What does it mean to be touched by the sacred possibilities of land? As scholars and statesmen have long known, the relationship between religion and state is tricky business. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the Jewish state.
It’s this sense of the sublime character of the Land of Israel that had motivated my grandfather, not a particularly religious man, to bring home a bottle of soil years ago from one of his many trips to Israel. And it was a sense of the great import of that soil that led my mother to pour the contents of that bottle into my Zaida’s grave as we bid him a final goodbye this week in Vancouver.
There is certainly something touching about an intergenerational symbolic act such as this one. And over the past several weeks in Israel and beyond, we’ve seen a new page being turned in the story of the sacred possibilities stored in Zionism. But it’s a page that I find myself reading with both fascination and fear.
No longer content to have religious Zionism being dictated by the ultra-Orthodox, some prominent voices in Israel and the Jewish world have sought to broaden the conversation around Zionism and Judaism. In February, Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), founder of the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv, delivered a Knesset speech celebrating the Talmudic roots of the contemporary Israeli imagination. As the debate over the ultra-Orthodox military draft simmers, and with criticism abound over the ultra-Orthodox denial of secular education to their children, Calderon’s words contained a demand for another kind of equality, one centering on religious study:
“I long for the day when the state’s resources are distributed fairly and equally to every Torah scholar, man or woman, based on the quality of their study, not their communal affiliation....”
Across the ocean, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, called this week for Zionism to be reinvigorated by a commitment to the Torah. He wrote, “We spend endless hours debating why our kids are not more tied to Israel, but it has very little to do with hasbara, or with positions of the Israeli right or the Israeli left. The most important fact is simply whether or not these kids have roots in Judaism.”
“So what does it mean to get Zionism right?” Yoffie continued. “It means for the Jewish world to set aside the language of survival and philanthropy and speak instead the language of Torah and Sinai,” and “It means that Zionism, whatever else it may be, is a matter of covenant, mutual commitment, and faith.”
Calderon built her Knesset speech around a Talmudic passage containing the Aramic word for love – rechumei – a word with the same root, she noted, as both “womb” and “comfort.” This week, I have been hearing variations on this word as friends, family and clergy from near and far have been sending condolences.
Hamakom yenachem etchem b'toch she'ar avelai Tziyon Vi'yerushalayim.
(May God comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.)
There is certainly much value in promoting a spirit of love and comfort amidst a call for the broadening of Jewish textual knowledge. And it is hard to argue with the value in Rabbi Yoffie’s plea for Diaspora Jews to become more learned in Judaic foundations. Knowledge is beautiful; ignorance is ugly.
But amidst all this, there are deep pitfalls. On one hand, Calderon makes the important point that by more committed study by a wider array of minds, the truths of the Torah will naturally emerge. On the other hand, we know that the power of sacred text rests with interpretation. And since gleaning the spirit of the law – a crucial aspect for modern lawmaking in states and societies – is hampered by the impossible task of gleaning God’s will (assuming He or She even exists), we are left at the mercy of lawmakers as Talmudic interpreters.
Who would you trust to take the mantle of Torah and seek to nurture a nation, build a state, and negotiate policies within and outside that state’s borders? There may be particular names that come to mind for some. But the idea of wrapping the essential and dangerous mission of prudent and ethical statecraft in scrolls of ancient texts that are themselves believed to be manipulated by God’s invisible hands makes me very, very nervous.