Prisoners of Both Memory and Hope

Musings for a New Year

By Leonard Fein

Published January 08, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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All the pastries and the fine wines cannot erase our tortured wisdom; though affluent, we are not comfortable. We are imprisoned both by our memories and by the world’s disorder. Our only remedy is to remain prisoners of hope as well, to remember not only yesterday but also tomorrow, the promised tomorrow.

The notion that identification with the Jewish people depends on an experience in Israel turns the history of Zionism on its head. While it is true that there are some American Jews whose Judaism begins and ends with their defense of Israel, who in effect transform a peoplehood into a PAC, the Zionism that issued in the State of Israel and in an American movement, the Zionism of Ahad Ha’am and Hayim Nachman Bialik and David Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan and, yes, of Menahem Begin, too, the Zionism of Louis Brandeis and Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen S. Wise, began with Jewish peoplehood and flowed from that rich reservoir into the Zionist endeavor. The State of Israel does not come to ensure a commitment to Jewish identity; identity with the Jewish people comes to ensure a commitment to the State of Israel.

There is no surer path to Jewish continuity than the uncompromising, the passionate attachment to god’s work on this earth; the Jewish people has no more urgent interest than the energetic pursuit of its highest values. It is a desolating and debilitating mistake of our times to present our interests and our values as competitors in a zero sum game.

I recognize that there is a position that argues from Jewish particularism to the priority of Jews. The universalists, they say, may offer us seductive slogans, but universalism’s a luxury we cannot yet afford. First, they say, must come the Jews. My problem with this perspective is that if you start with “first, the Jews,” odds are you’ll never get to second.

Our tradition knows no radical distinction between politics and culture. Ours is a profoundly political religion, not a pietistic faith. We are enjoined to reject the world-as-it-is, to love it for what it might yet be, and to help transform it from the one into the other. To be interested in a serious Jewish culture means, necessarily, to be interested in politics — in whether the hungry are fed and the naked clothed, in whether justice is pursued and mercy loved. Judaism does not tell us which tax reform plan to favor; it does tell us that no tax plan that slights the downtrodden is acceptable.

Sometimes, I wonder whether the curve of Jewish attention is no longer the familiar bell curve, a normal distribution with some Jews at the particularist extreme and some at the universalist, but with most gathered under the embracing hump of the bell, but is instead a U-curve, with many Jews devoted to radical particularism and many to radical universalism and all too few gathered in the center, representing in their own lives and their own interests the full scope of Jewish tradition and commitment.

We need a Judaism that is fully engaged with modernity, that does not cower before it, that does not shrink from it in fear for its own survival — and that then goes on to show the road beyond modernity, that challenges modernity, that helps us — all of us, the world — get beyond the bloodless and passionless universalism of the multinational corporation and the empty and vulgar universalism of the mass media, on the one hand, and beyond modernity’s nemesis, as well, the bloody and all-too passionate particularism of the ethnos, of the clan, of the nation, a road that restores to our lives a sense of transcendent purpose.

The Left has a hard time with nationalism and is particularly irritated by Jewish nationalism. “Tribalism,” they call it, and tribalism it sometimes is. Somehow, it is supposed that the Jews should know better, whether because we have so often in the past been nationalism’s victims or because there’s something awkward about people traditionally comfortable living at the margins suddenly insisting that they have a fixed address and a fire in the fireplace, or because nouveau-powerful is no more attractive than nouveau-riche, or because statecraft is not a particular strength of a people of artists, scholars, merchants, a people with so pacific a history as ours. And look, they say, at what a mess the Zionists have made of things. Pacific? Pacific only so long as they were not allowed to carry guns.

Though pocked with imperfections, some no cosmetics can mask, the record’s hardly one of unrelieved bungling. There are grace notes galore and much to admire: Freedom of speech, the rule of law, distinguished science, and, withal, an ongoing effort to balance the twin imperatives of the Jewish understanding — on the one hand, the claims of the tribe, on the other the claims of the whole world; on the one hand, the particular; on the other, the universal. Just now, in Israel, particularism’s plainly in the ascendant. But it’s way too early to surrender.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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