By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
“The past belongs to us; we don’t belong to the past.” I heard Amos Oz, the great Israeli writer, say this last Tuesday at a launch of a just published book on the relationship between Hebrew and European literature by Menachem Brinker, one of the stars on Israel’s intellectual firmament.
Implied in this statement are at least two aspects, one of which was articulated at the meeting the other implied in much of what was said. The explicit statement was a critique the way Jewish thought had been taught at the Hebrew University where Oz, Brinker and another speaker, the Israeli novelist A.B, Yehoshua, had been students. Their professors may have been Zionists, but the Zionism they embraced sought to imitate the past rather than face the future. The giants of Jewish thought like Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem aren’t immune to this criticism.
Theirs was a non-Orthodox, some say anarchic, way of looking at Judaism of the past. The danger today – and that brings us to the second, largely unspoken aspect – is that Zionism is being forcefully, perhaps forcibly, pulled away from the present into the past as perceived by Orthodoxy, much of it “black hat” haredi, the rest “knitted kippa” nationalistic. If either or both succeed it’s the end of Zionism as we’ve come to know it and to which many of us are committed. And if Zionism goes, what will be of Israel?
Anti-Zionist haredim threaten the future of the Jewish state by using political clout to bleed it financially in support of its institutions and to prevent their children from serving in the army. They harm Israel by having a grip on Jewish status, marriage and divorce and many other manifestations that try to imprison Israel in the past.
The nationalists endanger us because they too bleed the state financially in support of settlements beyond the Green Line – which, of course, makes peace less and less likely – and also by seeking to reenact the future in terms of past mythologies dressed up as contemporary nationalism. The militants among them want the Messiah now. Some, hopefully still a small minority, are even prepared to resort to violence against the other – be it Muslim or Christian – with the illusion of furthering their aims.
Both abuse Israeli democracy by having formed themselves into political parties that enables them to hold almost every government to ransom.
A way to save Zionism for our children and grandchildren must be to unite the rest of us: modern and moderate religious movements in Israel and in the Diaspora – including Modern Orthodoxy – as well as those who describe themselves as secular.
We need more people like Oz and Yehoshua. As Brinker said to them in his concluding remarks, it’s not their novels that have influenced Israeli society but their articles and essays. They and others must help us to find a balance between authenticity and relevance that are essential for our survival: to make the past our own but not to be its prisoners.
Much more was said in the course of the evening. I may have read even more into what I heard than the speakers intended, but as writers never tire of reminding us: there’s probably more in their words than even they themselves are aware of. To the extent that I’m familiar with what they’ve written, it seems to me that they’re indeed striving for a balance between authenticity and relevance. They and others must help us in our struggle.