Along the way, the sights, sounds and experiences of our Israel trip gave me many opportunities for thoughtful reflection. Below, I share with you some of those . . .
19 June, 2014 / 20:47
Hotel Maxim, Tel Aviv
I had forgotten what a place of contradictions Israel is for us who live elsewhere.
I arrived ahead of the rest of the group – a long story – and was at the hotel within an hour. Along the way, our car jousted with other aggressive drivers; red lights and stop signs here are “traffic hints” and driving is a blood sport. Once we reached the heart of Tel Aviv we passed dirty, run down shops in neighborhoods that looked like they dated from the Ottoman Empire, which is impossible given that Tel Aviv did not yet exist. After checking into the hotel, I headed for the beach a hundred yards away. Teens were swarming, sporting tattoos, hair of many colors and revealing swim suits worthy of a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. I don’t remember who said it but, long ago in the days before Israel was a state, one of its leaders said something to the effect that Israel will have arrived when it has its own police and its own prostitutes. On the path to the beach lay postcards advertising a “gentleman’s club”.
The contradiction between the ideal and the real. We – some of us, at least – hold an image in our minds of an Israel that is ideal; and we want it that way. Israel should be ideal and idyllic, embodying the moral values that have informed our tradition for generations. Yet, it doesn’t – at least, not always. In many ways Israel is just one nation among many. And we are disappointed to see it as such.
Those children, though, will serve, have served are or serving in the IDF (army). It is no small thing that Israel is; meaning: it exists. And that is, given the history of the last century and the hostility generated by living in an unfriendly neighborhood, an impressive accomplishment. And the “real” of the place is, when all is said and done, pretty good. Far removed from the ideal but removed even farther from its opposite.
The second conflict: where are Jews “at home”? Often, first-time visitors express a powerful feeling of being at home. But they live elsewhere and, even after this powerful feeling is reinforced a hundred times over throughout their pilgrimage, that is not about to change. They are at home in their homes.
Often, we refer to that life as “diaspora” – that we have been dispersed around the world. A morally neutral term. But more traditionally it has been referred to as “galut” – the exile, a pejorative term that indicates that Israel, and only Israel, is the Jewish homeland, and that implies that it is one’s obligation to make his/her way back. Thus, our prayers of two thousand years included those seeking a return.
But are we in galut? Just as some have consciously chosen to make Aliyah – to become citizens of Israel – I’ve consciously chosen to live in the US . . . and it is not a galut for me. Could I live a fuller Jewish life in Israel? Yes. Can I live a full Jewish life in Chicago? Yes.
Contradictions. The ideal vs. the real. A home vs. a homeland. We Jews must embrace these contradictions, and others as well, embracing both alternatives and using creatively the tension created by them. There’s a Yiddish expression: “it’s hard to be a Jew”. This isn’t what originally was meant, but it is true in our day.
As I write these words, I await the arrival of our group. They will discover (or rediscover) modern Israel in all of its complexity and will struggle with these tensions in a thoughtful, intentional way. I am eager to see and hear and feel their responses. At the end of our trip, when all is said and done, that will be one of the key measurements of the success of our pilgrimage.
From Tel Aviv,
22 June, 2014 / 19:22
On the road from Haifa to Ein Gev
This morning we visited the prison in Acco – which inhabits, more or less, the Governor’s headquarters and prison built by Al Jazaar in the 18th century – which in turn sits upon the Knight’s Hall of Crusader times. Mark Rangell remarked on this building of one thing atop another – virtually unheard of in the States. “Why is it,” he wondered “that the new is built without clearing away the old?”
One piece of it, I suggested, is simply utilitarian. The location of a city – and important sites within it – are situated for practical reasons: the availability of fresh water, the geographic security afforded, that it sits on an important trade route. So – even though a city is destroyed in warfare, its location is still desirable. With scarce resources, it is impossible to remove the old and, more important, the materials left from the last iteration can be reused.
One way in which we learn about ourselves is when we are exposed to a culture that understands the world differently from us. We hold before our faces the mirror of a different worldview but, instead of reflecting who we are, we discover ways in which we are different.
A day earlier, we visited the Roman aqueduct on the beach just north of Caesarea. Scores of Israelis were there to enjoy the sun and the Mediterranean. Some sat in the shade under its arches, most had their backs to it as they played in the sand and the sea. As we listened to our guide, Liat, explain the importance of this incredible engineering accomplishment we remarked that everyone else seemed oblivious to its existence, much less its importance, much less the wonder that it inspired.
For us it was a marvel; for them, it was just part of the background. They were living entirely in the present, unconcerned with the roots from which the present has grown; we were exploring the past, believing that the meaning of the present must be correlated with the past.
In the modern period, we believe in the importance of history. Whether studying it for its own sake, as in the university, or studying it in the hopes of learning from its successes and its failures – as Santayana said, those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it – we assume that events and processes of the past are important for us today. We take for granted that “things change” and that there are important developments throughout that thing we call “history”.
But such a way of viewing the past – one that we assume is true so much that we don’t recognize that it is an assumption – is just that: a pair of glasses that shapes the way in which we look at the world, determining what we look for and how we see it.
As Yosef Haim Yerushalmi articulates in his book “Zakhor”, this belief in the importance of history is relatively new – a feature of the modern period. Earlier generations of Jews were, by and large, hardly interested in the past, not seeing in it anything of unique importance. For many, it is a way of maintaining a connection with a past that is so foreign, so alien to us.
Within that context, we come as pilgrims to this land of our ancestors, believing that events of importance occurred there and that by increasing our knowledge of those happenings we will increase our knowledge of our selves. Liat explains events from distant times – the Roman occupation, Crusader conquest, Ottoman empire – and we comb through her words, searching for elements that will explain not only how Israel came to be as it is today but, perhaps, clues that will explain our selves to ourselves, how we came to be the individuals that we are today.
22 June, 2014 / 19:00
On the road from Haifa to Ein Gev, II
We stood above the magnificent gardens of the Bahai Temple in Haifa, looking down at the symmetry, order and beauty. In characterizing the Bahai approach to scientific inquiry and knowledge, Liat said that for them “in a conflict between science and religion, science wins”.
One thing that all modern Jewish denominations accept, if not embrace, is the pursuit and use of scientific knowledge. Such an attitude may seem obvious, if not ridiculous, to us. Yet it was not necessarily the case. Before the enlightenment it was not universally held that truth could be found beyond the (literal) Torah itself. As emancipation was accepted and Jews integrated into European society, they made choices as to how much of modernity that would embrace and where they would demur. Across the board, the denominations saw in the explorations of science an opportunity to learn more of the laws of God’s creation and to use that knowledge in bettering elements of the human condition.
In this, they had good precedent. Maimonides, himself a doctor, taught the importance of learning from scientific inquiry, as did others of his philosophic peers throughout the ages.
After viewing the gardens, we went to the Technion – Israel’s Institute of Technology. Many inventions of great significance have been created there and it is an incubator for much of Israel’s accomplishments in the hi-tech world.
We visited with a professor of aerospace studies. He showed us his lab, in which they are developing satellites that are small enough to hold in two hands – perhaps even smaller. He only began to describe the potential benefits that might accrue from success.
Some have a rather narrow understanding of what constitutes Torah – the books codified in the Bible and explicated through the rabbinic tradition. Others of us recognize that as crucial as that tradition is in living a Jewish life and understanding the world, there is Torah that emerges from places outside of those written texts, Torah that is made known through the work of scientists and other scholars in their own particular studies. If we truly are concerned with understanding the nature of this world so that we can live our lives well, then we will embrace all of those Torahs as parts of a larger whole.
23 June, 2014 / 9:09
On the road from Ein Gev to Tel Dan
I remember very little of my high school chemistry class, beyond the importance of moles and my constant bewilderment. The only way I survived was through the help of my friend Janice and the brilliant teaching of Frank Cardulla.
Now, forty years later, I cannot tell you one thing about chemistry, but I remember clearly one of Mr. Cardulla’s “shticks”. For some reason, he mentioned “the Dark Ages” and then proceeded to explain what they were: a time in which the sun never shone, dark clouds were always gathered overhead, people walked around hunched over (as he dramatized in his inimitable style) and knowledge, intelligence and sophistication were entirely absent from human existence. We laughed heartily at his deft portrayal – but more so at the preconceptions and prejudices that we knew we carried so easily and deeply.
The growth of human knowledge and our concomitant growing ability to control, if not master, the universe cannot be overstated. From cures for diseases to the skyscrapers that populate the Chicago skyline, we prove over and over the power of the human mind and the accomplishments that can be sparked by curiosity and fulfilled through diligent, patient and intelligent work. Our visit yesterday to the Technion’s “Distributed Space Systems Labaratory” with Prof. Pini Gurfil reinforced that fact a hundred times over, as he showed us satellites that we could hold in our hands and that, once in orbit, will function autonomously and in concert with one another.
With that, though, comes a hubris – a belief not only that are we more knowledgeable than our predecessors but that we are more sophisticated in every way. They knew nothing. We may not know everything, but we are well on the road to doing so. Those who came before us walked around hunched over under the weight of their ignorance and superstition. We, today, walk upright, breathing the more rarefied air of intellectual grandeur.
The aqueduct at Caesaria challenges that presupposition. Engineered by the Romans some two thousand years ago to bring water from a spring in the hills several kilometers away to Herod’s city on the sea, one cannot help but be impressed. The grading is ever so slight, from beginning to end. How did they do that without the tools that a modern would use to design it? How did they engineer it so successfully?
Our predecessors were not as ignorant as we might imagine them to be. Yes, human knowledge has grown exponentially since their day. At the same time, they are not the ignorant brutes that we might want to think they were
As we traverse the land we listen to stories of human nobility and human savagery. Examples of each abound in every epoch. So we consider the question: even while our technological knowledge has increased immensely . . . has our moral or spiritual knowledge kept pace?
As I study Jewish text, from time to time I am struck by its failures as measured by ethical standards of our time, e.g., the place of women in a patriarchal society. But at the same time – and more frequently – I am challenged and edified by the spiritual and moral sophistication and insight evinced by other texts.
What was it that kept the Jewish people alive through the two thousand years from the end of sovereignty until independence was once again declared?
I put my money on the spiritual wisdom and strength of our tradition. What kept our people alive was its affirmation of a meaning and purpose to life that transcends day-to-day, material considerations. A sense of peoplehood rooted in common traditions gave life to that affirmation. And a rootedness in the transmission, study and (re-)interpretation of texts held as sacred enabled our ancestors to discern the meaning and then to life in fulfillment of that purpose.
Are we more sophisticated today? Materially, yes. Spiritually, in some cases yes and in some cases no. Were our ancestors as bereft of knowledge and sophistication as we unthinkingly assume them to be? Often not. As we wind our way through this land in which a multitude of generations and cultures co-exist in a single moment, we ponder where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, what lies ahead . . . and how much we have to grow – in order to further human knowledge, in order to gain the insight already possessed before.
23 June, 2014 / 12:30
We travelled this morning to Tel Dan, a place in which I participated in the archaeological dig more than thirty years ago.
To this day, I remember clearly Avraham Biran excitedly showing us a discovery they had made the previous summer: the oldest preserved archway in the world, dating from c.1800 BCE. This would place it, I said to the group, in the time of Abraham our patriarch, if he existed. He might have passed through this very gate sitting, as it does, on a path he likely would have traversed.
After the group moved on, Mark Rangell asked: “Why did you say ‘if he existed’?” I responded that I don’t believe that a particular person named Abraham, as featured in our Torah, actually existed. Rather – as the scholar Ben-Sasson and others posit – he and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are archetypes, meant to be emblematic of that time and to populate stories meant to build the national identity of our ancestors and to convey the spiritual truths they discovered.
The identity of our people, so formed, has persisted throughout many generations down to us today. The texts in which those “characters” are found are no small part of that persistence, and their stories of faith and failure still can guide us today.
As we moved on to the next site, I said to Mark, “No, I don’t believe that Abraham existed . . . but I believe in him nevertheless.”
24 June, 2014 / 11:07
In “Gallery Row” in Ts’fat
They are not heroes to me.
On Sunday morning, we visited the prison in Acco. Our focus was specifically on the period of the British Mandate. Israel was not yet declared a state. There were a variety of philosophical and practical positions on how to deal with the British. Likewise, there were a number of military options.
The Hagana – forerunner to today’s IDF (Israeli army) – was, as its name offers, organized to defend the Jews in pre-war Palestine. While it opposed British rule and advocated sovereignty for the Jewish people, its philosophy and methodology was one of negotiation and pressure on the British. Other groups, such as Lechi and Eytzel, practiced more aggressive tactics, including provocation, kidnapping and murder. They were responsible for the bombing of the King David hotel.
Today we would call them terrorists.
Quite a few were imprisoned in the prison. Some were hanged.
There are plaques of honor for them in the prison. The words of Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem – are posted on the wall so that visitors might sing. Our tour guide invited us to sing or to say Kaddish in memory of these men. Our group sang. I demurred.
It is reasonable to debate their contribution to Israel’s independence. Some argue that they hastened the departure of the British. I don’t agree; if anything it encouraged retaliation and resistance on the part off the British. But, as I said, there is room for argument. It is difficult, though, not to hear distant echoes today in the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. And this time, it is not us who seek independence and autonomy.
Morality, though, while it must address “reality” must also supersede it, in order to inform it. In other words, one cannot simply generate a moral right or wrong from the situation itself. There must be an ethic that transcends a particular set of circumstances in order to be applied to them.
Do the ends justify the means . . . or something other? If the answer is yes, then the actions of these Jewish terrorists can be justified: they (theoretically) helped to protect Jewish life and establish the state of Israel.
The ethic to which I subscribe is that, no, the ends cannot be used to justify the means. We witnessed far too much of that in the bloody last century, visited upon victims by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others in Bosnia, Sudan, etc.
For me, the means must embody the end. If we truly believe in the dignity and sanctity of humanity, then that must inform our actions. If we believe in peace, then our actions must be peaceful.
We do not know whether or not any given means will lead to the end we desire. The law of unintended consequences tell us not to count on it.
All we know for certain is the particular action we will take and whether or not it, in and of itself, is moral. Not where it will lead, not where it might lead, but what it will actually accomplish at this particular moment in this particular time and place.
The actions of Lechi and Eytzel do not meet that criteria. For that reason, they are not heroes to me.
24 June, 2014 / 12:30
On the road from Ts’fat to Bet Alpha
We spent a beautiful, if very warm, morning in Ts’fat. We toured synagogues, heard jubilant music, and shopped in the galleries of many artists.
Ts’fat is known as the center of Jewish mysticism. It is for that reason that I don’t particularly feel drawn there – or like it – rationalist that I am.
Having studied enough (though little) mysticism to know, I am dismayed by much of what passes for mysticism in recent years. Texts and concepts and practices that are as sophisticated and esoteric as the aerospace projects to which we were exposed the other day have been reduced to pop psychology and the selling of red strings. Belief in superstition and magic has been spread; dangerously, I think. Charlatans dupe people into spending money foolishly. The commercialization of kabbalah is widespread.
Jewish mysticism though, as I said, is a teaching and spiritual exploration of the highest order – beyond the capacity of most people. The tradition itself teaches that one should not begin study of the kabbalah before the age of forty; one should be married with children; and should have mastered the Torah. Mastered the Torah. In and of itself, that is an intellectual and spiritual accomplishment that few can claim. And that is only where kabbalah begins.
My real argument with mysticism, though, is with its very premises. As I understand it, mysticism accesses God via a right brain approach, one that assumes that a) we can know (at least something of) God; and b) that we can influence God. I cannot assent to those propositions. Instead, my left-brain, rationalist spiritual commitment is something that I consider much more modest: that I can know nothing about God Him/Herself and that there is nothing I can do to influence or change God. That I can imitate the moral virtues by which God is described and that, in doing so, I can change the world (but not God) is the faith that I maintain. It affirms human power but without the hubris that I sense in mysticism.
In the end, does it make a difference? I think so, but I’m not positive. My belief is that my rationalist commitment provides a stronger basis for ethical action in pursuit of social justice than the alternative.
But, then again, that might just be my left brain talking.
25 June, 2014 / 10:30
The story of Masada – the dramatic holdout of a small community of our ancestors against the Roman Tenth Legion, only to succumb by committing suicide prior to capture – has touched many deeply and often inspires great pride in Jews who hear the story. Our guide, Liat, spoke eloquently of the commitment to freedom that it embodies and illustrates for many Israelis.
I raised the question with the group: is there anything for which you would be willing to die? And having asked this question many times over the years, I quickly added: you cannot include your children. That is always – always – the first answer. That commitment is a given. The question that intrigues me is whether or not there is anything beyond that – any cause, any ideal, any principle – that one holds so strongly that one would be willing to undergo “martyrdom” in commitment to it.
We live in a time, of course – post-Holocaust as it is – in which many, many were martyred. They did not, by and large, have a choice in their martyrdom, although some exercised more control than did others in making their final choices.
Torah teaches us the incontrovertible sanctity of human life. Murder is forbidden; suicide is forbidden; things that degrade and diminish another are forbidden.
And yet: The Talmud teaches that one should forfeit one’s life before transgressing one of these three: taking a human life; sexual wrongdoing; renouncing God and/or one’s Jewish identity. In other words, if someone attempted to coerce you into committing one of these crimes, would you allow yourself to be killed instead of causing such grievous damage to another? One principle is in conflict with another.
For what would you stand? Is there anything for which you would commit your life?
I like to think of myself as a man of principle. In earlier days, I believed so firmly in the principles I held that I (unconsciously, I think) knew that I could choose to die for them.
Now, much older, with a wife and two sons, with a good portion of my life behind me, with responsibility to and for many people and, out of my life’s experience so much less certainty about my knowledge, if not my beliefs, I do not know if I could do so. With death that much closer, one might think the opposite but that’s not the case. Perhaps I could find the strength to die for something that I cannot not believe. Probably not.
I’ll probably never know. I’ll hopefully never face such a test.
25 June, 2014 / 10:30
As I wrote in a separate post, the story of Masada raises questions about martyrdom as a stand for one’s values. It raises other questions as well.
The story of Masada, as it’s told, is a celebration of resistance to oppression and the freedom that act presupposes. But the story is really more complicated than that.
Those who retreated to Masada were zealots – in Jerusalem, they had utilized terrorist tactics against the Romans, in our parlance today. They despaired of Israel ever defeating its oppressors and so retreated to a mountaintop in the wilderness. The Roman Tenth Legion chased them there and eventually came to capture them – only, as the story goes, to find that they had killed themselves (although some women and children survived).
In a post-Holocaust world in which we still are so painfully aware of the death of so much of our people and the physical powerlessness that marked their existence; in a Jewish world that knows of Israeli strength and courage that enabled independence and survival in one war after another and which continues to keep it alive and flourishing; this story has come to the fore and resonates with a special power. (It is important to note that this story was of no significance in the years before the modern period.)
And yet: they died. If the entire Jewish community had chosen their course of action – an unyielding rejection of Roman power and authority – all would have died and we would not be here today. There would be no Judaism. There would be no Jewish people. It all would have ended there.
Instead, the heroes of the story – as far as I am concerned – were the rabbis. Their victory was two-fold. They sought accommodation with Rome – and found it. That allowed the Jewish people to remain alive. And that accommodation allowed an equal victory; the creation of a new Judaism to replace the old, the rabbinic Judaism of our lives today which succeeded the priestly sacrificial system that died with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
A people alive, a new tradition to direct their lives. Victory lay not with the martyrs of Masada but with the rabbis who chose life.
26 June, 2014 / 13:00
The Old City, Jerusalem
This morning, Mark Swimmer and I went to the Kotel – the Western Wall – so that he could be called to the Torah for the first time – his bar mitzvah. We connected with an organization that arranges such things, joined a family (from Vernon Hills, of all places) whose son was being called as a bar mitzvah.
Ritual life at the Wall is controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate. All around us there were different minyanim davvening and reading Torah in accordance with the Orthodox understanding of halacha (Jewish law). At the same time, people were wandering about and conversations were boisterous both within the minyanim and around them; for those minyanim close to the mechitzah (the barrier separating men from women) there were women leaning over the wall in order to hear the bar mitzvah boy, converse with the men and take pictures with their cameras.
To my eyes – and only to my eyes, because who can look into the hearts and minds of others? – the attention to traditional ritual detail was surpassed by the inattention to, or lack of focus on, the internal spiritual state of the participants.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, only as an observation.
My commitments to – and understanding of – ritual practice are much different. The Reform Movement in which I was raised has been willing to change ritual in order to serve the spiritual needs of the pray-ers. Central to ritual decision-making is the spiritual experience of the participant, while the traditions are understood as tools by which to create an experience of connection and meaning.
We call these principles keva and kavvana. The debate about them is as old as is the prayer service itself.
Keva means “fixed” – the externally set order and themes of prayers, the precise way of reciting them, the exact rituals by which to enact them.
Kavvana means “intent” – the internal states that one experiences while engaged in the rituals of prayer.
You might recognize the word “kavvana” – it is part of our name “B’Chavana.” This is one of the reasons for that name: because we prize kavvana, spiritual intent, over keva, the fixed requirements of tradition, when the two are not in synch with one another. While we retain much that is keva – the order and themes of our worship, for example – we enlarge upon them with music and poetry that come, perhaps, from elsewhere. Rather than being certain that we always include all of the texts as they exist in a traditional siddur, we include only as much as people can use before they are no longer able to focus.
What is important to us, primarily, is the interior religious/spiritual experience that we have; what we think, what we feel; the connections we make. To do otherwise, for us, would be no more than going through the motions. For us, the rote and repetitious are, at their extremes, the enemy of spiritual engagement. Not entirely; when it comes to ritual, the comfort of possessing a knowledge that extends beyond familiarity can create the kind of connections we seek in prayer. However, to see traditional practices as ends in and of themselves would be to mistake the train for the destination.
So: which approach is the right one? Which is “more Jewish”?
And who maintains the “higher” standard? Who is “better” when it comes to Jewish practice?
Neither. Each is a different approach utilized for a different reason – both with the aim of connecting to and/or serving the Ultimate One.
I suspect that “the best” would be the best of both worlds – when one can fill the traditional keva with one’s own kavvanah and, through them both, find the One who is the source and goal of our lives.
27 June, 2014 / 10:00
The Herzl Museum on Har Herzl, Jerusalem
The day before we went to the museum at Har Herzl, the museum hosted an event honoring distinguished female Zionists, including Julie Naschauer, Herzl’s wife.
I knew the story from an earlier visit. The museum presentation of Herzl’s work notes her contribution to his success. But it was only in reading the Jerusalem Post that one dimension of her actions struck home in a new way.
Hearing her story once again raised for me the perennial, spiritual question of individual sacrifice vs. communal welfare.
Ms. Naschauer did not believe in Zionism. Nevertheless, she financed Herzl’s work and the nascent Zionist movement – at ruinous cost. After Herzl himself died at the age of 44, she died a brief three years later, bankrupt, having spent her entire family fortune.
Between them, they left three orphans. His eldest daughter Pauline died a drug addict. His son, Hans, killed himself when he heard the news of his sister’s death; in the meantime, he had left Judaism for a series of Christian churches. Trude, the youngest, died in Theresienstadt during the war; her son, Stephen, who had been sent to safety, committed suicide when he learned of the death of his parents.
Eventually – and in only 44 years – Herzl’s vision of a Jewish state was realized. Yet his own family did not live to see it.
It is impossible to discern the whys and wherefores of his family’s demise and the relationship of that tragedy to the crusading work that virtually absented him from his family for the better part of ten years.
What do we give up when we commit ourselves to a larger good? Where is the tipping point between fulfilling a commitment to our fellow human beings and caring for our own family?
My friend, Arik has labored to ensure that civil rights flourish in Israel – and in the territories that Israel maintains under military occupation. Many is the time that Arik has put himself in danger in standing up for his principles; he has been beaten and put in jail. As members of our group quickly learned, he fights a battle that he cannot win – and has for many years. He must steel his resolve and draw sustenance from small victories because the large battles have not – cannot? – be won.
We met with Arik the day before the Herzl Museum to learn more about the dilemma facing Israel and the Palestinians. I wish that I had thought to ask him these questions. I am sure that he struggles with them continually.
Most of us, I am sure, come to the question from the other side of the issue. We commit most, or all, of our time to nurturing our families. But what about our obligation to the larger community? In loving our spouses, raising our children, strengthening our homes – have we left the rest of the world to “fend for itself”?
It is a tricky thing, this balance between altruism and taking care of ourselves. The story of Julie Naschauer – as do so many stories of the building of the state – serves to remind us of the difficult calculus with which we engage in trying to live a life both human and humane.
27 June, 2014 / 11:30
Yad Va-Shem, Jerusalem
As do most groups, we came to Yad Va-Shem this morning – to the museum that commemorates and teaches about the destruction of much of European Jewry during WWII.
The feelings created by the exhibits are complex and manifold. Outrage. Fear. Anger. Astonishment.
Beyond those there is always the sorrow.
I ask myself the question: what do we, can we, should we make of this crucial reality of our recent past? How do we respond – beyond “just” feeling the feelings?
Most surprising is that some have responded with humor. Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” ridiculed Hitler and Nazi Germany and somewhere, sometime, I remember Brooks commenting that humor was a kind of revenge for him. More sophisticated was the novel The Last Dance of Genghis Cohn, in which the dybbuk/soul of a murdered Jewish comedian takes up residence in the body of a German officer. The humor is very dark, presaging the suicide of its author, Romain Gary.
Others respond through art: painting, sculpture, literature. My cousin, Chuckie – as an artist, he goes by Yonatan – has created art that grows from his awareness of the Shoah; one of his paintings used to hang at Yad Va-Shem. The most haunting and painful poem I’ve ever read is “Deathfugue” by Paul Celan. At the same time, the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” It may mean other things within its original context, but people have used it to raise the question: can art in any way “address” the horrific elements of that time without being dishonest, disrespectful, incomplete, blasphemous?
Differently, Emil Fackenheim wrote that to abandon Jewish life would be to capitulate to the evil. He formulated what he called the 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. His Zionism – eventually he moved to Israel to live – was an expression of that commitment.
Fackenheim hints at another kind of artwork: the construction of the self. Each of us is an artist, utilizing the elements of ourselves, our families, our communities and our histories to create the person that we want to be. That applies to the Jewish self as well as to any other aspect: having been born into a time and place in which Jewish identity is barely a “given”, in which we are free to come and go from Jewish life as we please, in which the old certainties are shaky and rarely lay claim to our souls – to live as a Jew in the modern period, for many of us, is to create one’s Jewish identity almost from scratch.
If that is so, then, the question is: what place does “the Shoah” have in the construction of my Jewish identity, my Jewish life?
Personally speaking, my Jewish identity at its core is separate from what I know and think and feel about the Holocaust. Put differently, the way in which I live my life as a Jew is almost entirely without regard for those thoughts and feelings. My sense of being a Jew in the world is not conditioned by them; my behavioral choices are not directed by them; my faith and commitments are not impinged upon by them.
Where I part with Fackenheim is here: if I were to live out my Jewish commitments despite – or to spite – Hitler, I would still be granting him a posthumous victory. I would still have given him a place of power in my life.
What do I make of the Holocaust in the construction of my Jewish life? Meant in a very specific way: very little. It is not that it is unimportant to me. It is. But it does not provide a starting point for the Jewish life that I have chosen to build. It is an important element in the story of my people’s life: no more, no less.
For me, to create a Jewish life that is rooted in any way in Hitler and the Nazi abomination would be to try to create something beautiful and positive and affirming out of something that is ugly and negative and destructive. Perhaps others can do that. I cannot. And I won’t grant the Nazi horror that kind of power over me.
Instead, I build my Jewish life on a rock instead of a hell hole. I have found a faith and trust that, while not oblivious to the evil, is not built upon it, instead affirming the goodness and spirit that must counter the terror in each and every age.