Ahad Ha'am Would Have Been Thrilled

'Materialism' is not a separate bubble. There is no such thing as 'national existence without spiritual content.' Spirituality, for better or for worse, high or low, noble or perverted, correct or mistaken, sane or insane, penetrates every cell of humanity, as long as it survives.

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

Usually I read the articles by Avi Sagi and Yedidia Stern with affection and interest. It is said that two heads are better than one, and I usually find the manner in which they handle national issues and Zionism credible and responsible. Thus, so that their writing will continue to carry that same ideological credibility, I wish to bring to their attention a fundamental and characteristic error in the way they attempted, in their most recent article ("Time to get a foreign passport?," Haaretz, June 15) to posit my concept of Jewish identity in contrast to the "French theory" of Avraham Burg.

When they write that I believe that "the basic components of national identity are not found on the spiritual plane but rather in physical existence, in the political dimension, in commitment to a common organization," I have the feeling that perhaps because these two scholars are religiously observant, they distort the concept of "spiritual" or "spirituality," and return to the same common Jewish error that originated in the Diaspora - the apparent separation between Jewish spirituality and Jewish materialism.

Is discussion of the ecological future of the State of Israel considered materialistic, but an in-depth discussion of a Talmudic issue spiritual? Is a discussion in the Knesset about unemployment insurance or economic policy materialistic, but preoccupation with the laws of shemita (the sabbatical year) spiritual?

Is the study of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, which deal with questions of war and peace in the Kingdom of Judea, spiritual, but the reading of political articles and essays or poems and stories that deal with those same questions not spiritual?

Is preoccupation with the virtual spheres of the kabbala spiritual, but a discussion of the documents of the Institute for Democracy materialistic?

National territorial existence, within a binding framework, not only calls for an immeasurable expansion of what has heretofore been considered Jewish "spirituality" in the Diaspora, but also injects into the spiritual debate a practical moral dimension that demands a real-life decision, a moral dimension that is usually missing in Jewish "study" outside of Israel.

The spiritual issues here are not limited to interpreting texts and enjoying kabbalistic hallucinations. Rather, they concern actual moral decisions that cause Jewish identity - which in the Diaspora reside in a sort of "personal spicebox" - to be exposed to the national reality and provide answers through good or bad deeds, as in the real life and identity of any other nation.

That is the essential, ethical difference between life in the Diaspora and life in a binding national framework. Can any German claim once again that true Germanness is that spirituality which found its expression in Goethe and Schiller, that the German spirit that found its expression in Nazism is not spiritual but rather something else?

After all, this entire Jewish separation between spirituality and non-spirituality is childish and does not stand the test of logic. If, for example, the Holocaust, which was imposed on us from outside, is of profound spiritual significance that shook up Jewish identity and reshaped it, then Israel's War of Independence or the Yom Kippur War, in their own way and to their own degree, were also of spiritual significance.

"Materialism" is not a separate bubble. There is no such thing as "national existence without spiritual content." Spirituality, for better or for worse, high or low, noble or perverted, correct or mistaken, sane or insane, penetrates every cell of humanity, as long as it survives. Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy's hero in "Anna Karenina," who harvests with his farmers in a field on his estate for an entire day, undergoes an experience that is no less profound, mystical and ethical than a Jew listening to a lecture about the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas.

Because in Jewish life in the Diaspora religious, study-related and communal issues are increasingly separated from the reality of the everyday non-Jewish life around them, the Jews have recently been using the popular expression "Jewish spirituality," as though what is done in the non-Jewish reality is gray and routine materialism that has nothing to do with true spirituality. Diaspora Jews may need this groundless distinction in order to strengthen their spirit in the face of the strong forces drawing them to assimilation. But what does all that have to do with Israel?

These strange distinctions between spirit and matter in national existence are giving rise to another vague distinction between what is called the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha'am and the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl, when Burg and his friends call on us to turn our backs on Herzlian Zionism and to choose the Ahad Ha'am option. Not only are they missing the true intention of Ahad Ha'am, who specifically aspired to a Jewish state, but they also fail to understand that had Ahad Ha'am arrived in the State of Israel at the beginning of the 21st century he would actually have enjoyed what he saw, whereas his friend Herzl would have been disappointed and worried.

The spiritual center in the Land of Israel to which Ahad Ha'am was referring was not meant to be "a light unto the nations" that would teach humanity to distinguish between right and wrong (he was not a megalomanic like some lunatic Jews), but rather a spiritual center that would concentrate within itself the Hebrew Jewish codes, in order to prevent a split in identity of the Jewish communities scattered throughout the world. Were Ahad Ha'am to arrive in Israel and see the research activity in all branches of Jewish history and thought, the departments in the various universities and colleges, the tremendous number of Torah scholars (who are living off the state), the many Israeli lecturers on all branches of Judaism, who are also reinforcing the Jewish studies departments in universities abroad and the many publications on Jewish subjects, he would be very pleased with what he saw; in addition to his amazement that this small country of Israel, despite its wars and difficulties, has achieved a place of honor in the community of nations, relative to its size, in science, literature, music, art, dance, film and theater.

But were Theodor Herzl to arrive in the Jewish state, not only would he be disappointed at the fact that the majority of Jews did not follow in the path of Zionism and missed the opportunity given them to establish a state before the Holocaust, a state that in the 1920s and 1930s would have reduced the dimensions of the terrible catastrophe that befell the Jewish people; he would also be worried about the fact that the existence of a Jewish state is not preventing hatred of Jews in the world, at a time when Israel itself still faces an existential threat.

It is not "spirituality" that we are lacking here - of that we have more than enough - rather, it is a better understanding of the concepts of ethical sovereignty and responsibility, based on clear boundaries of Israeli identity that does not rule over a foreign nation in order to achieve a few more pieces of land in the name of "Jewish spirituality."



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