Friday, May 28, 1999

Our Millennial Masterpiece (Jewish Week)

Our Millennial Masterpiece

by Joshua Hammerman
Originally Appeared in The Jewish Week 5/28/99

With millennial retrospectives now proliferating, even those who live on Jewish time can easily get caught up in this obsessive need to place the past 1,000 Gregorian years into some historical context. The exercise can be fruitful in that it forces us to take the long view, helping us to weed out trivialities and focus on what matters most. With that in mind, I am led to the unmistakable conclusion that this has been one bummer of a millennium for the Jewish people.

Sure, we’ve had moments of greatness, like the Golden Age in Spain and birth of the State of Israel; we’ve had great minds and spiritual giants like Rashi, Maimonides and the Baal Shem Tov. We’ve not lacked in brilliant creations, such as the Shulchan Aruch the Kol Nidre melody, and Mel Brooks’ "Two Thousand Year Old Man." But in comparison to the two previous millennia, we’ve underachieved; and when compared to what the rest of the world has done over the past ten centuries, we’ve really lagged behind.

Granted, we’ve also faced obstacles that at times appeared insurmountable. For one, there was the ongoing exile. Although we were stateless for virtually all of the previous thousand years too, the antipathy toward Jews didn’t run as deep and wasn’t as universal back then. And the great calamities of bygone eras, the repeated sacking of the Temples followed by expulsion, can not compare to this millennium’s greatest trauma, the Holocaust. The Holocaust was a "fitting" climax to an epoch that began, ended and was replete with the murder of innocent Jews. If we excelled at anything this millennium, it was at survival. Our flame was extinguished and subsequently re-ignited so many times that by millennium’s end we appeared to have become extinction proof.

But we also became tired. Maybe it was because survival is an exhausting exercise. Maybe the Sinaitic mythos just hit middle age. It is hard for old visions to flourish in an atmosphere of constant oppression, and even harder to dream new ones. So there was no creation that could come close to the magnitude of the Babylonian Talmud this millennium, no vast corpus of Midrash with staying power, and nothing remotely approaching the greatness of the Bible. The most enduring Jewish creations of this millennium were mere byproducts of the previous two. Where the Mishnah and Talmud were entirely new and creative texts in the guise of commentaries, Rashi’s and much of Maimonides’ work was far more dependent on the work of previous masters. Where the Bible was dynamic and revolutionary, the creations of our era, however beautiful, seem like "Nick at Nite" reruns in comparison, whose beauty lies in their ability to evoke faint and distant echoes of more potent times. The originality is lacking, and those works that were most original a few centuries ago now appear dusty and dated, like all those marvelous medieval liturgical poems now seen by most simply as the culprits that prolong our High Holidays services. Nothing created by the Jewish people over the past thousand years appears to have staying power.

Except for Israel.

Jews seem to become especially creative as the millennium turns. Three thousand years ago, King David didn’t even know what a Gregorian calendar was when he unified the kingdom in his new Jerusalem. A thousand years later Jews got creative enough to found not one but two new religions, Pauline Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. And roughly a thousand years after that, we met the aforementioned Rashi, Maimonides and Spanish Golden Agers.

It seems to me that when people are looking back a thousand years from now, they will speak of Einstein, Freud and Marx and their impact on the world at large. But our descendants will point toward Israel as our most original, revolutionary creation. Israel will be our book of Psalms and our Job, our magnum opus.

That’s why Israel matters, no matter where we live. That’s why things like elections matter, and religious freedom and planting trees and ensuring equal rights for women and minorities—in Israel. These things matter to Diaspora Jews. And if they don’t, they should. And it should matter to Israelis that it matters to Diaspora Jews.

America is our home. Israel is our canvas. The former is where we live our lives. The latter is where our lives will have mattered – or not – a millennium from now. We don’t and shouldn’t vote in Israel’s elections. We do and should participate in shaping Israel‘s destiny.

O.K., so these haven’t been the best of times for the Jewish people. Anyone can have a bad millennium, and we’ve survived in spite of our limited output. But what’s immediately ahead of us could be another Golden Age. And just as the moon landing and other great achievements of the larger society were dependent on the cooperation and interdependence of both those on and off site, Diaspora Jews have a pivotal role to play in the creation of this once-in-a-millennium masterpiece.