Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Brexit, Israexit, and Back to the Future

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, the Arcadian or Pastoral State

An anguished cry of Bregrexit, je regrette tout, published in the Independent by 26 year-old Emily, contained this telling detail:

That evening, I headed to a friend’s house to watch the result. We’d all voted Leave as a protest. We stocked up on jam, scones and tea, and ironically decked out the room with Union Jack bunting.

Jam, scones, Union Jack bunting, and even tea are classic symbols of Britain as it once was. The party preparations made by Emily and her friends show that they weren’t thinking about the future at all; they were thinking about the past. Worse than that, they weren’t even thinking about the past as it was experienced by the majority of British citizens (Emily’s grandfather, for example, a World War Two veteran who voted Remain), but a mythical past that existed mainly in Lake District tea rooms, on the Mall during the Queen’s Birthday celebrations, and in Enid Blyton novels.

To be fair, Emily makes it clear that — to her shame — she wasn’t using her vote for the purpose for which it was intended, namely to help determine the course of Britain’s future and her own. But looking to  the past instead of the future when you want to change the present is a common mistake, albeit usually one made by people significantly older Emily. It’s much easier to ‘remember’ Arcadia, an idealized yet unrepeatable past, than to imagine Utopia, a place — like the future — that no-one’s ever visited. Perhaps that’s why the Israelites begged to return to Egypt, with its melons, cucumbers, garlic and free fish, instead of asking, like kids on a road trip, how long it would be before they got to the Promised Land.

Thomas Cole, Dream of Arcadia, c. 1838

The inaccessibility of the future is built into some ancient perceptions of time and space. Most of us, in most circumstances, imagine our future lying ahead of us and our past behind. You can test this by telling an imaginary friend that such and such event happened last week or last year. Assuming that you speak with your hands as well as your mouth (and since you’re reading the Times of Israel, that seems like a safe bet), you probably gestured over your shoulder. Conversely, if you tell your imaginary friend about an event that’s taking place next week or next year, you’ll probably gesticulate ahead. That, for most of us, is where the future lies.

But some ancient cultures, and at least one modern one (an Amazonian Indian tribe) have the opposite perception of time and space. They envisage the past ahead of them and the future behind. The reason is simple: since you can see the past, it must be in front of your face, and since you can’t see the future, it must be behind your back.

The Tanakh contains tantalizing glimpses of this perception of time. The Hebrew kedem signifies both ‘the remote past’ and ‘in front of’, while acharon means both ‘the distant future’ and ‘behind’. An interesting point of interpretation hangs on this idea.  According to almost all modern translations and commentaries, God refused to show Moses His face when he went up Mount Sinai the second time, but agreed to show him His back, acharai (Exodus 33:23).

Better than ‘my back’, I think, acharai  can be translated as ‘what’s behind me’. Rashi, following a comment in the Babylonian Talmud, suggests that God showed Moses the ‘knot of His tefillin’ — the back of His head. Exodus Rabbah, with its emphasis on future reward and punishment, seems closer to the mark. Moses wants to know who will go with him into the land — this is presumably a question about his successor — and God responds by promising him a glimpse of what’s behind His back, the future.

A well-known talmudic elaboration of this event makes explicit the notions of succession and going back to the future:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, At the time when Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in tying crowns [scribal decorations] to the letters. Said Moses,  ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Your hand?’ He answered, ‘There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses, ‘show him to me’. He replied, ‘Turn backwards’. Moses went and sat down at the end of eight rows [and listened to the legal discourses]. Not being able to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease.  But when they came to a particular subject and the disciples said to the master, ‘From what source do you know it?’ and the latter replied, ‘It is a law given to Moses at Sinai’, he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have a man like this and You give the Torah through me?’ He replied, ‘Silence! For this is what has come before me in the plan’. Then Moses said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward’. ‘Turn backwards’, said He.  And Moses turned round and saw them weighing out his [Akiba’s] flesh at the market-stalls. ‘Lord of the Universe’, cried Moses, ‘such Torah, and such a reward!’ ‘Silence!’ He replied, ‘For this is what has come before me in the plan’ (Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b).

When Moses asks God to show him Rabbi Akiba, his successor in Torah terms, God instructs him to turn backwards, achorekha, behind yourself. Moses is transported into the future, and finds himself seated at the back of Rabbi Akiba’s study house. The formula is repeated when Moses asks to see Rabbi Akiba’s reward. God tells him to turn backwards, achorekha, and Moses is transported into the future, where he sees Rabbi Akiba’s flesh being weighed out in a Roman market. The future is behind him. Back to the future. (I’ve written about this here if you’re interested in the details.)

Moses might have preferred not to know what reward awaited Rabbi Akiba, the man who would derive heaps and heaps of laws from every tittle of the Torah. It doesn’t bode well for the reward that awaits Moses himself, the man in whose hands the Torah will be revealed.  As is clear from the debate among medical ethicists about genetic testing, ignorance can be bliss when the future is grim and we can’t change it.

But our capacity to imagine the future can be essential to our well-being. In Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, Lee Clarke argues that although the red herring of statistical (im)probability often distracts us from anticipating a ‘freak’ disaster, natural or man-made, we must nevertheless force ourselves to imagine the worst. Sometimes, imagining the worst can help us to avoid the disaster in the first place, and sometimes it can help us to deal with avoidable consequences.  For example, if you don’t think about what can happen after a major earthquake, you won’t anticipate that roads may be closed and you won’t be able to use them to transport the injured to hospitals.

One way of thinking through catastrophes and their consequences is simulation. In June 2001, Clarke reports, the Johns Hopkins Centre for Civilian Biodefence in Baltimore orchestrated an exercise called Dark Winter, which simulated a smallpox attack in the US.  The simulation ended on day 13, with 16,000 ‘cases’ and 1,000 ‘deaths’, but it was estimated that, had it continued, there would have been three million cases and one million deaths.

Another way of anticipating future disasters and their consequences is to look at accounts of past disasters. I read Clarke’s book as preparation for teaching a course at King’s College London on chaos and disorder in the Tanakh. I suggested that Lamentations, with its graphic, step by step descriptions of the breakdown of society in 6th century BCE Jerusalem, can be read as a kind of disaster control.  If you turn away from God, enemies will invade your city, your Temple will be desecrated and then destroyed, pilgrims will stop coming and your economy will suffer, there will be food-shortages from which even the wealthy will not be cushioned, there will be no celebrations of any kind, your leaders will go into exile, and mothers will eat their children. Be prepared.

It’s easy to imagine one big change — say, Britain leaves Europe — but much less easy to foresee the million small changes that will come in its wake. That’s often because politicians eager for votes withhold the necessary information, or mislead voters with lies, as was the case with Brexit.  Readers of the Daily Mail, a pro-Brexit organ, rightly asked why the consequences of leaving Europe were spelled out for them only after the referendum.

But it turns out that even the pro-Brexit politicians didn’t think beyond the vote itself, which is one reason why Britain is in uncharacteristic disarray. No-one had a plan if the country voted to leave.  No-one had even tried to imagine the future.

Surely there’s a lesson for us here. I was as strongly opposed to Britain leaving Europe as I am in favour of Israel ending its Occupation, but nevertheless I see a structural parallel between the two. For Palestinians and many Israelis, ending the Occupation is a goal in itself; it’s not necessary to imagine what will come next. Britain’s Brexit fiasco — perhaps catastrophe — has shown that this way lies chaos and disorder. We must imagine all our possible futures, including the worst cases, if we are to stand a chance of creating anything approaching a utopia.

More than that, Brexit has demonstrated that we must find a way to communicate these possible futures to all concerned — in a way that they can comprehend.  Propaganda-spewing politicians are not merely unhelpful but positively counter-productive. Perhaps, before we vote in major elections, we can participate in simulations, strictly monitored for intended accuracy by a neutral body of experts. If you vote for this party and it wins, this will be your life, or this. At least Daily Mail readers, and many others, would have no cause to complain that they hadn’t been forewarned.

To be sure, it would be challenging to simulate, say, post-Occupation Israel. We’d need help. Sadly, a man who could perhaps have advised us died earlier this week, aged 87. The Futurologist Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock  and other best-sellers, was an American of Polish Jewish origin whose interest in the future lay not in predicting the details, or even the big picture (which he successfully did when he anticipated the information technology age), but in helping people to prepare themselves for its consequences. As most obituaries have noted, he made some mistakes (cities under the sea). But, as they’ve also observed, he had a profound understanding of why it pays to look — and think — ahead:

“We who explore the future are like those ancient mapmakers, and it is in this spirit that the concept of future shock and the theory of the adaptive range are presented here — not as final word, but as a first approximation of the new realities, filled with danger and promise, created by the accelerative thrust” (Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, 1970).

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.