Holy rebels: In the iconoclasts’ graveyard

There is a deeply embedded belief in Judaism that our dead ancestors can intercede for us in receiving repentance from God.

Mount of Olives Cemetery 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Mount of Olives Cemetery 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
This is the time in the Jewish calendar to make a pilgrimage to the cemetery, to family burial grounds. There is a deeply embedded belief in Judaism that our dead ancestors can intercede for us in receiving repentance from God. Going back to the Hebrew Bible, there was a concept that the dead had a closer connection to God than the living. For those of you who live in Israel or who are just visiting, I would – without sounding too morbid – recommend visiting a graveyard at this time of year. In a world where, so often, we search for inspiration among the living and fail to find it, perhaps the dead can speak to us in ways we cannot imagine.
My thoughts on this matter gravitate to the Old Cemetery in Tel Aviv. Max Nordau, Ahad Ha’am, Chayim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernikovsky, Chaim Arlosoroff and Meir Dizengoff: all of these men rest peacefully in this graveyard on Trumpeldor Street, only a few blocks from the beach and in a residential neighborhood. Max Nordau rests near Ahad Ha’am quite quietly, although in life they were enemies and very vocal about their enmity. The tombstones of Bialik and Tchernikovsky are not far from each other, though the two men in life had radically different poetic styles and concerns. Arlosoroff was a rising star in Labor Zionism until his murder on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933. Dizengoff broke the mold by founding the first all-Jewish city in the world in 1909.
All of these men supported and sacrificed for a movement that was hated by most Reform Jews and certainly by most Orthodox Jews, even those who were neo-Orthodox.
Yet, even in the minority, even in the face of the popularity of the anti-Zionist Socialist Bund, all of these figures smashed the idols of the day and created a new reality, politically and culturally.
These are the real iconoclasts.
I often wonder why post-Zionists invest so much effort in trying to discredit these founders of Israel as “inventors of the Jewish nation.”
The graveyards of Jews for millennia all over the world – from Argentina to Krakow to Hebron to Yemen – testify to a specific Jewish people and an unbroken chain of history. Zionists did not need to create a nation that had already been in existence for 3,000 years.
The Zionist founders in Tel Aviv’s Old Cemetery have, indeed, been dead for almost a century. How morbid and unexciting it must sound to be inspired by the dead.
Yet the reality is that these Zionist founders are very much alive. If you are an American Jew who reads no Hebrew, Yiddish or German, please pick up a copy of Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea or Shlomo Avineri’s classic study of the great thinkers of Zionism.
Admire the guts of rabbis Alkalai and Kalsicher and Communist Moses Hess, visionaries who toiled in a world that wanted to neutralize their message because it upset many an apple cart in the Jewish world, religious and secular.
I urge you to read Max Nordau’s brilliant analysis at the First Zionist Congress of European Jewry in 1897 and his cogent and still-relevant criticisms of the process of emancipation. Ahad Ha’am, an acerbic critic of Herzl who grasped the crisis of Israeli-Arab conflict and the crisis of modern Judaism – his groundbreaking Hebrew writings can be found in English translation in many different books.
Should we not be reading Bialik’s classic and damning poem “In the City of Slaughter,” a cry for Jewish self-defense and an end to Jewish cowering in the shadow of our enemies? Why do we toss aside Tchernikovsky’s vision of Apollo wrapped in the phylacteries of a religious Jew? What of Uri Zvi Greenberg, a poet who speaks in the mantle of prophecy, a modern Ezekiel? In the city of Safed, 500 years ago, renowned master of Kabbalah Rabbi Isaac Luria would channel the messages from God through the dead by placing himself face down on a tombstone of great rabbis of the past. We not need go that far to harness the energies of the great idol-smashers of Zionism.
We have the texts, texts that retain a part of the holiness of the Hebrew Bible canon. This is modern Scripture and we dare not abandon it for some post-Zionist universalistic and alien utopia.
Zionism should not ever be a civil religion.
But the challenges that Zionist thinkers and activists posed to Jewish tradition have forced us – as a community of believers – to recalibrate our tradition to the realities of modern politics and the modern world. Zionism has revived Judaism on a practical level – by building an infrastructure in which Torah study can thrive and in which Jews return to the land of promise to Abraham. Zionism has also reinvigorated a Judaism that was collapsing and stagnating.
Those men buried in Tel Aviv deserve our honor and respect.
They provide us with “zechut avot,” the merit of our ancestors.
In America today, there has been a resurgence of interest in the writing and thought of the nation’s Founding Fathers. The same dynamic should be happening in the Zionist world. We are no longer living in the world of Nordau and Ahad Ha’am and, obviously, their answers cannot be our answers. But a rootedness in the great figures of the most important modern Jewish movement, all true iconoclasts, will inspire us to look for new answers and old idols to dismantle. In the Old Cemetery in Tel Aviv holy rebels rest forever.
They are dead and will not soon rise again. But their words are with us. We need only search them out.
The iconoclasts of the past live.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.