75 Burning Candles

It seems to me that the way to overcome the problematic genetics of Jewish sovereignty is to set limits to it – not just mutually acceptable physical limits but also a healthy boundary between religion and state.

She’s 75 years old and sometimes acts like a bitter old lady with no future, and sometimes like an adolescent, moody and inconsiderate. She’s only 75 but she’s also an old soul, thousands of years old, whose earlier incarnations accompany her, for good or ill, wherever she goes. She’s 75 already but doesn’t yet have borders.

She’s impatient, hot-tempered, short-sighted, riddled with disparities and contradictions. She oscillates between victimhood and aggression, between self-love and self-hate. She’s creative, fascinating, powerful – but always under threat; and, being preoccupied with day-to-day survival, hasn’t yet found the time to deal with her most fundamental questions.

When she looks in the mirror and asks, “Who am I?” so many different identities jump out at her. Secular or religious, liberal or conservative, democratic or halachic, Jewish state or state of the Jews, state of all her citizens or state of all her nations.

She’s mired in ceaseless internal struggles between the forces that reside within her, compete for control over her. And that’s without mentioning the struggles from without – blood-drenched closed circuits that repeat themselves with tragic compulsiveness. Sometimes she’s alarmingly innocent and sometimes overly suspicious, sometimes a braggart and sometimes lacking in confidence. When she’s in the right, something nearly always goes wrong.  A kind of misfortune, bad timing, hostile neighbors, disruptions of time and space.

Through no fault of her own she’s addicted to fear and will therefore readily give herself over to anyone who promises to protect her, even if he doesn’t deserve her. Again and again, she’ll surrender to extremists. Sometimes it seems as though she’s grown old without growing up, withered before blooming, and although she’s thirsty for love, she’s failed to sufficiently endear herself even to those who are dependent on her.

And indeed, she isn’t easy to love; she gives so little yet demands so much, is tightfisted yet horribly wasteful.

She knows, and we all know, that although her existence comes at a high price, the price of her non-existence would be more terrible still.

In his essay “Past and Future,” Ahad Ha’am, one of the preeminent formulators of national-secular Jewish identity, tries to analogize the human lifecycle to the lifecycle of a people, the personal “I” and the national “I.” In both, the three main life stages are present: youth, when there is little past but a broad and abundant future; middle age, when memory and hope balance out; and old age, when the past is heavily loaded and the future diminished.

Can we apply this lifecycle analogy to a state as well? And where is Israel situated today between past and future, our old, young girl? Because one of the paradoxes here seems to be the gap between the age of the state and the age of the people that resides there, the nation for which the state was founded 75 years ago to be its home. A people staggering under the burden of bitter memories, that gathered within a just-born state – a state fighting for its existence in dangerous surroundings and which, despite its enormous achievements, is not managing to produce enough hope, enough future.

Can one change at 75?  Seventy-five-year-olds generally cling to familiar patterns and have trouble engendering change. But although a person’s days are numbered, those of a country are not. Thus, it’s both possible and necessary to hope that the state will continue to develop, mature, achieve balance, and gain flexibility. We can still hope that the future will win out over the past.

Because until now, no Jewish state has managed to endure, even relative to the human lifespan – not the kingdom of David and Solomon, and not the Hasmonean dynasty. And so now, more than ever, the state needs to gather all its strength – with our help – to defeat its problematic genetics, a DNA of turbulent, short-lived sovereignty, rife with internal conflicts that brought that sovereignty to an end.

Yes, our foremothers and forefathers didn’t do a great job of sustaining this home. Will we, and those who come after us, succeed? Today we know what they perhaps didn’t – that we have no choice.

This is a home that was dreamed of for countless generations but erected in haste, that’s collapsing under the weight of constraints, without a stable foundation. It’s a home surrounded by dangers, and though it may be undergoing upgrades and sprouting additional floors, its infrastructure often seems to be weakening. Our common Jewish identity was supposed to connect most of the building’s residents, but now as in the past it has become a source of discord and destructive tension.

It seems to me that the way to overcome the problematic genetics of Jewish sovereignty is to set limits to it – not just mutually acceptable physical limits but also a healthy boundary between religion and state. A too-close relationship between the two has unquestionably subjected our old girl to one of her worst afflictions. The time has come to put some order into the state’s relationship with religion, and this doesn’t mean, Heaven forbid, an anti-religious or an anti-Zionist act. To the contrary.

I know it won’t be easy. It’ll be crazy hard, but ultimately this separation – if it ever happens – will be good for both parties. And then Israel will be a state where the spirit of Judaism can exist as it should, as we were commanded thousands of years ago, even before the destruction of the First Temple – “It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah, 6:8). And it wasn’t just mercy we were commanded to love, but also the stranger living in our midst.

A Jewish state that is worthy in my eyes is a state that will maintain Jewish features, such as Hebrew as its official language and Shabbat and the Jewish holidays as days of rest, but religious faith will exist there without coercion and without discrimination. A state that doesn’t expect its secular citizens to forgo basic rights such as the freedom to marry or public transportation on Shabbat. A democratic state that will ensure equal rights for all its citizens, that will respect the rights of all its Arab citizens and its other minorities, that will strive to create a sense of partnership and belonging, since those are the supporting pillars of this tower-home in which we’re all crowded together.

A Jewish state that is worthy in my eyes is a state that will respect the rights of the Palestinians living within it, under occupation, and that will make every effort to end the occupation. A worthy Jewish state will welcome with open arms all those who identify with its values and link their fate with that of the Jewish people, as stated in the original Law of Return, and that won’t support obviously un-Jewish acts in the name of Halacha, such as insisting on the stringent conversion of Ethiopian Jews and subjecting them to family separation to this very day.

A state that will be the country both of those Jews who are not its citizens and of its citizens who are not Jews, a state that affirms the rightness of its existence and its right to exist but recognizes the pain it has caused – and in this sense the name given it by Theodor Herzl – the state of the Jews – would be a better fit. Because it’s not our status as the “chosen people” that we have to thank for our rebirth, but rather our being an oppressed people in need of its historic state in order to survive. Not on a basis of racial superiority, but as a haven from monstruous racism. Not driven by colonialist motives, but by existential necessity.

Ahad Ha’am, a highly contradictory figure himself, harshly criticized Herzl for ignoring the cultural-spiritual aspect of the people’s return to its land, the importance of Hebrew and of the historical Jewish tradition. The Judaism that he wanted to see in Eretz Israel was a revitalized culture, secular and modern but with deep ties to tradition and a commitment to intergenerational dialogue. There is no question that in those years, before the state was born, Herzl’s political Zionism was much more urgently needed than Ahad Ha’am’s spiritual Zionism, but now that the state is 75 years old the “educational-spiritual work” that Ahad Ha’am dreamed of, and that is now underway here, is tremendously important.

In order to set the miracle of the state’s establishment in motion, the pioneer generation had to sever itself from Judaism. But in our generation a different kind of secular revolution has begun, modest and hopeful, a revolution of connection. More and more Israelis want to get to know the sources of Jewish culture and are taking part in joint secular study. More and more Israelis want to bypass the existing religious mediation and appropriate Judaism for themselves, create new meanings for it while honoring its past.

For in the meantime, until the state manages to separate itself from religion – and along with quite a few regrettable and repellant developments – an Israeli-Jewish culture is springing up, open and egalitarian, working to create a secular Jewish life of substance and meaning. May that culture succeed in fixing, in whatever degree, what the Israeli religious establishment and Israeli politics botched during the state’s first 75 years of existence.

Yes, many mistakes have been made here, as well as awe-inspiring accomplishments. But our Jewish sources offer a relevant saying: as long as the candle is burning, there’s still time to repair.

How much more so for 75 candles.

Zeruya Shalev is a writer, poet, and literary editor