Hanukkah 5761 - A Cultural Zionist Perspective
I recall a Hassidic story I heard as a child about Rabbi Israel of Salant, who walked through the streets of the town during the “Days of Awe” (the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Noticing a small house with a faint light burning, the rabbi went inside and found a cobbler furiously mending shoes, striking with his hammer with all his energy. “Why are you mending shoes at this time of the night?” asked the rabbi. The man answered: “As long as the candle burns, we can still repair.” The rabbi went out into the streets of the town and cried out “Dear Jews! As long as the candle burns, we can still repair!”
Although this story is told in the context of the Days of Awe and the preparations for Yom Kippur, I would like to propose that the moral theme of Tikkun combined with rituals relating to candles could be associated with Hanukkah. Originally, Hanukkah emerged as a national religious festival closely associated with the Hasmonean rebellion. There was no mention of candles, light or oil at this point. Essentially, as described in Maccabees I and II, Hanukkah marks a military victory and the dedication of the Temple; with the festival of Sukkot being celebrated after a delay of three years and three months.
In the Mishna, Hanukkah is discussed solely in the context of the miracle of the vessel of oil, the lighting of Hanukkah candles and the Hanukkah Menorah. The Maccabean rebellion itself is completely ignored. Throughout the years of Exile, Hanukkah was celebrated as a minor festival focusing exclusively on the miracle of the vessel of oil.
As the Zionist movement began to develop, those involved in shaping its culture drew on the national motif of the festival, which they refashioned in the spirit of the Zionist narrative. Who “performed the heroic acts of Israel,” as the Hanukkah song proclaims? Not God, but “the Maccabean savior and redeemer.” “We carry torches,” begins another Zionist Hanukkah song, going on to declare “No miracle happened to us – we found no vessel of oil!”. Motifs of light and dark are also found in the same context (“We have come to expel darkness”).
I believe that we are now in an age when we can, and must, address the universal aspects of our existence – aspects that will only strengthen and reconfirm our Jewish and Zionist dimension. As long as the candle burns, we can still repair. During each day of Hanukkah, and not only then, let us think about places and events in our own society and around the world – places where darkness is overcoming light and disturbing the delicate balance on which the world depends. Let us consider how we can bring more light into the world, near and far, and how we can build and live in peace. Let us remember that as long as the candle burns, we can still repair. Ofek Meir, Director of the Seminar Center, Leo Baeck Education Center, Haifa
In the face of external threats and internal turmoil, the Zionist path of Jewish society in Israel is facing a real test. Indeed, not only is the path of Zionism uncertain, but there are many who wonder whether it has any future. In Hanukkah 5761, many ask whether the candle of Jewish Zionist renewal of the people in its homeland still burns. Today, regardless of their particular point of view, Zionists feel pain – feel that the candle is gradually burning out. When someone is in pain, they go through three stages in their relating to the problem:
Stage 1 – recognizing and acknowledging that they are in pain. Most of us no longer try to deny that there’s a problem.
Stage 2 – diagnosis. What is the cause of the problem? It is important to note that without the stage of diagnosis, whatever “solutions” we find will be no more than an aspirin – they may repress the pain for a while, but the negative processes and dynamics continue unabated.
Stage 3 – a program of action for embarking on a process of Zionist renewal. When it comes to the stage of diagnosis, I believe that many people misunderstand the rifts in Jewish Israeli society. These rifts are only “symptoms” – not the disease itself. It is wrong to imagine that the lines of cleavage within Israeli society are between religious and secular, “northerners” and “southerners,”* Ashkenazim and Mizrachim – despite the superficial impression that this is the case.
The real distinction today is between Zionists and various kinds of “post-Zionists.” Post-Zionism is the “disease.” The distinction between Zionism and post-Zionism essentially relates to the distinction between political Zionism and cultural Zionism.
Political Zionism and Cultural Zionism
By its nature, prophecy embodies an uncompromising quest for absolute justice. In this respect, the prophets constituted the unique contribution of the Jewish people to Western culture. Ahad Ha’am believed that through the cultural Zionist endeavor, the Jews would once again be able to make an important contribution to humanity as a whole. From the prophetic perspective of the longing for absolute justice, the task facing cultural Zionism is an infinite one. The state and the physical existence of the people are not goals in themselves, but merely means to achieve the prophetic vision.
In contrast to Cultural Zionism, Political Zionism has its origins in Theodor Herzl’s analysis that a Jewish state was a necessity given rising nationalism, accompanied by anti-Semitism, in many nations, and particularly in Europe.
Life in the Here and Now and Life Eternal
The Labor Zionist pioneers of the time defined these tasks as the Hebrew language, Hebrew land, Hebrew labor and social justice. However, any approach that includes a commitment to the tasks of life eternal has always stood, and still stands, in opposition to a perspective that grants unlimited freedom to the individual (or to the nation) to live for the moment without any greater goal. In this context, Political Zionism is life in the here and now. Cultural Zionism is life in the here and now combined with life eternal. This distinction between (exclusively) life in the here and now and life in the here and now combined with life eternal also delineates the division between believers and non-believers. In this context, the founding generation of the Zionist enterprise were believers; the life of A.D. Gordon offers a model example of this ideal; we shall return to this below.
“Post-Zionism” always existed, and it always had two manifestations. The first manifestation is pure political Zionism, and the second is non-Zionist, or even anti-Zionist, Judaism. The common denominator between the two is apathy and/or reservations and/or opposition to cultural Zionism.
Today, political post-Zionism is in practice advocated by broad circles that include the most influential groups in society, particularly in the economic sphere. Their chief concern is career and personal profit (life in the here and now), and they pay no more than lip service to broad social objectives.
Following the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, ultra-Orthodox Judaism was forced to adapt to the idea of a Jewish State “like all the nations,” and to accept the law of the land (dina demalkhuta dina). If the state could fund an autonomous ghetto in its midst, then why not – as long as this did not imply acceptance of the idea that the Jewish state constituted the “beginning of our redemption” (as argued by the Mizrachi and later the National Religious Party) – an idea that imbued the framework of the political state with sanctity. Moreover, how could one have a Jewish state that was not subject to the rulings of its rabbis?
For the “hard core” of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, it is impossible to accept the idea of Israel as a democratic Jewish state whose purpose is to ensure the continued creative existence of the Jewish people wherever they may be. The refusal of the ultra-Orthodox parties to join the World Zionist Organization is proof of this reality. Suggesting that the existence of Israel is connected with “life eternal” in the spirit of Cultural Zionism of all shades is nothing short of blasphemy.
Once again, the common denominator linking non-religious post-Zionism and religious post-Zionism is that both reject the cultural Zionism of Meimad, Gush Emunim. Reform and Conservative Zionism are anathema. The religious Zionisms are no more acceptable to them than the cultural Labor Zionist movement of the recent past, or the humanistic Jewish Zionist circles of today.
An Introduction to a Plan of Action
Any plan of action cannot ignore the current situation in Israel. In order to advance the objectives of cultural Zionism, the dispute with the Arab world must be brought to an end. On the other hand, unless a commitment to cultural Zionism can be promoted among broad sections of the population, it is doubtful whether Jewish society in Israel can be recruited to support processes that are inevitably long-term. Any process to resolve the conflict will demand spiritual strength from Jewish society in Israel; if this is lacking, there is no chance of finding the long-term resolve needed to cope with the process.
Similarly, in the socioeconomic sphere, it is unclear whether it is possible to promote social cohesion given the current yawning gulf in Israeli society. A policy based on the equal value of all humans, favoring social justice over competition and the free operation of market forces, will also be unsuccessful unless those in the top socioeconomic brackets identify with some form of cultural Zionist vision of “life eternal.” Without cultural Zionist identification, the upper percentiles will continue to favor considerations based on life in the here and now (including in the political sphere).
The God Idea and Belief in Life eternal – Lighting the Candle and Engaging in Tikkun
We now come to a thesis which many may find to be an abyss. Here we confront the fundamental differences within the circles of those cultural Zionists who “believe”. This is the last distinction required in order to complete the picture of the cleavages in Israeli society.
Among Zionists who are cultural Zionist believers, a further distinction may now be found. This is the distinction between those who adhere to the a belief in the Idea of the Divine (the God Idea), with its practical manifestations in the cultural life of the people, and those who negate the God Idea. The God Idea – with all its diverse manifestations in terms of festivals, Shabbat and daily life in the rites of passage of the individual and the life of the community – forms an eternal and unifying focus for the people in its unending quest for Tikkun of the individual, the nation and the universe. This is the watershed separating all those Jews who pray with intention – be they Orthodox, Conservative (Masorti), Reform (Progressive) or Reconstructionist – from humanistic or secular Jews.
What is the Source of Spiritual Strength?
The Zionist pioneers were believers, but they recoiled from undemocratic rabbinical Halakhic Judaism. They transmuted their faith from the Jewish God Idea to universal Socialism (but it should be noted that most of them had been instilled with “belief” (life eternal) in their parents’ home).
Later, due to historical circumstances and almost without noticing, the ideal of democratic cultural Zionism was replaced by practical Socialist Zionism on the political level. The founding generation saw no contradiction in this change. Two generations later, we find ourselves left with political Zionism without any vision of cultural Zionism, since the element of belief in “life eternal” has vanished. We must rekindle faith in the God Idea in order to renew organic faith in “life eternal.”
In our behavior and in our educational philosophy, we must take care not to throw out the “baby” (the God Idea and its symbolic concretization) with the “bath water,” which has been sullied by rigid and politically-powerful Orthodox Halakhic Judaism. For many of the pioneers, Socialism was the outer dress for belief in “life eternal.” But at the same time the pioneers drew inspiration from the prophets, whose roots lie in the Israelite God Idea – our people’s gift to the culture of the Western world.
The Task is Education, But Not Only…
Lastly, it is only through adopting a message conveyed through the means of belief in the God Idea that we will be able to communicate, in a spirit of “many paths to the divine,” with a substantial circle of traditional Jews who are not ultra-Orthodox (even if they vote for Shas).
We shall continue to present the plan of action in the next newsletter.
Editorial board: Chavruta – Vision for Israel, POB 1308, Eilat 88112.
Web site: www.chavruta.org.il
Editorial board: Editor - Dr. Michael Livni (Kibbutz Lotan); Osnat Elnatan (Kibbutz Tammuz, Beit Shemesh); Binyamin Maor (Hod Hasharon). Articles reflect only the author’s opinion. We welcome typed comments and responses (maximum 250 words).