendent… for that reason His Name—His “handle,” in old Western slang, meaning, that by which one grasps hold of the other—must be treated with the reverence due Him, as so-to-speak one of the points of meeting between God and man.

Interestingly, the phrase “Kiddush Ha-Shem” means, literally, the sanctification of God’s Name. The imprecation in Deut 28:58 speaks of fearing “the weighty and awesome name, the Lord your God.” Again, if we say that the essential uniqueness of the human being lies in his being medaber, a speaking creature, than words and names are important as a basic instrument of expressing and creating culture (this is also a theme of modern philosophical anthropology and semiotics—but that’s another discussion).

Perhaps I’m becoming an “old fogey” with the passing years, but I find myself increasingly having second thoughts on the liberal, tolerant society (see also Marcuse’s Critique of Pure Tolerance). There is something very negative in the attitude, which seems to be carried to an extreme in today’s society, that sees tolerance, pluralism and democracy as the ultimate values in themselves. The underlying assumption is that there is no absolute “truth,” and that ultimately human beings themselves, alone, create whatever standards they wish. The logical consequence of such a position is the erosion and erasure of all standards—which is, of course, diametrically opposed to the most basic axiom of Torah; that there is a Law, and a Law-giver.

This relates back to my earlier discussion about homosexuality. One reader commented that I sounded almost like American Protestant fundamentalist preacher/politician Jerry Falwell when I said “hate homosexuality, but love the homosexual.” My answer to this is two-fold. First, it all depends where one places the emphasis: on the hatred of sin, or on genuine love and compassion towards ones fellow human beings, including the “sinner.” I would hope that my personal track record, both in terms of what I have written here, and my personal behavior, including willingness to accept and help a very broad spectrum of people, regardless of their beliefs or practices, makes it clear where I stand. Perhaps because I have come from such a tolerant and open-minded place, I feel more strongly today the need to reassert certain standards and absolutes.

Our culture today “loves”—meaning, it tolerates and accepts—just about everybody. We are extremely reluctant to judge others. “Don’t be judgmental” is almost an eleventh commandment of modern, psychoanalytically healthful culture. The opposite pole —that of clearcut moral standards right & wrong—seems to be in retreat. The Falwells and their ilk, who have made themselves a self-declared “Moral Majority,” have emerged with intense venom and hatred in reaction to the excesses of liberalism and tolerance. In a certain sense, it is an understandable and expected reaction, indicating that society is going in a wrong direction; but of course, the hatred that simmers just below the surface is unhealthy and potentially destructive. (I will try to define my own quest for the “golden mean” and balance in the next week or two).

Behar (Archives)

Sabbatical & Jubilee Year: “If your brother becomes poor”

In reading this portion (Leviticus 25), attention is most often focused on the Sabbatical year, with its ban on agricultural labor and the numerous practical halakhic issues which arise as a consequence. Since the return of Jews to tilling the soil of the Land of Israel, beginning with the sabbatical year of 1882, this issue has been one of the most controversial polemic points among religious Jewry; it has often served as a litmus test of different group’s attitudes towards the Zionist enterprise, and whether their orientation toward the problem is national and collective, or private and sectarian. All this naturally comes to a head as the shemita year approaches, as it does now. There are numerous rules which affect the lives even of non-agriculturalists, re eating various types of food-stuffs grown, harvested, or stored in violation of these rules. There are various halakhic devices for coping with the Sabbatical year in a modern state: from the controversial “heter mekhira,” in which the entire land is sold to a non-Jew (a procedure reminiscent of the more familiar sale of hametz before Passover); to hydroponics, in which produce is grown in water vats, technically above the land itself; to otzar bet din, in which food that grows by itself is sold through a religious court, which technically speaking only charges for transportation and distribution; to those who buy food from Arab greengrocers (on the often erroneous assumption that they only sell produce from the Arab sector).

But this chapter of the Torah deals with other, far broader issues of economics and the responsibility of society to all its members. Beginning with the institution of the jubilee year, in which all land returns to its original owners, it presents a series of laws stating what one must do “when your brother waxes poor”: when he is forced to sell his homestead, or his house within a city, or to borrow money, or to sell himself as a bondsman to pay back his debts, whether to a fellow Israelite or to a stranger. In general, it is incumbent upon his family members, near and far, and by extension upon society as a whole, to take whatever measures necessary—including substantial outlays of money on his behalf—to help him out and to restore him to his former situation. In brief, the laws here create a wide and extensive social safety net. (To the laws in this chapter one must add the cancellation of debts every seven years, stipulated in Deut 17:1-11) The underlying conception is two-fold: first, that the land, and wealth in general, originate in and belong to God; “they are my servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt” (v. 42). Property is ultimately placed in people’s hands by God as a surety or pledge; it does not really “belong” to its owner. Second, as a corollary, poverty and indebtedness is seen as an accident, a chance event, which does not detract from the human worth and dignity of the person who has become impoverished. Hence, ultimately (although over an admittedly long period of time), certain measures are provided to redeem the poor man from his losses and to assure him his rightful share in the Land of Israel.

These rules may be read as a counterpoint and complement to the social laws of Kedoshim (Lev 19): not to oppress others, not to lie or cheat, not to delay paying wages, etc.—in brief, opposing “unlawful” gain. The basic concept, both there and here, is that one must not treat ones fellow man as an object to be exploited, nor as a rival or even mortal enemy in the struggle for survival, but as a fellow who, like oneself, was created in the image of God and redeemed from Egypt. Here, complementing the mostly negative proscriptions of Ch. 19, we have a series of positive rules requiring one to treat ones fellow as oneself, specifically in the economic area.

After reading this parshah, the connection of pe’ah—the leaving of the corner of the field to the poor—to Shavuot, as noted in last week’s portion, begins to make more sense. If the central theological conception is that God rules over all and owns all, including the land and the people who dwell therein, two interrelated consequences follow: a) that we should acknowledge this fact in various ceremonial ways, many of which are given us by the Torah and the halakha, e.g., the mitzvah of waving the omer; b) that we should look at our fellow man in a brotherly, equal way, sharing with him in God’s bounty—hence leaving the corners of the field for the poor and indigent. Thus the connection between peah and omer and cognate commandments. Beyond that, linking Shavuot, as the festival of Torah, to a representative mitzvah of human responsibility and mutuality also makes sense.

A similar connection exists regarding the reading of the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Theologically: because she was the first proselyte, the first to voluntarily accept Torah covenantal existence, undergoing in the “micro” what the entire people had experienced at Sinai in the “macro.” But also because the setting for the events is “at the time of the barley and the wheat harvests” (2:23), and the encounter with Boaz took place in that setting, in Ruth’s (and by proxy Naomi’s) role of poor people gathering the portions allotted to them.

Thus far the text. As soon as one reflects on the reality of modern society, the contrast is striking. In recent years, the axiom that ”man to man is a wolf” has become accepted in broad circles of the Western democracies as normative. We live in an age of “Neo-Liberalism,” in which global capitalism has acquired the power to pursue its agenda unfettered and with impunity. A series of myths have even given this view a veneer of intellectual respectability: that the fall of Soviet Communism somehow “proved” or “vindicated” the validity of the capitalist system (as if democratic socialism or social-democratic alternatives may be rejected out of hand); theories of “drip-down” economics, according to which economic growth and maximal profits for huge corporations will eventually benefit the ordinary citizen (a theory which patently disregards human greed); the grandiose conceit of the “End of History”; the betrayal by university economists of their own intellectual independence and integrity by supporting the policies of the multi-national corporations with hardly a dissident voice; the myths that globalization will make the world a cozy “global village,” making the lives of people in India or Taiwan or the Arab Emirates so much better because they can enjoy “Baywatch” and MacDonalds, etc., etc . Meanwhile, bodies like the World Bank and the WTO dictate internal social policy to smaller countries dependent on them for loans; in more and more sectors, the gains of trade unions are being reversed by the creation of “special contract” work situations for many lower- and middle-grade professionals, without any job security or social benefits—not even holidays, or sick days (I have seen this process with my own eyes in, for example, a major Israeli newspaper); and so on.

What has all this to do with “Torah”? In reading this parasha, so suffused with egalitarian values and the constant righting of individual economic tragedies, one wonders how any religious Jew can not be a socialist, and not support at least some elementary measures to level off the vast disparities of wealth in our society. Yet, to be honest, there are difficulties with this picture as reflecting biblical reality. The late Binyamin Uffenheimer, in two articles that relate to this chapter, uses the terms “myth and reality” or “utopia and reality,” to suggest that the picture drawn here is more of a utopian ideal, even a fantasy, than a blueprint for social life that was ever realized in actuality. There is no record of its practical observance in the historical books of the Bible, nor is it clear from the halakhic sources whether it was observed even during the First Temple period; it certainly was not by Second Temple times. The Torah law canceling all debts every seven years was found by the Rabbis to be unworkable. The Torah reinforces the dry law with moral exhortation on this point (Deut 17:7-11), knowing that people would be reluctant to loan money that they would never get back. By Mishnaic times the Sages developed a legal fiction to bypass it: Hillel’s prozbul, perhaps the classic example of Rabbinic legislation intend to reverse unworkable or “outmoded” laws. Similarly, the law in this chapter against taking interest (25:36-37) is bypassed by a mechanism known as heter iska, universally used by banks in Israel today, including the most Orthodox.

Rabbinic aggadah also contains a motif in which poverty is interpreted as the result of moral shortcomings, e.g., as punishment for profiteering in produce of the Sabbatical year. Thus, the various personal disasters found in this chapter are seen by the Talmud (in Kiddushin 20a) as a series of steps in such a person’s downfall, if he does not repent at each stage. This reflects an almost Calvinistic-type morality, in which wealth is seen as a sign of divine pleasure and vice versa. The fundamental question is: Why is it that, of all human shortcomings, economic greed remains so intractable to religious teaching and law? I do not pretend that Jews were exempt from the lures of the Yetzer ha-Ra, the “Evil Urge,” in other areas, but it does seem that the Torah succeeded, to a large extent, in at least creating communal, social norms that people were reluctant and even afraid to publicly flaunt, e.g., in the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and basic sexual morality (at least until the modern age). By contrast, in matters of economic greed, the Rabbis were essentially forced to capitulate to popular pressures and reinterpret many basic institutions out of existence. It is a sad commentary on human nature.

“Bar Yohai, Happy is She Who Bore You”

This coming week will be marked by the celebration of Lag ba-Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, a day of respite from the semi-mourning of the period of Sefirah: marked by bonfires, weddings, and pilgrimages to the graves of holy men, particularly the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the small sleepy Galilean town of Meron, where it is celebrated with ecstatic song and dance.

Tradition claims this day as the yahrzeit or hilula of Rabbi Simeon, author of Sefer ha-Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, which portrays him and a band of disciples wandering through the Galilee, discussing deep and hidden secrets of the Torah. The Zohar reports a special gathering —the “Idra”— held shortly before Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai died, possibly on the very day of his death, at which he revealed mystical secrets to his disciples. Two entire sections of the Zohar—the Idra Rabba and the Idra Zutra—are devoted to this great event. The popular ascription of this event to Lag ba-Omer adds a further mystical note to the celebration held in his honor. (Although contemporary Kabbalah scholars, such as the Hebrew University’s Yehudah Liebes, belief that this gathering in fact was meant to have taken place on Shavuot) One of the central hymns sung on this occasion, “Bar Yohai Nimshahta Ashrekha,” is even based upon the mystical scheme of the ten sefirot. One explanation for the custom of lighting bonfires on this day is that, at the time of his death, Rabbi Shimon’s soul was visible as an intense, brilliant fire. (Echoes of Elijah ascending heavenward in chariots of fire? See 2 Kgs 2)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day - Archives)

On the State of Our Statehood (2000)

What I wrote in my pre-Pesah reflections on the meaning of Jewish nationhood and peoplehood holds true as well, but even more so, for Yom ha-Atzmaut—Israel’s 52nd Independence Day. The bon ton of our age, at least among sophisticated, “modern” people, is that nationalism is passe. We live in a new, “internationalized” and “globalized” world without borders. Many Israelis seem deeply disillusioned in the reality of the state. At times, there seems to be an all-pervasive sense of frustration, of carping criticism, of the feeling that the state is not what people dreamed it would be nor what their sons, brothers, husbands or fathers gave their lives for. It’s not Jewish enough, or it’s too Jewish, i.e. religiously coercive. The government is too Left Wing, making too many concession to the Palestinians, or too Right Wing, following the essentially intransigent, “securitism” policy of Israel Gallili and Golda Meir of old, with minimum window dressing. The “new light” has “arisen on Zion,” but it’s not as bright or shining or clear as people had thought.

Hanna Kim, in a pre-independence op-ed piece (Ha-Aretz, 9-5-00, p. B-1), claims that nearly a third of the population of the state—the Haredim and the Arabs, to start with—don’t identify Yom Ha-Atzmaut as ”their” holiday. Indeed, Israeli society seems divided into tribes as never before: the Ultra-Orthodox; the Tel Aviv educated secularists; the so-called Sephardim or Oriental Jews, who after two generations, and in many cases at least a modicum of middle-class comfort and success, still seem to bear a strong feeling of ressentiment at past and present affronts at the hand of the ruling Ashkenazic establishment; the Russian immigrants, who seem happy to live with a “five o’clock shadow,” working at their professions by day while going home at might to their Russian-speaking sub-culture; and, of course, the Israel Arabs, who are still instinctively regarded by many as a real or potential “fifth column,” and perhaps rightly complain that the government neither lets them live their lives in peace and quiet, nor invest in a reasonable level of infrastructure and communal services for their towns and villages as it does for their Jewish cousins. There are those who say that, with peace at long last within sight, we are confronting the long-expected and long-feared Kulturkampf, the “cultural war” among the Jews themselves to determine the shape of our state, which may in many ways be far more violent and painful than our conflict with our enemies in the region.

I could write much more, but since today is nevertheless a day of celebration, I shall leave the “gevalt-saying”—a favorite Jewish pastime—aside. We have achieved normalcy, and this is its price. (Although perhaps too many Israelis, in their own mentality, still carry the complex of the persecuted Jews, and have not yet internalized what it means to be a majority, and to have other minorities subjugated to us, whose lives we can make pleasant or miserable depending upon our attitude toward them. For better or worse, there’s no way to put an entire population on the couch.)

When such lugubrious thoughts comes to mind, it is helpful to have some perspective of the truly remarkable fact that we live here in our own state, to reflect on the history of Jewry in Galut (Exile) over the past two millennia, and to appreciate what this has meant for the position of the Jew in the world. I think of my grandfather, an early Rabbinic activist in the nascent Zionist movement, first in Poland and then in the United States, who wrote in the dedication to his first volume of sermons on the weekly portion, “may we see the success of our sons and daughters, and merit to go up to Zion with song.” What would he have thought to know that, 75 years later, his a daughter and son-in-law lived there last years in a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel and are buried there, and that he has two grandsons and seven great-grandchildren living there? And that these great-grandchildren speak a revived Hebrew as their first language of social interaction with their peers, a language that for two millennia had been a formal language of learned written discourse, with a slightly stilted, archaic flavor, and not a vehicle of everyday discourse. For these two things alone: Dayenu!

Some Theological and Liturgical Thoughts on the Day

Every year on Yom ha-Atzmaut I feel a certain sense of frustration about its liturgy, and the failure of Religious Zionism to shape the holiday into one that would make a clear and definite religious statement. The “festive” prayer for Yom ha-Atzmaut is a hotchpotch of Yom Kippur, Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat Mevarkhim, and Pesah. One gets a sense that there is an avoidance of hard issues. Even such a simple thing as saying Hallel with a blessing is not yet self-evident, but a subject of constant debate. Every year, there seem to be more leading rabbis, who adopt crypto-Haredi stances, issuing pronunciamentos as to why one must not enter into the doubt of saying a brakha levatala, an unnecessary blessing, in this case. (As I was typing these words, I was interrupted by a phone call from a friend with this very question!) Bimhila mikvodam (no affront to the honor due them intended), but what on earth do they think the Talmud is talking about when it says that “On every occasion that Israel are in distress and then delivered, they are to recite the Hallel” (Pesahim 116a), if not the likes of Yom ha-Atzmaut?

This sense of—I don’t whether to rightly call it spiritual cowardice or simply hide-bound conservatism—is doubly surprising when one considers the spiritual radicalism in the very Zionist enterprise as such, including that of religious Zionism. Shmuel Hayyim Landau (Shahal), one of the early leaders of Mizrachi, used to speak of Mered ha-Kadosh, the “Holy Rebellion” of that movement against the Rabbinic establishment in Eastern Europe.

Another liturgical desideratum is the proper institutionalizing of the blessing Shehehaynu in the evening, at the onset of the holiday. I have made it my own custom, based on what I saw on Kibbutz Tirat Zvi may years ago, to recite Shehehaynu over a cup of wine, after Borei Peri Hagafen, at the beginning of my festive evening meal. This is preceded by biblical verses celebrating the Land of Israel (Deut 8:7-10), and ”This is the day the Lord has made, let us be happy and rejoice therein” (Ps 118:24)

It seems clear to me that Yom ha-Atzmaut as a religious holiday should be modeled after Hanukkah and Purim—i.e., weekdays, when it is permitted to work, but which are set aside as commemorative of major redemptive events that befell the Jewish people. The main liturgical feature of both of the other occasions is “Al ha-Nissim,” the paragraph describing the nature of the day inserted in the Amidah and in Birkat Hamazon. I have heard on good authority that there is no real halakhic difficulty in adding an Al ha-Nissim on an occasion like this.

The problem, of course, is that we have no “Shmuel Hakatan” in our generation to formulate such a prayer; no liturgical poets or paytanim of inspiration. (Indeed, there is an interesting historical dispute as to whether the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State,” was composed by the two chief rabbis of those days, or if it was “ghost-written” for them by S. Y. Agnon. The beauty and elegance of that prayer would suggest the latter.) Attempts have been made by some of the non-Orthodox groups, and by the Religious Kibbutz movement of thirty years ago, to write such a prayer, but I have not been personally over-impressed by the results, and in any event they have not caught on. It is disappointing that no figure from the heart of Religious Zionism has seen fit to take on this task.

What should such a prayer include? Three comments. First, while the Holocaust should be mentioned, I am wary of drawing too close a connection between the Holocaust and the Creation of the State, along such lines as “God compensated us for the tragic losses of the Holocaust by giving us our own homeland.” I have seen such things in some of the above-mentioned texts, and I dislike it for two reasons: 1) it’s bad theology. The "Holocaust leads to Statehood" mythology or “narrative” (which my kids were fed in the Israeli school system, under such titles as Galut le-Ge’ula, “From Exile to Redemption”) makes God out to be even more of a monster than if we leave things at saying that the Holocaust cannot be understood, period. 2) It’s bad history. There was a lot of important history that preceded the Holocaust: the emergence of a new Jewish mentality, the various aliyot, the settling of the first moshavot and kvutzot and kibbutzim in the Sharon and in Emek Yizra’el and Emek Hayarden, the draining of the swamps, the whole creation of a Hebrew culture and shadow-state institutions in the pre-State Yishuv are equally important, if not more so.

Second, a non-messianic interpretation of the meaning of our present national rebirth. There seems to be an inability within Religious Zionism to see Yom ha-Atzmaut in an historical, non-redemptive perspective. (For that reason, one often encounters Haredim and semi-Haredim who say that it’s less problematic for them to say Hallel on Yom Yerushalayim than on Yom ha-Atzmaut, because in the former case there were “visible, evident” miracles).

And yet, Reshit zemihat ge’ulatenu (“the first budding of our redemption”) is not the only option for a religious Zionist understanding of the State of Israel. Yeshayahu Leibovitz used to say that Zionism was a concrete historical movement which had to do with the Jews being “fed up with living under goyim.” He was of course opposed to any theologization of the State, but even within his general approach there can be room for celebrating the Creation of the State as a deliverance but not as The Redemption (yeshu’a as against ge’ula)—again, exactly like Hanukkah and Purim, which were redemptive events within the course of ongoing, unredeemed history. David Hartman speaks of the State of Israel as giving us an opportunity to realize Jewish values and “covenantal existence” on the social plane, within the context of a Jewish society and a Jewish “street.” (By the same measure, it also provides us innumerable opportunities to flub it, as we seem to be doing rather well.)

Gershom Scholem, I believe, once remarked that the focus of the mysticism of the Zohar and of Spanish Kabbalah was on returning to Creation, rather than in the eschatological movement toward Redemption. In a strange way, this may perhaps also provide a theological model for what we would like to see happen to Zionism: a turn towards Creation, as a model for this-worldly life lived under a sign of holiness without any of the hysteria of messianism, which we have so sadly witnessed during the past third-century.

Third—and this is the crux—we need to find a way to acknowledge and express human initiative as a way in which the Divine spirit working within human beings, and as a form of spirituality. Zionism was first and foremost a human movement—and at that, on the whole a secular movement—rather than a set of obvious miracles or acts of divine intervention. It involved a rejection of the passivity and the posture of “waiting for redemption” that had come to characterize Jewish religion. And yet, within that movement there was clearly a holy spark—and not only in the hidden or inadvertent sense celebrated by Rav Kook. Ehud Luz, in a fascinating study of ”Spiritualization and Anti-Spiritualization in Zionism” notes how, paradoxically, the very emphasis on the return to earthliness and the concrete was seen by many of the early Zionist thinkers as having a spiritual dimension. Thus, certainly, in A. D. Gordon, in Buber, in Berl Katzenelson, even in Ben-Gurion’s celebrated love of the Tanakh—but also, in a sense, even in such rebellious and “anti-spiritual” figures as Brenner and Berdyczewski. Hagshama, the active effort to realize the spirit within life, and the project of creating a “New Jew,” of forging a healthy, “normal,” natural culture on our own soil, were ultimately expressions of the Divine spark. To my mind, any authentic liturgical celebration of Yom ha-Atzmaut must come to grips with these phenomena.

Today, all this seems very distant. There is a massive return to bifurcation of the spiritual and the secular. The triumphalist mood of contemporary Orthodoxy, and the hostility and ressentiment of a movement like Shas, on the one hand, and the emphasis on money, high-tech success, escapist “trance” culture, and secular reaction to Orthodox militancy, on the other, make the prospects for such a synthesis more remote than ever. Certainly, there is a movement for a deeper, more genuine sort of dialogue, one that will bridge these yawning gaps in Israeli society—but this is, for the moment, a still, small voice in the tumult of the mainstream.

Haftarot: Isaiah 11-12: “The Stock of Jesse” Revisited

In many communities in Israel, it is customary to read the haftarah designated in the Diaspora for Aharon shel Pesah (the Last Day of Passover)—Isaiah 10:32–12:6—on Yom ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. (In recent years there has been some debate within the religious kibbutz movement as to whether or not this may be done with usual berakhot; Ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati has been at the forefront of those who attempt to maximize the celebration of Yom Ha-Atzma’ut as a religious holiday in every sense, and have been willing to undertake daring halakhic innovations in this direction.) In any event, this choice is presumably motivated by the idea of the State as reshit tzemihat geulatenu, the harbinger or beginning of the Messianic process; that, combined with the fact that this was an established and well-loved haftarah in the Diaspora which is “lost” in Israel due to our observance of only one day of each holiday.

There is a certain irony in the choice of this chapter, which emphasizes the total change in nature to be wrought by Messiah, as a reading for Yom ha-Atzma’ut, the day which more than any other symbolizes the naturalistic approach to the meaning of Messianism. But even apart from the issues of ”What kind of Messianism?” the issue of rationalism vs. supernaturalism, etc., which we raised in our earlier discussion of this haftarah (HY II: 7th Day of Pesah), and which we continue below in a somewhat different vein, this choice raises some important issues about the nature of Zionism; more particularly, how religious Jews and particularly those who call themselves Religious Zionists view the nature of Zionism. Is Zionism only important as a form of messianism, or does it have other dimensions of religious significance?

Zionism generally, of course, saw itself as a revolution in Jewish consciousness; it offered a return of the Jewish nation to history, not just as a passive object, everywhere a tolerated (or persecuted) minority dependent upon the good graces of others, but as a sovereign nation responsible for its own destiny. But this involved important religious possibilities as well. One theme, familiar from the thought of religious Zionism, was the naturalization of messianic hopes: the coming of Messiah viewed, not as a sudden, supernatural irruption into our world, as shown in any number of apocalyptic prophecies, but as a gradual, barely perceptible process, like the first faint light of dawn slowly dispelling the blackness of night. But there are other reasons to value the Jewish national revival: the return to autonomy, per se, has improved the Jewish lot. As Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it, Zionism was an expression of our being “fed up with living under the Goyim”: a simple, natural human reaction to a long-standing unnatural situation. In religious terms, this might be called a yeshu’ah (“deliverance”) —a Divinely aided amelioration of our situation within history, as contrasted with ge’ulah (“redemption”), a miraculous change meaning the end of history as we know it.

A third theme, articulated by David Hartman among others, is that the creation of the State provided the opportunity for implementation of Torah values in all aspects of human life within a living society, and not only in the constricted area of religious ritual, and individual piety, and the like. (Such, at least, is the dream on paper. I leave it to the readers, especially those living in the State of Israel, to evaluate the results. The existence of numerous religious political parties allegedly dedicated to the goal of tikkun olam be-malkhut Shaddai, of remaking the world as the kingdom of the Almighty, is frankly disappointing).

* * * * *

A brief comment about one of the halakhic aspects of the day. Some years before his death, Rabbi Shlomo Goren issued a rather strange halakhic ruling relating to years such as this, when 5 Iyyar falls on Shabbat. As is known, when Yom ha-Atzma’ut falls on a Friday or Shabbat, its public celebration—the state ceremony on Har Herzl, the World Bible Quiz, the Israel Prize ceremony and, in the early years, the military parade—is advanced to Thursday, so as to avoid desecration of the Shabbat. Rav Goren, in his pesak, suggested drawing a distinction between what might be called the “sacred’ and “secular” aspects of the day. He rules that Hallel should be recited in the synagogues on the Thursday in question, both evening and morning, without the usual blessing; and then, on the day that is “really” Yom ha-Atzmaut, in this case Shabbat, repeating it with a blessing.

With all due respect to this venerable sage, who was one of the few authentic halakhic geniuses of our era, I find something in this line of thinking that is “too clever by half” or, as they say in Yiddish, “uber-khokhom.” The best halakhic thinking has a certain elegant simplicity to it. To my mind, the excessive repetitions of Hallel only weaken its effect as an expression of thanksgiving. More important, this ruling somehow divides the people; it makes the dati’im feel more sectarian than they already are. Even if they may have a mangel (to the uninitiated readers; outdoor barbecue) or a hike in a nature reserve on this day, they are not “really” celebrating Yom Ha-Atzma’ut with their hiloni (secular) brethren, because the “real” Hallel is recited on a different day. I reject such an approach. Rav Goren assumes that what “sanctifies” Yom ha-Atzmaut as an occasion for thanksgiving is the date, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel. But one may plausibly argue that what really makes it “holy” is the fact that the people of Israel celebrate it as such. An analogy may be drawn from Purim Meshulash. When Purim falls on Shabbat we postpone the feast, the yom tov ve-mishteh, to the 16th of Adar. Perhaps one may formulate a general rule that on the minor, non-biblical festivals—or, lehavdil, the fixed fast days—when there is no formal kedushat hayom, the date of observance is itself more flexible, and may be moved for a variety of reasons; and, in this case, is determined by the people, by both popular and state-mandated observance.

Yom ha-Atzmaut and Liturgy

Two years ago (HY I: Yom Ha-Atzmaut), I noted a certain sense of frustration about the liturgy for Israel’s Independence Day, and the failure of Religious Zionism to shape the holiday into one that would make a clear and definite religious statement. The “festive” prayer for Yom ha-Atzmaut printed in most Siddurim is more or less a hotchpotch; even the recitation of full Hallel with a blessing seems to remain a subject of constant debate and controversy. What do the distinguished Rabbis think the Talmud is talking about when it states (b. Pesahim 116a) that “On every occasion that Israel are in distress and then delivered, they are to recite the Hallel,” if not the likes of Yom ha-Atzmaut? There is also need to make more widely known the permissibility and obligation, long since affirmed by the late Rav Goren z”l and others, to recite the blessing Sheheheyanu at the onset of the holiday. I have made it my own practice, based on what I saw on Kibbutz Tirat Zvi may years ago, to recite this blessing over a cup of wine, following Borei Peri Hagafen, at the beginning of my festive evening meal. This is preceded by biblical verses celebrating the Land of Israel (Deut 8:7-10), and ”This is the day the Lord has made, let us be happy and rejoice therein” (Ps 118:24)

But the most important liturgical expression, whose absence I feel keenly each year, would be an “Al ha-Nissim” paragraph, to be inserted in the Amidah and Birkat Hamazon, thereby signalling that we consider Yom ha-Atzmaut to be a religious holiday of standing similar to Hanukkah and Purim—i.e., weekdays, when it is permitted to work, but set aside as commemorative of major redemptive events that befell the Jewish people. I have heard on good Rabbinic authority that there is no real halakhic difficulty in adding an Al ha-Nissim on an occasion like this. The problem, of course, is that we have no “Shmuel Hakatan” in our generation to formulate such a prayer; no liturgical poets or paytanim of inspiration. (Indeed, there is an interesting historical dispute as to whether the “Prayer for the Welfare of the State,” was composed by the two chief rabbis of those days, or if it was “ghost-written” for them by S. Y. Agnon. The beauty and elegance of that prayer would suggest the latter.) Attempts have been made by all of the non-Orthodox groups, and by the Religious Kibbutz movement in the early years of the State, to compose such a prayer, but these have not caught on, and in the case of Kibbutz Ha-Dati even dropped from later editions of their Prayer Book for Yom ha-Atzmaut. I find it disappointing that no figure from the heart of Religious Zionism has seen fit to take on this task.

What ought such a prayer to include? Three comments. First, while the Holocaust should be mentioned, I am wary of drawing too close a connection between the Holocaust and the Creation of the State, along such lines as “God compensated us for the tragic losses of the Holocaust by giving us our own homeland.” I dislike such statements for two reasons: a) it’s bad theology. The mythology or narrative of “from Holocaust to Statehood” (Mi-shoah li-Tekumah) or even Mi-Galut le-Ge’ula (“From Exile to Redemption”) makes God out to be even more of a monster than if we leave things at saying that the Holocaust cannot be understood, period. b) It’s bad history. There was lots of important history that preceded the Holocaust, that was absolutely decisive for the creation of the State of Israel.

Second, a non-messianic interpretation of the meaning of our present national rebirth. There seems to be an inability within Religious Zionism to see Yom ha-Atzmaut in an historical, non-redemptive perspective, as witnessed by the statements emerging from the school of Rav Kook fils. I fear that we will be hearing a lot more along these lines with the new leadership of the NRP.

And yet, it is Reshit zemihat ge’ulatenu (“the first budding of our redemption”) is not the only option for a religious Zionist understanding of the State of Israel. Yeshayahu Leibovitz used to say that Zionism was a concrete historical movement which had to do with the Jews being “fed up with living under goyim.” He was of course opposed to any theologization of the State, but even within his general approach there can be room for celebrating the Creation of the State as a deliverance but not as The Redemption (yeshu’a as against ge’ula)—again, much like Hanukkah and Purim, which were redemptive events within the course of ongoing, unredeemed history. David Hartman once spoke of the State of Israel as providing us with an opportunity to realize Jewish values and “covenantal existence” on the social plane, within the context of a Jewish society and a Jewish “street.” (By the same measure, it also provides us innumerable opportunities to flub it, as we seem to be doing rather well.)

Gershom Scholem, I believe, once remarked that the focus of the mysticism of the Zohar and of Spanish Kabbalah was on returning to Creation, rather than in the eschatological movement toward Redemption. In a strange way, this may perhaps also provide a theological model for what we would like to see happen to Zionism: a turn towards Creation, as a model for this-worldly life lived under a sign of holiness without any of the hysteria of messianism, which we have so sadly witnessed during the past third-century.

Third—and this is the crux—we need to find a way to acknowledge and express human initiative as a way in which the Divine spirit working within human beings, and as a form of spirituality. Zionism was first and foremost a human movement—and at that, on the whole a secular movement—rather than a set of obvious miracles or acts of divine intervention. It involved a rejection of the passivity and the posture of “waiting for redemption” that had come to characterize Jewish religion. And yet, within that movement there was clearly a holy spark—and not only in the hidden or inadvertent sense celebrated by Rav Kook. Ehud Luz, in a fascinating study of ”Spiritualization and Anti-Spiritualization in Zionism” notes how, paradoxically, the very emphasis on the return to earthliness and the concrete was seen by many of the early Zionist thinkers as bearing a spiritual dimension. Thus, certainly, in A. D. Gordon, in Buber, in Berl Katzenelson, even in Ben-Gurion’s celebrated love of the Tanakh—but also, in a sense, even in such rebellious and “anti-spiritual” figures as Brenner and Berdyczewski. Hagshama, the active effort to realize the spirit within life, and the project of creating a “New Jew,” of forging a healthy, “normal,” natural culture on our own soil, were ultimately expressions of the Divine spark. To my mind, any authentic liturgical celebration of Yom ha-Atzmaut must come to grips with these phenomena.

As a spur to further discussion, I have gathered here several nusha’ot for Al ha-Nissim that have been written and disseminated by several groups within Judaism. I make no claim for comprehensiveness; I have simply copied and translated into English what I was able to find (my apologies for overlooking the Reconstructionist version; I will try to do so at a later date). Subscribers to Hitzei Yehonatan recently received a Hebrew Word file with the following four texts: the nusah from Ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati, ca. 1960; the versions from the Conservative movements, both in the US and in Israel; and that of the Israeli Reform movement. A JPG file is also available for those who do not have Hebrew-Enabled Word, thanks to the kind help of my brother David, that is available upon request at this email address. I add here an English translation, and brief discussion of each of the various versions.

Versions of Al Hanissim for Yom Ha-Atzmaut

1) The Religious Kibbutz Movement — Seder Tefillot le-Yom ha-Atzmaut, second edition. (Tel Aviv: Hotza’at Ha-kibbutz ha-Dati [1969]), p. 101.

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this season.

You, O God, awakened the heart of our fathers to return to the mountain of Your inheritance, to settle there and to rebuild it from the ruins, and its land. And when an evil regime stood over us and shut the gates of our land to our brethren who were fleeing from the sword of a cruel enemy, and they sent them back in ships to the islands of the sea and to distant shores, You in Your might toppled his throne and freed the land from his hand. And when enemies rose against us and plotted to destroy us, You in your might sent upon them fear and panic, and they abandoned all their goods, and fled in confusion and haste beyond the borders of our land. And when seven nations rose up against us to conquer our land and to make us as bonded servants, You in Your mercies stood by the right hand of the Israel Defense Army and delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to expand the boundaries of our settlement, and to bring our brethren up from the concentration camps.

For all this we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head; and on this, our day of festivity and joy, we stretch our hands before You and beseech pray on behalf of our dispersed brethren and say: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy habitation, and may they dwell there in peace and calm and tranquility and security. Expand the borders of our land as You promised our forefathers, to give to their seed from the River Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt. Build your holy city Jerusalem, capital of Israel, and reestablish there your Temple as in the days of Solomon. And as we have merited to see the beginning of our redemption and the liberation of our souls, so may we live and may our eyes see the complete redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen!

Comments: The opening makes a very important theological point, as I mentioned above in the introduction: acknowledgement of the Divine source of the emergence of the spirit of Zionism in Eastern Europe in the 19th century. The central problem in any religious interpretation of Yom ha-Atzmaut is that all these founding events, which many people still alive have experienced personally, and which in any event have a sense of immediacy even to those born after ’48, is that on the surface they are the result of a purely natural, human event, the result of human initiative and historical circumstance. Moreover, most of the founding fathers consciously rebelled against traditional Jewish religiosity and the shteitl, which they identified with a passive approach to the problems of Jewish life. (Interestingly, Religious Zionism defined itself somewhere in the middle, as a “Holy Rebellion,” in the apt phrase of Shmuel Hayyim Landau, known as “Shahal”). Yet to ignore these origins of the movement, and to praise God for the victories of ’48 alone, which can perhaps more easily be seen as “miraculous” —i.e., the improbable victory of the rather ragged, poorly equipped army against seven Arab armies, “the many into the hands of the few”— is to ignore a very important, perhaps the most important element in the story: the psychic transformation of the Jewish people into a people that took its own destiny into its own hands, that made a conscious decision to “reenter” history. Such a significant and influential modern Jewish thinker as Franz Rosenzweig’s davka celebrated the marginal existence of the Jewish people, as a nation somehow living eternity within history, whose existence is essentially spiritual and extra-historical; and similar voices are heard today, among some of those who call themselves “post-Zionist,” including some darlings of the New Age. Those of us who have chosen the Zionist path, and who support it in one way or another, ultimately see the Zionist transformation of mentality in a positive light, as an expression of health and vitality. If God is truly a living God, and the God who heals the ill, than the emergence of the Zionist movement must be seen as a stirring of the Divine within history.

Other parts of this nusah are more problematic. The reference to the expulsion of the British seems a bit dated, and with our historical distance as perhaps of insufficient importance to deserve mention in a prayer. The reference to the Arabs wanting to make us into “bonded servants” (mas oved) is peculiar, and simply incorrect. The prayer for the restoration “from the Euphrates to the Brook of Egypt” (even if the latter refers to Wadi el-Arish and not the Nile) is a bit jingoistic to my taste, particularly in light of the trouble the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, with its millions of disgruntled and hostile Palestinians, has caused us. There is also, if one wishes to be strict in understanding the halakhic parameters, a certain difficulty in inserting a petitionary prayer, such as the whole second paragraph here, in the first or last three blessings of the Amidah; the tradition draws rather clear lines of demarcations between Shevah, Bakashat Tzerakhim, and Hodayah, and does not approve of overlapping between them.

2. American Conservative Movement — Siddur Liymot Hol (New York: Rabbinic Assembly, 1966), pp. 64-65. [translation/paraphrase from that Siddur]

We thank You for the heroism, for the triumphs, and for the miraculous deliverance of our fathers in other days at this season. In the days of world-wide war and destruction, six million of our people were brutally slain because they bore Your name. Age-old communities were devastated, their sanctuaries desecrated, their houses of learning razed, and their sacred treasures burned. It was then that the scattered remnants of the helpless and the homeless sought refuge with their brothers in the Land of our Fathers.

When the gates to our ancestral home were closed to them, and enemies from within the land together with seven neighboring nations sought to annihilate Your people, You, O Lord, in Your great mercy, stood by them in time of trouble. You defended them and vindicated them. You gave them the courage to meet their foes, to open the gates to those seeking refuge, and to free the land of its armed invaders. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. Because You wrought great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day, You revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world.

The main problem here is the “Shoah & Tekumah” narrative, so powerfully symbolized by the proximity of Holocaust Memorial Day to Soldier’s Memorial Day and Yom ha-Atzmaut. I have already mentioned my objections to this approach, a subject which deserves deeper discussion on some other occasion. Let me just reiterate that the kernel for the future State was laid by the Hebrew Yishuv that developed here from 1880 on, with its creation of social institutions, settlements both collective and private, economic enterprises, the revival of the Hebrew language, the precursors of the IDF in various defense groups such as Hashomer, and later the Hagana, Palmah, and other groups, etc. More than that, one strongly feels that this nusah is an expression of the attitudes and mythologies of American Jews, with all that implies, rather than an Israeli cultural expression.

The formula “You gave them the courage to meet their foes” (hizakta et libam la’amod basha’ar) is an important statement, uttered in th e same spirit as the opening words of Version #1 above. It is interesting that, in my first exposure to any public celebration of Yom ha-Atzmaut, at religious Kibbutz Tirat Zvi in 1964, the dining hall was festooned with an enormous banner bearing the verse, which seemed to serve as a ind motto for the holiday: ”and you shall remember the Lord your God, for He is the one who gives you power to do valiantly” (Deut 8:18).

3. Israeli Masorati Movement — Siddur Va-ani Tefillah [“And I Am Prayer”] (Jerusalem: Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and the Masorati Movement, 1998), pp. 78-79.

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this time.

In the days of the return to Zion, when your people Israel was scattered and spread among the nations, the pioneers arose to rebuild the Land of Israel, to gather therein our exiles. And when the remnants from the Holocaust cried out for redemption, and the gates of the land of the fathers was closed to them. And nations rose up to destroy us from being a nation, that the name of Israel might no longer be remembered. Then You in Your great mercies stood by them in their time of trouble, you fought their quarrel, judged their judgment, and strengthened their hearts. The gates were opened wide to a great refuge, and the armies of the enemy were expelled from the land. You delivered the many into the hands of the few, the evildoers into the hands of those of your covenant, and You made a great and holy name in Your world, and for Your people Israel you made a great deliverance as this day. Then your children came to build and to be built upon our land, and independence in our own state was declared, and this Day of Independence was fixed to rejoice therein and to thank Your great name for Your miracles and salvation and miracles.

This version strikes a good balance among the various elements mentioned thus far. It begins with the origins of the State in a movement of “Return to Zion,” of pioneering and settlement, while avoiding several of the drawbacks of the Kibbutz Hadati version. Yet that version has several poetic sparks that are somehow lacking here.

4. Israel Reform Movement — Siddur ha-Avodah shebelev [Service of the Heart]. (Jerusalem: Progressive Judaism in Israel, 1998), p. 64.

For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the deliverance and for the wars that You did for our fathers and for us in those days at this time.

In the days of the Second Return to Zion, when the saved remnant came from the valley of destruction, and the children of our people from all their exiles dispersions. Strangers ruled our holy land, and the gates were shut to the pursued, and seven nations rose up to destroy Your people Israel. And You in Your great mercies stood by them in their time of trouble, that they might gather together and stand up for their lives, to teach their hands battle and their fingers war. You delivered many into the hands of the few, and evildoers into the hands of the children of your covenant, and You made a great and holy name in your world, and to your people Israel you made a great deliverance as this day.

Then your children came to build and to be built in our land, and fixed this Day of Independence as a day of rejoicing, to thank and to praise Your great name. And as You have performed miracles for the former ones, so may you do for the latter, and save them in these days as in those days.

This text is very similar to that of the Israel Masorati movement, almost as if one were a conscious revision or partial reworking of the other. There are nevertheless several interesting differences of nuance: this version takes care to refer to Zionism as”the Second Return to Zion” (the Hebrew term Shivat Zion ordinarily being used to refer to the Return led by Ezra and Nehemiah at the beginning of the Second Temple). The use of Psalm 144:1 is appropriate, and adds a very nice poetic touch. Again, the main difference from the Masorati and Kibbutz Hadati versions is the neglect of the pre-history of the Yishuv and the over-emphasis on the Holocaust. But this version also alludes to the mass aliyah of Oriental Jewry, together with the she’erit hapleitah from Europe, which was a central formative experience for Israeli society.

The above is no more than a very quick, sketchy, impressionistic review of these texts. Much more could be said about the ideas and concepts, and what an ideal version should contain. There is also need for closer analysis of the halakhic sources, to see just how a new “Al ha-Nissim” might be introduced.

Finally, the events of the past eighteen months [i.e., as of May 2002]prompt long and serious thoughts about the meaning of Zionism. Any nusah to be accepted must be appropriate for grave times as these, as well as for happier and more optimistic times. My main feeling as I sit writing these words, while listening to the melancholy songs for Yom Hazikaron on the radio, is that the deep-felt desire for normal national existence is as distant as ever. In telegraphic form: over these long months I have reached the painful conclusion that our conflict with the Arab world (not only the Palestinians) goes far beyond socio-economic factors that can be solved merely by “ending the occupation,” as my friends on the Left insist, and have deep existential, cultural and religious roots and that, if in transformed form, the age-old anomalies of Jewish existence have followed us to our homeland for the foreseeable future.

נוסחאות "על הנסים" ליום העצמאות
א) הקיבוץ הדתי: סדר תפילות ליום העצמאות, מהדורה שניה. תל-אביב: הוצאת הקיבוץ הדתי תשכ"ט, ע' 101

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו ולנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה:
אתה האל עוררת את לב אבותינו לשוב להר נחלתך לשבת בה ולקומם את הריסותיה [ו]את אדמתה. ובעמוד עלינו שלטון רשע ויסגור את שערי ארצנו בפני אחינו הנמלטים מחרב אויב אכזרי, וישבם באניות לאיי הים ולחוף נדחים, אתה בעזך מגרת את כסאו ותשחרר את הארץ מידו. ובקום עלינו אויבים ויתנכלו לנו להשמידנו, אתה בגבורתך הפלת עליהם אימתה ופחד ויעזבו את כל אשר בהם, וינוסו בבהלה ובחפזון אל מחוץ לגבולות ארצנו. ובבוא עלינו שבעה גויים לכבש את ארצנו ולשומנו למס עובד, אתה ברחמיך עמדת לימין צבא ההגנה לישראל ומסרת גבורים ביד חלשים ורבים ביד מעטים ורשעים ביד צדיקים. ובזרועך הנטויה עזרת לבחורי ישראל להרחיב את גבולות מושבותינו, ולעלות את אחינו ממחנות ההסגר. על הכל אנחנו מודים לך ה' אלקינו בכפיפת ראש; וביום זה, יום חגינו ושמחתנו, אנחנו פורשים את כפינו לפניך ומתחננים על אחינו הפזורים ואומרים: אנא אבינו רוענו, קבצם במהרה לנוה קדשך והשכן אותם בו בשלום ושלוה ובהשקט ובטח. הרחב נא את גבולות ארצנו כאשר הבטחת לאבותינו, לתת לזרעם מנהר פרת ועד נחל מצרים. בנה נא את עיר קדשך ירושלים בירת ישראל, ובה תכונן את בית מקדשך כימי שלמה. וכאשר זכיתנו לראות את ראשית גאולתנו ופדות נפשנו, כן תחינו ותחזנה עינינו בגאולת ישראל השלמה וחדש ימינו כקדם, אמן!

ב) תנועת הקונסרבטיבית בארה"ב: סרור לימות החול

. על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה:
בימי הרג ואבדן של מלחמת העולם, כשקמו משנאיך על עמך להכחידו מגוי, נהרגו ונאבדו שש מאות רבוא מאחינו מנער ועד זקן על קדוש שמך. המיטו כליה על קהילות בישראל וטמאו בתי תפלתם והשמידו בתי מדרשם ושרפו באש כתבי קדשם. אז עלתה שארית הפליטה מגיא ההריגה לבקש מפלט עם אחיהם בארץ אבותינו. עת נסגרו שערי ארץ אבות בפני פליטים, ואויבים בארץ ושבעה עממים בעלי בריתם קמו להכרית עמך ישראל, אתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת להם בעת צרתם, רבת את ריבם, דנת את דינם, חיזקת את לבם לעמוד בשער ולפתח שערים לנרדפים ולגרש את צבאות האויב מן הארץ. מסרת רבים ביד מעטים, ורשעים ביד צדיקים, ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה ופרקו כהיום הזה.

ג) תנועת המסורתית בישראל: סדור ואני תפלתי. יאושלים: כנסת הרבמנין בישאראל והתנועה המסורתית, תשנ"ח, ע' 78-79.

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה:
בימי שיבת ציון כשהיה עמך ישראל מפזר ומפרד בין העמים, קמו חלוצים לבנות מחדש את ארץ ישראל, כדי לקבץ בתוכה את גלויותינו. וכשצעקו שרידי [ה]שואה לגאולה, ונסגרו שערי ארץ אבות בפניהם, אז קמו עמים להכחידנו מגוי, שלא יזכר שם ישראל עוד. ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת להם בעת צרתם, רבת את ריבם, דנת את דינם, חיזקת את לבם. נפתחו שערים לפלטה גדולה וגורשו צבאות האויב מן הארץ. מסרת רבים ביד מעטים, וזדים ביד בני בריתך, ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך, ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה כהיום הזה. ואחר כך באו בניך לבנות ולהבנות בארצנו, והכריזו עצמאות במדינתנו, וקבעו את יום העצמאות הזה, לשמוח בו ולהודות בו לשמך הגדול, על נסיך ועל ישועתך ועל נפלאותיך.

ד) תנועה הרפורמית בישראל: סדור העבודה שבלב. ירושלים: יהדות מתקדמת בישראל, תשנ"ח. ע' 64.

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועל המלחמות שעשית לאבותינו בימים ההם בזמן הזה:
בימי שיבת ציון השניה, כשבאה שארית הפליטה מגיא ההריגה ובני עמך מכל תפוצותיהם, שלטו זרים בארץ קדשנו ונעלו שערים בפני נרדפים. אז קמו שבעה גויים להכרית עמך ישאל. ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת להם בעת צרתם להקהל ולעמוד על נפשם, ללמד ידיהם לקרב ואצבעותיהם למלחמה. מסרת רבים ביד מעטים, וזדים ביד בני בריתך, ולך עשית שם גדול וקדוש בעולמך, ולעמך ישראל עשית תשועה גדולה כהיום הזה. ואחר כך נקבצו בניך לבנות ולהבנות בארצך, וקבעו את יום העצמאות הזה, יום חג ושמחה ולהודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול. וכשם שעשית נסים לראשונים, כך תעשה לאחרונים, ותושיענו בימים האלו כבימים ההם.

Why Israel? or, Contra Judt

This year, Yom ha-Atzmaut is being celebrated in an atmosphere, not only of growing criticism and controversy regarding Israel’s policies, but also, among certain circles, of questioning its very legitimacy. Among certain intellectuals and “thinking people,” one hears the idea expressed that perhaps the creation of the State of Israel was a mistake, and that not only the world, but the Jewish people, would be better off without it. This idea was prominently expressed last fall in a widely discussed article by Tony Judt, “Israel: The Alternative,” published in The New York Review of Books (Vol 50:16; Oct 23 2003). I was shocked, not long ago, when someone close to me expressed a similar idea, in the words: “After all, what other religion has its own state?”

Judt’s opening argument is that Israel is an anachronism. “It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world… of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.”

Historically, of course, this is true. Zionism originated in an age of nascent nationalisms in Europe. The question is: to what extent are we really living in a post-nationalist world? In the Middle East, nationalism, or various forms of group/tribal/ religious identity, are still very much alive. To ignore that, and to expect Palestinian nationalists and radical Islamists to begin overnight to act and think like members of the ACLU, who want nothing more than a neutral “state of all its citizens” based solely upon individual rights, would be a foolhardy misreading of reality, tantamount to suicide.

Even in Europe, the recent case of Yugoslavia, and the bitter warfare among its different ethnic groups a mere decade ago, bear witness to the vitality—for better or worse—of national and ethnic identity. And there are many other ethnic groups struggling for recognition and cultural expression in the “new” Europe. Centrifugal and centripetal forces wrestle one another powerfully throughout the world. Hence, it seems rather premature to say Kaddish for the idea of nationalism (more on this point below).

But more than that: those who argue that Israel is an anomaly evidently need a refresher course in modern Jewish history, and in the nature of Jewish identity. Zionism emerged as a solution to what was called in its day “the Jewish problem”: the discrimination and worse confronted by Jews, as individuals and as a collectivity, wherever they went. The basic idea was that, so long as Jews were not masters of their own fate, sovereign in their own state, they would be subject to the caprices and arbitrary decisions of an often hostile world.

There are those who have suggested that a liberal, democratic, open society provides a better solution to the problem of minority existence than does nationalism. Thus, for example, Tony Kushner, editor of the anthology, Wrestling with Zion, invokes the example of homosexuals, who have begun to enjoy a certain degree of acceptance in the Western democracies thanks to the principles of tolerance and equality before the law.

Admittedly, the degree of openness, pluralism, and tolerance found today in, for example, American society, was hardly foreseen by the founding fathers of Zionism. Nevertheless: Jews have learned, through centuries of persecution, a certain feeling of suspicion towards the non-Jewish world; that even the most liberal, accepting, tolerant society can change in unexpected ways. The Jewish state was conceived, first and foremost, as a safe haven from such upheavals. The Golden Age of Spain came to an end in pogroms, inquisition, and expulsion. Closer to our own time, Germany, through much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was a liberal, progressive society, the dynamic center of European humanism—in music, in philosophy, in literature, in scientific and humanistic research. Then, within a period of a few decades, things turned around. Dark elements and motifs in Germanic culture—whose seeds were, in retrospect, present all along, albeit in muted form, living an underground existence—emerged and dominated society. The end of that story is known to all of us.

In truth, there are elements of xenophobia and hatred and jingoism in every culture—including American culture. The struggle between good and evil, between love and hate, between acceptance and generosity, and suspicion and self-protectiveness, are present in every human soul, and writ large represent a potential threat in every human society (Israeli society included).

But there is more to Zionism than paranoia and fear of the “goyim.” Jews are an ethnic-national-religious-cultural group with a long history, whose culture and collective existence and culture can best be realized in the framework of a nation-state. Zionism was born, if you will, out of a sense of being “fed up” with Galut, with Exile, and in the desire to create a healthier, more natural firm of existence. Moreover, what some see as the advantage of open, democratic societies—its ability to accept and assimilate all varieties of humankind—is itself its down side for those passionately devoted to promulgating and developing their own particularistic culture. Jewish life in the modern, open Diaspora is a constant uphill struggle for group survival and continuity—hopefully, without rendering one’s children neurotic through the contradictions involved in the posture of “participate and enjoy the broader culture, but….”

The other day, I listened to Corinne Elal on the radio, singing her haunting rendition of Ein li Eretz Aheret, “I Have No Other Country.” This prompted reflections on the fact that Israel has created a generation of Jews who have a sense of true rootedness in a particular place. I thought of the contrast to someone like George Steiner, a brilliant intellectual, almost an archetype of a certain breed of modern cosmopolitan Jews, who has declared rootlessness a virtue; he has often spoken of the fact that wandering, the condition of having no country, has sharpened the sensitivity of the Jew, honing both his critical faculties and his capacity for empathy: hence the preponderance of Diaspora Jews in such fields as sociology, psychology, literary criticism, and other disciplines based on a critical, outsider perspective. Yet somehow, there seems to me something more healthy, natural, in the simple sense of the tzabar that “We are here; this is ours,” and in leaving behind all the neuroses of the modern Diaspora Jew. I think of my son, who spends every possible free day or even half-day exploring the country, on tiyyulim (nature treks), discovering his homeland with his feet.

The question of the rationale for Zionism brings us to the heart of the problem of Jewish identity. Is Judaism (or Jewishness) a nation or a religion? The only answer that seems to me both honest and factual, is that it is both, or either, almost as the person chooses. In other words, it is a strange combination of religion and nationhood, a kind of hybrid beast. Israeli author A. B. Yehoshua recently said that “we drive the world crazy” because of our strange identity, which is a mélange of religion and nationhood; that this is somehow one of the roots of our ongoing problems in the Middlre East. But what can we do? This is who we are.

This dual concept has both a long history and a deep logic of its own. Rabbenu Saadya Gaon said that “Israel is a nation by virtue of its Torah, its religion.” Rav Soloveitchik spoke of a dual covenant: one of destiny, into which ever Jew is born willy-nilly, and one of purposefulness, of meaning, expressed through mitzvot and Jewish action. The idea underlying this classic concept is that, if religion is truly significant, then society and national existence and social norm, and not only the private realm of the individual, must also reflect it. If God is real, then He is ultimately the only true reality (a notion of which we have spoken here often in terms of Hasidic thought), and God-consciousness must pervade all areas of life. (The problem is how that may be squared with the values of a liberal, open society, and how to assure that this does not lead to the all-too-well-known cruelty of fanaticism and religious zealotry. This is an important problem, but far too vast to discuss here now.)

The simple fact is, that the world is filled with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of atheist, agnostic, and religiously indifferent Jews, whose Jewish identity is shaped by a combination of history, language, territory, ethnic identity, nostalgia, self-conscious alienation, etc. On the other hand, there are many Jews who define their being so in purely religious terms—but the liturgy they pray is filled with phrases that indicate that their faith group is constituted by blood links: “God and God of our fathers… God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” Even the proselyte, who chooses to be Jewish out of purely religious conviction, becomes so through a ceremony of symbolic rebirth as a Jew (mikveh=womb)—and he/she is halakhically as much a part of the Jewish nation/ethnos as any born Jew.

The bulk of Judt’s article is devoted to an analysis, not so much of the theoretical basis of Zionism, but to a harsh critique of the current Israel government’s policies. Readers of these pages will know that I share many of his concerns about our government’s actions. But this is neither the time nor the place for a full-scale discussion of this topic. I will only relate in brief to a few of the points he makes, and conclude with some remarks about nationalism.

Judt quotes Avraham Burg’s remarks that, “After two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonialist state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality.” And Judt continues: “Unless something changes, in half a decade, Israel will be neither Jewish nor democratic.” I share his fears. I see the de-facto annexation of the territories—or worse, their being left in a kind of political limbo for nearly two generations—as the Mother of all of Israel’s Sins. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was prophetic in decrying it from the very beginning; for too long, his was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. The occupation of the territories has led to a variety of ills—ranging from the grating everyday humiliation of the roadblocks and closures of villages, through the disruption of everyday life and such things as medical service, family life, schooling, etc., and through the random killing of innocent bystanders—that make the life of the Palestinian civilians intolerable, and which it is difficult to justify on any grounds. But this does not mean that Israel’s existence per se is invalid, as I explain above.

He continues: “The two state solution —the core of the Oslo process and the present ‘road-map’—is probably already doomed…. The true alternative[s]… [are] between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians… Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.”

Yes, the situation is bad, and the tendency of many of Israel’s leaders to see “gaining time” as a virtue in and of itself, contributes to this—as if the problem will go away if we ignore it. (The recent rejection of Sharon’s disengagement plan is just one more such backwards step.) True, the two-state solution cannot be jump-started at this point. But to my mind, much of the blame still goes to Arafat’s stubbornness at Camp David in 2000, which many Western critics of Israel have either forgotten or misinterpret—but that’s not really the point now. Sharon’s policies over the past three years have contributed to the impasse by declaring the PA irrelevant, avoiding any direct discussions, and generally doing everything possible to prevent the two-state solution, to which it has theoretically declared its commitment, with its “painful compromises” and the necessity of withdrawing from the territories and dismantling settlements.

The problem is that the idea of a binational state, in any foreseeable future, is even more unrealistic and unworkable. There is so much hatred, so much fear of the other, between the two peoples, that it is difficult to imagine them settling down to becoming one happy, tolerant family. There are very real fears, of many Jews in Israel, of Arab irredentism even within the ‘67 borders; that once they gain the upper hand they will persecute us in far more extreme and primitive ways than we ever did to them. Much of popular Islamic teaching about Jews and Judaism, promulgated in the mosques and schools within Palestine and in many of the neighboring Arab states, is filled with primitive stereotypes equating Jews to pigs and monkeys. It remains to be proven that they have abandoned their dream of a Judenrein Middle East.

All this, not to mention the desire of each people for the state in which they live to bear the impress of their particular national culture (but here we run into a philosophical question: is a state merely a formal, administrative tool, or is it the bearer and promulgator of a particular national culture). Then there is the obvious question of what language will be used, what national holidays celebrated, historical memories, “civic religion,” etc. Shall the Jews, after 2000 years of Exile, having at least realized a secular version of the Return to Zion, be asked to relinquish their sovereignty in the name of a dubious binational state, or perhaps federation between “equal partners”?

All one can realistically hope for at this point is de-escalation of the warfare and very slow steps to rebuild trust. Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza would be a good step in that direction, if I believed that he was sincere in moving things in that direction. But, alas, it seems quite clear that he is not. Not only the Right Wing in Israel, but also Arab spokesman, such as MK Muhammed Baraka, have spoken out against it because it denies Palestinians any voice in the self-determination of their fate (which still is basic political principle in any decent society).

Yet another one of Judt’s arguments relates to the “New anti-Semitism” in Europe. He writes that the Jewish state is “holding non-Israeli Jews hostage for its own actions. Anti-Semitism in Europe “is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel.”

Factually true. There is a certain irony in the fact that Israel, which was originally conceived as a safe haven for all of world Jewry, now seems to be, not only less safe than many places in the West, but the indirect cause of much violence against Jews and even, it may be argued, the focus of much tension and unrest in the world generally (given that Islamic terror consistently paints Israel and the U.S. as its main enemies, the “Little Satan” and the “Big Satan”). But to conclude from this that one ought to dismantle or dejudaize Israel is suspiciously like blaming the victim.

I would like to comment about the almost universal Left-wing support of the Palestinian cause. My entire life, I have been a man of the Left, somewhere in that vague region between “social democrat” and “democratic socialist.” Yet I cannot avoid the clear sense that the Left’s position on this question is based less on a serious study of the problem, than it is on the reflexive assumption that any cause that can present itself as “Third World” is automatically justified; that Palestinian rage is equivalent to the righteous anger of the colonized against the colonizer, and that Israel’s position is like that of the French in Algeria. Yet the position of much of the Arab world is based as much or more upon religious fanaticism, intolerance, blind hatred, and old-fashioned anti-Semitism, as it is on legitimate oppression. The present Intifada came in the wake of serious and earnest peace talks which, to all appearances, failed because of the unwillingness of the Palestinian side to accept any proposal short of total capitulation to their demands. Bernard Lewis and others have attempted to understand the roots of Islamic extremism. As implied by the title of one of his books, What Went Wrong?, something went dreadfully wrong with Arab culture in its encounter with the modern world, something which the categories of traditional Left Wing analysis—and even those of “post-modern, post-colonialist, post-Marxist” thought—fail to understand. Some writers about the “new anti-Semitism” assume that the Arab world learned it from Europe. There is in fact a long history of indigenous Islamic anti-Semitism as well, going back to Muhammed’s jibes against the Jews of Koraish for not helping him in his military ventures. Albeit only rarely as virulent and murderous as medieval Christian anti-Semitism, it was nevertheless based on a deep lack of respect for the other as an equal. (There were also forced conversions at times, and even slaughter of Jews. To turn in passing to our theme for the year: the Maimonides family was forced to leave, first Spain, and then North Africa, due to the fanatical Almohyad regime.) The dominant model for dealing with minorities in Islam was the theory of the Dhimmi—that of the tolerated minority, consigned an inferior status with second-class rights.

Alongside the “new anti-Semitism” of the working class Muslim immigrant workers in Europe, there is a new, “politically correct” anti-Semitism of the Left Wing intelligentsia, which treats Israel as a pariah state. At Concordia University in Montreal, Muslim and Left Wing students tried—successfully, for a certain period—to prevent an Israeli speaker from speaking on campus, and even to ban the activities of Hillel generally. Charges of “racism” and “fascism” were invoked in a mindless kind of way against the Jewish student group. Several countries in Europe have adopted an (official or unofficial) academic boycott against Israel. The irony is that Israelis who are among the most outspoken opponents of the Sharon government, such as long-time peace activist and translator Miriam Schlesinger, who was removed from the editorial board of a British translator’s journal, have been banned simply because they are Israelis. Similarly, a Dutch filmmaker refused to allow his film about trafficking in women to be shown at a conference of anti-trafficking activists in Israel—again, simply because it was Israel (albeit he later changed his mind). How does all this square with the principles of academic freedom, tolerance, and free discussion and exchange of ideas which such liberal groups allegedly support? It is hard to escape the feeling that the so-called “moral” and “ethical” outrage at Israel, and Jews, is totally incommensurate with that applied elsewhere. The same Britain which looks down at Israel, certainly did not show one-tenth the tolerance for IRA violence in Northern Ireland that it expects Israel to display to Palestinians and even to the Hamas!

I find myself reluctantly coming to the sad conclusion that the attitudes of many Leftists are motivated by a peculiar psychological mechanism, in which they automatically support Third World, brown-skinned people. The roots of this lie more in Western guilt, and in anger at the US, and especially at President Bush, than any real consideration of the relevant facts. Indeed, Bush’s obvious shortcomings, and his pompous rhetoric, seem to blind many intelligent people from giving serious consideration to the reality of the threats of which he speaks. In other words: terror—specifically, Islamic terror—constitutes a real threat to our world, even if the person who talks about it most sounds like a Yahoo!

At the risk of sounding supercilious, one might say that today, the real difference between “Right” and “Left” is that, whereas the “Right Wing” is automatically patriotic and supports its own interests, blaming the Other in any conflict, being “Left Wing” is equated with automatic blame of self, and the assumption that the “Other” is right. I can understand where this is coming from: the ethical idea that sympathy for the other is in itself praiseworthy. But when it becomes an automatic reflex, without real judgment or knowledge of the particulars of an often complex situation, a case of “leaning over backwards,” it is foolish, neurotic—and worse. Moreover, it has nothing to do with authentic Left politics and program, which in my book means the attempt to build a more just and equitable society, particularly in the economic sphere. In what way are Osama bin Laden, Hasan Nasralla or Yassir Arafat building any more equitable or socialistic a future than Sharon or Netanyahu?

Incidentally, what I have described as the stereotypic Right wing position—jingoistic patriotism, xenophobia, and seeing one’s own country as being in the right, is in a sense rooted in a kind of simple psychological health: the instinct of self-preservation instinct and the simple wish to live. “If I am not for myself, who shall be for me?” Fortunately, in the real world, a person can hopefully make subtler decisions than either of these two.

I would like to conclude by extending the discussion to some broader implications of the question with which we opened: why Israel, and why nationalism? Judt states that we live in a post-nationalist world, one of “individual rights, open frontiers and international law.” Indeed, the bon ton among progressive intellectuals today tends to be universalist. For many, the ideal trend of the future seems to be a model in which the individual identifies with no specific national community, but only with all of humanity. The question in my mind is whether this trend is a positive one, or not. It is interesting that this is occurring at the same time that we are also experiencing the gradual—or not-so-gradual—erosion of the family as an institution. It is politically correct among the Left to mock those that support “family values”—which is admittedly used mostly by the Religious Right in America—and to support all those programs that are rooted in an individualistic, libertarian approach to family and sexuality—gay liberation, the “pro-choice” approach to abortion, radical gender feminism, etc. Taking all these factors together, we face a situation in which the family, as the fundamental mini-community in which children are raised and socialized, and which may best be described as an intermediate stage between the individual and the broader community, is also greatly reduced in its influence.

The end result is that the liberal Left today, at least within the developed countries, has become the champion of radical individualism. Individual rights seem to have become the be-all and end-all of legal theory. (To cite two small examples that shocked me: liberal thinkers in Israel were among the opponents of a Good Samaritan Law, i.e., one obligating a person to help another individual in danger, such as to call for help in the case of a traffic accident or to save a drowning person. Why? Philosophically, because it involves the imposition of obligations that restrict the individual’s freedom—and liberals today evidently believe in an absolute minimum of obligations imposed by society on the individual. This aspect of the current Zeitgeist is likewise expressed by many drivers in Germany, who objected in principle to speed limits because they limit their “right” to drive 80 or 90 mph on the autobahn.)

Carrying this concept to its logical conclusion, in the absence of either the family or the nation as natural communities that command the individual’s allegiance, we are left with a world in which the individual ‘s only moral allegiance is to “humankind” as a whole. This is a wonderful, truly “universal” utopian vision—but given the vastness of humankind and the near-impossibility of actualizing such a commitment in reality in any meaningful way, the practical meaning is that each individual, in practice, lives for him or herself alone. As in so many other phenomenon: the most sublime idealism is dialectally transformed into the coarsest selfishness (in much the same way as happened to Marxian communism). The unspoken fear of many liberals is that talk of collectivity is “fascist.” But Fascism has a specific meaning; the manipulation of national feeling for totalitarian purposes—often, or specifically, to serve the economic interests of small elite. True, the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century were all based on a strong, centralized, “collectivist” state. Yet, ironically, capitalism, which is supposedly the watchword of the Right, is by its nature radically individualistic. In its classical form, there is no innate rationale at all for social responsibility; Homos economicus engages in a war of all on all, and the hidden hand of Adam Smith will straighten things out by itself. Or else, the poor will benefit from Milton Friedman’s “drip-down” effect (which is used to justify “growth” as only criteria of economic policy). By contrast, real communalism (which must include nationalism), which by rights should be the precursor to socialism, supposedly the sine qua non of Leftist thought, is dismissed as “fascistic.”

There is a new communitarian movement, in the United States and elsewhere, that is opposing this trend, trying to rebuild community, but not in the reactionary, repressive mode of the Right Wing, which seems based on nostalgia for the 19th century world of small-town America that is gone forever. I do not know how strong this movement is. Michael Lerner, of Tikkun magazine, has written some interesting things about this subject, as have many others.

In Israel, there are additional, special factors turning people away from talk of “the nation” or “the collectivity of Israel”: several generations of nation-building using collective rhetoric, of youth movement education, of a culture which left little room for the individual, have fostered a counter-reaction, leaving a younger generation of Israelis wanting room for themselves as individuals. Hopefully, this will only be a temporary phenomenon, and the pendulum will eventually begin to swing back to a more tolerant ethic, that combines national responsibility with room for differences.

Incidentally, the so-called “universalism” or “globalism” championed by today’s liberals is as likely as not to result in America writ large as its default option. And by this, I mean the America of Baywatch, Coca Cola and MacDonalds—not anything profound or culturally rich, but the superficialities of a mass-packaged culture based on buying and selling.

I will add a brief comment about the implications of these changes for the spiritual life: the Achilles heel of some of the best spiritual teaching going around today, including some movements in Judaism, is that it is almost entirely focused on the individual: Judaism freely chosen by the individual (I believe this is part of the “paradigm shift” described by Zalman Schachter). Of course this may be the sociological reality today, but is it desirable? Do we really want to remove such concepts as Klal Yisrael and the Masorah community off the map of what we teach? That, too, is also an implication of the new individualism.