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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Homeless IV

Galilee Diary #378, February 24, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein


I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, [that ye
awaken not, nor stir up love, until it please]
'. (Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, 8:4)
'What was the purpose of those three adjurations? — One, that Israel shall not go up
[to Israel] all together…; the second, that … Israel shall not rebel against the nations of the world;
and the third is that the nations shall not oppress Israel too much'. …
-Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 111a

The Talmud asks: why does the same verse appear (with slight variations) three times in Song of Songs. According to rabbis, every word in the text has meaning – there is no repetition that does not have a purpose. The classical answer is that the three verses refer to three different oaths, and that the implication of not stirring up love “until it please” is that we should not seek to rebel against the exile: redemption will come when God pleases – when God is ready.

Looking back over the vicissitudes of life in exile for nearly two millennia, the question is often asked, why, if we longed so for our homeland, if we knew exactly where it was – why didn’t we get up and go there? Why did a movement to reclaim our birthright have to wait until the turn of the 20th century? There are probably a number of reasons. However, perhaps the main one was the ideology based on the above Talmudic passage: we were forbidden to take matters into our own hands. Our exile was a punishment, and the God who imposed it was the only one empowered to declare it to have been served fully. Our role was to do mitzvoth, to study and pray, and to hope for the day of redemption, which would come, most likely, only when we weren’t expecting it.

From Herzl’s first appearance on the scene, there was strong opposition to Zionism from large portions of the Orthodox world because of this belief, based on the above text. Many of those who opposed Zionism perished in the Holocaust – but thousands live today in New York, Jerusalem, and elsewhere – convinced that the modern state of Israel is an ongoing violation of God’s will and therefore a cause of the postponement of the redemption.

Interestingly, many Jews from the other “end” of the spectrum – 19th and early 20th century Reform Jews and others, till today, who reject an ethnic or national definition of Judaism, also opposed Zionism. If Judaism is a religion, defined purely by a system of ethical beliefs and rituals, then attachment to a particular place – and creation of a state apparatus to rule that place and an army to conquer/defend it – constitute a distortion of Judaism and a violation of God’s will. If God dispersed us to be a “light unto the nations” then dispersed we should stay, to redeem the world. The enlightenment, the rise of a liberal, free, open society was the first stage of redemption. Linking ethnic nationalism to Judaism is a step backward.

The Orthodox and Reform opposition to Zionism have elements in common – a rejection of the human process of building a Jewish state; however, for the Orthodox, exile was a punishment to be accepted, while for the Reform, it was itself a stage in the process of redemption of the world.

The Holocaust – and more recent unsettling events – shook up both those waiting patiently for redemption and those who thought it had come.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the renowned 20th century modern Orthodox thinker, wrote a beautiful essay defending Zionism from an Orthodox perspective, based on a different verse in Song of Songs (5:2): “I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful. Hark, my beloved knocks.”

It is so frustrating not knowing for sure just where we are in history. Is that the messiah knocking – or just the beating of our own hearts?

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