Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lagging on this 33rd Day of the Omer

Tonight is Lag B'Omer and the country will fill with bonfires and little kids running around with bows and arrows pretending to be Bar Kochva's army. Another 400,000 will visit Mount Miron where the (supposed) grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is located. In many ways this is the most tragic holiday of the year and it has to do with the shortsightedness of the founders of the state. In my view, the 33rd day in the counting of the Omer is a clear sign of "lag" (pun intended) in our civil development.
The founders wanted to change the identity of the Israeli Jew from someone who was a frail scholar, or walked meekly to his death in Auschwitz without resistance, to somebody who fought back with courage and bravery. The problem with this approach was that not all courage and bravery is intelligent, ethical or democratic. In the end of his days, Shimon Bar Kochva was a vigilante who, likely, assassinated Rabbi Elazar (depending on how you read Talmud), and who defied the Sanhedrin. He was a vicious leader who wanted his soldiers to cut off a part of their finger as a sign of loyalty, and his revolt led to the murder of over half a million Jews living in Eretz Yisrael. By edifying Bar Kochva, the founders of Israel either intended to put the ends before the means or they were hoping to have a critically illiterate Jewish population who wouldn't ask why we celebrate.
The stories of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai are much different and it is for the reader to determine whether he is a sainted scholar or a zealot or both. The problem is that 400,000 Jews will make him a sainted scholar by visiting his grave and performing all kinds of superstitious acts with the hope of divine response. Why is this a problem? Well, I admit that the rabbis beliefs, at times, were similar to what I am calling here superstitious, but it is a problem because the performance of them is avodah zara, idol worship, and it is making holy a place in space as opposed to a moment in time.
I would argue based on my understandings of Jewish holiness, that we create holiness in time. Shabbat brings us holiness each week (as you might like to read about in Abraham Joshua Heschel's acclaimed book The Shabbat), as do the other moments in our calendar. The only places that have ever been graced with holiness are those were the shechina have visited, and Jews, for instance, clearly don't identify where Mount Sinai is. In fact, unlike Catholics, who have located and named Santa Catalina, as the place where God revealed Himself to Israel, we Jews do not identify holy spaces, with the exception of the place designated as holy in the Bible, our Temple in Jerusalem.
Why do I ascribe this problem, also of new Jewish behavior, to our founders, because they never fulfilled the promise in our Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, the promise of a, "Constitution which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948," and this has led us to a situation where we have at least two Jewish states living in the Land of Israel, one which clearly  lives by the laws and governance of the democratically elected government, and others.
I am not suggesting that all the people who went to Mount Miron this weekend are not good citizens. I do, however, believe that the founders failed us by not forging a way for all Israeli Jews to respect and participate in Clal Yisael, as our sages demanded, "All of Israel is engaged with each other." Instead of this national unity, we have different school systems, political parties which represent strictly religious perspectives, and a growing population that do not respect the laws of the state.
I remember, for instance, shopping for sandals with my father in law in Beit Shemesh. In the city center, a merchant didn't have the sandal I wanted in my size. He suggested that I go to his brother's store in the religious part of town. As further encouragement, he told me that there I wouldn't be charged value added tax. This is because this portion of our citizenry in Israel don't participate in the funding of

  1. the paving of our streets,
  2. the payment of salaries to our police force,
  3. the payment of teachers salaries
or any of the many constructive civil uses of our tax money. This is reminiscent of the American, Boston Tea Party, which is getting so much attention these days among, according to a recent New York Times poll, elite, disaffected white people who don't want to share their wealth with the less fortunate. This is not what I want for either of the countries I call home, but it is definitely not what I want for my Jewish homeland which was founded on the ideals of, "freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel," as written in our declaration of independence.
"All of Israel is engaged with each other," is not an idle claim. It is a demand of our sages who saved Israel from collapse almost two thousand years ago. It is the glue that brings to life the words of the Bat Kol, God's voice, which proclaimed that, "[Both] these and these are the words of a living God." Without the engagement of Clal Yisrael, constructively engaging each other, in an agreed upon framework, we are lost among the nations and lost to ourselves.
If we really want to engage in the constructive use of writing our narrative, then let's turn Lag B'Omer into a day of discourse about how we want to live our lives, together, in a united, sovereign and democratic state with a constitution and an agreed upon ethic of civility. When we reach that moment in time, we will clearly have created holiness and have lots of reasons for celebration.