Monday, November 22, 2010

Jeremiah’s Comeback

Ein chadash tachat hashemesh – there is nothing new under the sun. A powerful statement made in Ecclesiastes and probably true. True also is that lifestyles, trends, ideas and politics run in cycles, often times with different names but conceptually similar. For example, socialism isn’t a late 19th century political innovation, but has been around for hundreds of years under different names, and with variation. Ditto for communism. Messianic trends have had its moments when it was massively popular and at other times denounced by the dominant spiritual leaders. Substantive political theoreticians and social scientists no longer popular or appreciated tend to come back for a second reading a generation or two later. Political leaders not so popular when in office sometimes gain newfound respect and appreciation once history has been able to reassess their contribution. It would appear that having been in disregard, our prophets too, are being reconsidered and possibly reevaluated as valuable assets to our culture.

Jeremiah once an outcast, reviled and banned from the Temple for his depressingly doomsday message is being revisited and reassessed as a prophet with a valid timeless message. Jeremiah, the prophet of deep irreversible doom is slowly coming back into vogue having been ignored by the intellectual / Zionist community ever since Israel gained its independence. This is fascinating in light of the fact that so many young people today in Israel and abroad have little or no knowledge of the prophet and the historical/social setting in which Jeremiah prophesied. And it isn’t only the assimilated Jewish youth or the modern orthodox. It is the proverbial yeshiva bachur whether haredi or orthodox who rarely read or study prophets unless it is the selected Shabbat haftarah. Even then it isn’t certain that the text will be studied.

For decades Israelis shied away from highlighting Jeremiah because of his extreme positions regarding the fate of the Israelis prior to and at the time of the exile after the destruction of the first Temple. He believed that the people had gone beyond the point of “return” due to the total erosion of their moral fiber. Worse than that, he believed that the Jews needed to adjust to life in Babylonia because it was the will of God and that they weren’t returning to Israel. Since Babylonia was their new home, it made sense that they integrate themselves thoroughly. Jeremiah had no coherent vision for a return. Pretty extreme!!

Nineteenth century Zionists deeply resented Jeremiah for this harsh prophetic vision since it competed with their own vision of a people reclaiming and returning to their ancestral home. They preferred more uplifting prophets like Isaiah because of his optimistic prophecy that we will ultimately be vindicated and return to Israel. Thus, the Israeli curriculum barely references Jeremiah while giving much time and attention to Isaiah.

Perhaps the message that most attracts Israeli’s today and alienated them two thousand years ago was Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon” where he attempted to appeal to the moral conscience of the people, placing it on equal footing with religious / ritual cult practice. Then, two thousand years ago, the kingdom was content with religious obeisance minus the social consciousness, not caring if people were starving in the streets. Today however, social consciousness or tikun olam has become the fashion, the rage among those wishing to express themselves Jewishly minus the religious / ritual observance.

Today in Israel as well as in many Diaspora communities, soup kitchens and safe houses are the new constructs and de rigueur of Jewish fulfillment as expressed by our prophets and epitomized by Jeremiah. The majority of American Jews, considered liberals (or progressives) seem to think that if we create universal health coverage on the backs of the taxpayers we will fulfill in some part the so called mitzvah of tikun olam. They mistakenly believe that if there is a redistribution of the wealth of the country and individuals we will approximate the vision of Jeremiah. Unfortunately these well-meaning progressives have corrupted the intent and meaning of tikun olam. An alternative to that vision ought to be “tough love” which is probably more in line with the intention of biblical Judaism (i.e. eved ivri)

Coddling was never a value in our system. A safety net provided for those in dire need, wasn’t regarded as entitlement nor intended as a permanent solution to economic/social problems. Our rabbis taught us that it was incumbent on every father to teach not only Torah but also a trade to their sons. Axiomatic of that was Maimonides hierarchy of charity; the highest being providing the opportunity to the recipient to receive an opportunity at a trade or business to assure a livelihood rather than money or goods.

Perhaps its time that those who want to see change in the social fabric of society abandon their corrupted understanding of tikun olam which encourages neediness, and adopt the saner approach of tough love. Coddling creates more dependency. The goal should be to wean people off of the dole, primarily the healthy and the young who ought to get off their duffs and find a job (I am not suggesting that the aged, physically and mentally infirm should rot in the streets). And yes, there are plenty of jobs – all the jobs that the illegal aliens take (as dish washers, buss boys and gardeners) that our inner city youth believe is beneath them. If tikun olam as understood by the yefe nefesh was the message of Jeremiah instead of tough love, than his vision may do us more harm than good; perhaps we’d be better off keeping his message relegated to the past rather that resurrecting him.