On July 2, 1968, two months past my seventeenth birthday, I flew to Tel Aviv to begin a year abroad in Israel. It was my first trip there, but immediately, it felt as if I was returning home. When I hiked on Mount Carmel, for example, I felt that I was walking in the Prophet Elijah’s footsteps as he confronted the prophets of Ba’al. When I visited the family of my father’s first cousin in Yavneh, I was aware that I was yards away from the site where Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, recently escaped from a first-century Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, had established the school that gave birth to the Oral Torah and the Talmud. I was more connected to every flower, every bend in a Jerusalem road, than I had ever been in my actual home in New York.
The power of my attachment grew out of the Jewish community in which I was raised. The words of our liturgy and the rhythms of our ritual calendar all pointed eastward, to Jerusalem. We began to pray for rain in October, the start of Israel’s rainy season. We sang about the blossoming of almond trees in January. At the conclusion of every meal, we expressed thanks for God’s gift of food, and we gave thanks for God’s gift of a pleasant, good, and spacious land, and we prayed that Jerusalem be rebuilt speedily in our day. On the three major Jewish festivals—Passover (Pesah), Pentecost (Shavuot), and Tabernacles (Sukkot)—the liturgy reminded that “We were exiled from our Land because of our sins.” Three times a day, all year long, we declared God as Redeemer, by which we meant the One who redeemed us from Egyptian bondage and would someday redeem us again by gathering us back to the Land of Israel. In the words of Judah Halevi, an eleventh-century poet who lived in Muslim Spain, “I was in the West, but my heart had all along been in the East.”
All of my adult life, I have been trying to explain the centrality of the Land in my consciousness to non-Jewish colleagues and friends, so I know how difficult it can be for a liberal Christian (let alone a member of the Society of Friends) to understand it. Our different religious traditions may lead us to identical emphases on the centrality of the life of the spirit. We may share a devotion for social justice, economic equality, pluralism, diversity, immigration reform, and LGBTQ rights, and yet my deeply held attachment to the Land of Israel and to Jewish people in Israel and around the world often mystifies non-Jewish friends.
In addition to the mythic centrality of the Land of Israel in my consciousness, there is another essential piece of Judaism that may seem odd: Judaism is a civilization—a religious civilization, but a civilization nevertheless. It encompasses more than beliefs and ritual practices. It includes Jewish languages, sacred and less sacred literatures, foods, music, all of which are embedded in the lives of Jewish communities. My connection to the Jewish people is the ground out of which my religious and spiritual reality emerges. As a result, I feel deeply connected to Jewish people with whom I share few values and whom I would not want as friends. It’s familial, it’s mythic, and it’s powerful.
Central to the shared Jewish narrative is the story of having been exiled from our Land, and having suffered in exile as we have awaited our messianic return to it at the end of time. I don’t think of the current State of Israel as the fulfillment of messianic redemption, but something primal is aroused in me when I behold the ingathering of Jewish refugees who were persecuted in and sometimes expelled from Iraq, North Africa, Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, the former Soviet Union, as well as the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Thank God, my four grandparents arrived in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, and we have thrived safely here for 110 years. But we have not forgotten the shared narrative. The cousin I visited in Yavneh in 1968 survived Auschwitz; most of her siblings did not. The overwhelming majority of my extended family did not survive. And so I never forget that whatever else they are, Israelis are refugees, too.
I am not supporting here any particular actions or policies of the government of the State of Israel, past or present. I will have something to say about that in future posts. Here I am attempting to explain how and why the Land of Israel and the people of Israel may look very different to me than they do to people raised in other traditions. As some people experience their deepest spiritual yearnings via the medium of the Eucharistic Host, the Ka’aba in Mecca, the Ganges River, or assorted holy scriptures, the Land of Israel has served similarly for Jewish people long before there was ever a modern State of Israel. To understand me, you have to understand that.
On Jewish holidays, I still sing the words of Psalm 137: “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?…May my right hand wither if I do not ascend to Jerusalem in utter joy.” And on some deep level, I mean what I sing.