If two people say “Drunk,” take to your bed! This is a wise Yiddish saying. Well, so far, only one faithful reader has called me “obsessed.” Just one. But certain subjects recur. So much so that I decided to see for myself whether I am indeed obsessed.
To make sure we are all at the same starting point, let’s agree on a couple of definitions. A person is considered obsessed if there is an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on her or his mind. If that person is considered “obsessed” by a psychologist, it means that he or she cannot get rid of an idea or thought which is not wanted.
On self-examination, I easily – even proudly – confess to being obsessed. I don’t even know how many obsessions I have. So let’s begin counting. First, I am obsessed with love. The words ring banal, but I am filled with a kind of lyrical rapture as I say the words to myself as I write: “Love of family.” Those words embrace (pun intended whole-heartedly) my wife, my offspring and their spouses, their offspring, our great-grandchildren, the sons I helped bring up and their offspring. It embraces my parents, the aunts and uncles, and sisters who all lavished affection on me, so many decades ago.
I love the Land of Israel, and its soil, its air, its rain, its sun, its renewing history and the language which bore the land on our souls for two millennia.
This is an obsession, these loves. I walk within their precincts. I sing when great-grandchildren visit me, speak to them with words and without words. We laugh together and I will not let them cry.
I love the rain that shatters the aridity and rinses the air of sand or wafts the spreading jasmine perfume, or sieves the citrus fragrances carried on the westerly wind. I run out – not obsessed, but possessed – when that shooting first rain (in Hebrew, yoreh) slams into our balcony and I rush outside to cleanse my lungs and bless the Giver of life and love and rain.
And I am especially obsessed, always, always, with the Hebrew language, with the phrases and commandments and prophecies and proverbs that ring within my being, from the time I first learned of the Binding of Yitzhak (Isaac) and recited it with tears welling as I asked: “Here is the wood and the knife, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice, my father?” And an unbidden questioning, about the God Who tested Abraham.
The words of the Bible ring through my head, together with some of the prayers, and the words of the plain chant we use for our Ashkenazi prayer leaders intonation, or the simple Hassidic style of singing.
If I wanted to curse some stupid driver cutting me off, rather than shouting, in front of my young grandchildren, “son of a so-and-so,” I would change immediately to “son of perverse rebellion,” from the Book of Samuel. At the time, I thought it was at least “literary,” but parsing it now with the medieval commentators, it might be even worse than “son of a so-and-so.” But my grandson with me in the car remembers it as love of the Bible.
Neither my mother nor my father could tolerate exploitation of the weak. My father was outspoken at the hypocrisy of “holy” men, such as a rebbe who, as a guest in my grandfather’s home in pre-war Poland, buttered his cheese, gluttony ill-befitting a leader of poverty-stricken followers. (Both my grandfathers had their own bakeries, in separate near-by shtetls, and apparently were not poor.) My mother told me that the gentile serving-girl ate with the family at my grandfather’s insistence.
It seems that from them and my early teachers, I learned to love those Biblical commands to aid the weak, the orphan, the widow; to tithe for the poor; to respect a debtor’s home, and return his cloak at eventide so he should not suffer cold.
And from the love of Hebrew and the language of the Bible and of our prayer book, I created in my mind a Jewishness and Judaism that synthesized and embraced the humanistic ideals of the French Revolution, liberty and equality. My love of Zion and the land needed expression in a state for the Jews and a Jewish state.
My Jewishness-Judaism wove together the idealism of an egalitarian and strong Jewish state, where Jews would be safe and would cast off Diaspora weakness, and where the Jewish religious leaders would place moral and national needs at the head of a process of modernization and adjustment to the new status, I lived this way while serving and being influenced by David Ben-Gurion’s Israelocentrism and Levi Eshkol’s tenacity. Eshkol strove to provide decently for the impoverished immigrants and the weak in our society, while ensuring our power to overcome dangers and threats whether military or economic.
This synthesis made it clear to me that we accept all who come here with open arms and hearts. From my initial grudging acceptance of the Arabs who lived in Israel, I also began to understand that our success in creating a state of Hebrew-speaking Jews made many Arabs here feel threatened, second-rate. I saw as I grew older, that there were some Jews and their rabbinic leaders who took the law into their own hands, and whose total love of the land became a totalitarian racist ideology.
Decency went out the window as the ultra-Orthodox built walls and created ghettos and their rabbis taught their followers to take and not to give. I saw the Zionist Orthodox, once concerned about all Jews, shrink their world into Judea and Samaria. The sinister leadership of fascist racists, like Meir Kahane, combined with the blind nationalism of the leaders of the major yeshiva, Merkaz Harav, and many Hesder yeshivot, have led to religiofascism and rabbinolatry.
There is perhaps no greater sin or crime than betrayal. The idealism of my Bible, which excised the brutality and wanton murders of children, women and men, has fallen into the hands of people who do not believe in the prophets’ power.
Amos famously quoted the Creator as likening the people of Israel to the Ethiopians and the Philistines. Isaiah called for justice, and warned against those who join field to field and house to house. We must be careful and considerate of those who live here, and not squeeze them out as the evildoers here did 2,800 years ago.
My Zionism is realistic. I wish to treat Kiryat Shmona by the same standards as Ariel. I want roads and services in Kafr Kassem and east Jerusalem to be as good as those in Rehavia and Kochav Yair. I want us to hold the Jordan line, and I argue against the chest-beaters who make announcements that preclude quiet peaceful creation of facts.
Betrayal is also treason. I believe that people who steal from or skim from our defense spending are betraying all of us who pay taxes and serve in the IDF. Betrayal of principles is unforgivable, as in the Trump-like attacks on democracy by people raised in the originally liberal Jabotinsky-Begin camp.
I think, dear reader, that you understand me by now. I give unconditional love to my family, who, for the record, run the gamut from more observant to rebels against organized religion, yeshiva students and a secular yeshiva leader, right-wing, centrists and center-left to left. We love this land, its language, its calendar, its soil. All think freely and select carefully, the political leaders or, if pertinent, the religious mentors worthy of trust, respect. All believe, all practice, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” And finally, blessing the rain and having sung a Hebrew lullaby by Zoom to my Israeli great-grandchildren, I now can plan with my wife the rest of our day. We certainly discuss my obsessions, many of which she shares. I know we will persevere in all those loves, for “love conquereth all.” The writer has lived in Jerusalem close to seven decades, and his family crosses four generations. This essay is in honor of his son-in-law, Prof. Rami Reiner, Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, on his promotion