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July 24, 2014 | 26th Tamuz 5774

Reflections at 60 V

Galilee Diary #396, June 29, 2008

Marc J. Rosenstein

The unique characteristic of the Jewish people is expressed in the very difficulty of defining just what the Jewish people is. On the one hand, if the Jews are an ethnic group bound by a common culture, then Jewish religion is secondary, and as there can be Jewish and Moslem and Christian Englishmen, so there would be Jewish and Moslem and Christian Jews. But this is clearly absurd. On the other hand, if Judaism is a religion, then how can it be that Jewishness is transmitted from mother to child genetically – and how can there be Jews who are considered by themselves and others as Jews despite their total rejection of any spiritual or value content to their Judaism? It seems that our twofold formative historical experience – of a physical group experience (slavery and the redemption therefrom) and a spiritual experience (Mt. Sinai) created a complex identity that is both national/ethnic and religious, Note that there is no naturalization process to join the Jewish people – just religious conversion, even for those who reject religion.

What Zionism seeks to restore is the life lived in harmony between the two poles of our identity. Once, in our ideal past, the Jews were the people who lived in the Jewish state and participated – as joyful believers – in the official religion of that state, with its three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem, its elaborate sacrificial ritual and priestly bureaucracy, its fasts and feasts, its tithes and taboos. And as descendants of a band of brothers, the children of Jacob/Israel, we were one family, united by bonds of blood, belief, historical experience, and geography. We were one. Perhaps that is the salient aspect of our past that the modern state of Israel seeks to reconstruct – the return to a time when the various components of our identity were integrated, when we did not have to have agonizing discussions over who and what is a Jew, because it was intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. Though our sources – and we ourselves – have always told ourselves that we are "a people that dwells apart," nevertheless, there is a powerful strand in Zionism and modern Israeli culture that sought and seeks "normalization," escape from complexes and dilemmas, a life of simplicity, an identity that doesn't require constant maintenance.

It turns out that the reality described in the Bible does not indicate that the good old days were much better than the present:

· Our normal, harmonious peasant ancestors seem to have spent a lot of time and energy on internecine conflicts – see for example Judges 12 and 19-20, and the split of David's kingdom after only two generations (I Kings 12);

· The Temple might have been impressive, but the prophets' constant reproofs suggest that even when we were independent in our land and the Temple cult was thriving, the temptation of other religions was a significant factor in our cultural and religious life;

· And then of the course there's the fact the Diaspora has existed since even before we built the First Temple – when the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh got permission to settle permanently outside of Eretz Yisrael before we even got there (Numbers 31).

So it seems that "We Were One" is still another myth – another attempt to set up an idealized past as a model for life in our new state. We apparently were no more "One" - in our national unity, our faith, even our commitment to the land itself in ancient Israel than we are today.

Restoring the glorious past is a seductive notion, but maybe it is really a sort of cop-out. The challenge is building a new state based on our historical experience, not deluding ourselves that we can return to a mythical past, but envisioning a state that creatively applies the values of our tradition to the wholly new reality of today.

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