We need a literature that merges past and future
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Why are today’s authors so quick to abandon our great written tradition that defines us as Jews?
A wistful passage from the final chapter of the Mishnah’s Sotah tractate states, in poetic Hebrew: Nifteru ziknei Yerushalayim ve-halchu lahen. In more prosaic English, it might be rendered: “The elders of Jerusalem got up and left.” The departure of the elders of Jerusalem, when examined in the context of this hauntingly literary tractate, signifies the relationship to past, present, and future that I seek in Jewish literature.
A nation with a past as rich and traumatic as ours, and with a present as complicated and diverse, offers the Jewish writer a plethora of material. And we have many talented and imaginative writers. Why is it, then, that I often feel something important is missing when I pick up the latest Holocaust fiction (say Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated) or novel of contemporary Tel Aviv (say Yael Hedaya’s Accidents)? What is the thing I seek but do not find in most Jewish memoirs (say Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit), in the tales of Israeli encounters with Arabs, in the soldiers’ memoirs and war stories (say Yossi Cedar’s film Beaufort, based on Ron Leshem’s novel)?
These are all fine works, but they lack the absent elders — the elders whose presence is signified by the fact that they have departed. What I seek are books that, without being bound by conventions of religion and history, nevertheless use familiarity with and respect for the past as an instrument for thinking about the future of the Jewish people and what it means to be part of that collective. I believe that the authors of some of our classic ancient texts — for example, the Sotah tractate — were able to do so in a way that can be instructive for writers today.
To explain what I mean, let me first elucidate the background, structure and meaning of this section of the Mishnah, which looks at first glance like a dry compendium of Jewish law. The Mishnah, compiled in about 200 CE from earlier texts, and traditionally attributed to Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, is not usually read as a work of literature, but that’s one way I think it should be read.
The Mishnah was composed at a time with some similarities to our own. The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD left the Jews without their most central institution. In cutting off the people’s direct connection with the divine, the destruction created a crisis of faith and leadership. A messianic attempt to restore Jewish sovereignty, the Bar-Kochba revolt of 132-135 CE, ended in a Holocaust in which a huge proportion of the Jewish population in Palestine was killed and the country laid waste.
By the end of the second century of the Common Era, however, Jewish life had improved. The economy was thriving. While not enjoying formal political independence, the Jews were largely self-governing under a hereditary nasi (prince). But, in the face of a dominant, attractive Western culture — that of Rome — assimilation and alienation from Jewish culture and tradition was rampant.
In codifying a new set of national and sacred texts, Yehudah Ha-Nasi and his school had to create a narrative of past tragedies and address current crises. Furthermore, they had to do both in a way that pointed out a future in which Jews could remain loyal to their heritage and culture while being part of, yet distinct from, the larger world around them. These sages could have written stories or histories or memoirs or dramas but, given their concerns, scholarly backgrounds, and cultural context, they chose a book of law as their vehicle.
The ninth and final chapter of the Sotah tractate takes up an obscure and, to modern minds, weird ritual prescribed by the Torah in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. The Torah verses address a situation in which the body of a murdered man is found in a field outside and the identity of the assailant is not known. Judges and elders are to measure the distance from the body to the nearest town. The elders of that town must then take a calf to a nearby ravine, behead it, and burn it, as they declare, “Our hands have not spilt this blood”.
The ritual clearly seeks to assign blame and responsibility for the murder to the community that lives closest to the place where the crime was perpetrated, and to provide a way for the members of that community to exculpate themselves. In the context of the mores of the time when the Torah was written, this was a matter of life and death. The family of a murdered man had the right to see his death avenged. If the murderer was not apprehended and punished, the family could carry out its vengeance against the community from among which it could be presumed that the murderer came, or which should have taken the measures necessary to prevent a murder from taking place in its territory. The ritual of the beheaded calf ostensibly provides a way to determine which community is responsible and to provide a divinely-sanctioned way of cleansing it of its guilt.
On the face of it, Chapter 9 of Tractate Sotah sets out to explicate the technicalities of this procedure. But at the outset, it adds some details that do not appear in the Torah verses. The identities of the judges and elders who perform the measurement are not specified in the Torah, but the Mishnah states that they must be three members of the high court in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin, whose seat was adjacent to the Temple. The elders arrive, perform the measurement, and leave.
Something does not fit here. If judges come from the court in Jerusalem to some far-flung part of the land, we would expect them to conduct an investigation. On the face of it, they should try to find the culprit, try him, and punish him. The measurement could be carried out by local officials; why do we need judges from Jerusalem to do it?
The other odd element is the context of the Mishnah. By assigning the task to judges from the great court in Jerusalem, the authors of the Mishnah place the ritual firmly in the past. When they wrote, there was no longer a great court in Jerusalem nor a Temple from which that court could derive its authority. The procedure of the beheaded calf was no longer followed. Furthermore, the entire second half of the chapter is devoted to listing institutions, rituals, and categories that were central to Jewish life in the past but which fell into disuse or ineffectiveness even while the Temple still stood.
I suggest that the real subject of the chapter is not the specific ritual of the beheaded calf, but the question of whether the Jewish people can expect to receive moral knowledge and absolution from a central, authoritative source.
Picture this: clueless villagers standing around the body of a strange man found in one of their fields. A person has been murdered in their territory, on their watch. Rather than being shocked by the fact that such a crime has occurred, their thoughts and fears dwell on the vengeance that will surely be wreaked on them by the victim’s family. If they knew the identity of the murderer, they would have nothing to fear, because revenge would be directed at the perpetrator of the crime. But they do not. They wait for the wise men from the Holy City to save them.
The judges from the great court in Jerusalem arrive; the villagers are sure that the judges will solve the crime and let them return to their fields and families. But the judges simply measure the distance from the body to the village, and then turn around and go home. The villagers are then left to perform an obscure and bloody ritual which technically absolves them of responsibility but in fact leaves them as targets for revenge. They will have to do a lot more than behead a calf to convince the world that they are not guilty of murder, and to prevent other such murders from taking place on their territory in the future.
The departure of the elders of Jerusalem thus becomes a metaphor for the new age in which the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah lived.
It tells us this: First, the past must be remembered. Second, the past must not be idealised; you may have thought that in the time of the Temple the wise judges of Jerusalem could be counted on to solve all your problems, but that is not the case. Third, we must wrestle with and judge our deeds without the expectation of divine intervention. Fourth, we must, as the rabbis did, craft a future for our people in which knowledge and awareness of our pasts serves as an impetus for creating a future that is very different from that past in essential and unexpected ways.
In our modern age, most Jews are not conversant with the legal texts of our tradition, and most of those who are do not know how to read those texts as works of art. Instead of writing legal works with subtle literary meanings, our writers today produce poetry, short stories, novels, plays, memoirs, and works of history, criticism and scholarship. I do not expect modern writers to abandon these modern forms and to write jurisprudence. But the Mishnah’s craft and sensibilities can serve as a valuable model.
The genius of this text is that it preserves the past — in this case, a ritual long since fallen by the wayside, one with no practical contemporary application — and uses it to challenge its readers about the true theological and social significance of the Jewish relationship to God, authority and sacred institutions. In the time of Yehuda Ha-Nasi, many Jews, like their descendants today, believed that the texts and practices of their forefathers had no relevance to them; the destruction of the Temple and the disappointment of messianic expectations meant were proof that the dominant, international culture was superior to Jewish beliefs and heritage. Others nostalgically longed for an imaginary past in which God and sacred institutions provided all the answers.
Both these attitudes were comfortable and easy. Yehuda Ha-Nasi’s school demanded something much more difficult — respect for and memory of a past that could be an inspiration for, but not a refuge from, the future. The elders must come, make their measurement — and then leave.
Holocaust novels and memoirs, as powerful and as important as they may be, often end up defining Jewish identity in terms of the people who hate us. The modern novel of Tel Aviv life is often psychologically astute but deliberate avoids looking beyond its own narrow boundaries. One wallows in the past, the other in the present. I seek the work that is fully familiar with, cognisant of, and imbued with our people’s culture and history, and aware of our lives today, yet views neither past nor present as immutable. Rather, it will seek to use them as catalysts for thinking about what we can and should be in the years, decades, and centuries before us.
Haim Watzman is the author of Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley. He blogs at southjerusalem.com