Sunday, April 30, 2006

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Assorted Thoughts)

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!

Why Israel? or, Contra Judt (2004)

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.

Hasidism and Zionism

Israel Independence Day seems an appropriate time to say a few words on the complex subject of Hasidism’s approach to Zionism. It is a vast subject, which has more to do with religious politics and sociology of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries than it does with Hasidic thought per se. For those interested, a good deal has been written on the subject, both by academic historians and by partisans actively involved in the ideological fray. A few titles (almost all of which involve the interaction of other Orthodox groups with Zionism as well as Hasidut) are: Yitzhak Alfasi’s Hasidut ve-Zion, Shimon Federbusch’s Torah u-Melukha, Aviezer Ravitzky’s Ha-Ketz ha-Meguleh, Yosef Salmon’s Dat ve-Zionut, as well as various titles by Ehud Luz, Dov Schwartz, and others.

It is well-known that Hasidism includes within its ranks some of the most virulently anti-Zionist groups in the Jewish world—most notably Satmar, Toldot Aharon and Munkacs. But it in fact spans the entire gamut of opinion, the largest group adhering to the “middle-of-the-road” Agudat Yisrael, which adheres to a non-Zionist or a-Zionist ideology, based in equal measure on the belief that “the Redeemer has not yet come” and its rejection of the overt secularism of the dominant groups in Zionism. This bloc includes such large courts as Belz, Ger, Vizhnitz and, in a rather different way, Lubavitch; these groups have by-and-large come to a practical accommodation with the state, and have learned to use their political clout (some of these groups number in the tens of thousands, and run impressive institutional networks) and the possibilities of Knesset representation to their advantage.

But there are also Hasidic groups who enthusiastically embraced Zionism. Immediately following Independence, in 1948, there were a significant number of rebbes who felt the hand of God in these redemptive events. My friend Rav Aryeh Strikovsky provided me with a short list of “Hasidic rebbes who say Hallel on Yom ha-Atzmaut,” past and present. These include: several of the “Admorim” of Rozhin, especially “Reb Shlomenyu”; the previous Modzhitzer Rebbe; rather surprisingly, the late R. Barukh Rabinowitz of Munkacs (official rabbi of Holon in the ‘40s and ‘50s); and, in our day, the Rebbes of Monistrizh, of Medzibozh (home of the Baal Shem Tov), Siatin (Husyatin?), Filtz, and R. Elimelekh Shapira, the present Piaseczno Rebbe. Another particularly interesting figure was Rabbi Avraham Teichtal, a former Munkacs hasid who “converted” to Zionism after the Holocaust and wrote a theological treatise entitled Eim Habanim Semeiha in defense of Zionism.

Several of the central figures of early religious Zionism came from Hasidic background. While they generally broke with the established Rebbes, they felt a deep emotional tie to Hasidism, which energized and motivated their Zionism. These include: R. Shmuel Hayyim Landau (Shahal), a central figure of Mizrachi in the ‘20s and ‘30s, who coined the concept Hamered Hakadosh (“The Holy Rebellion”); Rav Moshe Zvi Neriah, founder of Kfar Haroeh and of the network of B’nai Akiva yeshivot; and such Rabbinic literary figures as Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin and Rav Elimelekh Bar-Shaul.

A unique figure, deserving of special attention, was R. Yeshayahu Shapira, known as Admor ha-Halutz, the “Pioneer-Rebbe” (brother of the sainted R. Kalonymus Kalman of Piaseczno, author of Esh Kodesh, who was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto). He came to Israel in the 1920s, where he organized work brigades enabling religious Jews, who felt uncomfortable and faced concrete halakhic difficulties participating in the regular work brigades, to participate in some of the basic projects involved in building the country and reclaiming the land. He worked alongside them, while at night he sang Hasidic songs with them and taught Torah. Later he was director of the Zerubavel Bank, but he left that position to work the land at Kfar Pines. But there were also ideological roots to the conflict, on both sides. On the one hand, by the point in history at which political Zionism emerged, Hasidism had become quite conservative in its social attitudes. By this time, the bitter polemics and conflict between Mitnaggedism and Hasidism had become muted and rather low-key, and they joined forces against the secularist opponent. All of the various modernist options found in Eastern Europe for a new kind of Jewish identity—socialism (Bund), Haskalah, assimilation, and Zionism—were perceived as threatening to the religious tradition, and most of those involved were seen to have abandoned their religious observance. Moreover, the traditional ideology of supernatural redemption and the “three oaths” seemed to rule out any human-initiated return to Zion.

On the other hand, those who did become Zionists found support for it within the Hasidic concept of avodah begashmiut, of realizing holiness through concrete action within the world. The subtle dialectics of Hasidic thought opened the way to reinterpretation of the messianic idea, to perceiving God acting in hidden, immanent ways through the events of “secular” history. Thus, Rav Kook—although he came from a non-Hasidic background and studied at the Volozhin yeshivah, perhaps the classical Lithuanian yeshivah of his day—seemed to express what might be called a Hasidic spirit, in his perception of the underlying holiness of the Zionist enterprise.

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Liturgy)

Theological and Liturgical Reflections 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.


Al Hanissim for Yom ha-Atzmaut

In the above reflections, 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.

As a spur to further discussion, I have gathered here several nusha’ot for Al ha-Nissim, in English translation and in Hebrew, 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). I have included a 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.

Yom ha-Atzmaut (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).

Yom ha-Atzmaut (Psalms)

Psalm 126: “… We were as Dreamers”

The 126th psalm, recited or sung as the introduction to Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace After Meals) on every Shabbat and festival day, is the obvious choice for Israel’s Independence Day. Indeed, the official liturgy for the day has the worshippers singing this psalm to the melody of Hatikvah at the end of the Evening Service.

The six verses of this psalm are concerned with the subjective reaction of the people at the time of the Return to Zion following the Babylonian Exile: the analogy to the modern renascence needs no elaboration. “When God turned the captivity of Zion we were like dreamers.” The nations themselves, upon seeing the great thing that had happened to them, also acknowledged this as a kind of vindication in God’s eyes. The other verses use two principal metaphors to indicate the unexpected nature of this restoration, a complete turnabout and reversal of fortunes. The first: the streams in the Negev (v. 4); second, the “sowers in tears” who shall reap in joy (vv 5-6).

Notwithstanding the familiarity of this psalm, and its seemingly straightforward nature, there are a number of linguistic and other difficulties. The very first verse raises two questions: does the phrase shivat zion come from the root shuv, “to return”—i.e., “when the Lord turned about the turning of Zion”; or from shavah, “to take captive,” its sense being, “when the Lord returned the captives of Zion.” Second, does the phrase ke-holmim, “as dreamers,” refer to the starry-eyed wonder of those that returned (“this is so wonderful it has to be a dream”), or that, in retrospect, all that was suffered in Exile seems like an horrible, phantasmagoric nightmare? Or does the word come from the alternate meaning of hlm, to recuperate or recover from an illness, to become strong?

As for the riverbed image in verse 4: unlike North American river systems, Israel, especially in its southern desert, is filled with deep, narrow, dry river beds, wadis, which suddenly fill up with water when there is rainfall, even dozens of miles away, flowing with great force. It is an impressive sight, an apt metaphor for an abrupt change in fortune—but also dangerous: almost every winter one hears of at least one or two hikers, caught unexpectedly at the bottom of these canyons, who are drowned.

Be that as it may, this psalm well expresses the experience of the Jewish people in the twentieth century—if not more so. Those returning from Exile in those days had been gone for seventy years, or possible less; there were old men who still remembered the First Temple, to which they invidiously compared the new one. The modern Return followed an exile of nearly two millennia, during which hardly a single Jewish community remained intact in one place, but was moved about from place to place, suffering pogroms, crusades, expulsions, forced conscriptions, and finally the European Holocaust. Indeed, “we were as dreamers.”

Many of us belong to a new generation, “who knew not Joseph”—those born after ’48, or who were toddlers or small children at the time, who never knew a world without a State of Israel. For us, it is difficult to appreciate the radical nature of the change brought about by its creation. It is human nature to emphasize the negative, to criticize, and to seek to correct failings. The State of Israel, like any state, has its share of shortcomings—sharp conflicts among various groups within society, whether on a religious, ethnic, ideological, or socio-economic basis; widespread corruption; arrogance of the wealthy and powerful; contempt for law; mediocre leadership; etc. (But perhaps this last is rather subjective: the older one gets, the smaller contemporary leaders seem in comparison to those of one’s youth, who somehow seem larger than life). All this, not to mention Israel’s difficult international situation, its relative isolation in the community of nations, and the ongoing Palestinian problem. The triumph of ’67 has turned sour, seeming to have created more problems than it solved. But Yom ha-Atzmaut is a time for sitting back, counting our collective blessings, and remembering the profoundly positive impact the State has had on world Jewry from a slightly longer historical perspective; to try to recapture or imagine the moment when “we were like dreamers” and to feel, with the author of the Hallel psalms, that “this is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice therein.”

I was reminded of this some months back when a Jewish-unaffiliated relative, discussing the left-wing critique of Zionist misdeeds, real and imagined, asked the question, “Why does a religion need a state anyway?” I was shocked by the sheer ignorance displayed by this person (who is not particularly young): not only did it betray obliviousness of the national component of Jewish identity; he somehow managed to forget or ignore the reality of anti-Semitism, in both Europe and the Arab world, which was the dire practical reality, to meet which Israel was created. This, not to mention his covert assumption that the liberal, democratic West, with its tolerance and acceptance of minorities, always was and always will be, nor his understandable apathy (from his viewpoint) towards mass assimilation, the covert price demanded by this political and social freedom. But more on this later on.

On Shirei ha-Ma’alot (“the Songs of Degrees”)

The psalm which we discussed above is part of a collection of fifteen consecutive psalms, Pss 120-134, all of which bear the superscription Shir ha-Ma’alot.

The actual meaning of this title is uncertain. Variously translated as “a Song of Degrees,” “a Song of Ascents,” or “A Pilgrim Song,” no one really knows what the term means or where it comes from. The Mishnah notes that there were fifteen steps in the Temple separating the Men’s Courtyard from the Women’s Courtyard, upon which the Levites stood and sang these songs during the ceremony of Water Drawing during the festival of Sukkot. Another midrash states that the title alludes to the drawing up of water from the depths. Yet another view is that the “degrees” refer to a certain musical system, in which each song is sung at a higher (or louder?) pitch than the one that precedes it, moving progressively up the scale. But unlike the Western musical scale, which has a total of twelve notes, including flats and sharps, in an octave, the thirteenth returning to the tone of the starting note (hence the 24 preludes and fugues, in major and minor key, in each of the books of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier), this system has fifteen stations. Yet another view, which Amos Hakham seems to find cogent, is that the “degrees” or “steps” are key words that are repeated to link one verse to the next—a peculiar stylistic feature of many of these psalms. Finally (and this seems most plausible to me, from a common-sense viewpoint), these may have been pilgrim songs, recited by those making their festal pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, or (less likely) by the exiles returning home to Zion.

It should be noted that, in general, the Fifth Book of the Psalms (Pss 107-150) consists largely of a series of collections: the Hallel (Pss 113-118); the “Hallelujah” psalms (Pss 145 or 146-150) used in Pesukei de-Zimra; the eight-fold alphabetic psalm (Ps 119), which may be viewed as a collection of 22 separate units; the Hallel ha-Gadol (135-136); and, of course, the group of fifteen Shirei ha-Ma’alot. Unlike the first three books, the last two books, from Ps 90 on, are also far more “liturgical” and national-oriented than those that preceded them, with a preponderance of celebratory and historical psalms, and far fewer personal psalms, that are the prayer of an individual responding to an immediate existential situation of distress.

The other striking feature of these psalms is that there is an extraordinary concentration of very short psalms. An absolute majority—eight of the fifteen—are six or fewer verses in length (3 verses: 131, 133, 134; 4 vv.: 123; 5 vv.: 125, 127; 6 vv.: 126, 128): almost as many short psalms as in all the rest of the Psalter (the others are nine in toto: Pss 1, 13, 15, 23, 67, 70, 93, 100, and 117).

Having said what we can about the formal, external features of this group, what, if anything, may be said about the actual contents of this collection? Is there any common theme uniting them into a single unit? I was struck, most of all, by two themes. The first is that of the Temple: the sense of joy in going up to the Temple (fitting their designation as “Pilgrim Songs”) and related themes. Thus, we read in Ps 122: 1-2: “I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go up the House of the Lord… Our feet were standing in your gates, O Jerusalem..”; in Ps 133:1-2: “like the goodly oil… like the dew of Hermon descending upon the hills of Zion, where God has given His blessing”: in the final one in the set, Ps 134:1: “Bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand in the House of the Lord at night”; in Psalm 132, which is all about David’s wish to make a dwelling place for “the Mighty One of Jacob”; and, of course, Psalm 126 itself. The second theme is that of the sense of security, of shelter, of comfort, even of intimacy, that the psalmist feels in closeness with God. “I lift my eyes to You, like servants to their master, like a maidservant to her mistress… until You show us grace” (Ps 123:2); strikingly, “like a suckling babe at its mothers [breast], so is my soul to You (131:2); and, combining the two themes: ”Those who trust in God are like Mount Zion, that shall never be moved. Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains, and God surrounds His people forever more…” (125:2). There are also several psalms celebrating the joys of domesticity, the peace and contentment of the man whose wife is like a fruitful vine in the depths of his home, and whose sons are like olive trees around his table, or like arrows that he can take from his quiver to protect himself (127, 128). True, here and there, as in the more personal psalms of the earlier books, there are also enemies or other threats confronting the speaker, but the overall feeling tone is one of security, protection and contentment.

How are these ideas related? That the Temple is somehow “home,” the place where one feels most secure, protected, and safe (cf. Pss 27, 42, 63). Again, extending the concept of “Zion” to the entire Land of Israel, one might see here an almost classical Zionist message: that the Jew is, or ought to, feel most at home in… his homeland. Surely a suitable message with which to conclude on Yom ha-Atzmaut.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tazria-Metzora (Torah)

On Tum’a and Tohara

Of all the sections of the Torah, the readings for this week and next, Tazria and Metzora (Leviticus 12-15, which on non-leap years are “doubled over” to be read together on one Shabbat), are perhaps the most difficult ones about which to say anything significant or meaningful. As a friend of mine once said, only half in jest, ”Whoever succeeds in saying something relevant about Tazria-Metzora brings redemption to the world.”

This week’s portion consists of two main sections. The opening, brief chapter of eight verses describes the procedure followed by a woman following childbirth. There is a two-stage ritual impurity, consisting of an initial seven days (or 14 for a girl) of strict impurity and separation from her husband; this is followed by a second period of 33 days (or 66 days, for a girl) of modified impurity, known by the term dam tohar, “blood of purity,” during which, under old Torah-based Rabbinic law (mishnah rishonah), the woman was allowed to resume marital sexual relations with her husband, and to partake of some priestly gifts and holy things, but not to enter the Temple precincts.

The perennial question here is: Why the distinction between the birth of a boy and that of a girl? A variety of answers have been given: some taken from ancient and medieval medicine, asserting that the fetus of a girl takes twice as long to be formed as that of a boy, and hence requires a longer post-partum purification process (Sages, cited in Rabbenu Bahye); to that a female’s nature is “cold and moist,” requiring more purification (Ramban); to the statement that the Torah, concerned that the parents be able to enjoy closeness at the time of a circumcision, “so that they not be sad, and all the others rejoicing,” limited the woman’s impurity in this case to seven days; to the recent suggestion by Prof. Tirzah Meacham of the University of Toronto, that an infant girl occasionally discharges blood from her own infant womb, in response to the high estrogen level within the pre-natal environment, and thus an additional seven days were required for her own “impurity.” There are many other answers as well, some imaginative, some filled with moral lessons, but none of them convince this reader that they are the authentic, “original” peshat. All that can be said with any certainty is that the experience of birthing a girl is understood by the Torah as fundamentally different from that of birthing a boy.

To this, I would add a second question: why is this chapter placed at this particular location, rather than together with the other laws concerning impurity derived from various sorts of bodily discharges, in Ch. 15? As it stands, it is separated from these laws by Chapters 13 and 14, which deal with the totally different subject of tzara’at, “leprosy.” In addition, there are a number of puzzling features in the internal arrangement, both of Ch. 15, and of Chs. 13-14. More important, the entire concept of tum’a and tohara, of “purity” and “impurity,” is a strange and difficult one to us; we shall discuss some of these problems next week, in connection with these chapters.

The Priest as Physician

Chapters 13 and 14 deal with am ailment known as tzara’at, traditionally translated as “leprosy,” but in fact referring to some sort of highly contagious, lesser skin infection (for simplicity’s sake, we shall use here the traditional term). This was evidently a well-known disease, which aroused strong feelings of revulsion and danger among the public. The horror with which it was regarded is suggested by the total isolation and ostracism imposed by the Torah upon the victim of this disease. “… he shall sit outside of the camp, his hair shall be loose and his clothes shall be disheveled, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Impure! Impure!’ All the days of his impurity he shall dwell alone, outside of the camp” (13:45-46).

Beyond that, it is not made clear why the Torah deals with the subject at all. What we are given is a dry description of the disease, given in a series of brief paragraphs, each one of which gives a description of the symptoms, followed by what to do in border-line cases. Two points stand out: one, that the picture of the disease is a very dynamic one, in which in many cases the person is shut up for seven days, to be examined a second time. Second, that the priest plays a crucial role in diagnosing the disease, and in issuing instructions as to whether to consider the victim pure, impure, or to continue his border-line condition another seven days.

Subsequent sections (these spill over into the next portion, Metzora) deal with “leprous” infection of inanimate objects, to wit, garments or the stones from which a house is built, as well as the interesting ritual for expatiating leprosy after its cure. The question is: why does the Torah trouble to present this in such detail? There is something jarring, discordant between this chapter and the other sections of the Torah, even in Leviticus.

Interestingly, this is perhaps the only section in the entire Torah which is interpreted by most major mefarshim (exegetes) on the level of midrash: that is, as one whose meaning and true importance are not conveyed by the plain sense of the chapters themselves. I say this, notwithstanding that in Mishnaic times Negaim and Ohalot (the tractates dealing with the laws of tzara’at and with impurity related to enclosures or coverings over the dead) were considered the “meat and potatoes” of halakhic studies. The only comparable example of such a strongly midrashic line of interpretation is the Song of Songs, which in Rabbinic lore is always read metaphorically or allegorically.

Most midrashim take it as axiomatic that tzara’at is a punishment for evil speech, lashon hara. This is strengthened by the other places in which tzara’at is mentioned in the Torah. In one of the signs shown to Moses in the scene at the burning bush, God asks him to place his hand within his bosom, and when he takes it out it is “leprous, white as snow” (Exod 4: 6-7). This is seen by Rashi and the midrashim as punishment for his speaking ill of the Israelites and doubting their readiness to believe his message. The second case involves Miriam being struck with leprosy when he and Aaron speak about Moses‘ “Cushite” wife (Num 12, esp. at v. 9). This episode presumably prompted the instruction in Deuteronomy to take care regarding “all that the priests and Levites may instruct you” regarding the signs of leprosy, followed immediately by the admonition to “remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way…” (Deut 24:8-9). This juxtaposition is very strange, unless it was already taken as axiomatic that leprosy was a punishment for lashon hara. (Albeit it is this connection is not mentioned explicitly, it only saying “remember what God did to Miriam,” the implicit assumption being that everyone knew the connection in her case between crime and punishment). In the later biblical books, too, we find leprosy as punishment for other improper misbehavior. Striking is the incident involving Elisha’s servant Gehazi who, after Naaman, commander of the Syrian army, came to Elisha to be cured of leprosy, ran after him to “shnorr” money and gifts. Elisha, disgusted with this demeaning and immoral behavior, curses Gehazi that “Naaman’s leprosy shall cleave to you and to your descendants forever” (2 Kings 5; at v. 27). On the other hand, there is no indication that the four leprous men at the gate of Samaria in 2 Kings 7:3 were guilty of any moral turpitude.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the Torah sees tzara’at as an object lesson, reflecting its deep faith that illness is Divine recompense for wrong-doing; or, viewed in other words, that moral ill is reflected in the body (a kind of reverse “Picture of Dorian Gray” principle), a concrete manifestation of the “just world.”

Unity of Body and Soul

As this chapter involves midrashic thinking, I will add my own reflections on these matters. What this chapter teaches more than anything else (at least in its traditional exegesis) is the integration of body and spirit. Disease is seen as an external expression of an inner rottenness or malaise. The Torah views this in moral terms: tzara’at as an outward manifestation of sin, especially the secretive sin of bearing tales against others. In my own immediate experience, I have seen how closely illness or health may be linked to emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Two striking examples come to mind, in two opposite directions. One: a woman suffering from a serious illness whom, over the course of three years of mostly spiritual and psychological healing coupled with non-conventional medicine, was essentially cured. The opposite case: an older woman, physically strong and healthy but deeply depressed and grieving the death of her husband, was hospitalized for a relatively routine operation; a routine pre-op exam triggered a series of events that were nearly inexplicable in medical terms, until three months later she died.

We are at a strange cultural juncture in human history. On the one hand, science and technology are striding forward by leaps and bounds. The computer and new communications technologies are changing the way we work, shop, do business, receive news and information, even socialize—virtually every aspect of our culture. Biotechnology is changing how we raise crops for food, how animals are bred, and is even beginning to change the way in which we reproduce as human beings. Geneticists recently announced the imminent decoding of the human genome, suggesting the possibility to diagnose and cure genetic faults and diseases—and perhaps to “engineer” the makeup of human beings. Neurologists are claiming to understand more and more fully the workings of the human brain. But together with that, more and more people, specifically in advanced Western society, seem to be disillusioned with this “brave new world,” and are seeking an anchor for their lives in other, more traditional forms of wisdom. Among some, there is a return to more holistic, organic ways of looking at the universe; in another group, there seems to be a more and more deterministic and reductionist view of the human being.

I believe that the deepest intellectual challenge to religion in general, and to Judaism in particular, during the new century will be from a kind of “biologism”: a view that asserts that man can be understood as a purely biological creature, as essentially a product of his genetic makeup, no more than a bundle of predetermined predilections. Already one is hearing biologically-based apologia for the ruthless economic Darwinism which has emerged over the past two decades, erasing much of the progress toward a more humane society gained with great struggle by the labor movement and others during the early part of the twentieth century. Popular magazines propound a kind of crude apology for male philandery as biologically natural, and hence somehow OK. The current “politically-correct” acceptance of homosexuality (an issue we shall discuss in Aharei Mot) is also based upon a biological-neurological argument. Ultimately, such an approach undermines two basic foundations of Judaism: the belief in human free will, behira hofshit; and the concept that man is created betzelem elokim, in the Divine image, with a soul that contains within it a spark of the Divine.

These issues are profound ones, on which there is a great deal to be said. For now, I will try to conclude with a few brief thoughts, in telegraphic form. It is important to understand, with all due respect to the wonderful accomplishments of modern science and technology, that the underlying world-view of these disciplines is limited by the tools that it chooses to use. When it becomes an all-embracing, exclusive world-view, it can be dangerous. The empirical view of the universe, and of man, is based upon certain basic perceptual and philosophical flaws; its purview is limited to certain kind of measurable and quantifiable phenomena, which must not be mistaken for the Whole. (Several books that I have found extremely instructive and enlightening in understanding these issues are: vis a vis the question of world-view: Huston Smith, The Forgotten Truth and Jacob Needleman, A Sense of the Cosmos; on the grave cultural effects of technology, a book written nearly 40 years ago, the truth of whose grim prophecy is becoming more evident with every passing year, Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.)

Paradoxically, at least in light of some of the struggles in contemporary Israeli society (viz. the role of the Supreme Court, and Basic Laws), true protection of “human freedom and dignity” is to be found, not in secularism, but in an authentic, deeply religious world-view.

Tum’a and Tohara, contd.

Parashat Metzora continues the theme of tum’a & tohara, usually translated as ritual purity and impurity. The salient feature of this parasha, following passages that round off the laws of “leprosy” began in last week’s portion, is the group of laws concerning various forms of impurity that issue from the body. Chapter 15 consists of laws of impurity issuing from sexually related discharges of both men and women, including discharges (presumably) originating in venereal diseases, menstruation, and even a brief period of impurity from ordinary sexual intercourse.

One of the explanations put forward in recent years (I think it was first articulated by Rachel Adler in The [First] Jewish Catalog in the early ‘70’s; perhaps it was also a spin-off of the work of such anthropologists as Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, and of course Claude Lévi-Strauss) sees the central theme of tum’a as related to the human encounter with various manifestations of mortality, and the consciousness of the vulnerability and transience (what the Christian Scriptures call “corruptibility”) of ones own body. Thus, tuma’ is always ultimately connected with death and mortality: whether through birth or sexuality (the spilling of seed, containing the germ of life, but also the potentiality for new life to not be created); menstruation (in which the life-giving potentiality in a particular month has been missed); the deterioration and corruption of the body experienced in disease, such as tzara’at (“leprosy”) and zivah (presumably gonorrhea); and, ultimately, contact with death and dead bodies, called by our Rabbis avi avot hatum’a, the ultimate source of impurity, to which a special chapter is devoted further along in the Torah, in Numbers 19.

Purification from tum’a is in turn affected through water, the universal source of cleansing and purification; life-giving (in biblical thought, water is sometimes pictured as fructifying a field in much the same way as the male impregnates the female; e.g. in Isa 55:10); ever fresh and renewing (i.e., spring waters or mountain streams); as well as dissolving and washing away all in its path. When I first encountered these concepts in my youth, I was taught to think of tum’a largely as a formal, halakhic category. Tum’a was no more than the opposite or absence of tohara, that state of ritual purity required to enter the Temple precincts and to partake of certain priestly foods. This dialectical link between tum’a and the mikdash is neatly expressed in a verse towards the end of our portion—“You shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die (!) in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31). Today, on the face of it, there is no need for tohara—since in any event we neither eat kodashim (sacred things) nor (apart from a few crazies) enter the Temple Mount. Furthermore, in the absence of the ashes of the red heifer, we are all formally considered tame’ei met anyway.

Yet upon further reflection, it seems clear that tohara is a desirable religious condition, while tum’a is seen as a reprehensible state. Thus, the Haverim, the early Sages in the generations during and immediately following the destruction of the Temple, strove to conduct their ordinary, mundane life activities in a state of tohara. Similarly, many latter-day Hasidim immerse in the mikveh, the public ritual bath, every morning so as to achieve the maximum degree of purity before beginning their morning prayers.

I look at these phenomena with mixed feeling. On the one hand, Soloveitchik’s “halakhic man” would see this as an exaggerated, unnecessary preoccupation with things one is not obligated to do. A psychological perspective might add that this seems to reflect an inability to come to terms with ones corporeality. On the other hand, there is here a certain genuine striving for spirituality. As one grows older, one sees how much of ones life is consumed, either by bodily lusts and desires, on the one hand; or by the corruption, the inevitable deterioration and aging of the body, on the other. The desire to transcend all that, at least symbolically, is somehow understandable.

Moreover, upon closer reading it becomes apparent that there are places in the Bible where the word tamei is used in a moral sense as well, independent of its generating formal ritual impurity. Thus, in the case of the unfaithful wife (Num 5:11-31, at 13-14, 19-20, 27-29); in that of the woman who returns to her first husband after marriage to another man (Deut 24:1-4, at 4: “after she had been rendered impure,” a surprisingly strong term for what had been legitimate marital relations); and in the context of kashrut: these animals, birds, etc. are tamei lakhem, “impure to you” (Lev 11, passim). And there are no doubt other passages that escape my memory. Thus, the rules of tum’a and tohara seem to be part of the larger activity of “world construction,” which we noted earlier in the context of kashrut.

”Seven Days She Shall be in Her Impurity”

The one aspect of the laws of purity and impurity that is still in effect today is that pertaining to menstrual impurity, and the separation during that period between husband and wife, observed today by many traditionally observant and most Orthodox Jews. This observance has spawned an entire apologetic literature, beginning with the quaint, slightly quixotic Secret of the Jew of the 1920’s, to Maurice Lamm’s classic A Hedge of Roses, through literally dozens of books, pamphlets, etc. (providing a ripe mine for future doctoral dissertations, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once quipped about the future of a Yiddish literature without native readers). The most usually offered explanation is that the observance of periodical sexual separation assures the freshness and romance of the marriage, making life into a constant “honeymoon.” Rabbi Shmuely Boteah, the enfant terrible of Oxford, has even advocated selling the idea to non-Jews. A second line of explanation notes that the effect of the practice of “family purity” (as Hilkhot Niddah was rather sanitarily renamed by some unknown Victorian rabbi) is to maximalize Jewish fertility, through assuring that the couple will generally have intercourse as close to ovulation as possible (i.e., on the 12th day from beginning of menstruation, following the predominant custom today).

Partly because I enjoy the role of iconoclast, and partly because this approach presents real problems, I would like to speculate on an alternative explanation. The “romantic” line of apologia ignores one simple, stark fact. As the law appears here (15:19-24), it merely states that any man who lies with a woman during her impurity shall himself be considered impure for seven days. But the specific prohibition against sexual relations during menstruation appears in Chapter 18, alongside the rules against incest, adultery, and other highly serious sexual transgressions, all of which are collectively referred to as “abominations.” Further on, in 20:18, it specifically states that one who lies with a menstruant, “uncovering the fount of her blood… shall be cut off from his people”—i.e, shall is subject to the very serious sanction known as karet. This seems rather strong for a law whose aim is merely to obviate marital boredom. Moreover, it is interesting that this is the only sexual regulation relating to a bodily state, i.e., prohibiting relations between two people to whom they are ordinarily permitted. All this suggests that there was seen something horrible, unnatural, in the idea of menstrual sex.

Again, the answer is so simple as to be easily overlooked. Milton Himmelfarb observed years ago there is something in the Jewish sensibility (one might almost call it the Jewish “aesthetic”) that abhors blood, seeing both blood and a certain type of unfettered sexuality as antithetical to Judaism. “Inchastity is the piety of paganism… Bloodshed is likewise the piety of paganism… They did not need to read Ovid or Petronius or Tacitus or Juvenal to know how the pagans were about sex and about blood.” Alongside the proscription against sex with a menstruant, there is a very strongly written law—one might almost say, taboo—against eating the blood of an animal. The elaborate regulations surrounding the soaking and salting of meat in the kosher home are well-known. Alongside the great reverence for life, and for the blood that symbolizes it, there is a certain recoil from casual use of, or contact with, blood. One does not shed blood, one does not eat blood, and one does not, so to speak, have sex in blood.

An entirely different set of questions, upon which I can only touch in passing, deals with the issue of possible change in certain details of this observance. Our contemporary halakhic observance is based upon three or four separate seyagim, Rabbinic or customary “fences,” superimposed upon the original biblical law. Today’s separation of nearly two weeks is passed upon counting seven days from the end, rather than from the beginning, of menstruation. Due to certain exegetical difficulties in Mishnah Niddah 4.7 (and especially the difficult line of interpretation of the Rambam in Issurei Biah 6.6 ff., which proposes a strictly mathematical-conceptual model, that to my mind contravenes both common sense and experience), we apply the rules in vv. 25-30, rather than those in vv. 19-24, to every menstruant, even one who has her period with the regularity of a Swiss watch. This strict regimen is one that is extremely onerous to many couples, particularly in light of—how can we avoid it—contemporary attitudes towards sexuality. It is impossible to know how many young couples may be discouraged for this reason from adopting this basic Jewish observance. I thus ask, on a purely speculative basis, and not lema’aseh, whether there is not room for reversing some of these strict customs, and restoring the situation as it was before the series of strictures described by Rambam in I. B. 11.1-10.