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September 21, 2014 | 26th Elul 5774

Teaching Israel II

 

Galilee Diary #324, February 11, 2007  

Marc J. Rosenstein

 

…You fall short of the duty laid down in your law, by not seeking to reach that place, and making it your abode in life and death…Your bowing and kneeling in the direction of it is either mere appearance or thoughtless worship.  Yet your first forefathers chose it as an abode in preference to their birth-places, and lived there as strangers rather than as citizens in their own country.

            -Judah Halevi, The Kuzari, 2:23

 

The medieval Spanish Jewish philosopher, Judah Halevi, wrote a fictionalized account of the dialogue between a rabbi and the king of the Khazars, a people living near the Caspian Sea who apparently converted en masse to Judaism in the 9th century.  In the book, The Kuzari, he has the king challenge the rabbi on various religious topics, allowing him to expound his philosophy of Judaism.  When the king questions the sincerity of the Jews’ rhetoric about the love of and longing for Israel, the rabbi has no answer (and indeed, it is said that Judah Halevi emigrated to Israel, dying en route or upon arrival).  I find it interesting how contemporary this imaginary medieval conversation sounds.

 

When I ask Jewish teachers in North America what their goal is in teaching Israel, a common answer is that they want their students to develop a “love for Israel.”  This answer, of course, leads to other questions: what does it mean to love Israel?  and how can we evaluate our success?  i.e., how will we determine that our students do in fact love Israel?  What must they do, that we can observe, that will reveal their love?  Which in turn leads to further questions: conditional or unconditional love?  And how much intimacy is required for love – how much do you have to know Israel for your profession of love to be meaningful?  How about tough love – how critical can we be without being accused of not loving?  Must we/should we shower Israel with praise and gifts to show our love?  If loving means “being there for” Israel – must we really be there?  In human relationships, sometimes love waxes and wanes – which is why we have commitments (i.e. marriage) that are meant to transcend these temporary ups and downs.  Is it love of Israel we want to teach – or commitment to it?

 

For centuries, love of Israel was understood to be utopian, unconsummated – longing, singing, weeping, making do with symbols and images, with expressions of hope.  We loved the image of Israel, the mental pictures of its landscape and seasons.  We longed to go there – but knew we wouldn’t in our lifetimes.  Later, for the Zionist pioneers, love of Israel meant scars and blisters, risking life and limb to settle the land, green it and build it – and it meant the joy and fulfillment of belonging, of being at one with the physical environment, of rootedness in the soil.  Both the love of the pre-modern Diaspora Jew – and that of the modern secular pioneer – hovered somewhere between the spiritual and the erotic, the heavenly and the visceral.  There are, I suppose, still many Jews who love Israel in these ways.  Indeed, I guess that is why I am here – a combination of intimate knowledge, physical attraction, intellectual attachment, and faith in our future together; in other words, I love it here. 

 

But I suspect that that is not what we expect of liberal Jews in North America.  We certainly don’t judge our success in teaching Israel by the rate of aliyah.  So what does it mean to teach love of Israel?  Can one teach love?  Not sure.  Maybe we can teach knowledge (after all, how can you love something you don’t know?).  And I guess we can teach culture – the language and music and art and literature of Israel, so that Israel will become part of our students’ identities, integrated into their Jewishness.  But love – I wonder if there’s any way to teach it other than to do it.  Our students (and our children) are our apprentices, learning how to live Jewish lives – and how to love Israel - by watching how we do it.  Before we can write our curriculum and plan our lessons, we have to examine ourselves.

 

 

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