Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nietzsche, Hanukkah & Israel Moments

Academic readings create strange intersections with life in Israel.  A few days ago, I read the first section of Nietzsche's "The Genealogy of Morals," for one of my courses at Mandel.  Where do morals come from according to Nietzsche?  He argues that good didn't used to mean "morally good," it just meant you were part of the strong, privileged class and "bad" didn't mean "morally bad," it just meant you were part of the weak, lower class.  So where did our idea of the "moral” come from?  You guessed it: the Jews.  But Nietzsche is no fan of Jewish (or Christian) morality:

Human history would be too fatuous for anything were it not for the cleverness imported into it by the weak…the Jews, that priestly nation which eventually realized that the one method of effecting satisfaction on its enemies and tyrants was by means of a radical transvaluation of values, which was at the same time an act of the cleverest revenge…It was the Jews who, in opposition to the aristocratic equation, dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, namely, “the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good…It was, in fact, with the Jews that the revolt of the slaves begins in the sphere of morals; that revolt which has behind it a history of two millennia, and which at the present day has only moved out of our sight, because it – has achieved victory.”

When I read this passage, a part of me said to myself, “guilty as charged.”  While I disagree with Nietzsche’s characterization that we suggested that “the wretched alone are the good,” that is far preferable to an ethics, if one can call it that, in which the only good is those who are strong, those who win.

For the next eight days, Jews around the world will include the following passage in every Amidah (prayer) and every Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) for Hanukkah:

We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean, Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Your world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Therefore Your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name

One could argue that the very meaning of Hanukkah is the victory of the weak – the Jews – over the strong – the Greeks, the Romans and a host of others in Jewish history who once oppressed us but now are gone.  But celebrating Hanukkah – and reading Nietzsche – in Israel is complicated.
Reading Nietzsche in Israel is complicated because scholars acknowledge that Nietzsche was read by, and influenced, the thought of Theodore Herzl and early Zionist poets Saul Tchernichovsky and Zalman Schneur.  Zionism constituted a break with one strand of rabbinic tradition that required waiting for the messiah to re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  By leaving Jewish tradition, and weakness, behind, Zionism moved forward (strongly) with the work that was necessary to build a state.  But strength is not only useful in building a State; it can be helpful governing one too.  Later in “The Genealogy of Morals,” Nietzsche writes about the virtue of forgetfulness.
“An inability to take seriously for any length of time their enemies, their disasters, their misdeeds – that is the sign of the full strong natures who possess a superfluity of moulding plastic force, that heals completely and produces forgetfulness…it is only in characters like these that we see the possibility (supposing, of course, that there is such a possibility in the world) of the real “love of one’s enemies.”
As one reads this passage in modern day Israel and thinks about our relationship with the Palestinians and our other efforts towards reconciliation with the Arab world, it is possible to hear Nietzsche’s statements as counsel for how to move forward in the world of nations. Could it be that we would do well to have confidence – not overconfidence, but confidence – enough in our own strength to strengthen those with whom we want to make peace, and for both of us to forget a bit of the past wrongs that haunt us?
Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel is complicated because in the Hanukkah drama, we were weak, God delivered us and the story ends there.  But here, it was secular Zionists who built the country. (I believe God’s hand played a role in the history of the founding of modern Israel but I have to be honest about the fact that the Zionists who built the country would likely protest that reading of history and certainly did not share that theology).  Here in Israel, the story of Hanukkah continues where the history leaves off.  At the end of the Hanukkah story, we are strong, as we are now.  The question is: what then?  Is a strong Jew an oxymoron?  Living in Israel, it is clear that a fundamental question of our era is: how does a Jew exercise power? 
With Nietzsche in my mind and Hanukkah on the horizon, we set out for our latest Tuesday afternoon tiyul to the Memorial site and the Armored Corps museum in Latrun.  All of our Tuesday tiyulim have been great but our three boys would tell you that the chance to see and climb on the world’s largest collection of tanks (in a museum) was amongst the best.  Here are some photos of the boys on the Merkava Mark 4 tank J

Now here is a quintessential Israel moment.  It is a quiet afternoon at Latrun.  It is not tourist season so many of these attractions have few visitors.  We pay the fee and the woman at the register tells us to wait for a minute while she calls for someone who will show us around in English.  Great – our own personal guide! Courtesy of the public relations department of the IDF.  The young man approaches and greets us when, after a moment, he says, “your face is very familiar.  Where are you from?”

“We’ve been in Los Angeles for the last 13 years,” I tell him.

“Wait, Camp Ramah?” he asks.  “Rabbi Dan??!!”

It turns out that Ethan, now Eitan, was a camper at Camp Ramah in California for two years – tzophim (entering 9th grade) and machon (entering 10th grade) – before his family picked up and made aliyah in 2004.

Eitan did a great job showing us around. He beamed with pride at the Merkava Mark IV – “the best tank on the face of the planet, made almost entirely in Israel.”  The kids asked him, “Can we get in the tank?”

“Only when you join the army,” he said, making that plug for aliyah that is just part of the vocabulary here.

I ask Jen, “how would you feel if they made aliyah and joined the army? Or joined the American army?”

“It’s an admirable and selfless path.  I’d be proud,” she said, as we walked with Eitan amongst the tanks.  I would worry if they were in the army, not only for their safety, but also for the ethical choices they would face as part of their service, in both the American and Israeli armies.  But I would be very proud, as I am of Eitan and the many other Ramahniks who have made aliyah and serve in the IDF, because their strength makes possible a great light in the world: Israel, Hanukkah, the continuing story of the Jewish people in our homeland.

The main purpose of the Hanukkah candles from the perspective of Jewish law is pirsuma d’nisa – to publicize the miracle (that’s why Chabad puts up big Hanukkiot in very public areas).  But one question we should ask about Hanukkah – what is the point of publicizing our miracle?  Is it to proclaim to the world: “They lost.  We won!”  If that’s the point, it just seems like bragging, bad sportsmanship.  Is it to proclaim, as Nietzsche argues, “the weak, the lowly, alone are good” – as if those without power are unassailable and those with power are unredeemable?

No.  The light of Hanukkah – the purpose of Jewish power – is to proclaim to the weak, the few, the pure, the righteous, those who love God – you are not alone.  Do not lose hope.  God, and we, are with you.  And to proclaim to ourselves, and the strong, that the purpose of our strength is defense on behalf of goodness.  Our light illumines the night, proclaims hope to despair, shines a beacon to dark corners.

Just a few hours ago, we ate sufganyot (doughnuts cooked in oil to remember the light) and spun dreidels, and I showed my sons candles burning all over the city – in windows, at the top of stair cases, on street corners.   Light shines from Jerusalem.  Happy Hanukkah.