Spirituality at its finest
April 18, 2012
Do you remember when Yom Ha’atzmaut evoked sheer amazement — an Independence Day for a sovereign Jewish state! Who would have believed it? Well, the quality of the day has changed. Next week it will be upon us once again, but it has grown so familiar with age that most Jews here will not even notice it come and go, and those who do will wonder what to do with it.
My suggestion is that we treat it as the opportunity to make spiritual sense of having a Jewish homeland while living outside of it. Gone are the days when founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion could argue that the only proper Jewish response was aliya. Gone too are the days when Jews had scruples about having a Jewish state altogether. And gone are the days when Jews in the Diaspora could relate to Israel meaningfully with no other rationale than proprietary amazement.
That is a formidable truth, especially about the next generation of Jews, those under 40 (let us say), who can just as easily leave Judaism as stay in it, and who want to know that the Jewish project matters enough to command their allegiance. I call that search for commitment “spiritual.” Hence my claim that it is time to make “spiritual sense” of being a Jewish people divided by geography. What does it mean to live either in or outside the Land (ba’aretz or hutz la’aretz) but be connected metaphysically with a shared mission that gives being Jewish its raison d’etre?
That there is such a mission, I take for granted (although I know it deserves argument — but on another occasion). My concern here is the phenomenon of the Israel-Diaspora divide, which goes back as far as the collective Jewish memory reaches. We need a useful way to think about it.
A productive starting point is the consciousness of space and time as complementary ways of being in the world. We inhabit both but have different perceptions of each. Points in space are arrayed in a way that allows us to commute back and forth among them. Not so time, which seems more like a video passing before our eyes — just the point that we call “now” actually exists; the others (past and future) belong to memory or anticipation.
A singular phenomenon of Judaism is its intentional seriousness about both. Like other religions and cultures, we too have a holiday cycle that celebrates sacred time — no surprise there. But, somewhat uniquely, we also insist that we have a land, a plot of sacred space without which we would not fully be Jews.
Religions tend to be phenomena of time — they measure their birth by a single historical moment when a prophet, savior, or sage called them into being. Judaism too goes back to a primordial call in time, but it depends as well on a primordial space that was singled out simultaneously. The founding message to Abraham was precisely to go to the land that God would show him. Judaism, then, had a sacred place the moment it came into being.
So the plenitude of human aspiration is lived out in time and in space; Judaism, from the outset, highlighted both.
Modern times have seen what amounts to a division of sacred labor: Israelis inhabit spiritual space; Diasporans mine spiritual time. Israelis, who know only space, are chagrined by Diasporans who never even contemplate moving to Israel. Diasporans, who know only time, are piqued by Israelis who go to the beach, not the synagogue, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Both charges are true, but neither is a sign of spiritual ill will. They are simply outgrowths of our two diverse orientations to the sacred: sacred space for Israelis, sacred time for Diasporans.
This time/space perspective sheds light on the attractiveness of Jewish peoplehood. Ever since the destruction of the First Temple, we have known communities in Israel and in the Diaspora, each one strengthening the other. I do not mean just the exercise of money and power: Diasporan donations that fuel Israeli economic and military genius, which in turn bring pride to the Diaspora. I mean something deeper — a worldwide and eternal people harnessing spiritual energy from the entire space-time continuum.
To live just in space or just in time is impoverishing. I relish the reminder that I have both, and Yom Ha’atzmaut is just such a reminder: a moment in sacred time to affirm my commitment to sacred space. When accompanied by thoughtfulness about the purpose of Jewish peoplehood, the universal mission for which the Jewish people exists, it can be Jewish spirituality at its finest.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).