Excerpt from ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter

from Chapter 1, The Zion Cycle

Attaining the Unattainable

I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 3:23–27)

The greatest Jewish prophet is barred from entry into the Promised Land. Moses is permitted to see the land, but not touch, feel, smell, hold, turn in his own hands, taste the fruit or be nourished by the produce. The rejection of Moses’s final plea formulates the land as unattainable. Moses ends his life in existential and material exile. Concluding its narrative on the far bank of the Jordan River, the Torah authors an enduring condition of longing for Zion.

In 1948, the declaration of the State of Israel inaugurated a paradoxical reality for the Jewish People: The unattainable had been attained. The material fulfillment of Zionism conflicts with the daily conditioning of exile embedded in the Jewish psyche. The new political reality did not instantly transform that consciousness. More than two generations have grown up with the assumption of the existence of Israel. At the same time, the liturgy, texts and traditions of the Jewish People perpetuate the idealization of Zion as an unattainable homeland. Both longing and fulfillment co-exist in the Jewish relationship to Israel. We can activate this creative tension to contribute toward updating the Zionist enterprise for the twenty-first century.

Before world Jewry could adjust to the achievement of freedom from persecution and autonomy to create a Jewish society, the initial euphoria that bore Israel through the first few decades was eroding. The work of refining the practices of Jewish statehood under extremely challenging conditions set in. Since achieving independence, Israel’s resolve to secure peace has met with rejection and violent aggression. Egypt and Jordan are notable exceptions – both signed treaties after Israel had vanquished Arab military invasions in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Amidst anti-Israel threats and violence, attaining a peaceful and prosperous Palestine alongside a secure Israel is a supreme challenge. Israel and Zionism are plagued by the unfathomable trials presented by a hostile region and increasingly hostile global community.

During the same post-World War II period and not unrelated to Israel’s restoration of the dignity of the Jewish People, Jewish communities throughout the world have been benefiting from the hospitality of their host nations. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many nations have improved their practice of tolerance and respect for human dignity, and uphold religious freedom. Though these values have long been enshrined in the constitutions of modern nations, they have usually been selectively interpreted. From the late twentieth century onward, in the Americas, in many parts of Europe, East and West, and, more recently, in the Former Soviet Union, Jewish communities are feeling more at home than ever. In view of this liberty, however tenuous it appears during crises, the unlikelihood of the ingathering of the Jewish diaspora to Israel is apparent. The Jewish People is diverse, distributed throughout the world, expresses itself through many forms of practice, and is committed to an inestimable variety of lifestyles. Acknowledging this reality, the connections and shared narratives of the Jewish People and Zionism need revision.

This book addresses the convergence of Jewish text with Jewish life at the meeting-point between the Jewish People and our historic homeland. Zionism merges history into contemporary experience. ReReading Israel opens texts to the current page of Jewish life, inviting readers from all traditions to participate in exploring an extraordinary human endeavor.

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You can read another excerpt, “Zion Cycle”, online at the Times of Israel.

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