A B Yehoshua shot me a cheeky look as he reflected on how all the great Zionist thinkers in the early days were writers – Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky etc. Here was one of the greatest authors in Israel’s history up close and personal. He was on sublime form as he told us we were living in sin in exile in the diaspora and to be fully Jewish we should be in Tel Aviv, where we sat in conversation together. But his cheeky look was how he explained that the reason the Zionists were writers was because writers are in touch with the world, they have broad horizons – not like the rabbis, the rabbis of modernity weren’t great Zionist pioneers, they inhabit small worlds! As we ignored a tour guide who eavesdropped on our meeting with the Eretz West London Synagogue tour (she proceeded to make graphic hand signs at our guest) we had a stern lesson in Israeli life and a reminder that there are people in this world who would rather you didn’t even listen to opinions that are different to your own. I’d like to think that in our conversation A B Yehoshua was formulating his ideas for his latest article in Haaretz which came out just before the Israeli elections.
The theme of our tour tied in with a literature course I have been teaching through the Lyons Learning Project. We explore different writers and reflect on how their writing was influenced by and had an influence on Israeli society. We have discovered that Israel is a world constantly recreating itself, in dialogue with its past, rising up over the endemic trauma and grief to search for nobility and humanity. Not without its problems, but creative and non-conformist. We saw plays, dance groups, opera, theatre directors, musicians, circus performers, met authors, sang songs on the beach and even participated in open-mic night in a pub (all video footage has been destroyed, I’ve been promised).
Cultural works reflect layers of human experience and also society is transformed by these creations. Throughout the tour I emphasised something that writers on culture have been saying for years and was articulated brilliantly by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his Reith lectures:
…there just isn’t one great big whole called culture that organically unites all these parts. Spain—in the heart of the West—resisted liberal democracy for two generations after it took off in India and Japan in the East, the home of Oriental despotism. Jefferson’s cultural inheritance—Athenian liberty, Anglo-Saxon freedom—did not preserve the United States from creating a slave republic. At the same time, Franz Kafka and Miles Davis can live together as easily—perhaps even more easily—than Kafka and his fellow Austro-Hungarian Johann Strauss. You will find hip-hop in the streets of Tokyo. Something like this is true of cuisine: Britons once swapped their fish and chips for chicken tikka masala; now, I gather, they’re all having a cheeky Nando’s. (laughter)
Once we abandon organicism, we can take up the more cosmopolitan picture in which every element of culture—from philosophy to cuisine to the style of bodily movement—is separable in principle from all the others; you really can walk and talk like an African American and think with Matthew Arnold and Immanuel Kant as well as with Martin Luther King and Miles Davis.
And yet, even if there isn’t something essential about Jewish or Israeli culture, I’m going to be make a claim later that is crucially essential about who we are – that we have something at the heart of our story which we tell about ourselves year in, year out that has become so foundational as to almost be impossible to remove from our very being. In that way, I may be more like Auerbach in his book Mimesis than may be fashionable or acceptable today. There is something about our culture that is unique. But first when I talk of culture I don’t just mean our encounter in Israel with Jews.
Mira Awad the Palestinian Israeli who has performed at WLS, sang for us a song that the Minister for Culture boycotted because it was written by Mahmoud Darwish – the poet laureate of the Palestinians. Mira is one of those entrancing, brilliant and impassioned people who just captivated the group with her song writing workshop. But when she sang ‘Think of Others’ on a little travel guitar and invited us to join with her in Arabic, Hebrew and English ‘Leitani’ ‘lu hayiti’ ‘if only I’ we plunged into a cultural world that is also fighting for its creative spark to be kept alive even in the face of indirect and direct government interference.
I study late antiquity, specifically rabbinic literature (The Talmud) and some of my research is what is sometimes called ‘Cultural poetics’. How does a text reflect the world of its creators, how does it impact on the world in which it was created and what can we learn from what it signifies. These are questions we can do all the time today – like when we went to the Cameri Theatre and watched ‘God of Vengeance’ – a play that was written by Sholem Asch in Yiddish in 1906 and had the first lesbian kiss on Broadway in 1923 (yes you heard that right – 1923). It features a complex story that, shall we say, doesn’t portray Hasidic Jews in a great light (the whole cast were arrested for indecency after the Broadway performance) and pushes our understanding of morality to its extreme ends. We cried quietly afterwards – on the personal, we were changed.
Everything we saw was counter cultural. Perhaps that’s the point of Zionism and Israel. For a people who have always been somewhat on the outside looking in, even when you strive for normality in your nation, you are never satisfied with normal.
That’s all I could think about with the Beresheet moon landing attempt. How do we understand the efforts to be the fourth country ever to land a craft safely on the moon. Or to be the first to do it through private enterprise? There is something magnificently out of the ordinary in that. In spite of the problems in the country (yes you can list them too), this was a magical moment. And in spite of the failure and the lesson in humility, this was a dreamers’ project. Perhaps that’s what Israel is all about to be counter cultural and yet to be essentially Jewish – to continue the great Jewish tradition of imagining beyond the immediately possible.
The very first commandment given to the Children of Israel is in Exodus 12:2 is to observe the new moon – the Chodesh – of Nissan. Our first commandment. Pesach begins with the new moon, our people begins its story of freedom with the new moon. How fitting that Israel should attempt to land on the moon in Nissan. In the Talmud, that great cultural work of late antiquity, we are told that whoever blesses the new month at its proper time is as if they have greeted God face to face. The rabbis’ proof? A comparison of two verses – one about making ready for Pesach and one from the song of the sea:
“This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2)
And then in the Talmud (bSanhedrin 42a) Rav Yehuda tells us what blessing we should say to sanctify the moon (something called ‘Kiddush Levana’) which can be done up to around half-way through the month (so yes you can do it tonight). The blessing is as follows:
Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who by Your word created the heavens, and by the breath of Your mouth all their hosts. You set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task. And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. And to the moon You said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those You carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their Creator for the name of Your glorious kingdom. Blessed are You the Eternal One, Who renews the months.
And in this moment I love the idea of the moon being that which we turn to, to consider our place on the earth. The moon renews itself each month – waxing and waning. That is the spirit of our people, the spirit of Israel. We renew ourselves constantly – through our culture and through our dreams. We are destined to be renewed – it’s almost in our DNA. This month is the first of all months, it is the month when we renew most drastically our connection with our sacred story – the story that defines who we are and how we relate to other people around us more than any other. The story that has entered our imagination so deeply – the story of slavery, of freedom, of oppression and redemption. The story we tell all the time about ourselves that has become essential. And so perhaps as we look at the moon, AB Yehoshua was right that rabbis can sometimes be too narrow in their horizons of encounter. But at the moment when the sages from some 1500 years ago imagine the moon, the creator, the universe and our sacred purpose, they make us realise that perhaps we have never demanded so much from our horizons – to see our people in relation to every person facing oppression and our ideas and our dreams as renewed day by day. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.