I returned last week from a two-week trip to Israel. I was there for Hanukkah. I actually have not been in America for Hanukkah since 2007; it’s a great time to visit my son. He’s on vacation, the weather is cool and comfortable, and its usually before the hordes of December tourists arrive. I also find that my trips to Israel also recharge me and my sense of connection with Judaism, with our ancient texts, and of course with the modern complexities of the Jewish state.
When I sat down, by the shore of the Kinneret, to write this sermon, I found that I had been so energized by my trip that I had at least two weeks’ worth of material, so this is going to be a two-part sermon. This week, I am going to frame a different way of looking at the State of Israel; in two weeks, we’ll talk about recent political developments.
A good way to frame our understanding of Israel requires dividing the world into two traditional spheres, often reflected in Hasidic thought: ruhaniyyut, matters of the spirit, and gashmiyyut, mundane, material matters.
What got me thinking about this was the podcast Fault Lines, produced by the Forward newspaper, featuring an ongoing conversation between Rabbi Daniel Gordis of Israel’s Shalem Center, and New York-based journalist Peter Beinart. If you have not yet heard this podcast, you really should: you can find it here. What makes the podcast so appealing is that they come from different political perspectives on Israel, and yet they manage to have civil, thoughtful discussions.
In an episode from last summer, they were speaking about the anti-occupation activist group If Not Now. At one point, they took a detour to talk about the competing visions of Theodor Herzl and Ahad HaAm. Herzl was committed to the political process of statecraft – the nuts and bolts of actually creating a Jewish state.
Ahad HaAm was not as interested in statehood as he was in Israel as the merkaz ruhani, the “spiritual center” of the Jews. Herzl wanted facts on the ground: borders, government, infrastructure. Ahad HaAm, noting the pitiful state of the settlements in Palestine at the end of the 19th century, wanted to focus on the way that the Diaspora and the land of Israel as its spiritual center could strengthen one another; that Israel should be “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews” – a cultural center that would foster an international Jewish renaissance. Herzl was occupied with gashmiyyut; Ahad HaAm with ruhaniyyut. They were asking different questions: Herzl was concerned with the what and the how; Ahad HaAm with the why.
Beinart and Gordis concluded that both were necessary; that Israel today was created from the visions of both Ahad HaAm and Herzl, and that both ideals still nourish and sustain the Israeli population and the State.
And so too do we need both, here in the Diaspora. We’ll come back to this.
On this trip, my son and I performed what has become an annual ritual: we got a parking ticket.
Nonetheless, on every visit to Israel, I am reminded of why I love the country and the people. Here are a few things I took note of on this trip:
Nahalat Binyamin, the Tel Aviv street fair near the shuq (open-air market) on Fridays is always packed with people. Artists and craftspeople of all kinds set up to sell their wares. There are buskers and various types of street entertainers, including a particularly talented string trio: Russian emigres, two violins and a cello. Their instruments look beat-up and barely varnished. But as I listened to them play Vivaldi, I was transported momentarily away from the busy, dusty city to a place of beauty and tranquility. I put 10 sheqel in their hat.
The cafes are alive, bursting with people. The cafe culture in Israel is vibrant. While I have often been in cafes in America where every single person (including me) is working on their own laptop, not talking to each other, that is never how it is in Israel. Friends are having conversations; people have work meetings; some are simply checking out the scene; and so forth.
Meanwhile, Israeli city streets are always filled with people, not just cars. Israeli cities are generally built around a small, pedestrian-friendly merkaz, so the sense of seeing people and being seen is a part of the Israeli day-to-day experience.
And then there is the youthful energy of Israel. On my flight over, I was literally surrounded by Israeli babies on four sides. I didn’t sleep so well, but the comfort of knowing that Israelis and Israeli society are family-centric is worth so much more.
As bustling and exciting as Israeli is, I confess that what I love most when I visit is the opportunity to reflect: the quiet of a hike, wherein I can chew on history and current reality, about what it means to be a Jew, an American Jew, an Israeli Jew, an American Zionist, an American Jew who considered making aliyah but then returned to America, and so forth.
Last Sunday, my son was in school following Hanukkah break, so I drove up to Mt. Arbel, just north of Tiberias, to take a hike. Arbel is best known for the ancient natural caves, hewn into the steep cliff on its north face, that were not only used as homes by our ancestors, but also played a role in the rebellion against Rome in the first century CE. (Noted by Josephus because Herod’s commander lowered soldiers from the cliff above the caves to enter and massacre the rebels in the caves.)
Unfortunately, the caves were inaccessible because it was a windy and rainy day. So instead I strolled around the top of the mountain, and also checked out the ruins of the 4th-century synagogue near the summit.
The synagogue, like many ancient synagogues in Israel, is demarcated by Israeli authorities to protect the past. Among the signs placed haphazardly around the site are descriptions of the worship area, and then a note that there were also rooms to one side where limmud / “learning” took place.
Israel needs that ancient synagogue. It lies there, a collection of worn, sculpted rocks, as a symbol of our ancient connection with the land; it represents the past as much as the present. It reminds us of the politics and the spirit. It speaks to us of ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut, the material and the spiritual.
Now, you might be thinking that ruhaniyyut here is tefillah / prayer, since it involves what at least ostensibly suggests expressing our gratitude and requests to God; that the role of the synagogue as a beit tefillah, a house of prayer, is the spiritual side.
And I would posit that it is exactly the opposite: tefillah has a certain rigidity to it: it has laws, customs, and the expectation, at least historically, has been that it’s done a certain, particular way. The words do not change; the melodies do not change that much. As much as many of us synagogue regulars crave a certain amount of variety in our services, the reality is that most of us expect that prayer will be done a certain way, and that not doing it that way would be foreign.
(Aside: we are currently hosting a discussion about re-imagining what we do here for tefillah, something that you will become more aware of in coming months. We’re setting some goals, and will try to make our services align with those goals. And we are certainly focused on making tefillot a more creative and meaningful endeavor.)
But limmud, learning is exactly the opposite. The rules are simple: study and argue. It is a creative endeavor. And although you have to use what’s come before, the field is wide open in terms of interpretation, what ancient words mean to us today.
Tefillah / prayer is like Herzl’s political Zionism; it desires structure. It is about demarcating liturgical frameworks so that words of praise are recited in an organized way, so that people can gather in groups to create a ritual framework together. But learning is about openness, about freedom, about exploring yourself through ancient text. It is about enriching yourself and your community through seeking meaning. The Jewish bookshelf is the virtual merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center of our people.
The synagogue, ancient and modern, symbolizes the modern state of Israel – learning and praying together, structure and creativity, ruhaniyyut and gashmiyyut.
And the lesson that we can draw from this is that the Israel that we know and love, the Israel that gives us inspiration, is not just about political boundaries and democracy and the peace process; it is also about how we go about finding meaning here in the Diaspora. It is about being not only or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, but or la’am, a light unto OUR nation, the Jewish people, as well. It is about the people who live there, and the wealth of culture that Israel gives to the Jewish world: the religious culture, yes, but also the secular: the pop music, the plays, the fashion design, the high-tech innovations.
As Diaspora Jews, we are as much enriched by Herzl’s vision of Altneuland, the old land become new, as we are by Ahad HaAm’s notion of the merkaz ruhani, the spiritual center. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 12/30/17.)
2 replies on “Israel Snapshot, Part One: the Spiritual and the Physical – Vayhi 5778”
Well done. Too bad the political situation, esp. growing authoritarianism, apartheid and aggressive Orthodoxy make Israel less and less appealing daily.
[…] (If you’re looking for Part One, you’ll find it here.) […]