There is no greater danger to a people than when it is given freedom and it does not know what to do with it. In that case the newly-attained freedom cannot keep the nation in check and, hence, the nation will not be able to flourish. To be effective, freedom requires limitations; it needs to be conquered time and time again, and be utilized in a responsible way – otherwise, it will run wild.
History has demonstrated that national liberations were often followed by long periods of chaos. In extreme circumstances, such as the French and Bolshevik revolutions, the very people who had just found their freedom perpetrated mass killings. The turmoil that often follows the experience of sudden freedom is too much for people to handle.
However, merely setting boundaries to freedom is not sufficient. Freedom can only truly be kept in check and flourish when it is rooted in and moved by an identity, a higher purpose and ideology.
For nearly two thousand years Jews lived under the rule of other nations. They were governed by others. They did not run their own independent state. They were solely onlookers who often saw how the gentiles tried to run their states, often without much success. Oftentimes, the Jew would boast that he would do far better if he would be in power.
However, once the State of Israel was established in 1948, the Jews were confronted with the many difficulties of running a state and the tremendous complexity of utilizing their newly acquired freedom wisely.
From its very beginning the State of Israel struggled with its identity. Historians, philosophers and anthropologists disagreed vehemently about this entity, called “Israel.” Was the State of Israel built on the presumption that the Jewish People are a nation, a religion, or perhaps a mysterious entity that would forever remain inexplicable? While attempting to place Israel within the confines of conventional history, these thinkers experienced constant academic and philosophical frustration.
In fact, it was clear to everyone that Israel did not conform to any specific framework. Israel resisted all historical concepts and generalities, its uniqueness thwarted people’s natural desire for a definition. Definition of an entity requires its classification and categorization – anything that flies in the face of categorization is alarming and terribly disturbing.
Indeed, no other nation has overturned the destiny of mankind as powerfully as the Jewish People has. It endowed the world with the Bible and brought forth the greatest prophets and men of spirit. Its spiritual ideas and moral laws still hold sway among the world’s citizens, influencing entire civilizations. This nation gave birth to a man who is seen by millions as their Messiah, and this nation, too, laid the foundations on which moderate Christianity, Islam and much of secular moral teachings were built. The Nation of Israel has bestowed dignity and responsibility upon the human being and has provided mankind with a messianic hope for the future.
It was Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), the famous French mathematician and philosopher, who stated: “I find in one corner of the world a peculiar people, separated from all other peoples on earth (…) To meet with this people is astonishing to me, and seems to me worthy of attention (…) the Jewish people (…) are not eminent solely by their antiquity, but are also singular by their duration (…) For, whereas the nations of Greece and of Italy, of Lacedaemon, of Athens and of Rome, and others who came long after, have long since perished, these ever remain, and in spite of the endeavors of many powerful kings who have a hundred times tried to destroy them, as their historians testify, and as it is easy to conjecture from the natural order of things during so long a space of years, they have nevertheless been preserved (and this preservation has been foretold) …” (1)
The American gentile scholar Thomas Cahill (1940-2022) expressed this as follows: “We (gentiles) can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact – new, adventure, surprise; unique individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice – are the gifts of the Jews.” (2)
The Jews survived nearly 2000 years of exile dispersed across the globe as a collective lacking all aspects of self-determination. As Milton Himmelfarb once wrote, “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census” – yet the Jews prevailed as if they existed of billions of people under the most privileged circumstances. But as tiny in number as they were, they created a religious and cultural enterprise which is mindboggling; their survival and achievements have necessitated violating the rules of history.
Even more astonishing is the fact that after two millennia the Jews returned to their ancestral homeland and at long last, against all odds, attained political independence. This is unparalleled – no other nation in history has ever achieved such a feat.
Acknowledging this is not just a challenge for the nations of the world, but, above all, for Israel’s leaders and Israelis themselves. All Israelis must come to terms with the singularity of the Jewish People and understand that it is impossible to “normalize” the State of Israel and argue that its inhabitants are but a nation as all other nations. Israelis must ask themselves: Why has the Jewish people survived nearly 4,000 years of history? Why was it able to influence the gentile world to an extent that is entirely out of proportion to its numbers? How was it able to return to its ancestral land after nearly 2,000 years in exile?
It requires tremendous honesty to admit that the Jewish people survived the impossible due to its belief in a universal mission that is rooted in religious Judaism. True, now this very Judaism must free itself of its Diaspora circumstances and rediscover Judaism’s authenticity as conveyed by our prophets and Sages. For it is Judaism and nothing else that is responsible for the Jews’ uniqueness and survival.
One is reminded of the famous saying, attributed to Achad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg, poet, philosopher, 1856-1927): “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat alive, it is Shabbat which kept the Jews alive.”
Whether one is an atheist or religious, we must realize that the celebration of Shabbat, observing the laws of Kashrut and other religious and ethical responsibilities are far more than solely rituals. They are the building blocks upon which Judaism and consequently the secular State of Israel are founded.
Judaism is not “merely” a religion. It is an overwhelming experience, a passion, a love, and a reality of tremendous depth that one lives not just through one’s intellect but with all his five senses and entire being. Nobody can truly define Judaism – it is a way of living comprising a tangled knot of nationhood, culture, religious ideas, philosophy, and rebellion that cannot be unraveled. Judaism is an existential attitude of many colors in which earthly matters and heavenly concepts are combined, clash and interact.
Even should one believe that Judaism is not rooted in a divine revelation but was created by human beings, we cannot deny that without religious Judaism we would not have survived. Thus, to believe that now that we have returned to our homeland, we can discard our Jewish identity and be “Israelis” alone is wishful thinking and suicidal.
There is no future without tradition; and love for tradition has always strengthened nations in their hour of peril. Consequently, Israelis must deal with their Jewishness and be proud of it; to deny it robs us of our very identity and will ultimately lead to the disintegration of the State of Israel. There is no Israeli claim to the Land of Israel only a Jewish one.
Only by the uninterrupted chain of generations based on tradition can we ascertain that the Land of Israel is our homeland. If we reject this fact, our claim to the land stands on quicksand. Either we return to the Holy Land or there is no land to return to. Without continuity, there can be no return. No nation can live with a borrowed national identity.
The severe differences of opinion that have overtaken our people can only be resolved when all parties realize that there is something far larger and loftier to Israel’s existence than political and judicial issues – however important these may be.
The dangerous moment we now face may very well be a blessing in disguise. It confronts us head on with the fact that Israeli society was not yet able to deal successfully with its own freedom and independence. As such, total chaos may well ensue. Only when we recognize that as proud Jews, we are rooted in nearly four thousand years of unconventional history and a sacred mission, will we be able to succeed.
Only when Israel recognizes the uniqueness of its very being will it flourish. There will never be security for Israel unless it is secure in its own radical otherness. If it is not, it will become a mockery.
(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees X: 619-620.
(2) Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Talese/Anchor Books, 1998), p. 241.
Dit essay werd op 28 april van dit jaar geplaatst in The Jerusalem Post.