Israel at Fifty
Entering Israel’s Second Yovel
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi from Tikkun Magazine, Vol.13, No.2
Let me share with you some reflections as Medinat Israel, on the threshold of the new century-millennium, is entering her fiftieth year, her first Jubilee or Yovel.
When our Prophets spoke of the future, they gave us a vision of Zion and Jerusalem that is yet to be fulfilled, saying: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” (Isaiah 56:7); “Even from them [the non-Jews] shall I [God] take priests and Levites,” (Isaiah 66:21); and, “Out of Zion shall come forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem,” (Micah 4:2). This served as a wonderful vision of Israel as a flowing fountain, from which would come forth inspiration and a light that would proceed to the whole world.
Unfortunately, although the people who traditionally prayed every day for the return to Zion, as well as the secular early Zionists, hoped and planned and worked for a good future, they were not futurists. They thought of the future by looking through a rear-view mirror, and pursued a kind of nostalgic future. “There will be a time when there will be a kingdom greater than that of King Solomon,” they thought, but that was the problem: they were taking King Solomon’s realm as their reference point. Now that the Zionist ideal has found its realization in the State, what can we look forward to? Any move from an ideal to reality entails a certain amount of degradation; more shadow energy, what we call klippah in Jewish mysticism, begins to adhere. As long as a Jewish state was a dream, a myth, a hope, we saw the good and it looked to us that it could be sustained out of Justice. But now that we meet it in palpable reality – Oy, does it need mercy.
The myth that sustained us throughout our Diaspora was that of the return. Now that we have returned and have a sovereign country, we have little to propel us into the future. We are scared – mythless. It will take poets, dreamers, and mystics to reach into a yet unrealized future to dream the next story of our people. Without an active myth, a dynamic transpersonal story, Israel will be bereft of the invisible means of sustenance and support.
Herzl was more a futurist than many others. He wrote a novel, AltNeuLand, which was his tab at science fiction. In it he explored a European capitalist democracy and made room for non-Jewish Zionists. He still lacked, however, a forward-looking vision of what an Israel seated in the heart of the bridge between Asia and Africa could become in the global village.
The hopeful believer in me is not willing to give up. Seeing the hand of God in history, I trust that we will be led through these transitions: the dreams and visions will come, yet the labor and contractions are painful.
Without having an attractive vision of what is yet to come, we have created an Israel which now must face a daunting situation. Jerusalem is becoming more and more dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, to the point that some secular Jews are fleeing to other parts of the country. People in one enclave feel less connected with those of others, and even more at odds with each other in the same milieu. The haredim believe in an ultimate future in which they will triumph and prevail as a result of their mesirat nefesh, their tenacious sacrificial devotion.
Our Palestinian cousins have their own triumphalists as tenaciously contending that Allah has promised them that they will prevail. Both the haredim and the Palestinians have little understanding of the compromises necessary for a negotiated peace. So we have two kinds of triumphalists confronting each other, unable to recognize that Israel is an experiment that cannot be called off. Providence has seen to it that the most difficult partners that could be involved in this struggle had to wrestle with one another. When we have learned how to collaborate in peace at least as well as we collaborate in creating strife, we will have a model for others. The people in Rwanda and Bosnia and others all over the globe are waiting for the results of our experiment. The messiah we are waiting for is us: Israelis and Palestinians.
Unfortunately, the mental and spiritual capacities to work toward peace are not available to many of the people involved. You can feel this in Israel. Even in Lod – Tel Aviv – from the moment you step off the plane, you can feel the tone of the language raised up to a more nervous and strident pitch. You speak to the taxi cab drivers or to people on the street and you can feel that you are in the nervous system of a reptilian brain, a kind of Jurassic Park. Everything has to do with turf. Even among the various groups in B’nai B’raq and Me’ah She’arim there are turf wars. The splinters of political parties in the Knesset are no better. The country is attuned more to the reptilian brain than to the cortex; to even speak of spirituality, the brain would have to be attuned to a yet still higher level, the soul level, where intuition resides.
The Palestinians are not more advanced. As I read the Koran, for all my respect for this Ishmaelean Midrash on Torah, I feel pain over the references to Shaitan ar-rag’im, “Satan who is to be stoned.” A phrase that occurs in the “Salaat” prayer recited five times a day. Israel has been identified as Shaitan and Israelis are to be stoned. So on both sides we have images of the demonized “Other” that are rooted in the present and in the past but not in the desirable future. What a handicap to irenic dialogue. At the moment, neither side recognizes that we need to live in a post-triumphalist era.
How can we move beyond this current situation? Imagine an Israel with a halachic government. I shudder in my kishkes when I think of what this would be like in the short run, with attempts to impose the most reactionary religious practice on so many people who describe themselves either as secular or as other than right-wing orthodox. But when I take a longer view, through this next yovel, I realize that such a halachic government would have to work out for itself many of the things that Jewish Renewal communities have already tried to work out: namely, how to live in this modern world according to values and mitzvot. Right now, right-wing religious can always say, “Someone else, who is not religious, is in charge, and we are the opposition, and in the meantime we have to employ Shabbos goyim, non-Jews who do work which we must not do on the Sabbath.” But if they had to work out every bit of Halacha for a Jewish state and keep the air force, fire brigades, hospitals and ambulances doing their jobs, it could be a laboratory for bringing halachic Judaism up to date.
As to Eretz Yisrael, the land, the ecology: we need matriots, not patriots, who will care for the environment, rooted in the commands of bal tash’chit (the Torah tradition teachings about not destroying the earth). Orthodox people have not done their theological or even halachic homework, and for that matter neither have the secularists or Reform or Conservative Jews. We have never had a decent statement accepted by the various denominations of Jews concerning what we think the Holocaust was all about. We need a theological statement about the State of Israel, including how we should relate to the Abrahamic peoples who formed Christianity and Islam (and hence are really in a very different condition from those who are merely accepting the seven commandments designed for the Children of Noah).
We need an Israel committed to diversity in the Jewish religious community, an Israel which allows the individual to live an autonomous moral, ethical, and halachic life rather than a heteronomous order that is directed by a spiritually constipated elite. There is not yet a mussar in Israel that recognizes who the other is – namely, that the other is a precious spark of the Living God.
So all this is the dark side.
But if we could take Isaiah’s future vision into the present, we could begin to think in very different terms: about a United States of the Middle East. I draw a certain kind of hope from the collaboration that is already taking place between some groups in Jordan and Israel on the level of commerce. In hope, I extend that vision to other domains.
We have to move away from nationalism to an organ-based understanding – what I call an organismic understanding – of our place on the planet. We need some of each of the organs of the whole body of the Jewish people in Israel. It makes sense that we need the B’nai Yisrael from India and the Falashas from Ethiopia in Israel along with the Edot Hamizrach and the Ashkenazim. We must be prepared to give up the idea that the Northern Hemisphere is the only decent place from which to learn, as if the Ashkenazim have the corner on wisdom. At the same time, I don’t think it’s useful to think of Israel as our homeland as if we all were ever to live there. If we, who are in the Diaspora, form a good part of the body of the Jewish people, then Israel is our heart. There are so many people who go to live in Israel and then come back to live in the Diaspora. If we made a census of the yordim, Israelis who live and work abroad, as well as of the olim, the immigrants, and add to this the number of us who periodically visit and sojourn in Israel, we would get a more realistic picture of the Jewish people. If you have an organismic understanding, you can see that we in the Diaspora bring nourishment to the heart and we get nourishment from the heart. We are vitally important and necessary. The flow of vigor from us to Israel and from Israel to us can be seen like a circulation system.
The Palestinians in the Diaspora could also bring the wisdom of their experience to their community in the Holy Land. Among the Palestinians there are yordim emigres all over the globe. They too visit their home from time to time and need a way to keep their identity in their diaspora. So it is not an issue of Lebensraum for either of us. Both sides need to recognize that we are not talking about land, but about cultural centers to which we and they could come, and then it would not make so much of a difference exactly where the territorial line is being drawn.
Once we realize that the Holy Land is about getting to our deepest heart place, then we should institute social practices in accord with this insight. If we got to the Holy Land, we should spiritually prepare for that moment in our lives. Perhaps after we come off the ship or the airplane to Israel, each person should go through a one-day preparation process that would raise the spiritual vibrations of people coming to the Land. If you need a driver’s license to qualify to drive on the road, then anyone making aliyah should have to prepare to live in that country on a higher moral level.
These are solutions that our cortex and our intuition propose. However, we cannot totally deny the reptilian brain, even if we wanted to. Every human being needs that part, even though we need the higher brain functions as well. The reptilian brain connects us to the soil, and so we need Eretz Yisrael. The chtonic power issuing from the dark places in our being that connect us to the voice of the earth cannot be denied, as the Jungians well understood. There is some way in which the land itself nourishes our being, and we cannot abandon that connection. We cannot remain Jews for many generations without a connection to that particular piece of land.
Mythically we, as Jews, are tied into this land, and our very understanding of how we should live and be as Jews in the universe is organically tied into our connection to the Land of Israel. The calendar of Judaism is the most organismic one I know: it connects us both to the moon and the sun, it honors time and it honors the seasons. This connection came to us because we lived in a land that “flowed with milk and honey” – to live in a land that was not particularly great for agriculture, we had to learn certain ecological lessons that the whole planet now needs to learn.
The Diaspora consciousness helped us to think in universal terms. Theology is the afterthought of the believer. First comes an experience, and then later we try to make sense of that experience through a theological insight. We made a theology to fit our Diaspora situation. But we always retained the prayer in which we called for “hamachzir shecheenato leTziyon ,” that God will return the Shechinah, His Presence, to dwell in the holy land. We prayed for the transcendent God to become immanent in the holy land in Her feminine aspect (as the Shechinah). In this vision, God would honor all of Her children (not just Jews), and thus “Eym habanim s’meycha,” “the mother of many children is made happy,” honoring all the people – not just Jews – who live in the land. God as the transcendent Being is not the whole story. If we want God to be immanent with us, we have to say “our Shechinah of the Holy Land,” just as we may say “our Shechinah of the Rocky Mountains,” that is, God as the Shechinah embodied and manifested in and through this particular place (wherever that is).
There is a different God-feel in the South Sea Islands than in Alaska. If we are like nerve cells of the global organism, then the particular location in which we find ourselves in Earth’s body has some powerful impact on how we experience our reality. So, we as Jews, have a special connection to the Land of Israel, provided we understand that connection in a Shechinah way.
We always place God outside of ourselves, and we don’t see clearly enough how we swim in God. From an organismic point of view, we are like blood corpuscles swimming in the big God body. To serve God is to serve the totality of which I am part. We have to honor the organic connection between everything that is. I don’t want to think of God transcendent as something divorced from me, because I swim in that God transcendent, and inside me swims God immanent. What separates God transcendent from God immanent is only the thin veil of my consciousness. If I allow that to become transparent, then we have the Yichud (unity) of Echad (the oneness), and there the transcendent and immanent are One.
According to the Kabbalistic roadmap, the first fifty years is governed by God’s attribute of forgiving lovingkindness (chesed), while the second Yovel is governed by limit-setting severity (gevurah).
The next Yovel is the Yovel of gevurah, demanding a certain amount of self-control and a certain amount of t’shuvah. The mistakes that we made in Israel over all these past fifty years came into being in the context of a very forgiving matrix – that is part of what I mean by saying that the first Yovel was chesed. We didn’t get slapped by instant karma when we did something wrong – we were in a forgiving environment. I don’t think that is going to remain the case in the next fifty years. I think we are going to get some very quick karmic response – and that is gevurah. I think that we are going to face some harsh realities in the next fifty years that will massage us into being a better people (and that’s the hopefulness in gevurah).
To envision this future, we will need nurturing womb-men and women. The way to overcome the difficulties of gevurah is through rachamim, compassion (from rechem, womb). We need to nurture the place of compassion in our dealings with the problems of the State of Israel. The key is to really validate the pain of whoever is on the other side. For Israel, that may be a nobler way to relate to the Palestinians. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jews could prepare food for Moslems during Ramadan, when they fast to honor their traditions, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could go to each other’s circumcision ceremonies, sharing the legacy of Abraham as we do?) Any negotiation process must begin by recognizing the other and validating them for who they are. We must honor the other person first before anything that is to happen at the negotiating table is to work.
We could, in the near future, take one small step toward solving some of our problems, a step that would bring us nearer to the prophetic vision: we should take the space to the south of the Temple Mount (currently undeveloped) and use it to create a space to serve as a House of Prayer for All People, an ecumenical plaza in which people of all faiths can pray together, and Jews of all denominations could pray, each in their own way. Let this be a place where Moslems, Buddhists, Christians, Jews all gather for prayer. We should have a weekly concert by the Levites’ orchestra and choir to be broadcast to the entire world – and let the Levites be chosen from all the different religions – to sing with us their sacred songs and to create “a new song” to God.
An other step: Israelis have to spend much time serving in the army as reserves and regular soldiers. If they immediately enter civilian life without shedding that “attitude” our civic life becomes more and more tense. We need a virtual mikveh, an experiential immersion pool for cleansing, for the people coming out of the army that allows them to ritually separate themselves from the consciousness that they had to develop while serving in that war-charged adversarial context.
For the last few years I have worked on the issues of aging and have written a book called From Age-ing to Sage-ing: Dealing with Spiritual Eldering. In this work I proposed that an elder corps be formed by people who have become elders, by people who have done their inner work in a way that they could become Wisdom keepers, peace makers, whistle blowers, and ombudspeople serving as stewards for the next seven generations. I believe that an elder corps composed of people who have done their inner work, taken not only from Jews but from all who seek the peace of Jerusalem, could meet with Israeli and Palestinian grandparents and with those who have lost their loved ones and propose ways to sort out our differences.
These and many other ideas are steps issuing from the vision of Jewish Renewal. A vital Jewish renewal could attract many people in Israel to a spiritual, ecological, ethical, and moral tradition that could help them in the coming Yovel of gevurah.
As Herzl said a century ago, “Im tirtzu eyn zu aggadah” – “If you will it, it is not just a legend.” May we see it in our day. Blessings to you in hope for the world’s tikkun.