Friday, 2 May 2014

Talking About Israel: A Case Study in Jewish Discourse


Jews, famously, agree on very little. That said at certain times and in certain places in the history of our people different types, or styles, of Jewish discourse have come to the fore. In this paper I want to survey four such types of discourse, each typical of a different religious, social and historical climate. And then I want to speculate as to how each type, extrapolated into our current religious and social existence, would respond to the very contemporary reality of a State of Israel. There is a risk, of course, of over-generalising, but there is also much to gain in assessing the masorah – tradition – and relative merits of different types of Jewish discourse.


The navi ­– prophet – is the oldest model of Jewish dialogue beginning with Abraham and coming to a close in the last days of the Second Temple (say from 1700BCE to 100BCE). The discourse of the talmud hacham – Rabbinic scholar – comes to the fore in the first century of the common era and remains a dominant trop of Jewish engagement to this day. Alongside this scholastic mode another classic style of Jewish discourse emerged, this is the discourse of the chasid or mystic. Finally there is the discourse of the maskil – the enlightened Jew – a product of the onset of modernity. I shall work from most modern to most ancient.


The Maskil

The discourse of the Maskil – enlightened one – is characteristic of the last days of the eighteenth century, in France and Germany most especially. This was the moment when the Jew was given the opportunity to leave the ghetto and become a full member of their surrounding culture; able to trade freely and, most significantly, able to learn from and contribute to the debates and academic institutions of the day.  The Maskil adopted with alacrity the garb, the tone and the intellectual mores and values of the culture surrounding them. In so doing they cast off many of the traditional mores (or ‘fetters’ as they would have it) of traditional Jewish commitments and values. In part this casting off is seen as the price of acceptance into the surrounding non-Jewish culture, a price deemed worth paying, but more than that this casting off is seen as a corrective to what are deemed Jewish errors. The Judaism of the Maskil is, quite literally, enlightened from outside of Judaism. ‘Sacred cows’ – literal and figurative – are rejected, at times, almost with glee.


Berr Issac Berr,[1] writing in 1791, merely months after the French National Assembly passes legislation to emancipate the Jews, urges his fellow religionists,


To divest ourselves entirely of that narrow spirit, of Corporation and Congregation, in all civil and political matters, not immediately connected with our spiritual laws; in these things we must absolutely appear simply as individuals, as Frenchmen, guided only by a true patriotism and by the general good of the nation.


The greatest spokesperson for Jewish enlightenment however would not have used the patriotic nationalism of Berr. For Moses Mendelssohn the opportunity afforded by modernity was not the opportunity to replace Jewish parochialism with French nationalism, but rather the opportunity to show that Judaism embraced universal truths free of any nationalist tint. The core claims of Judaism (as distinct from our rituals and historic narratives) were truths that could be applied and worked out the whole world over.


I recognize no eternal truths other than those that not merely comprehensible to human reason but can be demonstrated and verified by human powers… I consider this a central point of the Jewish religion.[2]


To be a good Jew, taught Mendelssohn, one could not make claims that ran contra to claims the whole world claimed true.


The Discourse of the Maskil Applied to the State of Israel

The Maskilim were behind the foundation of Reform Judaism and, in the nineteenth century most especially, reformers were forthright in their rejection of Zionism. By extension we are on fairly safe ground in supposing how they would have spoken about the contemporary State of Israel.[3] The American Reform ‘Philadelphia Conference’ of 1869 stated,


The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state … involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realize the unity of all rational creatures, and their call to moral sanctification.


Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, one of the foundational thinkers in American Reform Judaism is held to ‘repudiate the idea that Judea is the home of the Jew—an idea which “unhomes” the Jew all over the wide earth,’ in the entry on ‘Zionism’ in the 1911 Jewish Encyclopaedia. The ‘problem’ of Zionism, and by extension Modern Israel, is two-fold. Firstly it impinges on the ability of modern Jews to be treated as fully committed citizens of their respective countries, but also secondly, it is all a bit too particularistic and the messy ugly realities of governing a particularly Jewish State would surely have been perceived as unjustified.


The discourse of the Maskil, extrapolated into the contemporary debate on the State of Israel would be, if not anti-Zionist, then clearly deeply uncomfortable at the way the particular Jewish claims for the actions of the Government of the State of Israel are reflecting poorly on Jews both in and outside the borders of Israel. In the contest between the particular and the universal the particular carried little weight with the Maskil. They would not consider it a duty to defend the honour of the State we could even imagine the descendents of Mendelssohn leading a campaign for some kind of ‘one-state’ solution; an end to a particular Jewish state and its replacement with some kind of international universal entity in and around the current Jewish capital. And there are Jews who, even today, find themselves in the position of the Maskil.


The Talmud Hacham – Rabbinic Scholar

The archetypical model for the discourse of the talmud hacham comes in a encounter where the massed ranks of Rabbis prove Rabbi Eliezer wrong by citing a Biblical verse. [4] Rabbi Eliezer, by any objective standards, is right – he brings proof after proof of his position. Moreover even God thinks Rabbi Eliezer is right – a Divine voice comes from on high to say so. But the Rabbis nonetheless prove Rabbi Eliezer wrong with a Biblical verse. What is so remarkable is that the Biblical verse they cite is ripped so far out of its natural context that it comes to prove the complete reverse of its straightforward Biblical intention. ‘Incline after the majority’ cite the Rabbis. ‘You shall not incline after the majority to do wrong’ is the full Biblical citation. The mark of the talmud hacham is the moment when the seemingly obvious is turned on its head in a display of hermeneutic pyrotechnics that owes nothing to cool objectivity or Aristotelian logic.


Indeed in many ways the entire Talmudic endeavour can be understood NOT as an attempt to understand Biblical verses in some objective logical sense, but rather an attempt to justify the practices the Rabbis know, subjectively, to be correct with reference to some kind of proof which often has to be scraped, pulled and forced into position. The opening Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim, for example, suggests that the search for leaven is to be carried out in the ‘or’ of the 14th day of Nissan. The problem, for the Rabbis is that the Hebrew word ‘or’ means light, suggesting a morning-time search and the Rabbis ‘know’ that the search for leaven takes place at night. It takes them three folios to ‘prove’ that ‘or,’ at least in this context, means darkness. This is not to suggest that the Rabbis are making up their arguments, but rather that Rabbinic discourse is built backwards from a known end result. The known end result determines the engagement with the proof, not the other way round. [5]


In terms of our case study – how a talmud hacham would speak about the State of Israel it is important to note one other characteristic of the discourse of the talmud hacham – it is fiercely sectarian. The claim to be the true inheritors of the Biblical covenant is hotly disputed, most particularly in the first centuries of the Common Era. Scores of Rabbinic texts, both explicitly and implicitly record or imagine the talmud hacham battling the non-Jew for the right to claim they, and no other sect, people or faith, have a right to claim an inheritance of the covenant of Sinai. The texts which record meetings between Rabbinic Jews and outsiders to Rabbinics classically and almost always end in the outsider being defeated in a test of hermeneutic bravado. In one Rabbinic text a group of heretics, pagans, Gnostics or possible even Christians, are reported suggesting to Rabbi Simlai that a plurality of gods (or a Trinitarian godhead) were engaged in the creation of the world.[6] The Rabbi responds with various proofs and the heretics leave, defeated. What is remarkable about this particular text is that Rabbi Simlai’s students, watching the disputation, are curiously unmoved by their teacher’s arguments, ‘you have brushed them off with a reed, how would you answer us?’ They demand, almost acknowledging Rabbi Simlai’s arguments as too ‘rabbinic’; in contemporary terms too full of spin, lacking in a grounded reality. There are, of course, moments in the vast Rabbinic corpus of talmidei hachamim celebrating the claims of the non-Jews around them, but they are few and far between.


The Discourse of the Talmud Hacham Applied to the State of Israel

Surely the sectarian nature of so much of rabbinics would translate into a rejection of the claims of the non-Jew, either absolutely or partially. But the argumentative training of the talmud hacham would see him engaged in debate and argument. This type of Jewish discourse, translated to the contemporary political arena would surely involve a defender of Israel showing how, at every turn, the Palestinians have rejected this peace offering or that, they would demonstrate quite how antisemitic Ahmenajad or Hamas really are. And they would reject this or that independent report on grounds of flawed methodology or ideology. The details and the facts would have to be worked over and made to fit into the underpinning conviction that Israel’s right to exist needs to be justified and defended not only physically, but also in Jewish discourse. The discourse of the talmud hacham extrapolated into contemporary politics would surely be recognisable in the discourse of Israeli Governmental spokespeople and pro-Israel lobbyists associated with the right-wing. And there are many who speak about Israel in the discourse of the talmud hacham.


The Chasid, or Mystic

The Mystic is entranced by matters of the spirit. To the Mystic the world exists to lift one’s eyes above and beyond the material and the corporeal. The mystic is entranced by the magical quality of life and, often in the history of the Jews, nature. I am not speaking, here, of the theosophist who by mathematical formulas of great complexity mapped out the precise dimensions of the heaven and the human’s relationship to it, but rather the more ecstatic pietist.


A story is told of two brothers, students of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch (17710-1772). One, Elimelech of Lizensk, went on to create schools of study and publish an important work of Torah. The other, Reb Zusia, published nothing and leaves only a collection of tales. How is it possible, we are bidden to ask, for two brothers to study in the same manner and still to turn out so differently? The answer is that every time the Maggid would begin to cite a Biblical text, ‘And God said …’ Zusia would reel over in ecstasy, ‘GOD SPOKE! Extraordinary, amazing, incredible …’ and eventually they would have to pick him up, carry him out of the study hall and he would miss the lesson.


Before the onset of Modernity it was, surely, the Mediaeval Jewish poets of Spain who were most entranced by the natural world around them. This is from the Divan of Abraham Ibn Ezra,


Wherever I turn my eyes, around on Earth or to the heavens

I see You in the field of stars

I see You in the yield of the land

In every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower, An echo of Your holy Name.[7]


The Zohar, early thirteenth century, is the classic Jewish religious work most noted for its attention to the natural world.


Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Abba were staying together one night. When night had fallen they went out into the garden by Lake Tiberias. As they did so they saw two stars moving in different directions. They collided with one another then disappeared.

Rabbi Abba said, ‘How great are the works of the Holy One, blessed be He … who can possibly understand the significance of these two stars that have come from different directions and collided with one another and then disappeared.[8]


The companions of the Zohar are in their natural habitat walking through the orchards, sheltering under the trees[9] and gazing at the sky above the eternal home of the Jewish people. For them the natural world – the land – is at the heart of their relationship with the Divine; a relationship untrammelled by governmental or political machinations.


The Discourse of the Mystic Applied to the State of Israel

When it comes to politics … the Mystic just doesn’t do politics.[10] Mystics don’t read the papers, they daven. When it comes to the tough political decisions that face the State, they believe in God’s providence and the coming of the Messiah.

The Mystic extrapolated into contemporary Israel would be the lover of the land, off hiking through the hills, plunging into the sea, blind to what happens behind the security fence, or wall, or whatever and just wishing the whole political problem would somehow go away so they could be left to commune with the land they love. And there are many whose relationship with the contemporary State of Israel is the relationship of the Mystic


The Navi, or Prophet

The Hebrew prophet is not to be confused with the Greek oracle. Their telling of the future is not a tarot-card trick, it is more a holding up of a particular kind of a mirror where the inevitable consequence of current behaviour is reflected back at the viewer. The Navi must turn the people from their sins by confronting them with their stumbles and failings. They do this by speaking truth to power and exposing our failings, sparing no blushes, accepting no excuses, cavilling before no-one. They do not care who might be listening in, nor do they chose their words with tact or delicacy. Their barbs are designed to shock the people out of their stupor.


Hear this, you who trample on the needy, saying, “when will the Sabbath be over so we may offer wheat for sale, so we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, dealing deceitfully with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and selling the refuse of the wheat?”

Shall not the land tremble on this account and every one mourn who dwells in it, and all of it rise like the Nile, be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt.

Amos 8:4-8 (extract)


The retreat into mystical piety is not for the Prophet. Nor is the prophet tempted by the Universal philosophical truths that so entrance the Maskil. And, most of all, the prophet rejects the legal curlicues that exemplify the Rabbinic scholar. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s expanded and anglicised dissertation on ‘The Prophets’ articulates these tendencies better than anyone.


Rather than contemplating eternal ideas [the prophet’s] mind is preoccupied with the concrete actualities of history, rather than the timeless issues of thought.

The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuses, contemptuous of pretence and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently slashing, even horrid – designed to shock rather than to edify.

The prophet makes no concession to man’s capacity … he seems unable to extenuate the culpability of man. [11]


But this coruscating pounding aspect to the classical Biblical prophets is not the only mode of prophetic discourse. The contemporary Biblical scholar, Yochanan Muffs, notes;


The prophet has another function: He is also an independent advocate to the heavenly court who attempts to rescind the evil decree by means of the only instruments at his disposal. He is first the messenger of the divine court to the defendant, but his mission boomerangs back to the sender. Now, he is no longer the messenger of the court; he becomes the agent of the defendant, attempting to mitigate the severity of the decree.[12]


Indeed, Muffs argues, one could claim that the role of prophet as defender is older even than the role of prophet as accuser. After all Abraham is seen as the first great prophet not because he confronts the people of Sodom and Gemorah with their failings, but rather because he intervenes with God to save them, ‘Should not the just one of the entire world behave justly?!’ (Gen 18:25). Moses too is at his most ‘Navi-like’ defending the children of Israel before God, most especially in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle where the Rabbis imagine God as a father about to kill his child before Moses steps in.[13]


The vaguely paradoxical idea is that God wills the prophet to oppose God by championing the people, even in their failings, before Him. The failure of the prophet stand in the breach, defending their people is a failure of prophetic discourse.


Like foxes in the ruins were your prophets, Israel, you have not gone up into the breaches, nor have you built up a fence for the House of Israel to stand in battle in the Day of the Lord. (Ezekiel 13:4-5)

And I searched for a man, a fence-mender, someone who would stand in the breach against Me [God!] on behalf of the land, that I not destroy the land. (Ezekiel 22:30)[14]


The prophet must be engaged in defending their people’s ultimate goodness and value. They must stand up for Israel, even in her failings, even in the face of great opposition. 


The Discourse of the Navi Applied to the State of Israel

It is safer, perhaps, to begin with what would not appear in the discourse of the Navi. The Navi would not be engaged in attempting to ‘contextualise’ or explain away the more discomforting actions of Israeli governments or officials. The Navi would ‘collateral damage’ unacceptable, they would be reviled by attempts to justify what they would see as unjustifiable. Prophets do not win elections with manifesto commitments dripping in bravado. They do not win friends with flattery and small talk. But the Navi would also refuse to give up on Israel. They would preach of its deeper goodness and ultimate worth, even beneath its contemporary failings. Lovers of Israel would find reading the words of this ‘extrapolated Navi’ hard to hear, they would sting, but ultimately it would be impossible to close one’s heart to their oratory, power and truth.


This combination of sharp critique allied with great love is perhaps the least heard voice, when it comes to speaking about Israel. There are few who speak about Israel with the discourse of the Navi.


A Personal Choice

I reject the approach of the Maskil. Indeed these are the great lessons of the last century – we need to find a place for nationalism, it can’t be sublimated or rejected. Emancipation with no Jewish homeland is a no protection from the forces that led to Stalinism or Holocaust, nor can Judaism survive free of its connection to the Land.

Nor do I accept the discourse of the Talmud Hacham. It’s impressive, but feels hollow, disingenuous or self-serving on occasion. While some of Israel’s actions may indeed be justifiable if properly understood and some accusations levelled against the Jewish State may indeed be misplaced, I feel deeply uneasy when confronted by the indefensible. I might be able to persuade interlocutors real and imagined some of the time, but I fear I am pushing off arguments with a reed.

Equally I reject the discourse of the Mystic. My Judaism, and the Judaism of the Synagogue I lead, cannot close itself from truths, no matter how uncomfortable they may be. I bless God, every morning, for the gift of my sight and I cannot close my eyes to what goes on behind fences and walls.

Ultimately I choose the approach of the Navi. In fact it is no choice, I am compelled. I believe the most powerful, the most holy and the most modern response to the State of Israel is the most ancient of Jewish discourses. It is not an easy path to tread, I risk being accused of a lack of love on the one hand and a lack of guts on the other. But I commit myself to speaking more prophetically of Israel, more passionately in love with her, more sure than ever of her ultimate righteousness and worth, but also brooking no failures and speaking out when she falls short. The aim, and it should be the aim of all of us, is to prove ourselves worthy descendents of Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel and Amos. If we can do that we may even live to see the dreams of another great prophet fulfilled.


They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:3-4)


May it come speedily and in our time.


[1] A merchant and banker who, among other achievements represented the Jews of Alsace and Lorraine in an attempt to win civil equality in 1989 and subsequently sat on the Parisian Sanhedrin. Text from ed. Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz The Jew in the Modern World (OUP, Oxford, 1995) p.119

[2] Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, trans Arkush (Brandeis University Press, London, 1983) p. 88.

[3] Nothing here, of course, should be considered a comment on contemporary Reform Zionism. Indeed if there is a model of discourse discussed here that is most embraced by contemporary Reformers it is the model of the Prophet, not the Maskil.

[4] BM 59b, citing Exodus 23:2

[5] This classic piece of Rabbinic humour is only a mild exaggeration of a genuine Talmudic passage (Chullin 113b). The Bible repeats the injunction ‘you shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk’ three times (Ex 23:19, 34:26 and Deut 14:21). We are encouraged to imagine a thrice repeated dialogue between God, giving dictation on Sinai, and Moses, hasty scribbling notes on the Divine Will. ‘You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,’ says God. ‘What’ says Moses, ‘no eating milk and meat together?!’ ‘You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,’ says God. ‘What’ says Moses, ‘we need to wait three hours between eating meat and eating milk?!’ ‘You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,’ says God. ‘What’ says Moses, ‘we need entirely separate sets of crockery and cutlery?!’ ‘Fine,’ says God, ‘have it your own way.’

[6] BR 8:9

[7] From Swartz “Jews, Jewish Texts and Nature,” in Gottlieb ed This Sacred Earth (Routledge, London, 2004) p.98

[8] Zohar II 171a, trans from Lachower & Tishby The Wisdom of the Zohar (Littman, OUP, Oxford, 1989) vol 2. p. 663.

[9] See Zohar II 127a

[10] Again, I am taking a particular and narrow example of Mystic discourse. Some Jewish mystics have been deeply engaged politically, Akiva’s support of Bar Kochba and Mendel of Rimanov’s support of Napolean are but two examples.

[11] Heschel, The Prophets (Harper & Row, London, 1969) pp. 5, 7 & 9

[12] Muffs Love & Joy (Harvard University Press, NY, 1992) p. 9.

[13] Brachot 32a expanding on Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9. See also Psalms 106:23.

[14] Muffs cites 1 Sam 7:5-9, 1 Sam 15:10-11, Jer 14 in partic 14:13 (‘’ahah is a;most always the style of the prophet when he is opposing divine action’) and Amos 7:3 as other examples of this fence-building quality of prophetic discourse. Loc cit. p.29.

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