05 July 2011
A Destination Called Meaning
This is the popular bumper sticker around Jerusalem this summer, at least in my neighborhood. Not the "West Bank." Not the "Territories." And certainly not "Palestine." Judea and Samaria. This is one of the central ideas of the Settler Movement, which has wide support in the capital and so the message of many of the bumper stickers reveal this nationalist message.
I don't agree with its political agenda but I certainly find its messaging to be factually true--at least to the degree that "every Jew" knows what and where Judea and Samaria are. But for any liberal Jew who goes to Torah study and revels in the text about the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, not to mention the stories beyond the Five Books and on into the Prophets and the Writings, it is undeniably true that these stories, central to our narrative as a people, find their geographic home in Judea and Samaria. It's what makes the emotional heart and soul of the Settler Movement beat with such persistent and impassioned pride. Jerusalem itself is in Judea. My heart certainly beats for that.
Interestingly, one could argue that several strands of early Zionism were meant to transcend mere Biblical classifications for the Land of Israel and place Jerusalem not in "Judea" per se but in the contemporary State of Israel--modern borders and concepts related to the nation-state; not divinely granted holdings from God to the Jewish people.
And therein lies the distinction.
Because one could argue that the towns and villages of the West Bank comprise the "story of the Palestinian people" and slap that message on a bumper sticker as well--and then drive around the city with both messages on the back of one's car. Who would argue with that? Both stickers would be factually true. And the only way you'd be able to read them was by making sure that you didn't put one sticker on top of the other. They could go on opposite sides of the car; or even right next to each other. The words "the story of every" could overlap. It'd be a wonderful co-existence.
Curb your enthusiasm. It's not going to happen. But it's a nice thought.
When I teach, it's important for people to know that Judea and Samaria is the story of every Jew. It's our Biblical ancestry; it's our contemporary challenge. Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews are endlessly debating what to do with the territories conquered in 1967. When and how to make peace. And with whom. Judea and Samaria is the story of every Jew makes the Diaspora Jew confront Zionism's early claim--we are a people with a land, a language and culture. Our values do not derive from a place of pure marble, from philosophical mountains of pure revelation; but we are a nation, an identity: you can locate us and trace the development of what we stand for on a map. And while Saadiah was in Babylonia; Rashi in France; Maimonides in Spain; the Gaon in Vilna; and Einstein in Princeton--each was able to situate his Jewishness toward Jerusalem, toward those who came before him and lived in Judea and Samaria.
The big anxiety in the Jewish world today seems to be all about the Jewish People. Yet again, one hundred years after this anxiety reared its head as assimilation and anti-Semitism in Europe engulfed Jewish life, leaders who gather in Jerusalem this summer ask themselves: What will be? Who will remain? What will they know? What will they stand for?
Values have never occurred in a vacuum in Jewish life. They have derived from an ongoing narrative that has always been linked to a place. It's what indeed makes this such a troubling and confusing time. Because it begs the question: How much of the place do I need to inhabit in order to fully realize the demand of the values born there? To fully grasp Rashi ought we to re-inhabit his corner of France? Should Jews conquer Spain in order truly grasp what it is the Rambam meant in his Guide for the Perplexed?
How I long for the wisdom of the men whose ideas created the modern state! Ginzberg, Herzl and Nordau understand the necessity for the Jew to be an organic actor on the geographic stage of his own history; but they also understood that the Diaspora taught him to live in relationship with God "outside the land."
Judea and Samaria *is* the story of every Jew. But let's be honest: As a sticker on a car parked outside of a house built by and inhabited by an Arab family prior to 1948, the message becomes more complicated. You have your narrative; I have mine. Your God gives you exclusive rights; my God gives me mine. Where does that leave us?
With hard-headed patience and open-hearted understanding, maybe it leaves us learning--hardly a bad thing.
Outside my window, as night descends on this holy city, I imagine cars with no stickers, engines humming beneath hoods, Jewish drivers and Arab passengers--Arab drivers and Jewish passengers--fueled by the stories we tell on our way toward a destination we call meaning.