Sunday, June 7, 2009

Nostalgia or obligation?

It is completely natural for Jews to feel attached to Jerusalem. It is also a religious obligation, though it is not immediately clear whether there is a connection between the nostalgia most of us are susceptible to and the obligation felt by few, not as a historical but a divine imperative. What is Jewish obligation in regard to Jerusalem? Is there a religious obligation for Jews to hold on to the sovereignty of the Jewish state over part or all of the city, or is this already a secular kind of attitude in the disguise of religious romanticism? Are we halakhically obliged to build a new temple if we have the opportunity to do so, and if so, who is to say that what presents itself to us now (a sovereign state in control of the city, though without international recognition) constitutes such an opportunity? For twothousand years, Jews prayed for the rebuilding of the temple, but only now some Jews and their Christian supporters are trying to bring about what had long been a more or less utopian idea. As Bernard Avishai points out in a recent post on this question, the desire to build a Jewish temple in place of the Dome of the Rock is a departure from Judaism as we knew it, a Judaism that secular Jews like Avishai and myself feel increasingly nostalgic for. What happened to the Judaism of the exile, a Judaism that prayed for a speedy rebuilding of the temple without arrogating to itself the power or right to make it happen? Where, more importantly, is the rational theology that denies divinity to any and all objects given to sensory experience? Are groups like the “Templemount Faithful” (ne’emaney ha-bayit) (see destroying Judaism as we know and love it?

Today, Jerusalem is at the heart of a new dilemma, namely, the question of the future of Judaism in a Jewish state. It is perhaps an unprecedented dilemma that calls for unprecedented solutions.

To understand Jewish “religion,” past and present, it may be helpful to remember an important rabbinic distinction. The rabbis, who were lawyers, distinguished between two types of material within the body of sacred text we call the Torah, namely, narrative and legal; in their terms: aggadah and halakhah. Halakhic or legal material constituted the obligations, the dos and don’ts of the Bible; haggadic material was everything else, including what we might call theology. Thus, for example, you can be obliged to affirm that there is only one God but you cannot be obliged to hold any particular opinion as true. You can be obliged to know God, i.e., to pursue the knowledge of God, but you cannot be obliged to accept anyone’s particular opinion about God as true. To be sure, you are also obliged to respect your elders, to live according to local custom, and generally to seek what is best for your community, and this is where things become fuzzy. The sophisticated rabbinic distinction between truth and opinion does not necessarily work in favor of an enlightened and rational point of view. It may also lead to mystical, illusory, even delusional beliefs. BUT: all of these views are, and by virtue of Halakhah itself, are matters of debate, at least in theory. But what happens to this nice, open, non-dogmatic rabbinical system (for which Bernard Avishai expressed nostalgia) when it enters the realm of a Jewish state?

Can religious Jews reconcile themselves to existence in a secular and pluralistic state where the majority is committed to Jewish nostalgia but not to enforcing halakhah as the law of the land? Jews are obliged to rebuke one another if they see someone who does not live by the Torah. But the concern, halakhically speaking, is not with making converts to a halakhic lifestyle rather than with the impression we make on the gentiles around us. In a pluralistic society and a pluralistic world we make a poor impression if it appears that our law, the law of the true God, makes us less committed to the wellbeing of our neighbors than to our own wellbeing. If it makes us look like inhuman religious creeps. Religion is supposed to curtail our natural self-interest, manage it by weighing it against a greater interest. It is clearly broken if instead it makes us more self-centered, even and especially if this collective self is enhanced by a transcendent deity.

Is a religious Jew obliged to pray for a rebuilding of the temple or even to exploit the possibilities of a secular system to advance the founding of the “third” temple? Perhaps, but that depends on how one determines Jewish religious obligation. There are differences of opinion. 19th-century liberal Jews, seeking to integrate into the republican societies of Europe and the United States, eliminated all references to a return to Zion and a rebuilding of the temple from their prayer books because it conflicted with their civic and patriotic obligations. What might a liberal prayerbook in the Jewish state look like? (To be sure, liberal or reform Judaism is a very small movement in the Jewish state.) Would it also need to eliminate all references to the building of the temple?

Perhaps it is time for a new, national liberal Jewish religion, one that affirms the values of biblical times: the love of neighbor and the insight of the prophets who were the critics of their own state. Something like Micah 6:6-8, for example:

With what shall I approach the LORD,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?
Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgressions,
The fruit of my body for my sins?

He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the LORD requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God.

For the practice of this Jewish religion, no temple is neeeded.

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