Voices to Listen for in 2019

2019 has blown in and brought with it lots of questions. Jewish Power or Jewish Powerlessness? Which is real, and which is imagined? Democracy or Religion? To which does the Jewish state defer? Are we humanists or ethnocentric? And are the two necessarily, mutually exclusive? Where is the center and where are the sidelines? And who decides?

It’s 2019, and Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are still doing two things. We are still compartmentalizing, and we are still arguing; flipsides of the same coin. But peel back the layers of rhetoric and criteria, and what remain, are questions. Questions of place, and peoplehood, and dispersal, and cohesion; and questions of what to do when our binding agent seems to be losing its grip. Beneath even the antipathy, are the same questions that have agitated us for thousands of years. Questions about boundaries. Why they were drawn at the crossroads of civilizations, and how the space beyond those boundaries became, for us, peripheral. We are still trying to understand why our story began outside, in that beyond, but was contingent on one man’s move to the center. Why paradoxically, our founder was enjoined to leave his native land, to become a stranger in his homeland, and why his children spent more time sojourning than settling. Why, we want to know, the need for firstborns and rejects. And why is the promise to our patriarch, of progeny and land, inextricably bound to the portent of exile. We want to know why Joseph the Semite salvaged Egypt’s finances, but the lives of his descendants were so abruptly destabilized, and we want to know why traversing that desert, towards freedom, was so arduous. We have questions about rules made to distinguish, and degrees of distinction, and questions about whether our radical conception of God was meant to radicalize. Perhaps we unknowingly, collectively imagine, that if we dig deep enough, and argue passionately enough, we will find answers. Answers to questions about departure and return, belonging and yearning, blessing and curse, and the dizzying swing of the pendulum that seems built into the system.

In 2019 we are frantically searching for answers, but the noise generated by that search runs the risk of drowning out essential voices. Voices that have outlived their milieus. Remnants of ruminations, strategies, and philosophies uttered by those that absorbed the impact of history’s repetitive blows.

We have the voice of the valiant Joshua railing against the 10 spies that doubt their inheritance. But we also have his voice, decades later, reminding the children of those spies that their land rights are futile in the absence of conviction. The voice of the generation that watched the walls of Jericho tumble down, cautions the generation set to succeed it, that entitlement is an unaffordable luxury. Solomon’s proud voice invites foreign dignitaries to marvel at the accomplishments of his small empire, and cements Israel’s status as a contender on the world stage. All the while voices of prophets warn kings that hubris leads to corruption, and power, to a false sense of control. Both Solomon’s pride and the prophets’ fears were warranted, so both of their voices remain. Centuries worth of voices emanate from Solomon’s temple, celebrating purity of worship, with an overlay of voices reminding worshippers that a truly sanctified nation, is a moral one.

On their way to Babylon the fresh exiles pen psalms, and the sentiments generated by their anguish are haunting in their familiarity. Their voice invokes images of babies’ skulls being smashed against rocks, and the sickening frustration of being unable to save those they love most in the world. “Sing us a song from Zion” their captors jeer, but the deportees hang up their instruments and refuse to sing on foreign soil. Their voice, dripping in acrimony, begging God to brutally avenge those against whom they have been rendered powerless, is preserved. But so is the voice of Jeremiah who speaks to those exiled of planting roots, both literal and figurative, and of learning to live side by side with those responsible for their dislocation. He encourages the Jews to pick up the pieces of their shattered world, and thrive in their new environs. He tells them to pray for their new kings in their new land, that the fate of the Jewish people, is dependent on historical contingencies.

Voices proliferate as new realities confound those that believe they have seen it all. The voice that resounds in Esther, promotes a lifestyle for the Diaspora in which Jews rely solely on each other. Perhaps God Himself is disguised, or perhaps Esther’s Jews have simply stopped looking. Either way, they rely on political acumen and the commitment of their brethren, to their survival. And they survive. As does her voice. It survives adjacent to the pious voice of Daniel, who maintains his alien beliefs and dietary restrictions, without hesitation and without compromise. His conspicuous behaviors draw attention, but in the process, they fortify tentative voices of religious correspondence, and provoke a renewed cognizance of Divine Intervention. Ezra and Nehemiah’s voice steadies the turbulence of the early Second Temple Period, and the draconian measures they implement against intermarriage avert the dissolution of the Jewish people. So, their voice remains — alongside Ruth’s. Compassion and allegiance radiate the voice of the quintessential outsider, and she doesn’t allow us to forget that like exclusion, inclusion can be earned. Voices resound, and they jarr, and they prompt more voices, that challenge and refute, and prompt even more.

2019 has begun, and we are still compartmentalizing, and we are still arguing. We always will. We are still searching for answers. We always will. But the corpus of literature that has served as the backbone of our people from its inception, incorporated conflicting voices. There is value, the cumulative voice is saying, in being  conflicted. The voice of our history is resonating as loudly today as it ever has. It reminds us that the most robust and irrepressible communities are those that accommodate incongruities, and that the most empowered adherents are those that, in place of pursuing harmony, train their ears to appreciate the symphony.

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.