Mind, body and the spirit of Zionism

Bonna Devora Haberman calls for a return to Zionism's Jewish roots

ruth calderon 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
ruth calderon 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For her freshman Knesset speech, Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon ascended the podium with a Talmud, declaring: “I am convinced that studying the great works of Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for Israel.... Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours.”
Bonna Devora Haberman’s Rereading Israel, a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist in the United States, presciently issued the same call.
“The young Zionist narrative of modern Western nation-statehood repressed Jewish sources,” she states in the first chapter. “This book addresses the convergence of Jewish text with Jewish life at the meeting-point between the Jewish People and our historic homeland.... Rereading Israel opens texts to the current page of Jewish life, inviting readers from all traditions to participate in exploring an extraordinary human endeavor.”
Canadian by birth, Haberman has solid credentials. She taught at the Hebrew University, Harvard University and Brandeis University, where she founded and directed the Mistabra Institute for Textual Activism. Now living in Jerusalem, she was a founding member of the Women of the Wall movement, which advocates for religious pluralism.
Her book takes note of the renaissance in Jewish learning “[f]ar beyond the orbit of the religious faithful” – a phenomenon for which Calderon can take partial credit – and opens a textually based conversation about Israel’s future to anyone wishing to join.
For the most part, the author avoids steering this conversation to any conclusions.
Instead she offers starting points. The chapters focus on texts dealing with the concepts of Israel as home, Israel as garden, Israel as sacred.
One chapter compares, in depth, modern Zionism with the Maccabean revolt: “Both Maccabees and Zionists alike call upon us to find and test the meaning of our lives beyond our own personal interest, and to accept responsibility for the flourishing of Jews and Judaism now and in the generations to come.”
One of the strongest chapters of the book examines the mind-body connection with the land that the texts seem to set out as an ideal.
“The relationship between the obligations of work, study, and national service are pressing issues for Israeli society,” she writes, with no small amount of understatement.
Whereas manual labor was the hallmark of early pioneers, today’s average Israeli – whether sitting in a Tel Aviv start-up or a Jerusalem kollel – has pulled the pendulum to the opposite pole. Haberman reminds us that “one of the driving purposes of Zionism [is to] better integrate the dualism of Jewish mind and body on a personal and national scale.”
She carries this theme through to the chapter on “home-building,” noting that the Tabernacle “combines diverse human endeavors and encourages participation without separating manual from mental work.” An innovative table included in this chapter outlines parallels among the human body, the Tabernacle and creation – for example, the ribs, spine and limbs of the body = wooden beams and boards = mountains and trees.
The demise of the Temple, she continues, replaced manual service with words, and the blood, incense, anointing oil, music and priestly garments with prayer and study. In Israel, she argues, “Jewish mind, spirit, and body can live at home together” despite the reality that the “idealism of the connection between labor and spirit has all but faded in Israel.”
Though the book is infused with pride in Israel’s accomplishments and offers reasoned rejoinders to anti-Israel rhetoric, it employs the worn tropes of “the occupation” and “the religious settlement movement” without analyzing how these terms may be applied unfairly and inaccurately. Haberman implies that religious settlers expropriated the garden ideal, and yet correctly points to exciting new concepts of pioneering and settlement taking root among non-religious Zionists in the Negev and Galilee.
In suggesting future directions, she reveals a relationship between ambivalence toward the Jewish homeland and ambivalence toward Jewish texts that may be difficult to resolve.
“While some passages in the Torah and Talmud are gratifying, others chafe against our contemporary sensibilities,” she writes. In particular, she appears troubled by the foundational idea of chosenness.
“How will the Jewish People subdue our ethnocentrism, while honoring our uniqueness?” she asks, asserting that many are uncomfortable with the “tone of superiority” in Isaiah’s “light unto the nations” prophecy.
It remains to be seen whether Rereading Israel could function as a compass pointing native English-speakers to a more successful, more text-inspired Zionism even as Calderon attempts to do the same for native Hebrew-speakers.
“This is an historic moment for our generation to step forward with desire for Zion aroused,” the author concludes. If her book can provide a bit of fuel for igniting such a desire, it is worth the read.