On the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of people, the High Priest, entered the holiest of places, the Holy of Holies, and made atonement for all Israel. It was a moment on which the fate of Israel depended. For their destiny depended on G-d; and G-d in turn sought their obedience. Yet a sinless nation is inconceivable. That would be a nation of angels, not women and men. So a people needs rituals of collective repentance and remorse, times at which it asks G-d for forgiveness. That is what the Day of Atonement was when the Temple stood.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to understand the crisis represented by the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70CE. It was, to be sure, a military and political disaster. That, we have no difficulty in imagining. But it was also a spiritual catastrophe. Judaism and the Jewish people survived. We would not be here otherwise. But that survival was by no means assured at the time. How does a nation defined in terms of a religion centred on the Temple and its sacrifices live on after the loss of its most basic institutions? That is the question of questions.
The destruction of the First Temple was no less tragic. But in those days, Israel had prophets – men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel – who gave the people hope. There were no such prophets in the first century CE. To the contrary, from the time of the Maccabees onwards, prophecy gave way to apocalypse: visions of the end of days far removed from the normal course of history. The prophets, despite the grandeur of their visions, were for the most part political realists. The apocalyptic visionaries were not. They envisaged a metaphysical transformation. The cosmos would be convulsed by violent confrontation. There would be a massive final battle between the forces of good and evil. As one of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Qumran put it: “the heavenly host will give forth in great voice, the foundations of the world will be shaken, and a war of the mighty ones of the heavens will spread throughout the world”.
People foresaw disaster. Josephus tells us about one of them. Four years before the war against Rome, “at a time of exceptional peace and prosperity”, a certain Jeshua son of Ananias, “a very ordinary yokel”, began to cry “Woe to Jerusalem” wherever he went. People beat him; the authorities had him sentenced to corporal punishment; yet he continued his lament undaunted: “All the time till the war broke out he never approached another citizen or was seen in conversation, but daily as if he had learned a prayer by heart he recited his lament: ‘Woe to Jerusalem’ . . . For seven years and five months he went on ceaselessly, his voice as strong as ever and his vigour unabated”, until he was killed by a rock flung by a Roman engine during the siege.
What does a nation do in the wake of “sacrificial crisis”, the loss of its rituals of atonement? We are in a position to trace this precisely, because of the exceptionally candid confession of one who chose another way, Paul of Tarsus, the first and greatest theologian of Christianity.
Paul tells us that he was obsessed by guilt. He said of himself that he was “sold as a slave to sin”. The good he sought to do, he failed to do. The sin he sought to avoid, he committed. The very fact that he was commanded to do something, provoked in him the opposite reaction, an overwhelming desire to do it. So powerful was this antinomian streak within him that it led him to conceive of a religion without commands at all – quite unlike the sermon on the mount, in which the founder of Christianity said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven . ”
Paul famously attributed the sinful nature of humanity to the first sin of the first human being, Adam. This sin was lifted by the death of the Messiah. Heaven itself had sacrificed the son of G-d to atone for the sin of man. G-d became the High Priest, and His son the sacrifice.
Paul lived and taught shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple, but his teaching – like that of the members of the Qumran sect and Josephus’ visionary Jeshua – fully anticipates that catastrophe and constitutes a pre-emptive response to it. What would happen when there were no more physical sacrifices to atone for the guilt of the nation? In their place, for Paul, would come the metaphysical sacrifice of the son-of-G-d. In Paul, sacrifice is transcendentalized, turned from an event in time and space to one beyond time and space, operative always.
Judaism could not take this route, for many reasons. First, because the message of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) is that G-d does not allow us (let alone Him) to sacrifice sons. Second, because not one, but all, members of the people of the covenant are sons or daughters of G-d: “My child, My firstborn, Israel” (Exodus 4: 22). Third, because despite the many messianic movements to which it has given rise, the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not Yet”. While there is still violence and injustice in the world, we cannot accept the consolation of believing that we live in a post-messianic age.
Only against this background can we appreciate the astonishing leap implicit in Rabbi Akiva’s famous statement :
Rabbi Akiva said: Happy are you, Israel. Who is it before whom you are purified and who purifies you? Your Father in heaven. As it is said: And I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean. And it further says: You hope of Israel, the Lord. Just as a fountain purifies the impure, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, purify Israel.
According to Rabbi Akiva specifically, and rabbinic thought generally, in the absence of a Temple, a High Priest and sacrifices, all we need to do is repent, to do teshuvah, to acknowledge our sins, to commit ourselves not to repeat them in the future, and to ask G-d to forgive us. Nothing else is required: not a Temple, not a priest, and not a sacrifice. G-d Himself purifies us. There is no need for an intermediary. What Christianity transcendentalized, Judaism democratized. As the Yiddish dramatist S. Ansky put it: Where there is true turning to G-d, every person becomes a priest, every prayer a sacrifice, every day a Day of Atonement and every place a Holy of Holies.
This really was the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. At stake were two quite different ways of understanding the human person, the nature of sin, the concept of guilt and its atonement, and the mediated or unmediated relationship between us and G-d. Judaism could not accept the concept of “original sin” since Jeremiah and Ezekiel had taught, six centuries before the birth of Christianity, that sin is not transferred across the generations. Nor did it need a metaphysical substitute for sacrifice, believing as it did in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 51: 17): “The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise”. We are all sons or daughters of G-d, who is close to all who call Him in truth. That is how one of the greatest tragedies to hit the Jewish people led to an unprecedented closeness between G-d and us, unmediated by a High Priest, unaccompanied by any sacrifice, achieved by nothing more or less than turning to G-d with all our heart, asking for forgiveness and trusting in His love.
Future Tense - Israel at 60: A Dream Fulfilled
Published in The Jewish Chronicle,
My great-grandfather Rabbi Arye Leib Frumkin went to Israel in 1871; his father had settled there twenty years earlier. His first act was to begin writing his History of the Sages in Jerusalem, chronicling the Jewish presence there since Nachmanides arrived in 1265.
In 1881 pogroms broke out in more than a hundred towns in Russia. That was when he realised that aliyah was no longer a pilgrimage of the few but an urgent necessity for the many. He became a pioneer, moving to one of the first agricultural settlements in the new yishuv. The early settlers had caught malaria and left. Rabbi Frumkin led the return and built the first house there. The name they gave the town epitomises their dreams. Using a phrase from the book of Hosea, they called it Petach Tikva, ‘the Gateway of Hope’. Today it is the sixth largest city in Israel.
The Jewish connection with Israel did not begin with Zionism, a word coined in the 1890s. It goes back four thousand years to the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, G-d’s command to Abraham: ‘Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you’ (Ex. 12: 1). Seven times G-d promised Abraham the land, and repeated that promise to Isaac and Jacob. If any nation on earth has a right to any land – a right based on history, attachment, long association – then the Jewish people has a right to Israel.
Judaism – twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam – was the call to Abraham’s descendants to create a society of freedom, justice and compassion under the sovereignty of G-d. A society involves a land, a home, somewhere where the ‘children of Israel’ form the majority, and can thus create a culture, an economy and a political system in accordance with their values. That land was and is Israel.
Jews never left Israel voluntarily. They never relinquished their rights. They returned whenever they could: in the days of Moses, then again after the Babylonian exile, then again in generation after generation. Judah Halevi went there in the twelfth century. So did Maimonides and his family, though they found it impossible to stay. Nachmanides went after being exiled from Spain. There was a large community there in the sixteenth century. There are places, especially in Galilee, where they never left at all.
The idea that Jews came to Israel as outsiders or imperialists is among the most perverse of modern myths. They were the land’s original inhabitants: they have the same relationship to the land as native Americans to America, aborigines to Australia, and Maoris to New Zealand. They were ousted by imperialists. They are the only rulers of the land in the past three thousand years who neither sought nor created an empire.
In fact, no other people, no other power, has ever created an independent state there. When it was not a Jewish state, Israel was merely an administrative unit of empires: the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Fatimids, Abbasids, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans. The existence of Israel, in ancient times and today, is a sustained protest against empires and imperialism: against Mesopotamia of Abraham’s day and the Egyptians of the exodus.
Do we really need a Jewish state? Yes. There must be some place on earth where Jews can defend themselves, where they have a home in the sense given by the poet Robert Frost as ‘the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’. Every nation has the right to rule itself and create a society and culture in accordance with its own values. That right, to national self-determination, is among the most basic in politics. Today there are 82 Christian nations and 56 Muslim ones, but only one Jewish one: in a country smaller than the Kruger National Park, one quarter of one per cent of the land mass of the Arab world.
Long ago Jews recognised the right of the Arab population of the land to a place of their own. There were various plans for the partition of the land into two states, one Jewish, one Arab, in the 1920s and 1930s. Jews accepted them; the Arabs rejected them. In 1947, the United Nations voted for partition. Again, Jews accepted, the Arabs refused. David Ben Gurion reiterated the call for peace as a central part of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948. Israel’s neighbours – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq – responded by attacking it on all fronts.
The offer was renewed in 1967 after the Six Day War. The response of the Arab League, meeting in Khartoum in September 1967, was the famous ‘Three Nos’: no to peace, no to negotiations, no to the recognition of the State of Israel. The call was repeated many times by Golda Meir, and always decisively rejected.
The boldest offer was made by Ehud Barak at Taba, 2001. It offered the Palestinians a state in the whole of Gaza and 97 per cent of the West Bank, with border compensations for the other 3 per cent, with East Jerusalem as its capital. The story is told in detail in Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace (Ross was the chief negotiator). Many members of the Palestinian team wanted to accept. The Saudi ambassador at the time, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, said, ‘If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be a crime.’
Tragically the Palestinians have been betrayed by those who claimed to be their supporters. They were betrayed in 1948 by the Arab states who promised them that if they left now they would return soon, all Jews having been expelled. They were betrayed by the Arab nations to which they fled, who refused to grant them citizenship, in marked contrast to Israel and its treatment of Jewish refugees from Arab (and other) lands.
They were betrayed by countries that encouraged them to pursue violence instead of peace, bringing poverty to an entire population which, under Israeli rule from 1967 to 1987, had achieved unprecedented levels of affluence and economic growth. They are betrayed today by those who encourage impossible expectations – Palestinian rule over the whole of Israel – thus condemning yet another generation to violence, poverty and despair.
The Egyptians, who ruled Gaza between 1949 and 1967, could have created a Palestinian state, but did not. The Jordanians, who ruled the West Bank during the same years, could have created a Palestinian state, but did not. Instead, Egypt persecuted its Islamist intellectuals, sentencing many to death. The Jordanians expelled the Palestinians in 1971, after killing almost ten thousand of them in 1970 in the massacre known as ‘Black September’. The only country that has ever offered the Palestinians a state is Israel.
What has systematically derailed Israel’s efforts for peace is the fact that every concession it has made, every withdrawal it has undertaken, has been interpreted by its enemies as a sign of weakness, and has led to more violence not less. The Oslo process led to suicide bombings. Ehud Barak’s offer led to the so-called El Aqsa Intifada. The withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza led directly to the onslaught of Katyushas and Kassams. How does any nation make peace under these conditions? Hamas and Hizbollah have made it clear that they do not seek peace. They seek Israel’s destruction.
Under constant threat of violence or war, Israel’s achievements have nonetheless been immense. It has taken a desolate landscape and turned it into a place of farms, forests and fields. It has taken immigrants from more than a hundred countries, speaking more than eighty languages and turned them into a nation. It has created a modern economy with almost no resources other than the creative gifts of its people. It has sustained democracy in a part of the world that had never known it before. It has taken Hebrew, the language of the Bible, and made it speak again. It has taken a people devastated by the Holocaust and made it live again. Israel remains a Petach Tikva, a gateway of hope.