What Does it Mean to be "Israel"?

We are living between two festivals that make two very different assertions of Jewish identity. One is "Yom Ha'Atzma'ut" (April 22-23); the other, Shavuot (May 23-25).

The first is usually translated as "Israeli Independence Day," but it would be more accurate to call it "Day for Standing on One's Own Feet, Day of Affirming One's Own Essence." (Etzem = “bone, skeleton, internal essential structure.”)

The second has been observed for about 2,000 years as the anniversary of the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai.

Let us imagine Sinai puttubg Torah-rooted questions to You Ha'Atzmaut;

  • ·      "What does it mean, deeply and fully, for the People, as well as the State, to be named “Yisrael,” "Godwrestlers"? 
  • ·      What have been the different effects of post-Holocaust-traumatic-stress on Israeli and American Jewry? 
  • ·      Why does the Torah repeat so many times the command, “Treat strangers with justice and love, for you were strangers in the Narrow Land”? 
  • ·      What are the relationships among love, admiration, and idolatry directed toward the State?

During these weeks, the most recent Israeli elections culminated in final agreement on what seems to be a hair-thin governing coalition of 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.  But the true political majority is a great deal bigger. For among the 59 votes outside the government, 14 are from a party rooted in Arab-speaking Israelis. And parties from that segment of Israeli society have never once, in all Israeli history,  been taken into acount in the pricess of shaping a government. So the votes are really 61 to 45. The resulting government is by far the most right-wing --  politically, economically, and religiously --  in Israel’s history.

Since the State of Israel claims to be “the Jewish State,” and since its actions certainly affect the world’s understanding of the Jewish people (and for many Jews, our understanding of our selves), it is hard for Jews anywhere to ignore the meaning of these recent changes. Since I have invested my life in drawing upon the past wisdom of the Jewish people, shaping its present, and transforming its future, I certainly cannot ignore these events.

In this I am hardly alone. There have been myriad analyses and essays about the elections and the new government. Almost all have focused on the political implications -- for Israelis, for Palestine, for the Middle East, for the United States. 

I feel drawn to think and feel in a different dimension. So what I have written below looks into the moral and spiritual meaning of the election in the light of Torah. From the standpoint of the Shavuot we are approaching, what is the meaning of the Yom ha’Atzma’ut we have recently passed? What is our own essence, what are the feet of our own on which we hope to stand?

What actually happened in the recent elections and negotiations toward choosing a new government? The Israeli electorate – especially the majority of its Jewish majority -- voted for a racist government:  --

  • racist toward the Palestinians whom Prime Minister Netanyahu (truthfully, at last) said he will never permit to govern themselves,
  • and racist toward the Israeli citizens of Palestinian culture -- whose desire to vote to change their lives -- VOTE, not riot -- he used as a justification for rousing a right-wing racist outpouring of voters for himself.

 And his choice of coalition partners and ministerial duties all lean hard in the same direction.

 The Prime Minister’s hair-thin majority for an extremist right-wing government show three sides of the State:

  • ·Increasing desire among a majority of its Jewish  citizens  toward  repression of Palestinians, the poor, and groups that criticize this repressive urge
  • ·The existence of another large part of the Jewish citizenry, mostly confused and only semi-coherent, always thwarted, wistfully wishing for peace with a Palestinian state, equality for non-Orthodox expressions of Judaism, and far greater support for the poor;
  • ·  Greater political adeptness among the one-fifth of Israeli citizens who are of Palestinian origin and culture, who are formally tolerated in the political system but held at 20 cubits’ distance from actually exercising political power.

These developments raise not only a political issue but an ethical issue, a moral issue, a Torah issue.

I. The Godwrestling People

Yet first, there may be even a deeper issue: What does it mean to be "Israel"? We must remember that there is an "Israel" broader than the State. "Israel" is the name of a People also.

And we must renew for ourselves the meaning of calling ourselves the People Israel

That name comes from one of the crucial stories in the Bible. It was the story of our ancestor Jacob. His name meant "heel," and he was indeed a heel - - a sneak, a greedy grabber, a liar, a thief.

But at a crucial moment in his life, he was moved by fear of the brother he had cheated and by guilt for his own behavior to turn from struggling against his brother to wrestling with the God Who, he felt, had shaped his world into impossibility.

"Why," he demanded, "was I caught in the trap in which to become the person I truly needed and intended to become, I had to lie and cheat? Why was the universe set up that way?"

To raise that question meant to wrestle God. And from that wrestle he rose with a new name: "Yisra'el," or in English "Israel," "Godwrestler." Once "Jacob" had become the Godwrestler, he was able to feel compassion for the brother he had feared, and he was able to inspire compassion from the brother he had robbed. That moment opened up for us the possibility of a new kind of peoplehood.

For more than two millennia, we have called ourselves the Godwrestling folk. At this crucial moment in our lives, we need to turn away from robbing our Palestinian cousins and lying to ourselves. We need instead to wrestle with the God Who offers us a choice: On the one hand, the trap of being the liar, the robber, the oppressor; on the other hand, the open path of freedom.

"Min hameytzar karati Yahh; anani ba'merchav Yahh. From the Narrow Place I cried out to You, the Breath of Life; You breathed back into me the breath of broad and open possibility." (Psalm 118

First we need to cry out, to Wrestle and take the chance, even the likelihood, of being wounded as our forebear was. From knowing our own wound, learning to know the pain of others who are wounded. Becoming the Wounded Healer, not the heel.

In the moral and ethical disaster of choosing the Israeli government, the majority of the Jewish majority chose to betray its own name and to act like the Heel Jacob rather than the compassionate Godwrestler. Since the State called "Israel" has betrayed its name, the People Israel must renew the meaning of our name. We must begin with both compassion and firm correction for our brother "Jacob."

II: Compassion for both the "Us” and the “Other”

The Torah insists 36 times that we must act justly, compassionately, or even lovingly toward the "foreigner" among us ---because we know what it was like to be foreigners, slaves, and pariahs under Pharaoh in the Land of Narrowness.

The repetition of the command so many times points to its surpassing importance. But it also points to something else: The command had to be repeated so often because the people were ignoring it, and instead were taking the experience of slavery under Pharaoh as a reason to press down anyone who might conceivably endanger them. As a reason to raise their fists, saying: "Never again -- for us!"

We know that this is indeed one response of those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress or from having been abused: reenact the abuse on others

And that is the response that is poisoning the heritage of the Holocaust in the culture that has taken over the Jews who are citizens of Israel.

The Torah reminds us again and again that even if we keep coming back again and again to this way of acting, it was and is a mistake. Morally, ethically, and practically, it is a mistake.


Compassion for the Traumatized Self

What to take away? -- Both compassion for the traumatized sufferers who out of trauma impose suffering on others, and insistence, as the Torah says, that this response is NOT wise, NOT permitted.

And here the wisdom of "Israel is the name of a People also" is important. For the two great Jewish communities on Earth have had very different social experiences during the last 60 years:

It is easy to see why many (not all) Jews of the State of Israel, at first surrounded by enemies, only slowly acclimated to the possibility of a chilly peace with their nearest neighbors, traumatized again and again by terrorist attacks, became unable to see their own role in the spiral of abuse. Unable to change their behavior. Unable to put down their fists and open their hands to those Palestinians and others in the neighboring peoples who were ready to clasp their hands in peace.

But the Jews of the United States have had a very different experience in the last 60 years. The Holocaust mattered to American culture, but in a different way. It so deeply horrified most Americans that it dried up almost all the anti-Semitism that had existed in the US before Wold War II.

We have been fully accepted into the American culture, economy, politics, and society. The Holocaust has played an important role in some aspects of American Jewish culture, but that role has been greatly softened by the experience of acceptance. There is far less post-traumatic stress than in Israel.

So American Jewry could --  if we chose -- speak with compassion and clarity to Israeli Jewry:

"We understand your pain and fear,  but Es passt nicht. This doesn't pass muster. It doesn't go. You must not behave that way.

“You must instead act justly, compassionately, even lovingly, toward those you think of as foreigners, strangers, pariahs. “

Not just because Torah says so: for Torah says so because human experience, distilled and enriched through encounter with the ONE Who breathes all life, says that is far wiser than the traumatized response.

Forcing Narrowness upon American Jews

But at least till very recently, most American Jews were unable to face Israeli Jews squarely and say that truth. And even now, most of the large organized structures of American Jewry are not only unwilling to say so, but are likely to expel from their midst American Jews who do say so.

Thus Hillel International, the organization intended to serve American Jewish college students, has imposed a set of political litmus tests on every local Hillel house on every campus. In doing so, it forces out of the Jewish community even --- especially ! ---- those Jews who are not only the possible future, but are likely to be the most creative, the most lively, the most future-oriented.

And when some students responded by founding "Open Hillel," invoking the name and symbol of a great Jewish teacher known precisely for his openness to a wide range of ideas, "Hillel International" sued to prevent what it saw as a "trademark infringement."

This was not only an attempt at political oppression but an attempt at cultural kidnapping - annexing Hillel himself under State-of-Israel hegemony as if he were part of the West Bank. (As if George Washington University were to sue every business, every college, every street-naming town or city, that named anything after President Washington.)

III. The Deadly Danger of Idolatry

This kind of effort to squash a broad range of criticism of the State, to lift the State into sacrosanctity, has a Torah name: idolatry.

The Ten Utterances of Sinai teach us that to carve out a piece of the Great Sacred Flow and bow down to that carved-out partial piece as if it were the Holy One is what it means to worship idols.

The Talmud tells a story about idolatry: Some of the rabbis went searching for the yetzer hara, the impulse toward evil, that breeds idolatry. They thought if they could find it, they could kill it --- and thus end idolatry.

They hunted and hunted, and finally found it hiding in the innermost sacred place, the Temple's Holy of Holies.

The story tells us it is easiest to turn something worthy and holy into an idol. Indeed, when the American Jewish "community" -- that is, the organized structure --tries to make the State of Israel sacrosanct, it is turning its legitimate love and admiration for the Israel of 1948 into idolatry toward the Israel of 2015.

But the deepest Jewish wisdom is that idolatry kills:

"The idols have noses but breathe not, eyes but see not, mouths but speak not, ears but hear not, hands but touch not, legs but journey not. Those who make them and those who put their trust in them become like them -- dead. " (Psalm 115.)

How do we distinguish between something worthy and something to be worshipped? Another Talmud story:

In the days when Rome ruled ancient Palestine, a Jew came to a Rabbi, saying - "I have bought a home from a Roman. Behind the house is a pleasant pool of water, and at the water's edge there is a lovely statue of a woman. I think it may be the Venus whom some Romans worship. Is the statue an idol, so that I must destroy it?"

"It depends," said the rabbi. "If the statue was sculpted to add more beauty to the pool, it is a sculpture merely: Enjoy its beauty. But if the pool was dug to celebrate and glorify the statue, then it is an idol and you must destroy it."

What is the State of Israel? Is it something we have sculpted, intending that it embody compassion and creativity? Then when some claim it fails to do so, when some critics say the hands have become fists or even that the whole design is flawed, the sculptors must take the critique seriously. They must act to repair the flaws.

They must even open themselves to hearing those who say the sculpture's design is so flawed that it must be replaced with a new instrument for compassion and creativity.

The critics may be right, or wrong. But they must be heard, and then we make our judgment. Our judgment will be wiser if we listen.

To wall the critics out, even to say that some of them, nit-picking, are legitimate but others, more questioning of the root, are not -- that is to put an impenetrable wall around our sculpture, to insist that all the pools of tears that have been shed for her are only forms of adoration. That makes the State into an idol. And idolatry kills. Godwrestling wounds, but idolatry kills.

What then can we, must we, do?

The election and all that led up to it must not seduce us into despair, and not into a wistful empty-headed hope. We, the People Israel who are committed to wrestle with the God Who is the Breath of Life, must turn to do creative work.

The Israel of 1948, of the Declaration of Independence that foreswore racism and that chose democracy, may be dead. If so, it is not "despair" to sit shiva (seven days of mourning) for that state. Sitting shiva is an act of living. Something new can, must, will, be born through shiva -- if we will it. "If we will it, it is no mere dream," as Herzl said about the State in the first place.

Grief is not the same as giving up. Shiva is not suicide.

We American Jews can see before us, in our selves and in others, two models of how to live through a history far worse and far longer than the distortions and oppressions of the State of Israel -- and how to live and work beyond that history.

• The Godwrestling People Israel who suffered and died through the Holocaust were able to birth a vibrant State ---  the Israel of 1948 ---  and a vibrant American Jewry.

• African-Americans who suffered outright chattel slavery for 250 years and terrorism at the hands of the KKK for a century after that and the contempt of the Supreme Court of the United States all that time, from 1619 to at least 1954 (and perhaps once again right now) were able to transmute their suffering into "Go Down Moses" and "Go Tell It On the Mountain," the many forms of jazz, "I Have A Dream" and a challenge to the "deadly triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism." (MLK, April 4, 1967)

With models like this of transformative courage before our eyes, we should be able to imagine what to do to bring to birth a new version of the Godwrestling people.

• Perhaps it means turning the energy of the American Jewish community toward making solid and real the expression of outrage from the White House and from three major streams of American Jewish religious life at Netanyahu's racist election triumph.

• Perhaps it means an alliance of American Jews, Muslims, & Christians to demand that the US government convene and chair an Emergency Conference on Peace in the Middle East, where the US lays out the regional peace settlement that includes a safe Israel, safe Palestine.

• Perhaps it means demanding that the Jewish Federations keep raising money for Israel and put it in escrow till there is a two-state peace treaty, or a regional peace treaty.

• Perhaps the People Israel might affirm a special relationship with a state that has a majority of Jews among its citizens -- BUT/ AND might also insist that for the sake of Judaism and the Jewish future, such a state must be a state of all its citizens and must NOT be an imperial monstrosity ruling over another people.

• Perhaps ----

These suggestions are hints toward creativity. Hints toward wrestling. But only hints. They are suggestions for new tactics or new strategy toward a different future for Israel and Palestine.

Wrestling God/ History/ Reality

Beneath such suggestions must come the more radical question: Are we prepared to "wrestle God," to challenge the structure of Reality that seems to pin us in a self-destructive dilemma.

For us as for our forebear Jacob, to wrestle means to ask: Does the fulfillment of our own sacred identity require us to rob our cousins and lie to ourselves? Is there no way beyond that destructive dilemma?

Our ancestor Jacob wrestled God's very Self to get beyond his own destructive dilemma, his own seemingly obdurate reality. Through that ultimate Wrestle, he turned himself from a robbing, lying Heel to a compassionate Godwrestler.

If we are serious about naming ourselves "Israel" after his transformed self, we can as the People Israel take on the task of wrestling with the seemingly obdurate reality of our own day, the task of moving beyond the destructive dilemma.

If the old king is dead --long live a new community.




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