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Parashat Shelah

June 29, 2016

The Generations of the Wilderness

by Rabbi Len Levin

Should the Israelites of the wilderness generation be condemned for their unruliness and lack of faith? Or admired for their heroic survival in the face of adversity?

Closer to our time: Should Jews of Diaspora be condemned for their effeteness, rootlessness, and apathy? Or should they be admired for their cultivation of intellectual and ethical values, their balancing of universalistic and particularistic concerns, and their sheer survival over 2000 years, keeping the Jewish legacy alive amid adverse circumstances?

“Negation of the Diaspora” was a topic of fierce debate in early Zionist polemics. The exilic mind-set of Diaspora Jewry was compared to the slave mentality of the ancient Israelites. Jews who were too timid to defend themselves against the pogrom perpetrators would have to undergo a change of character in order to reclaim their place in history and build the Jewish homeland.

In a famous exchange of the early 1900s, the young Zionist radicals Berdichevsky and Brenner challenged the more conservative Ahad Ha-Am. The substance is preserved in Ahad Ha-Am’s essay “Transvaluation of Values” (in Selected Essays, JPS 1936, pp. 217-241). The younger Zionists protested that the whole traditional structure of Jewish ethics and intellectual culture reflected a deracinated people, cut off from physical life, from land, manual labor, bodily pleasures and the heroic virtues. Rebirth was needed to come into contact with the soil and resurrect a nation ready to defend itself against its enemies. Wholesale transformation of the character of the Jewish people was necessary to adjust to the new historical situation.

Ahad Ha-Am counter-argued that though certain aspects of the Diaspora were deplorable (especially its political powerlessness), it had also produced a religious culture and way of life of tremendous value. Rabbinic Judaism fostered a whole round of life embodying intellectual and humane values that were not to be lightly discarded. They were the very essence of Jewish identity. If a new chapter was to be written in Jewish history, it should be based on affirmation of the Jewish past, not abandonment of it.

The halutzim who built the Jewish homeland in the 1920s and 1930s found themselves between the two poles of this debate and incorporated the best insights of both. On the one hand, they worked mightily to achieve a positive transformation of the Jewish character along the lines that Berdichevsky and Brenner (and later A. D. Gordon) called for. They underwent hunger and malaria to transform themselves bodily into farmers, and to transform the swamps into productive land. They discarded their native Yiddish to break their teeth on speaking Hebrew and reviving it as a living language. They took up arms to defend themselves against bandits and later against fanatic political opponents of the Zionist enterprise. They created a “new Jew,” the sabra, tough on the outside but tender on the inside.

At the same time, they built a contemporary Jewish culture that maintained continuity in its way with the Jewish values of the past. They created a literature expressing their modern experience yet filled with allusions to biblical and rabbinic sources. They built a Hebrew University, whose curriculum embraced modern arts and sciences together with scholarly study of Jewish history and tradition. Most of all, they created a modern society infused with the humane Jewish values of the past.

And what of today’s Diaspora Jewry? We face many challenges, to be sure, of maintaining Jewish continuity, lifestyle, and values. Our future is not a foregone conclusion. It depends on what we do to preserve the integrity of Jewish traditions, practices, and values. Potentially, at least, we possess the wherewithal to maintain a Jewish community and culture that will measure favorably with those of the past. The greatest temptation is the distractions of the contemporary general culture, which draw off much of our attention and creative energy. We need to be continually cross-fertilizing the Jewish and the general, in order to infuse Jewish values anew into every area of our lives. And we need to maintain continual conversation and cooperation between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, to maintain the unity of world Jewry.

We do not feel today that we are in the wilderness or in exile. Jews feel rooted in all the communities of their residence, all around the world. The rebirth of the Jewish homeland itself gives a strong sense of stability to Jewish life everywhere, as Herzl predicted it would. But the Promised Land is never a once-and-done accomplishment. It is always in the making. And we must always remain in training, to achieve and maintain the strength of character to make it all that it can be.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.