Sunday, August 07, 2005

Toward Tisha B'Av

The rabbinic system, according to the esteemed professor Shaye Cohen, is one that perpetually declares itself inadequate. Built into our prayers, laws, and customs, is a pervasive theme of mourning for Jerusalem, and of prayer for a future time, when Jerusalem will be reinhabited, the Temple rebuilt, and the Jewish people forever free of suffering and oppression.

Today, we live in a time when the model of the Jewish future on which the rabbinic paradigm is based has been shattered. History has presented us with a paradox: a national homeland with Jerusalem as its capital, but no return to Temple worship and no end of suffering in sight. What are the implications of this situation for modern Judaism? Must we abandon the rabbinic myth, or can it be effectively reinterpreted? I raised similar questions around this time last year. Below is a summary of some of the approaches that I and others suggested then, and the reasons why I find them all ultimately unsatisfactory.

1. The establishment of the State of Israel was a mistake, and has nothing to do with ancient Jewish dream, which will be fulfilled in the future by supernatural, rather than human, means. This is the predominant anti-Zionist Orthodox approach. It is not very popular nowadays, and probably has no adherents among readers of this blog. Therefore, instead of taking the time and energy to dispute it rationally, I will simply remind you all of an old joke about a man who put his faith in God.

2. The rebuilding of the physical Jerusalem is incomplete. According to this perspective, when we mourn Jerusalem, we are actually mourning the Temple, which, when rebuilt, will usher in the true messianic age, and with it, the fulfillment of our people's dreams. This is the predominant approach among Orthodox Zionists, for obvious reasons. It maintains the traditional myth virtually intact, only drawing its fulfillment out for a somewhat longer period than our ancestors might have imagined.

My primary objection to this approach is historical. The existence of the modern state of Israel provides us with an opportunity for re-examining the past in light of the present, and realizing that, while there are many advantages to national autonomy, autonomous periods in Israel's history have never been utopian. This was equally the case whether or not a temple stood in Jerusalem.

A second objection is the implication that the type of worship that took place in the Temple would be appropriate outside an ancient context. Animal sacrifice was very common at the time that the Israelites practiced it, but most modern Jews would, I think, agree that its replacement with prayer was a change for the better. Further, we may reasonably question whether centralized theocracy should be regarded as an ideal form of government (this book notwithstanding). Again, in the ancient world it may have seemed the only option. But times have changed.

3. The emphasis that we place on the physical city of Jerusalem in an error. Instead, we should focus on the ideas with which Jerusalem has traditionally been associated. My understanding is that the Jewish version of this idea originated in pre-Zionist times,* but it continues to have adherents. Rachel Barenblat's "Diaspora Grrl" is a particularly thoughtful contemporary articulation.

While Rachel does not advocate ignoring or abandoning the physical city of Jerusalem, her philosophy would logically seem to lead to that approach, which makes me uneasy. I was educated in a strongly Zionist tradition, and in spite of everything that has been going on in Israel lately, I still believe that the existence of a Jewish state is integral to the well-being of Jewry as a whole. For this reason, it seems to me that it would be worthwhile for the idea of a Jewish homeland to remain a part of Jewish mythology.

4. The Book of Lamentations and the kinot that we recite on Tisha B'Av focus primarily on human suffering. For Jews, the destruction of Jerusalem is paradigmatic of human cruelty and suffering, and that is what “mourning for Jerusalem” is really about. I made this suggestion last year, and I still think that there is something to it. Still, I've come to find it dissatisfying for the same reason that I find the previous approach dissatisfying: it undermines the significance of Jerusalem itself.

Perhaps what we really ought to be mourning is the lost dream of a simple, complete, glorious redemption, both physical and spiritual. We should mourn the fact that the physical Jerusalem has turned out to be so unlike the Jerusalem of Jewish dreams, and that the world after the creation of the Jewish state is so unlike the messianic age that we long envisioned. And we can ask ourselves what we can do in this imperfect world of ours to bring the Jerusalem of our people's dreams closer to reality, both in the physical city of Jerusalem and elsewhere.

*For some reason, I associate it with Martin Buber, but then it wouldn't be pre-Zionist. Maybe it was Mendelsson's idea? Maybe I'm really mixed up and should do some more reading...


Dovid said...

I must say that I agree with point number one. If you don't believe it was a mistake, please explain the irony of the fact that today, the most dangerous place for a Jew to live, is in his very own "homeland"?!
Obviously, Moshiach still needs to be revealed, and E"Y too, will get a major face lift and major revolution.

elf said...

I guess I underestimated the diversity of my readers. Overall, I suppose it's a good thing that I can't afford to be dismissive of any argument.

In response to your comment, my thoughts are as follows:

The entire world is currently threatened by a militant form of Islamism that employs terrorism in general, and suicide attacks in particular, as its mode of operation. Israel, as a non-Islamic nation in the heart of the Middle East, is naturally particularly vulnerable. However, this very vulnerability -- the constant defensive state in which Israel has found itself since its inception -- has served as an impetus for the development of what is probably the most effective military in the world for dealing with this type of threat. For every successful terrorist attack that is carried out in Israel, many more are foiled. And, for all its bad press, Israel has done a much better job at maintaining a decent human rights record that the U.S. when faced with militant Islamism. I hold out the hope that eventually, the free world will come to realize that it needs Israel in these times -- not as a scapegoat, but as a leader and a guide. In the meantime, we Jews can draw strength from the fact that Israel has managed to hold itself together so well considering the circumstances. I am quite certain that it will survive the current schism (in its usual imperfect way), as it has so many other crises.

Rachel said...

Thanks for this post, elf, and particularly for your kind words about (and link to) my "Diaspora Grrl" essay.

You raise a good point that ignoring or abandoning the physical city of Jerusalem could be a logical outgrowth of the philosophy I put forth in the essay, and I think you're right that that's problematic. Jerusalem has played a central role in our liturgy and our theology for centuries, and ignoring it would be foolish at best.

Upon further reflection, I think what I'd really like to see is for more Diaspora (especially American) Jews to consider their relationship with Israel critically, and to make an informed choice about how it impacts their theology and practice. It bothers me that so many of my compatriots take unquestioning allegiance to Israel for granted -- and that so many of us seem not to give any thought to what it means that Jerusalem, and the Temple, are all over our liturgy. I'd wager that most American Jews wouldn't actually advocate a restoration of Temple sacrifice -- but I also imagine most of us don't have a good answer to the question of what it means to us to seek God's presence restored to Zion. I want to see more people taking this seriously enough to wrestle with it, I guess.

On a related note, I really like your closing paragraph. (I think I'm preaching to the proverbial choir, here, grousing in your comments box about wishing American Jews would take this stuff seriously enough to engage with it... :-)

aaron said...

Elf, your eloquent response to Dovid goes to the heart of his comments about Israel being a dangerous place for religious Jews today. But it doesn't really address the issue of whether the existence of the State is a mistake.

Here is a modification of number 1. The modern State is not a mistake.* Modern-day Israel has the potential to grow into the fulfillment of the promise. Just as some of the previous false Messiahs *could* have been Moshiach if we had been more sincere in our worship, the modern State could be the precursor to Geulah... but only time will tell. We still have plenty left to hope and pray for.

* (I don't believe in mistakes anyway... unless the referenced mistake is not a mistake of history, but a possible mistake on our part in interpreting the current State as having anything to do with the promise.)

Dovid said...

It was a mistake at the time. Obviously we now deal with it and believe it exists for a purpose, maybe even to prepare the world for Moshiach. But at the time of its creation, the way it was a created was a mistake we now suffer from.

Michael said...

To me there's an answer that combines 2 and 3 and 4. We yearn not just for a state of Israel, but for the Messianic age, which includes both the spiritual stuff in 3-4 and some form of physical redemption mentioned in 2- possibly some form of the Temple, and at a minimum a state of Israel that is far more perfect and far more secure than the existing one.

In other words, we want it all- the Temple, AND the ideas, AND the end of suffering- the very "simple, complete, glorious redemption" that you say is "lost."

And the very fact that it is unattainable without supernatural intervention is a pretty good reason to pray for the dream and for the supernatural intervention that would make it reality.

Now you may say that supernatural intervention is unlikely- but in the words of P.G. Wodehouse, one must always distinguish between the unlikely and the impossible (I think he wrote those words in "Leave it to Psmith").

Dovid said...


elf said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Dovid, Aaron, and Michael: You've helped me realize that I don't have any really good arguments against traditional messianism or its varients -- or at least, I have none that pose a challenge to true believers. My rejection of the doctrine is simply a product of my inability to accept that for which there is no positive evidence. It is taking many years of adjustment, but I am gradually getting used to the fact that I am not a person of faith. Nothing against faith -- I think this is a personality quirk of mine.

Rachel: You wrote, I think what I'd really like to see is for more Diaspora (especially American) Jews to consider their relationship with Israel critically. I'll try to take you up on that challenge, or at least explain my position. For me, part of being Jewish is having a sense of kinship with Israel. On some fundamental level, I care more about the well-being of Israel than I care about the well-being of other nations, just as I care more about the well-being of my family members than of people who are not related to me. I also have a tendency to jump to Israel's defense when it is attacked or criticized by outsiders, even though I know that it has many flaws. I don't really try to fight these inclinations, but I do try to remember that they exist, and that they are more emotional than rational. I try to remember that many Muslims (particularly Arabs) have the same feelings about the Palestinian people and cause, and I try not to let myself start feeling that my love of and attachment to my extended family is somehow more "right" than theirs. I support the creation of a Palestinian state, in part because I think that the Palestinian people should have an opportunity to develop their sense of group identity in a positive way.

On a different note, I've been thinking a lot about your "metaphorical" approach to Jerusalem lately. On one hand, it certainly does a metaphor a disservice to take it literally. On the other hand, a metaphor by its nature includes both vehicle and tenor, and perhaps it also does the metaphor a disservice to focus exclusively on the tenor and ignore the vehicle. It may be worth asking what the significance is of using Jerusalem in particular as a metaphor for all these things. We might also ask how that significance may have changed now that Jews have political control of Jerusalem.

Meryl said...

Congratulations on your link from KesherTalk. Looks like you made the big time.

elf said...

It didn't really take much.

Yoseph Leib said...

One good theological alternative on the mystery of Jerusalem that i'm into lately has to with with it's etymology and description in scripture. It literally describes a kind of rocket fired off into space, until it hits and a universe is started from it, a creation myth about the foundation stone that goes back a long time, into the jebusite origins of the name.

In psalms, it called, the yarcitei tzafon, yifai noph, the north star, a beautiful view. Jerusalem is not where we think it is, it is the el elyon, the north star around which all the other stars revolve, and physical jerusalem is not more than the closest we could get to it, the place where we first noticed, and maybe the launch pad to the infinite we're really reaching for.

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