Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Stained Class (Israel Syndrome Pt. IV)

The iron forge. The crucible. This is what Klal Yisroel’s residence - nay, cradle - is termed by Chazal. The Egyptian exodus is considered the independence of Jews and our becoming a nation. But wasn’t it meant to happen earlier?

Yaakov Avinu blesses his sons before his death. Each son by himself, the brothers - together them all. Seemingly, neither the brothers’ belief that they’d be kings and nations’ progenitors, nor Yossef’s dreams of a totally unified nation materialized. With the twelve brothers’ death come two centuries of incertitude and servitude, culminating in Kabbolas HaTorah – the acceptance of the Law – at Sinai. Under common Law and leadership, the Nation was now clearly defined – which became all the more evident with the conquest of the Patriarch’s Land.

The establishment of the Jewish monarchy wasn’t easy, nor did it happen fast. The way to the throne was fraught with many a bloodbath. Despite feuds, even until Shaul’s ascent to the throne, the Nation was one. Sadly, this wasn’t a given for too long. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, committed a grave error – for which he was duly criticized. Duly – but not respectfully. His critic had to flee in exile, but when he spotted a moment of weakness in the reign of Shlomo’s successor, he came back with a vengeance.

Yerav’am ben Nevat split the kingdom and cast two golden calves on the way to the Bais Hamikdosh to prevent Jews from attending the Temple for worship. By doing so, he not only became one of the most infamous Jews in history, but set a precedent for all future dissidents. Unfortunately, he is followed by a long line of ideologues and sects that further harmed and weakened Israel through the generations. Helenizers, Esseans, Karaites, Jacob Frank, Shabtai Tzvi, Maskilim, Hassidism, Reform, Bundists, Zionism, Modern Orthodxy have all contributed to further chop and trim Klal Yisroel – some of these groups with the explicit intention of doing so.

Before you jump at my throat, accusing me of comparing this to that, let me make clear that I’m only comparing the process by which new groups form. Point is, every time Jews have an idea, are unhappy with a certain situation, or just want to reject authority, they form a new group, generally heralding some tremendous innovation – which G-D somehow couldn’t figure out for five thousand years.

Traditionally, Judaism has viewed any innovation –for good or otherwise- with suspicion. Even the groups and ideas that eventually became accepted were absorbed slowly, gradually, and their acceptance was fraught with opposition and controversy.

That people take their beliefs and ideals seriously – seriously enough to live by them to a rather high degree – is generally a good thing. Extremism is good if the ends are good and good is not arbitrarily self-defining (or defined self-servingly). But at a certain point extremism becomes fanaticism. Where and how exactly to define this is not easy and will vary according to one’s beliefs and perceptions. But I’m fairly convinced many would agree that forming segregated groups that won’t intermingle based on their ideology – and in many cases much less; the name of a godforsaken village in Galicia is often enough – is indeed fanaticism. The fact that in secular society there are almost no such barriers (e.g. marriage between political leftists and right-wingers or different branches of a religion) may be an indication they aren’t too dedicated. So how about the fact that the very same loyalty to G-d, in the name of which we seclude in groups within groups, is so blatantly disregarded in other areas? (Of course tolerating a grand ganef - or worse - in a community isn’t comparable to an openly different ideology, but it still doesn’t justify the airtight segregationism ubiquitous within Judaism.)

Alas, greed, corruption and hunger for power make this über-idealism even less rosy than it seems. Add to this the sad fact that the stubborn isolationism continues even in the face of existential danger, - makes you feel like checking in the nearest sanatorium. Or joining the KKK. Or getting a hook and a rope from Home Depot – you can do it, we can help. Oh, wait – that’s exactly what we’re doing, on a larger scale.

Is our idealism really as true as it seems? If so, how come so many practice only in a tribal, folkloristic way, couldn’t care less about the principles yet stay within a specific fold/mold? And how come the most principled people who have such a clear picture of the trees are blind to the forest?

Isn’t it possible, despite all obstacles, fears and doubts, to achieve at least a certain sense of unity and solidarity? For collaboration at least on the broadest levels? Can’t at least some of the stupidity, the selfishness, paranoia and corruption be trimmed away? Or do we want another dip in the crucible?

How History will unfold no one can tell, yet all can influence. How the script will play itself out until the grand finale largely depends on the cast.

© Joseph Izrael 2007

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