Back to it.
The questions of this series: What are Jewish values and can there be a vibrant, compelling 21st century Jewish civilization, Israeli and Diaspora together, that the world needs and respects?
Obviously, the first value must be survival. Hard to do much without it.
Existence confers the right of existence. Unalienably. If Saddam Hussein – or Adolf Hitler – had chosen to go down fighting in self-defense, they had that right. So did the world possess the right to destroy them. In her much-disputed but still classic Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt concluded that because Eichmann had undertaken to determine who should share the earth, no one should share the earth with him.
Her verdict, of course, raises a significant tonnage of issues concerning logic, values and hierarchies of values. How does, how should anyone, person or state, determine their values and hierarchy of values? And here the question also arises: Are there Jewish values and practices that militate against creating such a 21st century civilization, especially if those values are raised to primacy?
Am Yisrael Chai. But beyond existence, why?
Accomplishment, perhaps. Whenever they’ve been permitted to do so, Jews have made contributions far beyond their numbers in every field. Herzl wrote eloquently of how the world would be enriched by the accomplishments, magnified by the greatness of the Jewish State.
And this is, after all, the Start-Up Nation. When the book came out, I was delighted. At last, somebody’s telling the world.
But I never read it. I’d encountered an op-ed extract (which I can no longer find on the Net) that led with a hectoring, “You think you don’t need Israel? Without Israel, you wouldn’t have . . .” The arrogance overpowered the message. The same with those gloating “Hey, BDS, if you’re serious, don’t use these Israeli medical technologies . . .” And the list goes on and on.
Then, of course, the central values of many Jews are not materially creative. They’re “Light unto the Nations,” Tikkun Olam via religious adherence and ritual, and the hastening of human redemption. Belief, like life, is an unalienable right. What people believe is their own affair. What they bring into the public world, what they demand of governments, is everybody’s business.
It’s always worth reaffirming that Zionism in its pre-Rabbi Kook formulations, as it remains for most of us today, rejects both messianic pretensions and the whole “Nation of Priests” motif. Max Nordau was brutally explicit here. And let’s face it, outside some very small Jewish and fundamentalist Christian circles, the idea doesn’t play very well. It hasn’t for millennia. It certainly doesn’t win friends and influence much of the rest of the human race today.
So now, to repeat, we’ve arrived at a central issue. Can Jewish values, especially those set forth in religious law and practice, militate against a 21st century Jewish civilization? Or can they enhance it?
I came to this question in an odd sort of way, long after my adolescent disdain had been replaced by something more tentative and groping.
I made Aliyah in 2010, age sixty-two. A few months after arriving, I was diagnosed with leukemia, disintegrating vertebrae, and a couple other nuisances. I spent the next three years as a semi-invalid. Our flat is on the top floor of a walk-up and climbing forty-seven steps after a day’s worth of chemo and a couple bus rides gave me ample material for meditation.
So did reading. For three years I read everything I could get my hands on. Nothing systematic, not like staggering through doctoral comps or learning all the stuff I needed to know to pose as a think tank/journalistic savant. Just the pleasure of pursuing whatever I chose.
Which is how I encountered This Is My God, by Herman Wouk.
Herman Wouk – he’s ninety-nine, bless him (www.hermanwouk.com and https://www.facebook.com/hermanwoukauthor) – is a card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation. A World War II Navy combat vet, prolific and highly successful novelist, to my knowledge there has never been a breath of scandal about him. He has also been an ardent lifelong Zionist and Orthodox Jew. In 1959, he came out with This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, a statement and explanation of his faith. The book stayed in print until the 1990s and is still available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Not a bad run for a response to those of his and succeeding generations, including personal friends, who wondered why there should still be a Jewish people, in Israel or anywhere else.
I read the book. It’s articulate, accessible, thoughtful, respectful of the subject and the reader. It’s utterly earnest and sincere.
I hated it. I read it again. I hated it more. Why such an extreme reaction to such an honest book, written by such an accomplished and admirable person?
It took a while, but I finally figured it out.
Next time: Herman Wouk and the Wisdom of the Greeks. And Merry Christmas to all whom it may concern.