There is an old Chassidic story, told with minor variations, which speaks of a certain Yankel.
Yankel dreamed of buried treasure in a certain place in a far off land. Some time later, after a long hard journey, Yankel arrives with his shovel in the place of his dreams and starts to dig. Out comes the owner of that place to see what’s going on. He recognises Yankel from his own dreams. Yankel is the person under whose house he had dreamed of buried treasure. To cut a long story short, turns out, the treasure was under Yankel’s house all along.
This story comes to mind reading reports of how some (many?) liberal Jews are reacting to the October 7th atrocities and their aftermath. They have travelled far beyond their parochial interests, showing ‘intersectional solidarity’ in supporting the national liberation of another nation.
But the joke’s on them. There is no other national liberation nation quite like the Jewish nation.
And the predicament of these liberal Jews is worse than that of poor Yankel. At least Yankel could travel back to dig under his own home. The very existence of Hamas, and in fact of all the Palestinian organisations who signed onto the Palestinian National Charter, seems to be predicated largely on the very negation of Jewish national liberation (see below).
Let’s take a step back.
Reform Judaism, as it emerged in the 19th century, already some 3,200 years into the Jewish journey, explicitly sought to transform the Jewish people from the nation it has always been into a ‘faith group’. ‘Berlin is the new Jerusalem’, they proclaimed. ‘Be a Jew at home and a German in the street’.
This was not the result of some principled interpretation of Jewish religious literature as it evolved through the ages. Rather, it was a means to an end that applies as much in 21st century America today as it did in 19th century Germany back then – to better fit in.
But again the joke is on them. There is no contradiction to being both a Jew and an American on the street. What everyone knows now, and what ‘Orthodox’ Judaism already knew back then, is that identity can be multi-layered. As Rabbi Sacks often reminded us, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect their Judaism.”
So the liberal Jews of yesteryear sold their souls and lost sight of their heritage. As a result, some (many?) liberal Jews today do not understand what Judaism actually is. Their lens of interpretation on all matters ‘Israel’ when they speak ‘as a Jew’ is totally askew.
We are not only talking about ‘Kaddish for Hamas’ here. We are talking about some (many?) well-meaning liberal Jews who truly believe the Holocaust is the raison d’etre for the State of Israel.
To be clear, the raison d’etre for the State of Israel is the same as the raison d’etre for most countries – there is a group of people that wish, and has always wished, to self-determine in their Land. (And in the case of us Jews, G-d also gives us a few not so subtle hints about this in the Torah.)
I do not disrespect liberal Jews who sincerely try to be good people. And I do not in any way look down on the ‘tikkun olam’ thinking that Jews must help make the world a better place. This has been an important determinant in my own life and career choices. As I have written elsewhere, I believe one of the deeper purposes of Judaism is to bridge and ultimately fuse universalism and particularity on the pathway toward a final revelation of underlying unity.
But it’s important to be clear on our frame of reference about what it means for a Jew to be a good person and what it means for a Jew to make the world a better place – it has to be an authentic Jewish frame of reference.
Let’s tread into more controversial territory:
Perhaps the future alliance between some (many?) liberal Jews and the Palestinian ‘resistance’ could have been predicted when the Palestinians adopted the liberal definition of Judaism in their National Charter: “Judaism, in its character as a religion of revelation, is not a nationality with an independent existence.” (Article 20)
It was not a big intellectual leap from there to the accompanying clause in the same Article, “The claim of a historical or spiritual tie between Jews and Palestine does not tally with historical realities and true conception of nationhood.”
And more controversial still:
Perhaps the Palestinians are not to blame for their ignorance about the nature of Judaism. Many (most?) of the early Zionist leaders that founded the State were liberal Jews. Perhaps they were so busy trying to ‘fit in’ that the Arabs of the time confused them for European colonisers rather than as a people native to this Land.
Maybe that’s why a century of unnecessary conflict was born.
Returning to Rabbi Sacks, he identifies how after every major tragedy, Judaism itself has emerged renewed, reinvigorated and repurposed to address the challenges of the age.
And so it has been right from the start.
The Torah was given after the Exodus from Egypt. Thereafter, the Writings, the Prophets, the liturgy, the Midrash, Mishnah, Gemara, Kabbalah, Chassidism, Yeshivism, and the State of Israel all followed on the back of successive tragedies – the subjugation of ancient Israel by Philistia, the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the first destruction and exile, hellenism, the second destruction and exile, the colonisation of the Land, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Chmielnicki, pogroms, the Holocaust.
History will ultimately determine how major a tragedy, how big a turning point, were the atrocities of October 7th.
But perhaps what may emerge is this.
Anyone who has sat through an authentic Seder night must know that national liberation has always been at least a part of what Judaism is all about.
Maybe after the Jew-murdering atrocities of October 7th, maybe with the global orgies celebrating Palestinian ‘national liberation’ that followed, even before Israel lifted a finger in response, we will now look more carefully under our own houses.
Maybe after the Jew-murdering atrocities of October 7th, we may come to realise that national liberation is not just a part of Judaism, maybe we may come to realise it is actually the whole thing.
What do we know?
There’s a lot of debate about what is the purpose in Torah of the Book of Genesis. Our sages taught us ‘maaseh avot siman lebanim’ – the actions of the forefathers are a sign for the descendants.
And what is it that happened to the patriarchs in Genesis?
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each went into exile, were strengthened by exile, and then returned to the Land.
Finally, Joseph led the entire family of Israel into a longer, deeper exile.
The remaining four books of Torah is the tale of how the Children of Israel suffered in that exile, were strengthened by it numerically, physically and spiritually, and then returned triumphantly to the Land.
But it doesn’t end there.
Torah teaches us this pattern would be repeated again in Jewish history. It tells us this not once but twice: Leviticus 26:41-45 and again in Deuteronomy 30:1-8. That same promise is repeated throughout Prophets and Writings – we will go once more into exile, we will be strengthened by it, we will return.
And so it has been.
The Torah has been incorporated into Christian scripture and is accepted as a foundation for Islam. So our story is the story of much of the world. And what is that story? The story of the Jewish people is the world’s story of national liberation.
What else do we know?
The destruction and exile, and the dreams of return, have been embedded into Jewish religious-national-cultural observances that cover almost every aspect of life – most famously, as has now been featured so prevalently in the movies, the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding, but more extensively in every prayer to G-d that we make three times a day, in every blessing of appreciation to G-d we say when we eat and drink, on every Shabbat and at every festival we observe throughout the Jewish calendar, and in the four ‘Jewish Naqba days’ we commemorate every year, including a ‘Jewish Naqba’ three weeks when we cut out all expressions of happiness, and a ‘Jewish Naqba’ nine days when we behave literally as mourners, culminating in the Tisha b’Av fast when our level of mourning is equivalent to a person on the very day a close relative has died.
And it was ever thus.
The basis of our daily prayer which we say three times a day – the 19 sub-prayers of the Amidah – constitute 7 prayers for the restoration of our self-determination in the Land, 6 prayers asserting our faithfulness to G-d and our national mission, and 6 prayers for our collective physical and spiritual integrity.
Out of the 613 scriptural commandments that constitute the framework for Jewish faith, less than half can be performed outside of the Land.
In other words, Judaism cannot be complete unless Jews are in the Land.
And of the less than half of the 613 scriptural commandments that can be performed outside of the Land – including all those idiosyncratic and ‘non-rational’ commandments (or ‘chukim’) about what we can and can’t eat and drink, what we can and can’t do on Shabbat, what we can and can’t mix, etc, that have been left behind by some (many?) liberal Jews – perhaps the reason for them, or at least one of the reasons for them, is to preserve our collective physical and spiritual integrity, as we daven for in the Amidah, so that we could survive intact as a people for 2,000 years in order to liberate ourselves and re-enter our Land.
Again, as I have written before, perhaps we may conclude as follows with a new 21st century mission statement for Judaism.
Judaism is, and has always been, the struggle for self-determination in their Land of a small outnumbered indigenous people against the imperial power of every age, up to and including the present, to establish a free, fair, just, open, faithful and righteous society, and keeping that dream alive despite suffering the lengthiest and most extreme possible form of colonization over 2,000 years – not just subjugation, not just occupation, not just exile, not just servitude, not just physical genocide but also the attempted and near-successful eradication and replacement of Jewish identity itself – and by doing so, to act as a beacon of hope and light for every people and nation worldwide that, no matter how much time has passed, no matter how deep the wounds, preservation, integrity, return and restoration in righteousness is always possible.