Based on observations made on the occasion of the publication of “Thoughts to Ponder No. 2” and the recognition ceremony of the David Cardozo Academy
2005-6 Class of the Student Leadership Training Program, Jerusalem,
In one of its most dramatic texts, the Talmud (Gittin 56b) discusses an episode in Jewish history which describes perhaps the most decisive moment which occurred before the Holocaust. It took place in the first century C.E. at the very hour that the second Temple was to be destroyed by the Romans who were occupying the land. The Jews were killed in their tens of thousands and there was no longer any food. Despair was rampant everywhere. It seemed as if there was no longer any future for the Jewish people as the Romans had decided on a “final solution”.
There was really only one choice: To surrender and live, or to fight and surely die. To defeat the Romans was no longer an option – their numbers and determination to end all Jewish life outweighed the weak and exhausted condition of the Jewish people.
It was left to one man to decide what to do: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the unchallenged Jewish leader of his day. The sage was fully aware that if he decided to surrender he would save many lives, but at the same time he would cause the end of a people who were once called the Jewish nation. After all, the Romans would force the Jews to assimilate and adopt their way of living. It would end the “Chosen people” with its unique mission and it would be made abundantly clear that once the Jewish people no longer existed, it would not just be the Jews who would pay a heavy price but the world at large as well. There would no longer be anybody around to stand and fight for moral values, human dignity and the knowledge of God. The world would become a place of immense moral pain, destruction and ongoing disaster.
At that hour Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai made a decision which was as risky as it was an act of unprecedented courage. It led, against all logic, to an unparalleled victory which miraculously did save the Jews and because of that the moral fiber of mankind. Rabbi Yochanan told his pupils to smuggle him (with the help of a coffin) beyond the walls of Yerushalayim and to bring him to the soon to become Roman emperor: Vespasian. When asked why he, Rabbi Yochanan, decided to see him, he told the despot that the Jews would surrender but only on one condition: “Give me Yavne and its sages.” Vespasian, not realizing that the town of Yavne housed the core of the Jewish sages of its time and as such the vitality of Judaism’s spiritual power, easily agreed with this request and let Rabbi Yochanan have his way. But it was this minor request which, not only saved Judaism from oblivion but ultimately led to the downfall of the Roman empire. Because Judaism had been saved, Christianity was able many years later to bring some of the major Jewish and monotheistic values to the Roman empire which ultimately resulted in Rome’s collapse. If Judaism had not survived, Christianity would not have emerged as a major force within Western Civilization.
What made Rabbi Yochanan believe that the Jews and Judaism would survive once he guaranteed the continuous existence of Yavne and its sages? It was because Rabbi Yochanan realized that the Jews possessed a religious Tradition which, if necessary, would function beyond time and space. He realized that in the event that Jews would be robbed of their homeland, they would be able to continue to live as Jews and keep Judaism alive, albeit on the periphery, as long as Jewish learning would continue to flourish and the study of Torah be emphasized. In that case it would be possible to survive even under the most impossible circumstances.
It was what Heinrich Heine nearly 1900 years later so powerful expressed when he claimed that the secret of Jewish survival is to be found in the idea of their “Portable Fatherland”. When the physical homeland is lost, a spiritual one will carry on for the Jews to inhabit: The Torah. Many years later it was also George Steiner who made a similar observation when he called the Torah: “Our homeland, the Text”. (1) Rabbi Yochanan was convinced that the interaction with this Divine text would make it possible for the Jewish people to continue where any other nation would succumb. If necessary, it would carry the Jewish people beyond the physical need for a homeland. The price would be enormous, but it would work, as Jewish history has proven.
A. B. Yehoshua, one of the most influential Israeli authors of our century, would have been well advised to carefully listen to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s advice and strategy. Last month, in a highly controversial talk at a symposium of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, the author made some most important remarks about the contemporary Jewish scene but simultaneously lost credibility when he made some extremely dubious statements about Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora. He reminded his audience that “the Zionist solution, which was proven as the best solution to the Jewish problem, was tragically missed by the Jewish people.” (2) Less than 5 percent of the Jewish people opted for aliyah at the time of the Balfour Declaration (1917) when the country gates were still wide open and many more Jews would have been able to come without any opposition. “It certainly would have been possible to establish a Jewish state before the Holocaust… the State would not only have ended the Israeli Arab conflict at an earlier stage and with less bloodshed, it would also have provided refuge in the 1930 to hundreds of thousands of eastern European Jews who sensed the gathering storm…” (3)
While this opinion could be challenged as wishful thinking, there is much truth in A. B. Yehoshua’s belief that, if the Jews had taken the threat of radical anti Semitism more seriously and if a more serious attempt had been made to establish the State of Israel at such an early hour, many Jews would have been saved.
But A.B. Yehoshua did not leave it at that. He continued and said: “For me Avraham Yehoshua, there is no alternative (to being Jewish) I cannot keep my identity outside Israel. (Being) Israeli is my skin, not my jacket. You
(Diaspora Jews), you are changing countries, like changing jackets. I have my skin, the territory (of Israel).” (4) He then continued to claim that living outside Israel was not living a full Jewish life and implied that the most secular Israeli in Israel was living a more Jewish life than his orthodox brothers in Toronto or Brooklyn.
While we definitely agree that Israel is the only place in the world in which one can live a full Jewish life, it is extremely naןve and ludicrous to claim that secular Israelis are living a more Jewish life, purely because they live in the Israeli State, surrounded by fellow Jews, governed by a Jewish Government and protected (we sometimes wonder!) by a Jewish army. It is true that in Israel Jewish culture is not a subculture and that Judaism can flourish more in this country than in any other. But that does not mean that Israel is a Jewish country purely because there are (almost) only Jews who happen to inhabit it. A.B.Yehoshua mixes up two components which are not identical. To be an Israeli is not identical to being Jewish. Indeed to be an Israeli one needs to live in the land and when the land stops to exist there is no longer any meaning in being an Israeli. But, like Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai correctly understood, if needs must it is possible to stay a Jew, although surely not a complete one, without living in Israel. A.B. Yehoshua does not seem to understand that there would not have been a State of Israel if not for the fact that his own grandparents continued to live a Jewish life in the Diaspora. Would they and their contemporaries have lived an Israeli live, there would no longer have been any Jews and no Israeli State would ever been established. What Rabbi Yochanan taught us is that Jews will survive without Israel, as long as there is Torah, the portable fatherland, but that Jews will not survive because of Israel, however powerful it may be, when Israel does not incorporate a high percentage of Jewish traditional resources. To believe that Jews will only survive because of Israel is a farce which has no foundation in Jewish history or reality.
One needs only to ask one question to show the inadequacy of A.B.Yehoshua’s argument. While we can be almost sure that the grandchildren of orthodox Jews in the Diaspora will stay Jewish, there is no way that this can be said about the children of secular Israelis. A.B Yehoshua is wrong because what he believes is his skin is in fact his jacket. While orthodox Jews in the Diaspora may not live a complete Jewish life, Judaism is at the core of their lives. Secular Israelis, on the other hand, may live among Jews and be governed by a Jewish government but their Jewishness is in their outer shell not in their essence. It is their jacket not their skin. They are first of all living an Israeli life but, while there are strong Jewish elements to it, it is in the outer shell, in the public, in the national, not in the core of their very essence.
Happily many Israelis realize this and, although non-orthodox, try hard to bring some inner Jewishness to their lives because they know that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was right and A.B Yehoshua wrong.
(1) George Steiner, Our Homeland, the Text, Salmagundi, Winter/Spring, 1985, p. 4-25
(2) See: A.B. Yehoshua, People without a land, Haaretz, 12.05 2006
(4) Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2006, Upfront, p.12