Tisha b'Av (Aggadah)
For more teachings on Tisha b’Av, see the previous post (Devarim-Hazon), and the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and July 2009.
Are We Still in Galut?
Traditionally, Tisha b’Av and the days that precede it are times for reflection upon the meaning of Jewish history—specifically, the negative side of our people’s long and often difficult journey through the centuries. The fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of both Temples, and recalling any number of disasters that befell the Jewish people in Exile—from the destruction of the Rhineland communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz during the First Crusade, through the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, the assaults of Chmielnicki and his mobs on the Jews of the Ukraine in 1648-49, the pogroms in Poland and Russia, and the European Holocaust (it is said that the deportation of Jews from the greatest single Jewish center in Poland, Warsaw, began on Tisha b’Av 1942)—is paradigmatic of the Galut, the condition of Exile. More than simply a geo-political or historical state, Galut was traditionally understood in almost metaphysical terms: the suffering of the Jewish people in this mundane world, and its alienation from their Land, were seen as counterpointing the exile of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence meant to dwell in this world. The absence of the Divine Indwelling, the potential for Presence in this world, signified, if you will, a distortion of the unity of transcendence and immanence symbolized by the wholeness and unity of the Divine Name. Exile thus means, also: all is not right in the world.
All that, it would seem, changed with the Return to Zion, with the Zionist movement’s renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel somewhat more than a century ago; with greater force upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948; and, some would add, even more so with the reunification of the heartland of Biblical lsrael in Judaea and Ssmaria, including the holy cities of Jerusalem, Shechem and Hebron, under Israeli rule in 1967. All these signified a series of steps towards Geulah, the long-awaited Redemption. Or did they?
There are at least two schools in Zionism which saw the reestablishment of Jewish life and sovereignty in the Land as changing everything about Jewish life, as signaling an end to the millennia-long exile. The official ideology of Religious Zionism saw the State as “the beginning of the blossoming of our redemption”—as initiating a process which will ultimately lead to the coming of Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of other institutions of the Torah—the Sanhedrin, the Davidic monarchy—as in days of old; if not in our own lifetimes, than surely in those of our children or grandchildren. Many passages in the thought of Rav A. I. Kook, and of other later Religious Zionist thinkers, point in that direction.
Historically, secular Zionism also saw the creation of the State of Israel as marking the end of the Exile and the Redemption of the people, albeit translated into secular terms: the ingathering of the exiles (or at least all those that wished to come, the implication being that all those who remained in the Diaspora were consciously choosing to assimilate and disappear as Jews), the creation of a “New Jew” and a new people, a nation living in its own homeland, speaking its own revived language, and living a “normal,” vigorous life; one whose culture would center, not around prayer and the study of ancient sacred texts, but upon art, music, literature, science, sports, industry. The nation’s past would be studied without illusions, using modern academic tools; the nation which would participate in the culture of the larger world—in short, a nation like all the nations, a secular nationality, proud and free, standing tall.
But are these the only models by which to understand our current situation? Many of us, particularly in recent years, find themselves reminded of the story of the Hasidic rabbi who, upon being told that the Messiah had at last come, opened his window, looked outside, and said: “No, not yet. The world doesn’t ‘smell’ any differently than it did before!” Much as we may love Israel, the atmosphere here doesn’t “smell” of Redemption any more than it did 50 or 100 years ago; indeed, if anything, many of the hopes of an earlier, more naïve time have been disappointed. Israel has turned out to be a human community like any other: people bicker and quarrel over petty matters; our leaders seem to run the gamut from mediocre to corrupt, with hardly a hint of greatness among the whole bunch (or, what’s worse, it would seem that those with any potential for greatness, or even a new perspective on things, are rapidly spewed out by the system). Nor, sad to say, has the secular vision of Israel developing a national identity which would be accepted easily and simply into the family of nations, been realized. Peace remains as elusive as ever, and one wonders how much of the blame for this state of affairs is that of the Arabs and how much is our own. On bad days, it sometimes feels as though I and my countrymen are living a Greek tragedy, in which initially minor faults and conflicts seem to be playing themselves out in a headlong rush to their catastrophic denouement.
What alternative is left? One might argue, as do many of the Haredim, that despite our settling the Land, despite our political autonomy and sovereignty, we are still in Exile. They might say: “An ancient halakhah [meaning: an eternal metaphysical rule]: Esau hates Israel.” That is to say, the ancient scourge of anti-Semitism is still alive and kicking, and has merely changed its object from the individual Jew or the “Jews” as an amorphous group in some Diaspora nation to anti-Zionism, to demonizing the Jewish state. Metaphysically, they would argue, we are still in Exile.
When I was younger I was taught to excoriate this viewpoint. Only the crazy fanatics in Neturei Karta and Satmar think that way! But more recently, I have begun to wonder: perhaps there is something to this view. One thing seems clear: that there is no assurance that we are on the road to “Ge’ulah” (Redemption). To the contrary: having reentered history, the Jewish people no longer has the luxury of viewing itself, as some thinkers did, as a trans-historical, metaphysical entity (thus Franz Rosenzweig, for example), but we are exposed to all the possible vagaries of historical events.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that Zionism is religiously worthless or was a mistake; it is difficult, for example, to imagine the renaissance of Jewish culture taking place today in North America (however modest it may be, and however much the community as a whole may be beset by the threats of assimilation and intermarriage) without the existence of the State of Israel in the background, somehow providing American Jews, even if unacknowledged, with a sense of security and self-confidence that did not exist previously. But the meaning of Zionism is not a metaphysical one, not a change in the very essence of our situation, but must be viewed in a more modest terms: that we have a political culture, that our people has been reborn, for better ir worse, as a secular nationality. But the problems and difficulties of life, symbolized by the concept of Exile, are with us as ever.