Friday, May 22, 2009

Yom Yerushalayim - Bamidbar (Zohar)

For teachings on Parashat Bamidbar, see the archives to this blog at May 2006.
Yom Yerushalayim concludes the cycle of national holidays that began with Holocaust Remembrance Day, continues through Soldier’s Memorial Day and Israel Independence Day, and concludes with Jerusalem Liberation Day (indeed, some people keep flags flying from their balconies from before Yom Ha-Atzmaut until after Yom Yerushalayim). This issue will be devoted mostly to postscripts related to Yom ha-Atzmaut; however, so as not to overlook our holy city, the Temple of the King, we begin with one short thought about Jerusalem itself.

Altar or Holy of Holies?

Some years ago (see HY V: Yom Yerushalayim) I quoted Rambam, Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.2, who cites and elaborates upon an interesting midrashic theme (taken from Gen. Rab. 14.8 and j. Nazir Ch. 7) stating that the site of the Temple, and specifically that of the altar, was not only the site of the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, but also that place where Noah offered sacrifices following the Flood, where Cain and Abel offered their respective sacrifices, and where Adam himself, the first human being, offered sacrifice in gratitude for his creation. On reflection, the following question presented itself: why specifically the altar? The Temple had two foci: the altar, where sacrificial offerings were made; and the Holy of Holies, the mysterious inner sanctum which was closed to all, the earthly dwelling place of the Divine Presence, which the High Priest alone was allowed to enter, and then only once a year. Which of the two was more central?

The rather surprising answer seems to be that, even though God Himself so-to-speak resides in the Devir, the altar is more important. It is the axis mundi, the central axis upon which the world itself was constructed. Maimonides explains this as intended to teach that “from the place where he was created, there comes his atonement.” This strange statement teaches two fundamental ideas: first, that religious worship is a fundamental human need: one might add, among those characteristics that distinguish man from the beast. Secondly, that the essence of worship is the need for kaparah, for atonement. That is, notwithstanding all the liberal apologetics asserting that Judaism is free of the notion of original sin that has so plagued Christianity, we nevertheless perceive man as being in existential need of divine grace, compassion and even forgiveness. The human by his/her very nature is inextricably caught on the horns of a dilemma, between consciousness and biological existence. Somehow, the human being’s consciousness makes it hard for him to accept his own biological being—and that in itself creates the need for atonement and reconciliation with God. It is this, more than all the national associations (“the eternal capital of Israel”) and flag waving, that makes for the uniqueness and the sanctity of Jerusalem.


1. New Al Hanissim

On Yom ha-Atzmaut we brought a new suggested version of Al ha-Nissim to be recited on that holiday, by Avi Shmidman and Ben-Tzion Spitz. I bring the text again (this time without nikkud), followed by my own rough translation and some comments:

על הנסים ועל הפרקן ועל הגבורות ועל התשועות ועת המלחמות שעשית לנו בימים ההם בזמן הזה: בימי קיבוץ שרידי ישראל מארצות חושך וצלמות לחמדת נחלתם, קמו חלוצי אומה , הרימו נס וחברו מגילה, ותבעו את זכות העם לעמוד ברשות עצמו, כממלכה יהודית בארץ מולדתו. בתופים ובמחולות רקדו בחוצות, טף ונשים, זקנים ונערים, בקולות שמחה ובצהלה. באותה שעה תקפום בני עוולה להכחיד מן הארץ שם ושארית, ולים לזרוק כל שומרי אמוניה. ואתה לישע עמך מיהרת, ידי מגיניהם חיזקת, וכלי אויביהם נפצת. תקומת פאר עשית ומדינת הדר הקמת, ראשית שאפת דורותיך, מחסה ומעוז לכל שבות עמיך.
For the miracles and for the deliverance and for the mighty deeds and for the redemption and for the wars that You have done for us in those days, at this time: In days of ingathering the remnant of Israel from the lands of darkness and the shadow of death to their pleasant inheritance, the pioneers of the nation rose up, lifted a banner and composed a scroll, declaring the right of the people to stand in its own right as a Jewish commonwealth in the land of its birth. They danced in the streets with drums and in circles—women and children, old men and youths, with voices uplifted in joy and song. At that same time evil men attacked them, to remove from the land any name and remnant, to cast into the sea all those who kept faith with it. But You [O God] hastened to save Your people, You strengthened the hands of its defenders, and smashed the weapons of their enemies. You lifted them up in splendor and established a glorious state, the beginning of the longings of all our generations, a fortress and protection for all those of Your people who returned.

A number of readers wrote in with various comments. Some praised the originality of the nusah—that it avoids the “recycling” of hackneyed phrases from the Al ha-Nissim for Hanukkah and other familiar prayers, unlike many other versions. But others criticized it for focusing too narrowly on the events of May 14 1948: the story really begins with the emergence of the Zionist movement and the “Zionist” aliyot, two and even three generations earlier. The Declaration of Independence (the document referred to here as “a scroll”) was the culmination of a lengthy process of settlement and developing an economy, self-defense organizations, a flourishing Hebrew culture, and even institutions of self-government for the state-in-becoming. All this raises interesting theological questions as to how one celebrates the combination of the human and the Divine—that is, the emergence of a new idea or movement in human culture that somehow seems touched with the Divine spark. But more on that below.

A second issue raised by several readers related to the implied link between the Holocaust and the Creation of the State—again, a motif found in many of the suggested Al ha-Nsisim texts—albeit in this case the reference to the “lands of darkness and the shadow of death” may be read as the European Galut in general. This became increasingly intolerable from the mid-1800’s on, with the Canton system, the pogroms in Ukraine in the 1880’s (Se’arot ba-Negev), the Kishinev pogrom, and of course the anti-Semitism manifested in the Dreyfus Affair that led to Theodor Herzl’s impassioned return to Jewish national awareness and to inventing political Zionism.

Another reader, Suzy Levin, sent in yet another new version, by Edena K Berkowitz and Rivka Haut, that appeared in Sha’arei Simcha, which she described as a “feminist oriented” birkhon recently published by Ktav:

על הנסים ועל הפרקן .... בימי הקמת מדינת ישראל, קמו עלינו אובים רבים ועצומים ממנו. ואתה ברחמיך הרבים עמדת לימין צבא הגנה לישראל, ומסרת גבורים ביד חלשים, רבים ביד מעטים, ורשעים ביד צדיקים. ובזרועך הנטויה עזרת לבחורי ישראל להרחיב את גבולות מושבותינו ולהעלות את אחינו ממחנות ההסגר. ועל הכל אנחנו מודים לך, ה' אלקינו, בכפיפת ראש. וביום זה, יום חגינו ושמחתינו, אנחנו פורשים את כפינו לפניך ומתחננים על אחינו הפזורים, ואומרים: אנא, אבינו, רועינו, קבצם במהרה לנוה קדשך והשכן אותם בו בשלום ושלוה, בהשקט ובטחה. בנה נא את עיר קדשך ירושלים בירת ישראל, ובה תכונן את בית מקדשך כימי שלמה. וכאשר זיכתנו לראות את ראשית גאולתינו ופדות נפשינו, כן תחיינו ותחזנה עיננו בגאולת ישראל השלימה, וחדש ימינו כקדם. אמן.
For the miracles … In the days of the establishment of the State of Israel , many and powerful enemies rose up against us. And with Your great mercy, You stood to the right of the Israel Defense Army, and You delivered mighty ones into the hands of the weak, many into the hands of the few, evildoers into the hands of the righteous. And with Your outstretched arm you helped the young men of Israel to extend the borders of their settlement and to bring up our brethren from the camps of confinement. For all these we thank You, O Lord our God, with bowed head. And on this day, our day of festivity and joy, we spread our hands before You and beseech You on behalf of our scattered brethren, saying: Please, our Father, our Shepherd, gather them quickly to Your holy dwelling place, and settle them there in peace and tranquility, in calm and security. Build Your holy city, Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and establish Your Temple there as in the days of Solomon. And as You have enabled us see the beginning of our redemption and the freedom of our souls, so too give us life and enable our eyes to see the full redemption of Israel and renew our days as of old. Amen.

2. On the Zionist Return to History

For “official” Religious Zionism, the State of Israel is often identified as reshit tzemihat ge’ulatenu, “the first flowering of our Redemption”—that is, as a prelude to the coming of the Messiah. Where do we stand vis-à-vis such redemptionist, messianic theology? (see my comments on HY X: Seventh Day of Pesah). Suffice it to say that, to quote one of the early Hasidic masters, the world doesn’t “smell” like a redeemed world, and we ought to suffice with more modest, this-worldly interpretations of the Zionist enterprise.

More than that: another oft-emphasized aspect of religious Zionism is the idea of returning to the sanctity of place—the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the burial place of the patriarchs in Hebron and other holy sites—in addition to or as even more important than the sanctity of time, which has traditionally been at the focus of Judaism (all this is of course particularly strongly felt on a day like Yom Yerushalayim). Interestingly, on Parshat Terumah, that portion most concerned about the Temple and its meaning, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, chose to write about the transcendence of place—that God cannot be contained in any one place, and the synagogue as a kind of moveable sanctuary (cf. what I wrote on HY III: Vayetze=Vayetze [Midrash]).

To be a non-messianic Zionist means to enter upon a complex dialectic, in which one must in large measure accept secularism —not in the sense of negating God or religion, but in that of involvement in the seculum, the mundane, the temporal, the worldly, the entire realm of human initiative and activity as that in which, paradoxically, the religious person may seek to realize his values of holiness, of the human being as created in the image of God. It means talking about God acting through human beings, not through the supernatural miracles. (One might, perhaps, view Zionism through the prism of a book such as Harvey Cox’s Secular City.)

3. TAZRIA-METZORA and Independence Day

A postscript to a sermon given at Yedidya on the Shabbat before Yom ha-Atzmaut

It is been said that it is fortunate that Israel Independence Day falls when it does, as this frees rabbis from needing to address this singularly difficult Torah reading, with its laws about leprosy and bodily discharges and other unseemly matters. I would nevertheless like, on the level of pure derush, to relate the two subjects.

At the beginning of Parshat Tazria we read: “When a woman gives seed and bears a male child, then she shall be impure for seven days…” (Lev 12:2). “When a woman gives seed”: according to the Zionist historiography, or stereotype, the Jewish people in Exile were like a woman—physically weak, pale, effeminate, passive, acted upon by others rather than masters of their own fate. “And she gives birth to a male.” Zionism saw itself as creating a new Jewish type, “the New Jew”—masculine, strong, assertive, taking initiative, not only economically but also, or even particularly, in the physical and military realm. The creation of the Hebrew warrior, of the IDF, which was to become the finest army in the Middle East, was seen as a source of particular pride. But here I would continue: “She shall be impure for seven days…” and after that another 33 days of “blood of purity”—forty in all, which I read as corresponding to the 40 years since the crucial and ambivalent events of 1967. This emphasis on masculinity, in an almost macho sense, has been a mixed blessing, a source of “impurity,” of a certain unhealthy strain in the Israeli national character, expressed, not only in our problematic relation to the Palestinian people whom historical fate has placed under our rule, but in the culture generally. The time has come for Israel to move past the hyper-masculine type of the “new Jew” and to find a new, healthier, more harmonious balance between the masculine and the feminine elements in our national character.

4. Four Sons: On the Rasha’s Alienation, Universalism and Particularism

My youngest daughter raised a question during the course of the Passover Seder, which in turn opened a whole series of further important issues (also pertinent to Yom ha-Atzmaut), and also elicited echoes of my own youth. She asked why, on Seder night, we speak only of the slavery of the Israelites long ago, when slavery is a concrete reality in the world today: in parts of Asia and Africa, in the modern equivalent of sweat shops where people are paid sub-living wages and are, in effect, trapped forever (“enslaved”) in brutal, back-breaking labor. Here in Israel (and in the United States), there is trafficking in women: women are smuggled into the country under false premises, beaten, raped, forced to work in prostitution, deprived of their passports, and kept physically locked-up.

The basic issue at hand is that of the universal vs. the particular: Why do our holidays, our liturgy, seem to be concerned only with Jewish suffering, the Jewish past, Jewish needs? Oughtn’t the belief in the unity and singularity of God, and its corollary in the unity and oneness of humankind (we are all descendants of Adam!) lead us to be concerned with all human problems, wherever they may occur? And, if so, is not the person whom the Haggadah seems to brush off as the “wicked son” asking a truly important question: ”What is this service to you?” may in the modern context be paraphrased as “Why these specific concerns and not others?” Certainly, at least some of the “wicked sons” of our day have become alienated from Judaism by what they see as the “parochial” nature of Jewish concerns.

Her question brought back memories of my own youth. When I was in my early 20s, Ramparts Magazine devoted the better part of its February 1969 issue to the Freedom Seder—a revised version of the Haggadah written by Arthur Waskow, at the time a young, maverick social thinker, which took as its mottos “Liberation Now; Next Year in a World of Freedom” and “Against the Pharaohs of our Generation.” In addition to the traditional references to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, this Haggadah spoke of civil rights, the war in Vietnam, starvation in Africa, and even the Palestinians deprived of their land in the then-recent Six Day War. The Freedom Seder (later republished in book form) created considerable controversy and hullabaloo in the Jewish community, with tempers and rhetoric flaring on both sides of the fence: Is this retelling of the Exodus story valid? Can it be called a Seder at all?

In fact, the Freedom Seder was an expression of the zeitgeist. At the time, many young Jews were seeking various forms of expression to integrate their Jewish and their more universal ethical and political commitments. In 1968, I myself led an impromptu Seder on the Seventh Night of Passover, just a few days after Martin Luther King’s assassination, in the home of a radical student friend who had just returned from King’s funeral, at which similar sentiments expressed. About the same time, a group of young British and other Jews who had met through WUJS (including Joel Harris, Mordechai Beck, and the late Gerald Cromer) published The Fourth World Haggadah, rooted in a radical interpretation of Jewish peoplehood.

My own answer to this question is on two levels. On the one hand, I would agree with my daughter’s concern: that it is legitimate to teach Judaism in a way that emphasizes the universal implications of its message, that is concerned with human suffering as such, as part of the lesson learned from our own origins in a slave people (“you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt…”). To this, I would also add that Judaism has a certain philosophical anthropology, a certain reading of the halakhah as addressing the human condition as such. (My own tendency, in much that I have written here over the years, has been to stress what might be called inductive thinking—the seven Noachide mitzvah, the importance of innate human conscience and ethical sense and intuition—alongside hukim, the heteronomous aspect of the mitzvah imperative, which to my mind have been overemphasized by Orthodoxy over the past century.)

But there is also a validity to specific national cultures and traditions. I say this, first, because I love the Torah and the Jewish people and its culture, so to speak, a priori; I am so deeply rooted in them that I cannot imagine life without this commitment. But I would also argue on rational grounds, to those who don’t share this a priori feeling, that the idea of the nation—any nation—with its history and culture and language and sense of rootedness in a specific territory, is central to human community, is a central building block of human fellowship. I would state that the distance between the individual and all of humankind is simply too great for a person to make all of humanity his central community. It is too big, too abstract, for any human being to relate to in an organic way; the cosmopolitan, who is a citizen of all places, who loves humankind in the aggregate, really belongs to none of them, and is ultimately thrust back upon himself, upon his own individual existence.


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