Friday, May 2, 1997

Who Knows One? (Jewish Week)

Who Knows One?

by Joshua Hammerman
Appeared in Jewish Week, 5/97

I am an orphan of Aquarius. I missed out on all the great protest rallies of the '60s and early '70s by a mere couple of years. I was the placid baby brother of a rebellious hippie sister (who is now frum and living in Ma'aleh Adumim, but that's another story). I was one of that in-between generation, an unripened boomer, one of those mini-Kissingers who used to shuttle between big sis and the big-bad over-40 folks, trying to keep the peace amidst the bellicose shouts of "No More War."

For me and my generation, the shuttling was a nice distraction from the Ultimate Truths that they all were facing. It was my sister's generation that had to go to Vietnam and die, and my parents who had to face the dire prospect of sacrificing either their patriotism or their children, or both.

So finally, a few weeks ago, I got to attend my first protest rally, at the last place I ever imagined it would be: an Israeli consulate, in Boston. There I joined about 200 of my Conservative rabbinic colleagues in an emotional plea for a united world Jewry, and opposing that devastating conversion bill in the Knesset.

It was a worthwhile cause, but a grim task, evoking none of the exhilaration my sister and her peers must have felt back in the '60s. They were going to change the world. We just wanted to catch the evening news. They shouted, "Hell no, we won't go!" We davened mincha. They got arrested. We posed for photos-ops. The whole thing was so awkward, every step tentative. Groping for a protest chant we, somewhat ironically, ended up singing selections from the Hasidic song festival. I hope our actions did some good, but I left the scene feeling that the act of lobbying had somehow sullied us. As rabbis, we were trained to bring people closer to God, not to take over student unions; but as Jews, we were expected to know how to lobby.

Have you noticed a dearth of bumper stickers lately? It's as if the world has run out of quick-grabbing causes. Certainly we Jews have given up on any semblance of idealism. Israel is secure and thriving, absorption is ongoing and there are virtually no Jews left in the world who are denied the freedom to live a Jewish life. On the 100th anniversary of Zionism, we speak of our great movement of national liberation primarily in the past tense. Last year Israel elected its first anti-ideological Prime Minister.

Here in America, we still recall the Holocaust with great anguish, but the slogan "Never Again" rings hollow: too trite, too Kahane-esque, too deniable after Bosnia and central Africa. Our primary concerns can't easily be put on a bumper sticker: "Continuity: Yes!" just doesn't cut it, not does "Marry Jewish," or "Pluralist and Proud."

There are still injustices in the world, to be sure, but nothing around which one could build a Jewish identity. Most attempts to challenge us on ideological grounds, either from the left or the right, have been met with apathy. "Tikkun" is drowning in verbiage and debt; "Commentary" in dust. The most prevalent bumper sticker-statements of the past few years have either resulted from internal family squabbles ("Don't give up the Golan!") or worse ("Shalom Haver"). The old U.J.A. slogan, "We Are One," has become a cruel joke. There's nothing left for a Jew to believe in.

Except God.

No, not THAT. There must be something else.

Jews have spend the better part of the last three millennia running from God, yet, drawn by an ever-so-slight gravitational pull, we keep on circling back. It might take as long as Hale-Bopp, but we always return to "Who Knows One?" Like mini-Jonahs we scurry from cause to cause, shuttling relentlessly to keep from having to ponder, each cause a distraction from Ultimate Truth, a diversion from our Ultimate Question: Who Knows One?

Two? I know two...Two tablets. Yeah. Let's talk about the constitutionality of putting the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courtroom. Two.

No, three. Three. Of course. Three patriarchs: Marx, Freud and Darwin. Each promised a truth that could deliver humanity -- and they screwed up our century and delivered us express-mail, right back to...

No, wait. Four. There's four. Of course. The matriarchs. Feminism. No, wait. Five. The books of Moses. But who really wrote them? Let's have a debate about Biblical criticism. No, six: the six million. They are why we should remain Jews. Or seven, or eight. Or 53: the intermarriage rate. What is the key to Jewish survival? Ecology or education? Abortion rights or AIPAC? We float. We grope. It can get very dark inside of a whale.

Finally, we are coming back to the source. As we plunge headlong toward the millennium, most Jews are doing what everyone else is doing: looking out for number One. The extraneous numbers are being tossed aside. The secularists are running for cover. At some point, even Alan Dershowitz will begin to understand that all things Jewish flow from a single transcendent stream and that Israel will have meaning for Jews only when it can enable us to tap into that stream. Currently, for the vast majority of Jews, including most Israelis, that flow has been blocked by a dam of Haredi corruption. Until that changes -- and that transformation must now become the top priority of every clear-headed Zionist and searching Jew -- Israel's gravitational pull on the Jewish soul will continue to dissipate.

So now that we are left in the room with nothing else but One, with all the bumper stickers shoved aside, what do we do? How do we approach the ineffable, this Ultimate blind date?

Nervously we reach into our pockets. In generations past we might have offered a cigarette, or maybe a paschal lamb. We've been stripped of all that. Stripped of pretense, false gods and empty ideologies, we have nothing to offer, nothing but our entirety. We are naked.

Hale-Bopp took over three thousand years to return to our skies, but the flair of its reentry into human consciousness is a solid example for our reentry into the direct, unadorned encounter with the Sacred. Bright, blazing and swift, we make our appearance, however fuzzy and confused we feel. Like the comet, it took us a long time to understand again that we are here for one purpose alone: to shine brightly and leave a trail of light in our wake.

Who knows One? We're beginning to now, because we've run out of alternatives. Abraham first asked that question just after Hale-Bopp's last appearance. Judaism's eternal shuttle has just completed it's first orbit.