Traveling in the American Southwest once, when I was twenty years old, I encountered a white haired, elderly woman with clear blue eyes who called herself Grandma Sarah. She considered herself Christian, albeit with her own very idiosyncratic interpretation of what exactly that meant. By virtue of her sincerity and the visible evidence of her own spiritual power, she had become intimate with the religious leaders of the Indian tribes that inhabited the area, and had participated in secret ceremonies and religious retreats high in the mountains and in isolated canyons.
Grandma Sarah's reaction to learning that my companion and I were Jews left a deep impression on me. Her whole face lit up. She raised her arms high above her head. She embraced us. “Oh! Israelites!” She cried out, pronouncing the word Israelite in a tone of surprise and jubilation, as if we were rare creatures as a pair of mythological unicorns whose appearance in the flesh was proof of all the miracles of the Bible.
In other travels, in Africa, the Caribbean and the Far East, I've occasionally had the same eerie and pleasurable experience of being recognized, of having the internal narrative of the Jewish people, our secret image or fantasy of ourselves, confirmed, as it were, from without, by the generous eye of a gentile. This recognition is not always overtly religious in nature. The story of Israel resonates, for example, with a wide range of peoples whose ancient traditions are corroding and disintegrating under the pressure exerted upon them to fit their sense of history and cultural identity into the borders and limits of a modern nation-state. Correctly or incorrectly, Jews are perceived as having succeeded in upholding their ancient, tribal sense of identity even while creating a modern nation-state. I have seen people fix their gaze on me, knowing that I am an Israeli Jew, and, as if drinking from an unseen well, find something that quenches their own thirst for a moment, their own search for origins in a rootless world.
The same primal psychic forces are also the wellsprings of anti-Semitism. The return of the Jewish people to Zion has touched off deep tremors within the collective subconscious of the world's peoples – particularly anyone exposed to the Bible, which means all Christians and Muslims, and many others who have had a Western education. The Bible represents, among other things, the notion that history has a meaning, and that mankind is headed towards some kind of salvation. The Jewish return to Zion breaks the seemingly ironclad bonds between modern history and Biblical myth, thus raising unconscious expectations of meaning for mankind as a whole.
The meaning that the Jewish mainstream has attributed to Zionism – the internal Jewish myth of holocaust and redemption – cannot satisfy this expectation. At least in part, the new kind of anti-Semitism, which is expressed as an obsession with the primordial iniquities of Zionism, can be attributed to a failure on the part of the Jewish people to take responsibility for who we are in the eyes of mankind. Taking responsibility would mean interpreting the return to Zion in a way that would give it meaning at this very fragile and confusing stage in human existence. In the absence of interpretation, the vacuum created by the subconscious expectation of meaning is filled instead by the pus of hatred.
Renowned author Amos Oz's dream of normalcy, of Israel as exemplified by Ashdod, a quiet, unexceptional, city on the Mediterranean, represents an abandonment of the Biblical claim on which the return to Zion was founded. The Palestinians, for one, will not let us get away with this abandonment. The official Palestinian declaration that Jews have no history in this land is a direct challenge to the basis of the Jewish return. It is also a tacit acknowledgement that evidence of the Jewish historical presence creates a claim potent enough to necessitate Palestinian denial. When Arafat speaks of “the Palestinian Jesus”, as he often does, and Hanan Ashrawi makes the remarkable statement “Jesus was the first Palestinian to be killed by the Jews,” they are going one step further. They are attempting to usurp the Jewish Biblical claim to Zion by “converting” Jesus the Jew into Jesus the Palestinian. The Palestinians understand well that a denial of the historical identity of the Jews as an ancient, Biblical people is an essential part of their battle against Zionism. The historical role of the Palestinians is to oppose, in every way they can, any easy equation in which the Jewish people are allowed to slip into their Biblical robes through the ingathering of the exiles and the establishment of political sovereignty in the Holy Land. If Israel is just Ashdod, according to Palestinian logic, then they'd better get the hell out of here and let us return to our stone houses and our lemon trees.
The Haredi and Religious Zionist interpretation of Jewish chosen-ness is no more appropriate for our historical circumstance than Amos Oz's normalcy. According to a Hasidic story, Reb Dovid of Lelov, while still a young man, once came to recite the morning prayers in a communal Beit Midrash somewhere in Poland at the very late hour of 1 o'clock in the afternoon. His prayers, which he recited with great concentration and emotional intensity – crying and leaping and clapping his hands – aroused the ire of a mitnaged (an 'opponent' of Hasidism) who could not hold himself back. “You think you are a hasid?” he said. “I've been here since 3 AM in the morning, praying and learning Torah, learning Torah and praying. Now you come in at 1:00 in the afternoon and act like you are so pious. How dare you!” Reb Dovid of Lelov looked at the mitnaged and said: “I don't understand. If from 3:00 in the morning, you were praying and learning in the name of all of Israel, then I was here too. And if you were not, who needs your praying and learning anyway?”
For both Haredim and Religious Zionists, a sense of Jewish separateness is at the core of Jewish identity, and tremendous spiritual energies are devoted to maintaining and nourishing that sense of separateness and uniqueness, in the ultimate interest of Jewish survival – in short, to produce Jewish grandchildren. This is to my mind a mistake, for many reasons, not least because religion then becomes a largely futile and anti-moral exercise in organization and strategy: How to live within the economic, technological and medical system of modernity without being affected by it emotionally and spiritually. This is without taking into consideration the return to Zion, which has raised the stakes we are playing for by placing us at the center of the world arena. What is at stake for us is not Jewish survival, but world survival. Taking responsibility for the meaning of Jewish chosen-ness, and for the mythological significance of the Jewish return, means adopting and developing an interpretation of Judaism that is not self-referential. If we are praying and learning only for ourselves, who needs us anyway? Either we learn to become Jews in the name of all of humanity, in the name of all of life, or we risk trivializing and even undermining our return to Zion.
Several kinds of transformations of our religious sensibility are necessary for this change in conception to work. First of all, we must turn the way in which historical events constitute our identity inside out. Memory should not be used in order to shield our psyche from the pain and demands of the present – as a strategy for survival.
The archetypal Jewish historical memory is that of slavery and redemption from Egypt. But the Torah tells us that the Israelite experience in Egypt is meant to inspire active memory, to provide an emotional and spiritual window through which to view the present, a gateway through which to enter and act. In the Torah's view, Egypt is now. The stranger, the widow and the orphan – the weak, the sick, the poor, the powerless – are as beloved of God as the Israelite slaves. Our memory of Egypt provides us with the constant choice of whether to harden our hearts like Pharaoh or to liberate the oppressed like God.
Within the various Jewish establishments, memory is used to stabilize our identity by locating its key components in a past that is untouchable and unchangeable. The memory of the Holocaust, for example, keeps us in a state of permanent victimhood. This can block our ability to see that at this very moment, not only are we no longer in the Warsaw ghetto, but we are part of a world economic and military system that is not so different from the system that gave birth to fascism.
Gentiles who lecture Jews that the holocaust must make us more sensitive to the injustices we inflict on others are indulging in a refined form of cruelty. Since when has having one's family murdered been considered a tool for moral refinement? And yet, paradoxically, the Torah's principle of active memory commands us to use the pain of the holocaust as a lens through which to view the state of the world today, the one hundred holocausts happening now. Memory must serve to implicate us in these holocausts – whether they are occurring in Africa, Asia, or Latin America – rather than to cleanse us through the stigmata of our victimhood.
The ability to turn the scars and treasures of our own history inside out, so that it opens us to the world rather than locks us within our own skin, is dependent on another, related kind of transformation. For many centuries, we have carried around the antonyms Jew and goy in our consciousness, and have experienced Jewishness as a kind of binary opposite to humanness. This consciousness, whatever its history, is damaging, not only because of the disdain for others it can breed, but because it causes us to deny our own humanity, our body, our emotions, even our rational intellect. We have to learn to re-inhabit our humanity – not in opposition to our Judaism, but as its fulfillment. For although we are used to tracing our line back to Abraham, the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Eve, and our oral tradition teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were disciples of a spiritual school linked through Shem the son of Noah all the way back to the first man. Thus, the purity of our spiritual and physical genealogy, rather than separating us, ties us to the deepest roots of human kind, before history or civilization.
Obscure prayer in Aramaic
There's a Jewish joke that goes: Christians, Muslims and Jew got together and decided to do something to save the world. Each side expressed a willingness to relinquish something essential for the sake of saving the world. The Christians held a consultation and finally agreed to give up the idea of the Holy Trinity, which the Jew and Muslims both perceived as idolatry. The Muslims had a meeting, at the end of which they announced that they were prepared to make a big sacrifice: to let go the idea of Jihad, the struggle whose aim is to ultimately convert the entire world to Islam, and to which the other religions were of course fiercely opposed. The Jews began arguing among themselves. Ultimately, they decreed that they would agree to give up “Yekum Purkan”, an obscure prayer written in Aramaic that is recited prior to the Musaf service on Sabbath morning. The Christians and the Muslimslooked at one another in astonishment: “That's all the Jews are prepared to sacrifice? Never mind, they're a small group, and, after all, they were the first. For the sake of peace, we'll let it go.” The signing ceremony was held. The Christians signed first, followed by the Muslims. At the very last minute, after everyone had taken a pen and was about to sign, the Jewish representative mumbled, “I can't do it,” got up, and walked out.
The joke – for insider only- is a crack at Jewish stubbornness and the sense of self-importance with which
Although we are used to tracing our line back to Abraham, the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Eve, and our oral tradition teaches that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were disciples of a spiritual school linked through Shem the son of Noah all the way back to the first man. Thus, the purity of our spiritual and physical genealogy, rather than separating us, ties us to the deepest roots of human kind, before history or civilization.
Jews charge every single component in their tradition. But if we stop a moment to seriously consider the underlying supposition, if the Jews were to be asked to give something up for the sake of the world peace, something of equal worth to the Holy Trinity and to jihad, what would it be? To me it is clear that we would have to give up on the idea of Jewish chosen-ness. Chosen-ness is our “baby”, the baby whom only mother can bear to look at in present form. In practice, we just can't let go to the idea, and it is forbidden to even ask us to. But it is not time to move on the next stage by letting this idea evolve?
The declared goal is on jeopardy
One the claims that Haredi leadership put forth against Zionism during the first years of the debate surrounding establishment of the State, was that if we agree to accept a nation-state instead of the Massiah, we'll letting God off easy. After suffering long years of exile, it is much more logical to wait just a bit more in order to win the entire kitty: a miraculous and complete redemption. Sixty –one years after the State was established, it appears that God still has no intention of letting us of easy. We find ourselves now at the frontline of the clash of civilizations, whether as the cause of a war between Islam and the West – as some explain – or as those caught in crossfire, according to others. The legal and demographic reality, as well as the violence and hatred without, again and again place in jeopardy our declared of Jewish and democratic state.
The attempt to adapt the history and the significance of the Jewish people to fit the nation – state mold is a futile effort. The content is simply unsuitable. If we interpret our mission, our chosen-ness, in internal terms. We will repeatedly bring upon ourselves the rage of other peoples, who have their own claims on the biblical narrative and on the assurance of divine redemption. Moreover, the self-centered interpretation of chosen-ness will lead us to perpetuate injustices against non-Jewish citizens and workers, and will serve as justification to prolong our sovereignty over foreign populations. The idea of chosen-ness emphasizes a hierarchical conceptualization of identity, and as such, is likely to foil any attempt at creating a society based on justice and equality, even within the Jewish sector.
A boarder understanding of chosen-ness would be one in whose framework we come to recognize that our destiny has a value only so long as it is fulfilled on behalf of the entire world. A Jamaican cab driver in New York City once said to me: “You Jews beat the while man at his own game.” I believe that he meant, at least in part, that we found a way to preserve our tradition and our culture, and at the same time, to thrive in the modern cosmopolitan world. Nation-states are by nature self-serving entities, focused on their own survival and desire to thrive. But what if we were to say that the significance of Jewish chosen–ness is that we must help humanity advance towards unity, and at the same time cultivate- rather than pluck out- the ancient roots of the varied cultures? Can our uniqueness infuse us with the courage necessary to cause our country to stop selling arms to corrupt regimes? Are we able to awaken ourselves into opposing economic treaties that serve our own interests but are damaging to poor countries? To what extent will we be willing to stick out our necks in order to prevent another genocide? To prevent the destruction of the planet?
A country is not able to do all of these things unless its citizens force it too, citizens who understand that their very identity and future depend on the ability to feel the world's pain as their own.