Israel: Mind and Body
Studying Torah in modern Israel makes perfect sense, and is ironic. It makes perfect sense – every year thousands of kids spend a “gap year” between high school and college in yeshiva or on gap year programs such as Nativ and others like it.
(Forgive me a digression: For the record, I am a big fan of the gap year. University is an unbelievable opportunity. Four to five years to read, think, discuss and write about literature, science, philosophy, history with professors and students – the Mandel Foundation has afforded me this one year for which I am unbelievably grateful; what I wouldn’t give for another three or four years!! But university is wasted on too many of our young people who, understandably, spend their first year or two partying, sowing their oats, skipping class, watching ESPN and trying to figure out who they are independent of their parents’ homes. Better to come to Israel; do a gap year program. Travel. Explore. Think about identity and the meaning of life on the buses between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, fall in love with the Mediterranean beaches and the holiness of Jerusalem; get some of the partying out of your system and then return to university more mature, more emotionally prepared to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that classes and libraries and the university community has to offer. Feel free to disagree – but this is my $.02 on the year after high school.)
Thousands of others come to the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardeis, Yakar etc.. to learn Torah Lishma ("Torah for its own sake") or to study for the first or third year in rabbinical school at the Conservative Yeshiva, Machon Schecter, the Hebrew Union College and other places. The midrash teaches, “There is no Torah like that learned in the land of Israel” (Breishit Rabbah 16:7). On Shabbat morning we sing, “Ki Mi Zion Tetzei Torah u’dvar Adonai Mi’Yerushalayim – Torah goes out from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem.” Learning Torah in Israel makes perfect sense. But it is also ironic.
It is ironic because Israel was not established by the religious; it was established in large part by secular Zionists who despaired at what the overemphasis of study had done to the Jew by the end of the 19th century. In an 1882 article in the magazine, American Hebrew, Emma Lazarus wrote, “For nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved…Let our first care to-day be the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism, so that in future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced.” At the Second Zionist Congress, 1898, in Basel, Switzerland, Dr. Max Nordau argued: “We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles,” and, in a later article entitled, “Muskeljudentum,” he wrote, “All the elements of Aristotelian physics – light, air, water, and earth – were measured out to us very sparingly. In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners. But now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again. Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.” Coming to the modern state of Israel to steep oneself in the Jewish tradition has little to do with the founding ethos of the state; it is an irony of history that so many Jews come here to study when the early Zionists sought to rehabilitate the Jewish body from the sickly state of too many years in the study hall.
I have not included quotations above because I happen to be reading the late 19th century writings of Max Nordau and Emma Lazarus; I found them in a book I am reading called, The Jewish Body, by Melvin Konner http://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Body-Encounters/dp/0805242368. The book is fascinating – “nothing less than an anatomical history of the Jewish people” claims the book jacket – but reading it while in Israel adds texture to his topic.
As one might expect, Konner includes two chapters on the Shoah with a surprising insight: “Even many who know quite a lot about the Holocaust don’t realize that it was in essence a public health project. Jews were diseased, of course, but more important, they were a disease. ‘Modern science’ taught that genes are the foundation of all health, and Jewish genes were destroying the health of the German race…In essence, this was a public health crisis and German physicians and scientists rose to the occasion.”
I happen to arrive to these two chapters on the Shoah while I take a break from the dancing on the morning of Simchat Torah. It is, admittedly, a strange text to read in such a setting. There I am, outside on a bench reading while, inside, Jewish parents carry their children on their shoulders, dancing in circles with the Torah, singing Hebrew songs in ecstatic celebration. What am I reading? One passage reads: “According to an affidavit filed by Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, ‘Babies who interfered with the shaving of their mother’s hair were grabbed by the legs and smashed against the wall. Upon occasion the guard handed the bloody mess to the mother” (Konner, p. 101). Another passage quotes from the responsa of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry from the Shoah. It reads, “Since pregnancy was punishable by death, [Oshry] permitted contraception and abortion. But the very day the edict was put forth – May 8, 1942 – a pregnant Jewish woman passed the ghetto hospital. A German soldier noticed her belly and shot her through the heart. Rabbi Oshry was nearby and was urgently asked if a Caesarean section was allowed. If the baby were dead, would it not be desecrating the mother’s body? He ruled that the baby should be saved, but the meticulous Germans came to record the name of the murdered woman. One ‘grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room’” (Konner, p106).
I wipe away tears from my eyes as the 3rd round of singing ends. Babies. Jewish babies. Opposite me is a children’s Torah reading where nine and ten year-olds read from the Torah for one another, flawlessly because they are reading in their native tongue. Later, I get an aliyah. Everyone gets an aliyah on Simchat Torah so, to keep things moving, the gabbai recites a shorted mi’sheberach – blessing – for each person who is called for an aliyah. The shorted blessing is, “May the One Who blessed the parents bless the children, and let us say, ‘Amen.’” I said, Amen, and think to myself, “God should bless the children, but our tradition also teaches, “don’t depend on a miracle.” If we want God to protect our children, we ought do it ourselves.”
The next day, Friday, I take our children to spend the day at the pool at Ramat Rachel. The pool is on the outskirts of Jerusalem and is known to be quite secular. It has a five-lane 25-meter pool, a play area, a kids pool, is open on Shabbat – it costs 5 NIS more to enter on Shabbat – has yoga classes, a weight room, exercise cycles, a hot tub, steam room and a sauna. Gorgeous young women walk around in bikinis. A 60 year old man slowly jogs through the grassy area. My kids enjoy the water slide while I settle into Konner’s next chapter on the Zionist rebirth: “The Body Returns.” While I’m reading, a 16 or 17 year-old young man in an embarrassingly small bathing suit approaches the rickety sun shade next to me. He turns up his iPod, gently jiggles the poles, stands on a chair, and jumps up to the cross bar and starts doing pull-ups. Elderly people sitting underneath the sun shade – which now is shaking a bit with each pull up – look up for a moment, and then go back to their conversations and coffee. The young man is training, of course, for the army. I look around at the bikinis and swimming pools, the water slides and young men – all Jewish – and think, this is a long way from an Eastern European study hall, and is exactly what the early Zionists had in mind.
My grandfather, Sam Cohen (z"l) was the official photographer of the Oakand Raiders in the 1970s. He owned Cohen's Camera Center in Oakland and used to go out with Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange on Sierra Club trips in the 1950s and 60s. We love photography in our family. So it is with much fatherly pride that I post a photo taken by our eldest son, Alon (age 11), that he took of a man while we waited for the bus on the way to Machaneh Yehudah (the shuk) last Wednesday before Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. Enjoy!