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September 3, 2014 | 8th Elul 5774

Reflections at 60 III

Galilee Diary #394, June 15, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

 

...Since King Hiram of Tyre had supplied Solomon with all the cedar and cypress timber and gold that he required, King Solomon in turn gave Hiram twenty towns in the region of the Galilee.
-I Kings 9:11

King Solomon loved many foreign women in addition to Pharaoh's daughter – Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Hittite women, from the nations of which the Lord had said to the Israelites, "None of you shall join them and none of them shall join you..." He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines...
-I Kings 11:1-3

It is clear from the Bible that ancient Israel was never an ethnically pure state. There may be those who see such as state as a modern possibility, but if so, it will certainly not be a restoration of a past reality. This is the utopia of 19th-20th century romantic nationalism: humankind is divided into "peoples," who are defined by their real estate and their native culture. But this is a problematic myth. A German state with no Jews; a French state with no North Africans; a Serbian state with no Bosnians; a Tutsi state with no Hutus; a Jewish state with no non-Jews. Never was. Never will be. No point in even trying to imagine it. A false recovered memory, a fantasy utopia the implementation of which takes us to moral realms we wouldn’t even want to visit, much less live in them.

So, if we set aside the concept of "just us," of ethnic purity, perhaps we can envision a different past: How about the image of Israel as a sovereign power playing in the Game of Nations? Maybe that is the vision we can bring forward from our past as a template for our future. Maybe the key characteristic of the good old days was power, and the redemption will consist of the "Jewish emergence from powerlessness." Exile meant being at the mercy of others, living with our bags packed, constantly worrying about what the "goyim" will say – and how high they'll let us build our synagogues, and how long before they expel us. Before the catastrophe of our dispersion, we were an independent sovereign state with an army. We could do what we wanted, and not be dependent on the whims of others. The restoration we seek, based on this memory, is the restoration of independence and military power. We want a place where we control immigration policy, where we can defend ourselves against the Hamans and Hitlers. "Never Again!"

Once again, however, it turns out that this image may be more a fantasy than a memory. Solomon at the peak of empire did not have a thousand pagan wives because he was such a sexy man, nor to draw them closer to Torah - but rather, apparently, because he needed these marriages to confirm his alliances with the peoples round about. And he had no trouble selling portions of Eretz Yisrael to buy the support and assistance of Hiram, king to Tyre. Later, the entry of the Roman general Pompei into Jerusalem was not a march of conquest – but rather, by invitation of one of the parties to a Jewish civil war among the descendants of the Hasmoneans whom we revere as restorers of Jewish independence. Power is nice, but it turns out to have its limits. Even the greatest powers with the most powerful armies find that they can't do whatever they want – witness Russia in Afghanistan, the US in Iraq. And note that both the Babylonian and Roman exiles were precipitated by our seeking to assert our independence from a conquering power – had we paid tribute and hunkered down under the foreign conqueror to wait for better times (as urged, for example, by Jeremiah), the Temple might never have been destroyed, and we might have been allowed to stay on our land.

Of course, after centuries of abuse, it is easy to see the attraction of a utopian vision in which we have an invincible air force and a home-made atomic bomb. On the other hand, as we never tire of telling ourselves, one thing we learned through centuries of having to survive despite our lack of power (beginning with the women who led us in undermining Pharaoh's power in the opening chapters of Exodus) has been that there are different kinds of strength, and that the physical/military variety may not be the most important. "Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit…"

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