Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Israel: The Jewish Magnum Opus
It is very easy to get cynical about Israel’s 69th birthday. I share in some of the disappointment that has become pervasive among a large percentage of American Jews. So this message is especially for them:
Yes, there are questions about human rights and an unsustainable occupation that has somehow sustained itself for fifty years. Yes, the drivers are annoying and the Western Wall no longer feels welcoming to many of us. Yes, it seems like Israeli and American leaders have done everything possible to destroy the precious bipartisan balance that has sustained the US-Israel relationship. But don’t let that cloud the big picture. And Jewish history is a very big picture to look at.
Israel is, without doubt, the Jewish people’s magnum opus, our most impactful creation since the Talmud. Its bold establishment, announced in the most precarious circumstances on May 14, 1894, was the most radical act of disruptive innovation in Jewish history since Sinai, one that changed irrevocably the course of world history.
When you think about it, the past millennium hasn’t been our best. Sure, we’ve had moments of greatness, like the Golden Age in Spain, and 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 prior millennia, we’ve underachieved.
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, cannot compare to our generation’s greatest trauma, the Holocaust. If we excelled at anything over the past thousand years, it was survival. Our flame was extinguished and subsequently re-ignited so many times we appear 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, no vast corpus of Midrash with staying power, and nothing remotely approaching the greatness of the Bible. The most enduring Jewish creations of the past thousand years 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 “I Love Lucy” 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 had staying power.
Except for Israel.
It seems to me that when people are looking back at the Jewish contribution to civilization 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 generation’s 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. That’s why free speech matters, and that people who disagree with a government policy shouldn’t be detained at the airport. 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.
For American Jews, America is our home. But 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. Whether or not we actually vote in Israel’s elections (and I believe we should, but that’s for another article), 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-thousand year masterpiece.
So yes, we need to celebrate, and never to disengage. There is far too much at stake.