Power to the People

Torah' for Israel's Jubilee May 1998 (first published Jerusalem Report)

For 50 years, Israelis have allowed the state to shape their identities. Now it's time to reverse the roles.

Micha Odenheimer

IISRAEL IS CELEBRATING ITS JUBILEE, BUT THE government's attempts to organize festivities have been less than a smashing success. Don't worry: Nothing could be more appropriate than the failure of the state to orchestrate the celebration. For a jubilee — at least in the Torah, where the concept originated — is about the people's recovery of power, the cyclical return to the moment just before the institutions of the state became the law of the land.


The word "yovel' ("jubilee") means "ram's horn," according to most scholars, and is first mentioned in describing the shofar blasts coming from Mount Sinai that marked the revelation of the Ten Commandments. According to the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah, the ram's horn blown at Mount Sinai was from the ram found by Abraham in the thicket which served as a sacrifice instead of Isaac, and this very horn will be blown to herald the messiah. Abraham's ram is listed in the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, as one of the 10 things or beings created at twilight on the eve of Sabbath of the week that God created the world. And the jubilee year itself, as the Torah describes it, is also rightly seen as a return to creation, a moment of revelation, and a foretaste of messianic light. The jubilee year is first and foremost a reminder that no human, or human collective, owns the Land of Israel. "For the land may not be sold forever, for the land is Mine, for strangers and sojourners are you with Me" (Leviticus 25:23). This reminder comes in the form of a liberation: "Pass the shofar throughout the land... and make the fiftieth year holy. Call out freedom in the land, for all its inhabitants, it is a jubilee year" (25:9-10).

In ancient Israel, the very possibility of selling land depended on the Kingdom. Not only did the state issue money, it created a unified framework for the people in which real estate could move from one tribe to the other. The Jubilee frees slaves, and cancels land sales that took place since the last Jubilee. The social reality created by the state dissolves, and the tribe and the family reassert themselves, but in a tremendous spirit of unity, the whole country is moving in unison, responding to the revelatory blast of the shofar. Each of the12 tribe re-inhabits its region; every clan returns to its ancestral home. Every 50 years, if the Torah's scheme is followed, the Jubilee erases class divisions that have developed as those that have become poor sell themselves or their land to those who have be-come wealthy. Money, the seal of the kingship, loses its magical power to define identities, to consolidate power. The game begins again at zero, at infinite potential. In the Jewish tradition, the jubilee symbolizes liberation from the spiritual influence of the state as well: "In the jubilee year," states the Beit Ya'akov of Rabbi Ya'akov Lainer, written in the mid-nineteenth century, "God will show to the whole of Israel how every individual receives the divine influx on his own, not through priest or king."


S0 HOW DOES THE STATE INFLUENCE THE SPIRIT? And what has been the influence of the State of Israel on the spirit of the Jewish people over the past 50 years? The founding of the state miraculously gave us new life as a people, restored our heart and spine. Our nearly absolute reliance on the state to protect us from destruction and provide us with security has magnified its influence — as has the drama of prophecy fulfilled, of the return of the exiles from the four corners of the globe. Consciously or subconsciously, the various sparks of the Jewish religious impulse have been caught and held by the power of the new reality, like iron filings trapped in a magnetic field.


But along with their redemptive power, kings and states have a corrosive power when unchecked, as the Torah reminds us. States reorganize people into new and rigid categories. Here in Israel, the affect of the state has been to concretize and reify identities. This has meant the division of Israelis into "secular" and "religious," each group provided by the state with its own institutions, each having a different relationship to the state. Some of these differences are inscribed in law—for example, those exempting ultra-Orthodox men and religious women from serving in the army. And these differences are expressed and reinforced through politics. In order for an individual to preserve a modicum of power against the nearly absolute power of the state, the rule of law is not sufficient. The individual must merge into a group, broaden its own political base, gain land, government money and jobs to support its constituency. More and more, spiritual identity and political identity merge. Whether one covers one's head with a black hat or a knitted skullcap, or leaves it s bare, long ago became a marking, in Israel, of political identity, as much as a particular mode of religiosity. But the influence of the state has been deeper and more subtle.than these political divisions, and what has happened to the \ avowedly non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox is perhaps the best example.


Their conscious rejection of the state has blocked its massive influence only on the surface, as Prof. Hayyim Soloveichik demonstrated in a landmark essay called "Rupture and Reconstruction" published in 1994. Soloveichik describes the trans-formation, over the past half-century, of ultra-Orthodox spirituality. Jews in Eastern Europe learned their Judaism by inhaling it directly from their parents and their local community. In the past 50 years, he writes, there has been "a dramatic centralization of a previously diffused authority." One sign of this is the concentration of power in the hands of the prominent yeshivah heads, whereas once every local rabbi was virtually autonomous. Another major change is the shift to reliance on written texts, rather than living custom. That educational institutions have taken over much of the role once played by parents and community in forging personality and world view is also significant. All these changes are part of the ultra-Orthodox attempt to re-found traditional Judaism in the face of the dis-locations of modernity — and not only within Israel. But the process has been amplified and intensified within the boundaries of the state, as a defense against the new possibility of secular Jewish identity. As if in imitation of the state, ultra-Orthodox society has become bureaucratized, centralized, institutionalized.


Secular Israelis have been shaped by the state in no less definite a fashion. The secular Zionist pioneers were often from religious homes, and they formed their identity around the rejection of tradition. The stark opposition of secular and religious identities permeated Israeli culture from the very beginning, and forestalled, to a great extent, the development of a new Israeli-Jewish spirituality. Religious Zionists, for their part, have used the state as a model in another way, by making the founding of settlements in hostile territories the highest form of Jewish fulfillment. Enclosed by barbed-wire fences, surrounded by hostile Arabs, each settlement is experienced as allowing each person involved in building it the opportunity to participate in the drama of Israel's redemptive founding and survival.


But as the jubilee approaches, the strict divisions of identity that have crystallized during this past half-century seem to be losing their absolute hold — at least over some extraordinary individuals and groups. People like Chana Bat-Shachar (the nom de plume of the ultra-Orthodox spouse of a yeshivah dean), one of Israel's finest new fiction writers. Or Sheva, a "secular" Israeli rock band and theater group with a deep but totally un-Orthodox interest in Jewish spirituality, ritual and kabbalah.


Or Rabbi Menachem Froman, an early leader of Gush Emunim, rabbi of Tekoa, a settlement near Bethlehem, and student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the spiritual father of the West Bank settlement movement. Froman has devoted hundreds of hours to conversing with Hamas leaders, and believes that religious dialogue with Muslims makes Jews better: "It humbles us to know that we are not the only ones worshiping God, and there is nothing better for the Torah than humility." After one meeting in Gaza with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, which Froman went to wearing tefillin, he explained on Israel Radio that "crazy people have to talk to crazy people."


We need the crazy people to start talking, because we are all a little crazy. Every part of Israel's fragmented society has repressed basic human impulses and ideas. The Orthodox world has repressed creativity and subjectivity, has emphasized particularity and disdained universalism, has limited free choice and celebrated self-discipline. The secular majority has restrained the human religious impulse, invalidated Jewish tradition, and celebrated free choice over absolute commitments. The new direction which Judaism in Israel so desperately needs will emerge as oppositions fuse into new, strange combinations: secular Israeli mystics and ultra-Orthodox avant garde artists, bearded and side-locked settlers who see the holy sparks shooting out from Islam, critical academicians who deconstruct the Bible in the morning and scream out to God in the dead of night, kabbalistic feminists, hasidic social activists, ultra-Orthodox universalists, and on and on until we run out of labels.


It's the jubilee year, when God commands that each of us breaks free from the chains of slavery and returns to our place — the place of our inner truth. The State of Israel has provided us with security for the past 50 years, has enabled all the groups to survive and multiply. But we have understood the state wrongly. We have let the State dictate our identity, but the state is ultimately empty unless we are full. It is time now for the people of Israel to give back to the state what states can never provide for themselves: the power to hear the shofar blast of inspiration and guidance. Only from our primordial place, from our personal inheritance, can we hear the shofar blast of revelation. Only as our whole selves. •

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