Friday, November 5, 2021 – א׳ כִּסְלֵו תשפ״ב
וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים׃ בראשית כה:כז
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. (Genesis 25:27)
In his speech to the Second Zionist Congress held in Basel on August 28, 1898, Zionist leader Max Nordau introduced the concept “muscular Judaism” (Muskeljudentum), promoting the vision of a new Jew: the Zionist with physical might that would also bring spiritual strength. That New Jew, that Zionist, was Esau. Nordau (whose philosophy of Racially Based Regeneration is, in hindsight, highly problematic) laid the foundations of a different concept: combining study with sports, work with Intellectual activity, bodily strength with mental resilience, and harnessing all that to build the Jewish national movement. It was a genuine zeitgeist. And it was the antithesis of “Jacob” – the image of the Diaspora Jew.
Muscular Judaism had an outsized effect on shaping the culture of modern Israel, influencing the early Halutzim, the Kibbutzniks, and the three pre-IDF paramilitary organizations alike. Sports organizations like Maccabi and Hapoel were created with Muscular Judaism in mind, still around today in varying capacities. Israeli youth groups like Maccabi Hatzair and Beitar were also founded with a heavy emphasis on Muscular Judaism, both still in existence.
It is an ethos that celebrates and emulates King David, Samson, Judah Maccabee, Bar Kochva, Yosef Trumpeldor, and more… It’s the mythic general Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and even Benny Gantz (the 6’5” blue-eyed, muscular Defense Minister). They were the legendary farmer-warrior-poets who offered a contra-image diametrically opposed to that of the Diaspora Jew. The ‘New Jew’ with a sun-tanned, muscular physique and blond wavy hair was the Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Diasporic Danny Devito – the image of a striking Paul Newman over the helpless Woody Allen.
The Israeli hero became the Esau, not the Jacob. [Secular] Israeli kids did not dream of becoming Rabbi Akiva, Rambam, or the Baal Shem Tov.
The medieval commentators Rashi and Ibn Ezra went to great lengths to show that Esau, not Jacob, was the deceiver and the one who tricked his father, but this is a simple reversal of the plain text. The straightforward reading of the text shows no such evidence.
But maybe Esau’s bad rep is unwarranted.
Esau’s character has some redeeming, even endearing qualities – found in many Jews. We all know aggressive self-made Jews who weep when meeting a long-lost Jewish brother.
Esau was the embodiment of the New Jew, sturdy and ruddy, a man of few words, abrupt, and direct. Comfortable in nature, a hunter and provider, he was tough and a man’s man. Esau was the Zionist dream. He gave hope to Jews across the Diaspora and let them live out their wildest fantasy of outgrowing their nebbishness.
Jacob was the antithesis. This אִישׁ תָּם יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים mild-mannered man was a homebody, never leaving the tent, cleverly plotting to outsmart his physically superior twin. If Esau was the New Jew, the Zionist, the Israeli, then Jacob was the Diaspora Jew, bookish, clever, with a “yiddishe kopf”, but physically feeble, vulnerable, afraid of the outside world.
Now the tables have turned. Those old images are no longer relevant. For many in today’s North American generation, power and strength are subject to criticism and suspicion. The image of the warrior-farmer-poet, King David and the Israeli general, turned from being the subject of admiration to admonishment.
For today’s contemporary generation, Leon Uris’ Exodus is a relic of the past. The powerful and gruff Israeli has become an immoral, power-abusing occupier. Forget Exodus and think Fauda.
And so it is today, according to a well-researched and thorough recent article in the New York Times, “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism,” journalist Mark Tracy highlighted this growing trend among progressive Jews and notably many rabbinical students:
One student at Hebrew Union College put it this way: “All of our texts were written during a history when we were the victims. What do we do now that we have power?”
I am encouraged by the fact that this student says: “We.” And we should acknowledge that many modern Jewish texts have, since Israel’s establishment, addressed the question of how we are meant to act like the majority, the sovereign, and militarily superior force.
Hannah Bender, an H.U.C. student who helped write the [May] letter, argued that it was rooted in ahavat Yisrael after all: “These things are a stain on the Jewish soul. They corrode our history. I make these critiques because I so deeply love the Jewish people and do not want us to be part of it.”
However, this term – ahavat Yisrael – were noticeably absent from the students’ letter, leading many to voice sharp criticism of them.
First, most Israelis would much rather go to college and begin their lives rather than dedicate 2, 3, or more years spent in the army. Many also are against the Occupation and much prefer to live in peace alongside their neighbors in a future Palestinian State. This is a reminder that many Israeli thinkers also struggle with the same questions about the morality of power and ethical behavior.
Second, alongside the many criticisms, morally questionable behaviors, and mistakes made, Israel has contributed an enormous amount to Jewish life, creativity, continuity, and culture in the last seven-plus decades. It is hypocritical and unreasonable to dismiss everything that comes from the Jewish State because one views its existence through the lens solely of the conflict. This is not a deflection nor an attempt to whitewash the sins and moral stains, but rather a call to regard both realities simultaneously. What’s more, when we Diaspora Jews and Jewish leaders include ourselves in the “We” of having power, we also must acknowledge the reality on the ground. When we openly chastise Israel, are we also willing to risk our lives to maintain not just power, but our existence? I am in no way saying that those who don’t live in Israel or serve in the army shouldn’t have an opinion. I am saying that it may be prudent to work to understand the perspective of those who do before becoming armchair generals.
Jacob remained in his tent as the quintessential armchair moralizer, reminding us how easy it is to tell others how to act when we don’t have to deal with the repercussions.
Which is better: to have no power and not risk committing questionable behavior, or to have sovereignty and risk confronting the moral and ethical dilemmas that come with sovereignty, threats, and constant security pressure? It is only sovereignty and power that allow the moral discussion to manifest practically beyond the theoretical. Of course, this isn’t a fair question. We as a people have a right to sovereignty and we are burdened with the imperative to strive morally and ethically.
Second, let us recognize that in the words of Rabbi Michael Marmur:
“There is now a small but significant and growing Progressive Jewish presence in Israel, and a much wider group of prospective partners, all of whom are seeking ways to articulate a Liberal theology of Israeli Judaism. Together with partners in this country, North America, Europe, and elsewhere who refuse to despair of their link with the State of Israel, this cadre of Israeli Liberals is charged with the task of creating a viable and compelling theology.”
Of course, Israel “has problems with discrimination, racism.” As student Leah Nussbaum claims, continuing to say, “that doesn’t reflect what I believe are Jewish values, even though it’s a Jewish state. And I think there can be a state that reflects Jewish values and ethics. Israel can do a lot better.”
Yes, Israel can do better, and so can we. Let us come together to discuss from a panoply of perspectives and dive deeply dive into our textual tradition to identify and highlight those values.
Let us bring together the values of Jacob and the values of Esau, the values of King David and the values of Rabbi Akiva, the values of Ben Gurion, and the values of Rabbi Heschel.
Jacob, traditionally lauded by the rabbis, deceived Esau, and Esau, bereft of his birthright, went on with his life. When they reunited decades later (“spoiler alert”) he wasn’t angry over the betrayal and the deception. He embraced his brother.
My message to our students and to all those who identify with them is simple:
Embrace your Israeli siblings. Share with them how you feel. Demand to be heard. But also listen to what they are saying and appreciate their experience.
Our partners and colleagues are fighting day in and day out for the prophetic and moral voice to win the day. It’s a fight against corruption, against abuses of power, and for equality and justice for all Israel’s inhabitants.
Be a partner.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
 There is a fascinating and important argument between two of the great Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt, over the concept of ahavat Yisrael which one can read about here and here.