Thursday, December 15, 2011

Follow the leader

I had a bit of whiplash today between teaching the freshman Jewish History class and the senior Zionism one. And not just because of the student age difference.

The freshman course is on the second temple period, and the curriculum always gets us the the history of the Maccabee rebellion around Chanukah time. It is always cool to teach the actual history behind the story. The former is obviously much more messy and complicated than the latter. I always have to encourage my disillusioned students by saying things like, "Did you really want a holiday that could be entirely understood in kindergarden? Isn't it great to discover that there was more to it than you thought?"

One of the messier parts of the history is the all out civil war between the Hellenists and the traditionalists among the Jews. This is some rough stuff. Here is how it is described in I Maccabees:

44: [The pious Jews] organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. 45: And Matityahu and his friends went about and tore down the altars; 46: they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel. 47: They hunted down the arrogant men, and the work prospered in their hands. 48: They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand. 

Its no wonder that the author refers to Pinchas and alludes to Moshe ("Who that is for the Lord come to me!") in order to defend the honor of the army of religious Jews we call the Maccabees. It is a pretty dark start to the revolt against the Greeks that finds brother killing brother in order to save the future of Jews and Judaism. This is pretty tough for 9th graders to digest. That Jews killing Jews is even a "break the glass" last resort, self defense scenario is rough stuff.

In the 12th grade we are studying Zionism and the State of Israel. As we are currently entering the period of the British Mandate, we are dealing with the split between the Revisionist and mainstream labor Zionists. Into this discussion I brought a quote from those days from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, who became the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British. The piece I brought them is Rav Kook's articulation of the need of Jews with different outlooks to work together and strengthen each other. I relates to some previous posts, but I think the segment stands on its own as worth quoting. It may be his most important, most relavent, and most ignored statement of principles.

Three Factions
We now have three noteworthy factions among our people. 
The first is Orthodoxy, as we are accustomed to call it. It champions the cause of the holy; it speaks with vigor, with zeal and with embitterment on behalf of the Torah and the mitzvot, of religious faith, and of everything sacred to the Jewish people. 
The second is the new nationalism that battles for everything toward which the national spirit aspires. It embraces many of the characteristics of a nation seeking to renew its national existence after a long period of exile. It also seeks to include many elements deriving from the influence of the other nations, to the extent that it judges them desirable and appropriate for itself. 
The third is liberalism, which was an advocate of the Enlightenment in the recent past and still has a following in many circles. It does not confine itself to the domain of the national but demands general human enlightenment, culture, morality and much more.
It is understandable that in a healthy setting there is a need for each of these three forces. We must always seek to reach this healthy state, where these forces will act in our lives jointly, in all their fullness and their goodness, in harmonious integration with nothing in excess or in diminution. The claims of the holy, of the nation, and of humanity will be joined together in a spiritual and practical love. Individuals and parties will be in agreement that each one is to recognize with goodwill the positive service of the other. This acknowledgement will then develop to a point where each one will recognize the positive role in every cause, that it is desirable, and that in order to pursue it for the general good of spiritual harmonization as well as the enhancement of the particular cause with which he himself is identified. He will go even further in recognizing a positive dimension in the negative aspect of every cause, within its proper delimitation. He will know that it is to the benefit of the very cause of which he is an advocate to be influenced to some extent by the negation, because by its challenge it sets his beloved cause within its proper sphere and saves it from the perilous detriment of excess and exaggeration… 
If we shall examine the tension that we suffer in this generation we will know that only one course is open to us. Everyone, the individual or the community, must take to heart this admonition: that together with the need to defend the particular position to which one is attached by natural inclination, habit or training, one must know how to utilize the positions that have found a following among other people and their parties. Thus one will perfect oneself and one’s party, both through the positive aspects in the position of the others, and through the beneficial aspects in their negations, by safeguarding one’s own position against the defect of exaggeration which produces weakness and destruction. Thus we may hope to attain a way of life appropriate for a people of high stature… 
Orot, pp. 70-72

They say that every generation gets the leaders that they deserve. This must apply to Cohanim also, be they Maccabim or chief Rabbis. It seems that that Jews in the second century B.C.E. needed Matityahu and Yehuda. In our time, we sure need Rav Kook. His vision of Jewish brotherhood and cooperation is needed desperately in our time.

If only those who claimed to follow him as a leader would heed his words.