Risks and Faith by Carmela Ingwer
Volume 5 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1991 | Tishrei, 5752)
My first Israel Independence Day in Jerusalem was somewhat bewildering. Virtually everyone, young and old, pious and irreverent, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, went dashing about with colorful little plastic hammers, shouting and tapping each other gleefully on the head. Amazed, I asked an Israeli friend what all the head-knocking was about. "We can't believe we did it!" he exclaimed. "We can't believe we actually created a Jewish state from nothing! This is to wake us to the reality." He then dutifully bopped me on the head with his hammer. I, too, had to be roused from the ranks of those who could not believe.
Years later, it occurred to me that spiritually, most modern Jews increasingly resemble a noisy Israel Independence Day crowd. We celebrate our survival with a great clamor, but have trouble believing. We have lost the powerful faith that sustained our Biblical ancestors, and must struggle to reawaken it.
As Israel conditionally prepares to attend the historic Mideast peace conference, we must take pause to consider the relationship between hard political decision making and the issue of faith in our homeland. What will motivate the Israeli delegates as they consolidate their positions at the conference table? Will the faith of our Biblical ancestors inspire Israel's leaders to take risks for peace? This momentous conference compels us to reexamine the nature of faith in Israel as it affects the moral, spiritual and political life of the country.
We can no longer pretend that Israel's painfully fruitless attempts to quell the Intifada have not scarred the nation's innermost fiber. What author David Shipler has called "the exchange of wound for wound" delineates Israeli/Palestinian existence in the land. Perpetuating this moral erosion, the occupation is symptomatic of an impoverished faith which has blocked resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel's leadership has, for years, abandoned the tenacious faith of its forebears. A reclamation of that faith would propel Israeli statesmen to take necessary risks in a land-for-peace settlement at the conference for the benefit of both Israelis and Palestinians. With this in mind, I wish to focus upon some key aspects of Judaism's tradition of risk-taking based on faith.
Abraham and Sarah were the first to commit themselves to taking risks before God. Whatever their shortcomings, they were motivated by the profoundest faith. Shaping the foundation of the Jewish people out of little more than their own belief, they became the archetypical community of faith. God enjoined Abraham: "Go forth from your country, and from your kindred, and from your Father's house, to the land that I will show you." (Gen. 12:1) The enormity of that challenge lay not only in its directive that Abraham leave Haran for the unknown, but in the mandate that he sever all ties to the cultural and spiritual landscape of his past. God did not merely demand of Abraham to make a fresh beginning in His name. He importuned him to recreate his very being through a radical reengagement of faith. "Go forth." A command shattering the security of a lifetime, yet unfolding the tender promise: "Through you shall the families of the earth be blessed." (Gen. 12:3) Thus, from the outset, God steered Abraham to acknowledge that risk-taking would be an essential dynamic of his faith. Exploring Abraham's willingness to embrace risks is to joyfully witness the inception of what was later known as Z'chut Avot - merit of our ancestors.
Moses a Risk-Taker
Moses, like Abraham before him, faced the void time and again through his abiding faith in the Lord. Despite his stutter and initial trepidations, he became the most courageous of risk takers. His faith impelled him to dare to confront the power of Pharaoh for the sake of his enslaved brethren. Victorious in leading the people out of Egypt and the jaws of Pharaoh's army, Moses risked peril after peril as he instructed and guided the spiritually battered Children of Israel in the word of God. Without the faith of their great leader, our ancestors would never have encountered God at Sinai, or emerged as a holy nation from the torments of the desert. Bereft of faith and the impetus to take risks, they would have succumbed to their fears and returned to Egypt, utterly broken.
Biblical history electrifies us with its vivid array of risk-takers. Akin to the towering figures of Abraham and Moses are others for whom faith proved a mighty animus. Who can forget Jacob, whose resolute faith enabled him to subdue his overriding fear of Esau, and reconcile with him? Gideon's faith won him victory over the vast army of the Midianites with only three hundred men at his side. And Esther, as beautiful in her faith as in her person, selflessly risked her life to save the Jews from certain death.
Among the prophets, Jeremiah most poignantly took risks at God's bidding, unveiling a faith which bore him through the worst of ordeals. Overwhelmed with sorrow for his willful nation, Jeremiah struggled with the burden of prophecy. At low ebb, he sought to empty his soul of the divine calling. Yet Jeremiah knew he would not. His faith gave expression to the fiery word of God within him, and empowered him to risk the wrath of his listeners. When Jerusalem fell, Jeremiah's enduring belief and message of comfort revitalized the very people who had rejected him.
Each of the Biblical heroes cited took extreme risks that preserved or redeemed the Jewish entity physically and spiritually. Their achievements were masterstrokes of their deep-rooted faith. These are the ancestors to whom we cling with childlike wonder. If it were not for them, we remind ourselves, we would not be here today.
Keeping the Faith
Thanks to the dedication of our immediate forebears, the visionaries of modern Zion, we are not only here, but firmly established in Israel once again. The century that has afflicted us with the greatest slaughter in our history has also granted millions of Jews dignity and refuge in our beloved homeland. From every imaginable corner of despair the exiles are returning with messianic speed. Jews from Russia and Ethiopia bridge the distance of centuries as they behold one another on Israeli soil, heralding an end to the enforced exile of our people. Do we really need further proof of Israel's success in "keeping the faith?"
I cannot deny that a certain level of genuine faith is to be found in Israel. Without some faith, the exhausting, and at times, danger fraught efforts in behalf of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry would never have come to fruition. Without some faith, Israelis could not have so valiantly withstood the Iraqi Scud missile attacks.
However, a closer look reveals that a dimension of Israel's faith has been derailed from the binding Biblical tradition of active risk-taking. Israel's leaders have long appeared to prefer their own dysfunction to the risks entailed in a meaningful quest for peace. Since the Intifada began, they have had scant control over the vicissitudes of violence in their domain, or over the hunger, helplessness, and rage which circumscribe every aspect of Palestinian existence. Although the occupation defies the noblest of God's laws in its oppression, few in Israel have challenged this abuse of our tradition.
The Israeli Right insists that amassing more land in the name of a ?Greater Israel? while suppressing Palestinian resistance - with brute force, if necessary - is to follow the path of reason and righteousness. More moderate voices have apparently had negligible impact. One can only hope that in view of the proposed peace conference, these moderate voices will more successfully influence their leaders to take the risks that would reconnect the nation to its ancestral faith.
Example of Dr. King
The potential of risk-taking based on faith is demonstrated in the universally acclaimed example of Dr. Martin Luther King. Deeply affected by the Biblical account of Moses and his crucial role in the liberation from Egypt, he imbibed the passion of the ancient Hebrew leader. Dr. King knew that there would be no quick fix for the plight of black Americans, and that only a series of risks flowing from the staunchest religious belief would actuate his nonviolent philosophy. Nonviolence in the South took hold, in part, because this brave man led other ministers in spearheading a movement which emulated the pure faith of the Hebrew Bible. Dr. King's epochal speeches thundered with the rhythmic teachings of our prophets, investing men, women and children with the courage to confront police dogs, shotguns, fire hoses and tear gas, to be hogtied and humiliated. "Justice, justice, you shall pursue" (Deut. 16:20) was for them an injunction to put their belief on the line, leaning on God as they shouldered the risks. Understood in this light, the early civil rights movement was literally an act of faith.
What has happened to Israel's faith? Why are there not religious leaders in Israel to follow in the footsteps of Abraham Joshua Heschel? The famous rabbi and scholar marched with Dr. King, and implored his fellow Jews to join the just fight. All too few Israeli rabbis are willing to openly acknowledge that in Israel there is a just cause to champion - a moral resolution to the nightmare of occupation. Are peace and justice worth so little? Or is it because Israelis, for once, see themselves not as violated outcasts, but as unwilling masters? Is the horror of their predicament simply too shocking to face? I continue to pray for the day when Israeli leaders will place the declaration of Zechariah atop their national agenda:
Not by might, nor by power But by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts. (Zech. 4:6)
The rise of liberation theology amid the abject poverty of Central and South America in the 1970's echoed the redemptive thrust of Judaism. Evolved by priests who inveighed against the repression of their people, liberation theology radically redirected the actions of many in the clergy. Priests began to challenge the status quo, asserting that the poor were also God's children and entitled to dignity. Jews, it may be assumed, were, by nature, sympathetic to the new movement. Our tradition has always been an unequivocal advocate of the humane treatment of one's fellow man, based on its seminal concept that all humans are created in God's image. The fact is that we have no trouble envisioning ourselves as rachamanim b'nei rachamanim - children of compassionate ones. We regard the capacity for mercy as intrinsic to our spirit.
Return to Value-based Faith
Israel's leaders would do well to take a cue from liberation theology in order to restore a measure of righteousness to their nation. The country's continuous and harsh treatment of the Palestinians shows that it can no longer lay claim to the active practice of justice and compassion for all. Palestinians have been perceived by most Israelis as ?The Enemy, The Problem.? Israel must return to the value-based faith of its past to reorient itself, much as did the developers of liberation theology. Only thus will the people's spirit be realigned with the faith of their ancestors, who took risks out of the conviction that "Zion shall be redeemed by justice." (Is. 1:27)
The road to renewal is rarely easy, and seldom is its course clearly marked. Never in Jewish memory has there been a collective step into the great beyond more unpredictable than the Exodus from Egypt. To the departing Israelites, Egypt embodied the darkest evil. Yet the uncertainties of their harsh desert freedom soon brought the multitude to demand a return to Egypt; God's signs and wonders were no match for the "security" of their former condition. Egypt was despised, but it was also familiar.
Modern Israel possesses the security which its forebears lacked upon leaving Egypt. A government, a people's army, and a proud record of overcoming obstacles have distinguished its forty-three years of statehood. Israel is adequately equipped to venture into the unknown territory of risks for peace, but may lack the will. Like the Children of Israel, the country's leaders have balked in the past at the uplifting prospect of a new beginning. They have stood fast in the familiarity of the tragic status quo.
Israel approaches a period of reckoning. Prime Minister Shamir's government has agreed, albeit reluctantly and under intense pressure, to participate in the U.S.- sponsored Mideast peace conference. The path to this historic event is strewn with decades of warfare and rancor; Arabs and Jews will have difficulty looking each other fully in the eye. It is a time for remembering Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had the fortitude to seek conciliation with Israel in 1977. He set a precedent which crowns the upcoming conference with anticipation. Are there other leaders who will say, "Enough violence, enough anguish," and act upon their word? Will other heads of state also seize the moment, and empower themselves to turn the conference into a triumph for peace?
Israel is not being asked to take irrational risks or endanger its survival. It is being asked, as are all the participants, to channel its energies into constructive dialogue. Israel has the opportunity to do more than hope for the day when its sons will not come home wounded in spirit or body from duty in the West Bank and Gaza. It has the chance to revitalize its faith, and pursue the sacred prerogative of taking risks for peace.
At this critical juncture, the ardent faith of our Biblical ancestors beckons us. Now is the time for all Jews who cherish our tradition to recall the teaching of the Psalmist, and urge Israel's leaders to take it to heart:
Israel, trust in the Lord He is our help and shield. (Is: 115:9)
Carmela Ingwer lives in Chicago and has written for a number of publications.