A.B. Yehoshua’s Lamentable Lament

It was both ironic and appropriate that The Guardian chose Tisha B’av to publish Israeli literary icon A B Yehoshua’s examination of corruption in the Jewish State. Yehoshua’s lament underscores not only the problems of an unredeemed State, but the cluelessness with which otherwise intelligent people seek solutions to those problems. Galus, claims the Maharal (Netzach, chap. 24) is entirely artificial, and would tend to evaporate if not propped up artificially. Apparently, one of HKBH’s instruments in perpetuating galus is arranging that those who are to remain captive in it should not have any sense of how to extricate themselves.

Why Yehoshua would chose the Guardian – a paper whose knives are forever sharpened in readiness to eviscerate Israel – to mourn for the purer days of Israel’s past is something I simply cannot grasp. Perhaps he does not realize himself that he has given up on changing Israel from within, and seeks any sympathetic audience that will listen.

I find his reasoning uncompelling. I cannot share Yehoshua’s contempt for the “Occupation,” not being as blessed as he must be in finding an alternative to it short of national suicide. I would concede that it is not good for us to be in the position of hated authority over the lives of others. Someone has to clean sewers, but you don’t come home from a day of doing it smelling like roses. We can easily agree with Yehoshua that playing the role of hated occupier has not been good for the Jewish character. Death, however, creates even larger problems, and Yehoshua et al have not proposed any alternative to the ugly one that currently keeps some distance between the murderous hordes and the sons of pigs and monkeys.

Confirmation that acting oppressively might blemish the soul comes from this week’s parshah about the inhabitants of the city that was led astray. HKBH follows up on the command to kill them with a blessing of compassion, which seems odd. The Ohr HaChaim explains that killing people, even justifiably, takes its toll upon our character. Hashem therefore promises undo the unwanted effects through a special berachah of compassion. (Those who look for the original at 13:18 will find special irony in his description of Yishmaelim who are recruited to be killers, and how they lose all vestiges of compassion.)

Israelis, however, have long been conscious of how acting as an occupier can harm the national psyche. They wrestle with the consequences, and try to do their best to minimize the impact upon them. From the continued shuttling of Gazans to hospitals in Israel to the support that a majority of Israelis have for a two-state solution, there is more than ample evidence that Israelis have not travelled along the same road towards cruelty and barbarism as their enemies.

While reasonable people might disagree as to whether Yehoshua has isolated a possible contributor to a moral malaise in Israel, no one could easily dismiss a host of other possible causes for the spate of monetary scandals that Yehoshua ignores. Israel has become richer and more self-indulgent. It is tired of six decades of war. Some of its most treasured assumptions have been proven wrong – e.g. that the State would assure the security of its citizens and Jews around the world, and that having such a State would diminish global anti-Semitism as Jews would finally be given the respect and acceptance of other peoples. The idealism of the founders of the State has not perpetuated itself to the liking of the older generation. How can Yehoshua ignore all the other differences?

Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l of the Mir got it right. Hearing of an academic conference on the precursors of goodness, Rav Yeruchem argued that they were going about things the wrong way. Rather than present papers on the factors that might predispose someone to be a better person, they ought to find an exemplar of the qualities they admired, and seek to understand what made him or her to become that person. He suggested that the Chofetz Chaim would be an appropriate subject.

If he will settle for something less than the perfection of the Chofez Chaim, Yehoshua should not have to look too far to find many individuals in contemporary Israel – both religious and secular – who could be “reverse engineered” in this way. I have personally met too many of them – both religious and secular – to have any doubt that there are some intensely principled, idealistic and dedicated people who will likely not fall into the same venal rut as highly placed people in the Government have.

Knesset will not be a good place to look. No institution or major group I know of seems to be beyond serious shortcomings, especially when in regard to monetary matters. But we all know individuals, both among the great and not so great, who are as far removed from these shortcomings as imaginable. In my experience, their common denominator is that they intensely believe in something bigger than themselves. For truly frum people, that is part of the territory. For those who are not, the concept they are committed to may be the Jewish people or the Land of Israel. Those truly dedicated to some national ideal are more likely to hold fast to principles of incorruptibility. The irony is that someone as talented as A B Yehoshua has not placed greater focus on communicating the specialness of the Jewish experience to a younger generation that has been left without idealistic dreams and heroes. Strip text books of their references to the miraculous victories of ’48 and ’67, teach young undergrads that perhaps Israel was a still-born experiment in the death-throes of European colonialism, and give them a Prime Minister who argues that Israel should brand itself as “a fun place,” and idealism will wither and die, with or without an “Occupation.” While fundamentally disagreeing with him, I can respect Yehoshua for his resistance to a Jewish role as occupier; I can neither fathom or forgive him for his blindness to the other deficiencies in providing a moral compass to Israelis.

R Yerucham’s advice might serve as a guide to all of us, not just a cantankerous Israeli leftist. We are left all too often scratching our heads about various phenomena in our community, or recklessly offering shallow solutions with no evidence to back up their effectiveness, or simply giving up in despair. Why not, instead, look for the success stories, and carefully understand why they work? Rumor has it that some batei din are moving to put a lid on gittin granted during the first year of marriage, because they are appalled by a spate of such dissolutions, and believe that one of the reasons they occur is that people are more likely to give up today without really trying to make it work. Plagued by a growing divorce rate, why not focus on the marriages that do work, and see what features they have in common? Why are some kiruv workers doing a better job than others? Why do many off-the-derech kids come back, while others do not? Why do some talmidei chachamim show much creativity in their published works, while others are more predictable?

Sometimes, the best place to look for answers is within the people who have them.

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3 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    AB Yehoshua, Amos Oz et al pine for a non-existent past which makes their present so drab and immoral.

    Perhaps it’s the perpetual insecurity Jews have with success, as exemplified by Steven Spielberg’s two Jewish movies. The suffering and dying of our people in the Holocaust was presented with great sympathy. The fighting and killing of our enemies after Munich, not so much. We like it when Jews are the victims but shuffle nervously when Jews stand up to their enemies and fight back successfully.

    Like some religious Jews who have created a fictional “old country” where everyone was frum, some secular Israelis have created a fictional Israel that, before 1967, was a wonderful and moral place to live. There was no occupation, the people were united, the country had a sense of purpose, etc.

    Naturally these are all fictions. Pre-1967 there was an occupation, only it was the state of Israel itself that was occupied according to the Arabs. Israel’s economy was a disaster year after year. The people were at each other’s throats constantly – right vs left, religious vs. non-religious.

    But all that has faded from the memory of these writers. With the world now condemning Israel for surviving the 1967 war and “occupying” their own land which had been stolen from them in 1948-9, they wish to return to the days when Israel was the underdog, in perpetual danger of being wiped out, because then the world sympathized with us and liked us. That is an Israel their moral senses can live with. A successful Israel with its hand on the neck of its enemies is not.

  2. tzippi says:

    Paragraph 5 (“Israelis, however, have long been conscious….)is magnificent and deserves the widest dissemination possible.

    About Israel’s fatigue: it calls to mind the commentary of Rav Schwab, zt”l on the morning bracha, Hanosein laya’ef koach, Who gives the weary one strength. He understands that this is not referring to the daily renewal of the individual’s strength, as the brachos immediately prior to this are referring to the collective, Israel. Instead, it should be understood, who gives a weary and battered and bone-tired nation Israel the strength to go on.

  3. SM says:

    A successful Israel with its hand on the neck of its enemies is actually a contradiction in terms. A successful Israel would have its hand in the hand of its neighbours.

    People who espouse these views wish for days where Jews demonstrate strength at the expense of magnanimity and wish to be part of an Israel the whole world is against. This is an Israel their moral senses can live with. An Israel which puts humanity to others above the possession of land is not. To avoid it they evoke what God wants – as if they had some privileged access to the knowledge that HKBH would rather we fought than thought.

    You see Garnel, all arguments have a flip side. Attacks on the morals of the people who sincerely hold a view are wrong. Chodesh tov and have a thoughtful Ellul.

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