Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shelah Lekha (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for May 15 2006, June 2007 (bottom), and June 2008, 2009, and 2010 (bottom).

“We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself”

While the Generation of the Desert never heard this bon mot of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, their experience clearly exemplified it. This week’s parashah exemplifies two diametrically opposed responses to fear. Moses sends twelve men—one from each tribe—to “spy out” the land of Canaan and bring back a report as to what it’s like. They report that it is a fruitful and verdant land, flowing with water, filled with all good things—milk and honey, and grape clusters so abundant that they require two men to carry them—but that it has strongly fortified cities inhabited by powerful people, “and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes, and so were we in our own eyes” (Num 13:33).

This report elicits two reactions: On the one hand: depression, anger, despair. “Why did you take us out of Egypt to die in this desert? We’ll never be able to conquer this land!” The people, immobilized by fear, sit in their tents and wept, and even contemplated returning to Egypt. Fear can paralyze people, and make them wallow in self–pity.

But there is another reaction, perhaps equally dangerous: fear can drive people to take rash, impetuous, foolhardy action. “To do or die—and damn the consequences.” One group within the people, referred to as the ma’apilim, said “Let us go up and conquer the mountain” (14:40-44) and, in an ill-considered attempt to storm the country by force, were pushed back, many of them killed, driving them into an even deeper funk. The ultimate result of these two types of fear and their loss of trust led to the punishment, that they were condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness until a new generation emerged, until all those who had been slaves in Egypt would die, and a new generation, born in the clean air of the desert, would come of age and enter the Land.

The “Generation of the Desert”—Dor ha-Midbar—has often been invoked as a metaphor for Israeli life. According to the paradigm, the founding generation of Zionist settlement, born in the Galut, in the European Exile, who in their childhood and youth were raised with the sense of fear and submissiveness of the Exilic Jew, would begin the process of national rebirth, but the task of building a truly free nation, of forming the “New Jew,” would be the task of a new generation, born into freedom, unafraid of the Gentiles, strong and proud and masculine, would create the new, non-Galut mentality.

Tom Segev, in his book 1967, about the Six-Day War and how it shaped Israel in years to come, discusses the distinction between the “Jews”—the older, European-born generation who sat in the government, men like Levi Eshkol and Pinhas Sapir and Abba Even, who tended to be cautious and were constantly askinmg what the wyrld would say—and the “Tzabarim”—the native-born generation who ran the Army, men like Yitzhak Rabin and Yigael Allon and Moshe Dayan—who tended to be brash and more certain of their own ability to determine things.

But from where I sit today, in 2011, things don’t look so simple. The Jewish people suffers from deep traumas—most notably from the Holocaust, but also from two thousand years of persecution. Once you scratch the surface of Israel’s political culture, you find deep-seated fears playing a role alongside rational, pragmatic, realistic strategic thinking—even on the part of those purported to be clear-eyed strategic geniuses. Rather than integrating military might and the threat of force, as a last resort, with intelligent, proactive diplomacy and with building alliances in a difficult region and a difficult world, Israel seems to be withdrawing more and more into a fortress mentality. If “the Generation of the Desert” were at times guilty of excessive caution, the “Generation of the State” and their successors often seem more like the Ma’apilim—impetuous, filled with bravado, so-called diplomats insulting ambassadors from friendly nations so as to drive them into the arms of our enemies—and all this in the name of so-called “Jewish pride,” or excused with the mantra that “Anyway the world is against us”— as if that somehow vindicates our position. (Again, all this with the usual reservations that the Arabs are not easy adversaries, and have their own deeply rooted cultural neuroses and dogmas that are profound obstacles to peace)

The Circumcision Bruhaha in San Francisco

One of the proposals to appear on the ballot in the forthcoming municipal elections in San Francisco concerns the banning of all circumcision prior to the age of 18. Off the cuff, it seems to me that such a law, if passed, would be blatantly unconstitutional, as it prohibits a well-established religious practice. Of course, on the practical level, I imagine that young families wishing to make a brit milah for their newborn sons could do so easily enough by going across the bay, north to Marin county, or down the peninsula outside the city limits (much as Jews living in those European countries which ban shehitah import their meat across the border)-- but in principle the idea that such a measure could even be entertained anywhere in the United States, founded as a bastion of religious liberty, is very disturbing.

But while the effect of such a law would be anti-Judaic, it is not clear that it is motivated by anti-Semitism in any traditional sense. San Francisco is well-known for its so-called super-liberal culture. But in point of fact, this measure is anything but liberal. Essentially, it is imposing the values of a particular group on the entire population: in this case, the underlying value is the radical autonomy of the individual, including his supposed right not to have his body altered without his mature consent, including what has hitherto been considered parental prerogative. In addition, the anti-circumcisionists claim that the practice prevents a man from enjoying the maximal sexual pleasure of which he would otherwise be capable (funny: I’ve engaged in sexual relations most of my adult life, and I never noticed that I wasn’t enjoying it); the philosophical implication being that sexual pleasure is a right of the highest order. On the other hand, this measure would deny the right of another group (our own) to initiate its children in religious community, including a symbolic sealing in the flesh of belonging to that covenantal community. In short: they believe with almost totalitarian fanaticism in their particular set of values, and seem blind to the possibility that others may adhere to a world-view worthy of respect, if not agreement. Need I add that, in terms of our theme, we see here in starkest terms the hyper-individualism of current American “liberalism” vs. the traditional concept of community and the symbolic continuity among the generations, as dramatically symbolized in brit-milah.


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