People of the Story
By Doron Nesher | 03/12/2009
What is the story about? About us. In other words, where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we will have to render accounts. Where we came from is not only an archaeological question, the question of where we're headed is not a mere political query, and the question of to whom we will have to render accounts, is not just a religious matter. We are dealing with a literary trap.
I remember from my childhood that one evening when my father was walking back and forth over the rug in his socks, he suddenly looked at me and said, "No. It's not simple." I asked him what wasn't simple, and he again looked at me for a long time and said: "It's not simple at all." I asked, "What, what?" He smiled and said, "One day, all of a sudden, you will stand on the rug in your socks and understand that it's not at all simple."
The question of who we are is not a simple question. In brief, it is the answer to the question of "who is a Jew," and it is in effect the question that we are facing in present times, and from which we can no longer run away. Despite the many attempts to keep the discussion at the political and economic level, in language that uses terms such as "focuses of influence" and "concentrations of power," the sense is that the answers reside within a different discourse. These are the answers on which a world can be founded. When there's a feeling that the explanations are flitting through the air, one might speak of a crisis of identity.
Identity contains the principle of classifying ("he belongs to the Jewish tribe"), but also the principle of identification. If we identify with an ideology, then our identity is linked to the lifespan of the idea. Take communism, for example. In terms of policy, and for enormous organizations and millions of people, the idea is dead, and with it, their identity also evaporated. Can identity just vanish into thin air?
I propose viewing identity as a story, the living story in which a person perceives himself. In effect, this is the oldest trick, but one might say that our family most notably developed the relationship between the overall story and our deeds. We are called the "People of the Book" because of our books, but one must ask what the book of books contains that is worthy of the title. We are called the "People of the Book" because we live the story in a full manner. Our parents returned to this land precisely because of the promise made in the story. Even if they did not believe in divine validation of the promise, they held fast to the story. We are the "People of the Book" because we live the idea that there is a story. The idea that there is a story is the greatest revolution in all history – the revolution that left the greatest and most significant impression: the literary revolution.
The idea that there is a story is a spark in the pillar of fire that goes before the camp – you'd better believe it! Some got bogged down in the logic: if there is a story, there's a narrator. We are temporary, and the anonymous storyteller is also the eternal listener, whether or not we know where he is and if he makes the decisions. There's no way of knowing if there was a man named Abraham. I myself assume that there was. No one knows for certain if we indeed came forth from Egypt. Many historians and archaeologists claim that we didn't, but the story is stronger, even if this is so. It is imperative to see that the idea that there is a story changed the face of culture. The story is the main thing. Without the story, one doesn't know what to tell the children. And perhaps, this explains the great popularity of Roberto Benigni's film "Life is Beautiful," a film whose internal logic is entirely implausible. The spectators wanted the child to believe the story and not reality.
When one wants to move ahead and cannot, when we compete for ownership of the "story" with which we continue, and each person wants to continue it differently, then we can speak of a rift. Or in other words, the story is stuck. There is no choice but to step back, really, like when father reaches a point in the bedtime story and says, " Wait, I forgot something important, something that I forgot to say at the beginning…" Ostensibly, it's possible without a story, but apparently, there is no point and it's no trivial matter. It's like with salt and love. One can live without salt, but then food has no flavor; one can live without love, but there's no point. One can live without a story but not for long, because then one cannot answer the question "Why?" The absence of meaning, is like the absence of salt and love. What is meaning? About what will we tell the children? About money? Apparently. At least, temporarily. If not in our words, then through our deeds. We do not believe that worship of money is eternal. But money has a special significance; otherwise it would not have such a tempting place in the story. It may be that money is the fruit in the Garden of Eden. It is doubtless a lesson that is not simple, and that's not to say that it's superfluous and inherently bad. However, the riots in Seattle signified something. Here as well, fingers are pointing at big money. It dominates, but underneath, things are heating up. People are talking about it.
So, what's the story about? About us. In other words, from whence we came, where we are going, and before whom we will have to give a reckoning for our deeds. Where we came from is not only an archeological question, the question of where we're headed is not a mere political query, and the question of to whom we will have to render accounts is not just a religious matter. We are dealing with a literary trap. We stand before a safe with three locks. Since the story has gotten stuck, we must repeat the story over and over, like in a police interrogation. In order that it not fall into the trap of eternal debate regarding the internal logic of each ramification, we will consider the essence of the story and examine it using literary tools, asking who the main heroes are, without whom our story could not be told: the family, God, the prophets, the Promised Land.
Any one who is born into the family or who joined it. "Jews" is the story of a family. We say: Abraham the Patriarch (Avraham avinu) and Sarah the matriarch (Sarah imeinu).We determine our belonging according to parentage. From a literary standpoint, a family story is stronger and more intimate than the story of a people, religion or faith. Embedded within the family also lies the solution to the conflict with our neighbors, since we descended from the same father. The definition of religion, faith or nation does not embrace everyone. Degree of relatedness performs this function. In effect, it is the only fact on which we concur; regarding all else, there is disagreement. In order to help clarify the literary approach, we shall state that according to a literary approach, the conflict between the nations is not random, but has the purpose of teaching us something. And only if we learn it can we move on to the next stage of the story. It must be something that relates to the rupture between the brothers born to the same father. It is probably related to our excessive pride in one side of the family.
It is important to state that the expression "people," in the case of the Jewish people, indicates that the family has grown to proportions that no longer justify the use of the limited expression "family," and that this apparently takes place during the period of the exodus.
Ostensibly, this is a disputed topic, but the question of whether God exists is not relevant. God is the main hero of the family – the main topic that the family brings into history. It must be immediately clarified that this is not the property of religious Judaism. There are no experts on God. The question of who God is or how he must be worshipped and why – these are internal questions. Abraham himself, according to the Torah, did not observe the commandments, with the exception of circumcision and fearing his God, which to him seemed to basic and intuitive. Even if it can be proven beyond any doubt that God is no more than a human fancy, the Jewish story cannot be told without God. It is impossible to tell the Jewish story without Moses on the mountain. The entire "Jewish thing" hinges on it. The discussion that came to be the watershed question, of "so, where was He during the Holocaust," arises from the centrality of God, of the expectations placed on Him, of the devising of a suitable solution that will remove him from that entanglement, even if there are casualties involved! The far-reaching attempt of secular Zionism to extract God from the agenda brought the story to a dead end, since without God, the family story is incomplete. But let this not give religious Zionism cause for joy. It is highly doubtful if the God whom they recommend is unified, logical, consistent or clear. Were we to convene an imaginary conference and invite, among others, Abraham, Moses, Yohanan ben Zakkai, Maimonides, the Holy R. Yitzhak Luria, the Vilna Gaon, and HaRav Kook, it is doubtful whether they could come up with an agreed platform. The "closed-open" principle of divinity must be discussed separately, but that is also its strength. In this context, I like to recall Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great believer who did not hesitate to voice the religious doubts, and the loneliness of the man of faith. He ran his fingernail along the roof of the cathedral of faith in order to expose the cinderblocks under the plaster, a place that religious people usually do not dare touch due to fear.
The mediators: Since the main topic of the story is life according to the relationship between God and family, both sides require a reliable mediator. This gives rise to one of the most bold and electrifying moves that makes the story so successful. In the story are characters whose job is to translate God into human language. In the Jewish story, the prophets are the conduit, the bi-directional mediator between God and man. If such a dialogue takes place, someone must be authorized to transmit the messages from here and there. Astoundingly, this sensitive role fell into hands that are not determined by parties with interests. Moreover, the role is sometimes forced on people against their well. They have a special role They hear voices, whether deep voices hidden from the public, or the voice of God. The role of the prophets was so successful in the story that no modern president of Israel makes a speech without declaring: "In the spirit of the prophets of Israel," and the words of Isaiah are etched on the edifice of the United Nations building, "And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." Is it possible to ask of the story greater success than this?
The Promised Land
The goal, the direction, the dream, the vision, the future beyond the pillar of fire. We are dealing with a story, and therefore, we must not be tempted into reducing ourselves to realistic proportions or boundaries. From a literary viewpoint, the promised land is the place that we will reach some day, when we are worthy. Jesus, for example, a kosher Jew by all opinions, maintained that the promised land is a kind of heavenly kingdom related to the salvation of individual souls. Others claimed that the Jewish role deviated from the boundaries of the physical land, thereby explaining the role of exile. In terms of the plot, becoming scattered among the nations is a fascinating branching out, but the question is whether it's an excellent role whose objective was forgotten. The question is also relevant regarding the Land of Israel itself. Is it the existence of the state that is the point, or is its existence a means of reaching the promised land where the words of the prophets will be realized? Here I must be direct and say that even if I present my position that the Jewish idea deviates from the boundaries of the land, and at the same time exists together in a special relationship with the legacy of our forefathers, it is clear to me that there are many people in the family who feel differently, and they are members of the family just as I am. Therefore, I recognize the legitimacy of the various positions. In an overall assessment one might say that at present, their influence is much greater than mine by powers of ten, but this still doesn't mean that the story will go their way.
The Plot Line
The story is about our family. Not just any family, but a family with an idea. Why an idea? Because this is what our father related. Usually, in our family, it was the fathers who told the story. Father's idea was that there is one God, that there is a dialogue between the family and God. The unfolding of the story does not cease to surprise, and is chock full of extreme turnabouts: from extreme falls to the depths to record-breaking ascents with their concomitant megalomania, wandering, exodus from slavery to freedom, establishing a kingdom, dismantling the kingdom, destruction of the Temple, exiles, tremendous literary creation and its non-binding application to life, the appearance of heroes and leaders, the rise and fall of other characters, again wanderings, hardships. The extremes oscillate from a situation of certain candidacy for chosen status, to the complete erasure of their existence as a people, and again, to a renewed entry into the land, breaking records in terms of spirit and influence on world centers of power. On the backdrop of all this, one continually hears questions such as: Are we the chosen people? Could it be that God indeed chose us? Could it really be? There is a great misunderstanding here: it's a story. The fact that we live it in such a deep and emotional way, to the point that we confuse faith with fact, is a different matter. Dangerous, but different.
The Plot Engine
Who decides how the story should continue? Is there an author? Does he have a plan? Are there signs? Or is it a cruel, dialectical "game," like in every good story. But here, it's a matter of our actual lives. If we examine the history of our family, we will admit that the story was stronger than any of the experiences it endured.
Could it be that we are actually living in the period at which the story got stuck? Did the Zionist attempt to continue the story get stuck from an ideational-spiritual perspective?
I would like to end my delivery with an analogy to a lie detector. This machine led me to a different and optimistic view of the way in which the story progresses. Let's look at the lie detector. It records movements in blood pressure and the sweat produced by the person hooked up to it. In 90% of cases, one can see the deviation in the response of a person when see wants to say one thing and his body replies with another. Take note! In the United States, there's a man accused of committing atrocities whose punishment is the electric chair. This man decides to lie, since his life depends on it, but his body betrays him. His body reveals an independent status – it is incapable of not responding! Can we conclude from this that our bodies contain concepts of truth and lies that are not voluntary? Could it be possible that our body betrays us, and has a deeper obligation to the "truth" than to an existential interest as a body? Our body is faithful to the "truth" more than to the narrow interest that takes expression in its existence. What do you have to say about that? There are many implications and this is not the place to discuss them, but we will state just one: our bodies, without reporting to us, uphold a small religion within us. They maintain an independent, subconscious courtroom. Sometimes, apparently, if we do not listen to it, it can even punish us with illnesses that express its suffering or anger, or our ignoring of its inner truth.
So, then, why am I optimistic? Because the polygraph is a kind of proof that it is impossible to go on lying forever. This is true not only in the life of the individual, but in a certain manner it also occurs in an ethnicity, a tribe, a nation. The prophets were the living polygraphs of the tribe. They spoke from a place where there is no contradiction between body and self. When the prophet Micah says: "[You chiefs] Who build Zion with crime, Jerusalem with iniquity" (3:10), he knows that he is saying harsh things; he knows that he is telling them that they do not understand how the story works, that if they do not change their ways of their own accord, the story will return them to starting point. His body spoke true things, like Jonah, who tried to run away from the story.
The story blazes the path for truth. It's unfortunate that we stand in its way. But that's part of the story. You don't believe it? That's the whole story.
Doron Nesher is an Israeli radio personality, author and director