I remember a New Yorker cartoon a few years back. Two tweedy academic types stroll in some ivied college quad as a chapel empties out in the background. One observes to his colleague: "Poor Smithers! Published and published--yet perished all the same!"
This send-up of the futility of academic productivity begs comparison with an earlier critic of the scribal craft, none other than King Solomon. At home in Mesopotamian natural science, master of the revelations of written and oral Torah, and, the rabbis tell us, fluent in the languages of birds and palm trees, Shlomo haMelech shocks us with advice that blunts the quill of even the most eager young scrivener:
Above all, my son, come and see --
Academic books remaindered eternally.
Fine! Knock yourself out! Stock the library!
But who'll read your stuff? Not even me!
(Eccl. 12:12: rendered, you see,
with midrashic liberty!)
What gives? Can Shlomo haMelech have begun the line of thought that issued, after three millennia, in the Philistinism of a Henry Ford (may his bones rot in an Edsel showroom!), who opined that "History is bunk?"
Fear not, gentle reader. Incline an ear as I intone the name: Rawidowicz!
"Who?"you ask. "Is this one of Feigenzohn's flunkies?"
Nope. Shraga Feigenzohn -- last encountered by JTNews readers in my Purim Torah, "A L'Chaim for Hegel" -- was a mole, but Simon Rawidowicz was a lion. A founding father of Brandeis University, and part of its original faculty, Rawidowicz is remembered (almost solely by academic scribes) as the author of "Israel: The Ever-Dying People," one of the most penetrating essays on Jewish historical memory ever written in secular academe.
His thesis is simple: the engine that drives Jewish survival is fueled by the conviction that the most recent Jewish generation is certainly the last. Let Rawidowicz explain:
"I am often tempted to think that this fear of cessation in Israel was a kind of protective collective emotion. Israel has indulged so much in the fear of its end, that its constant vision of the end helped it to overcome every crisis, to emerge from every threatening end as a living unit, though much wounded and reduced. tIn anticipating the end, it became its master. Thus no catastrophe could ever take this end-fearing people by surprise, so as to put it off its balance, still less to obliterate it -- as if Israel's incessant preparation for the end made this very end absolutely impossible."
Rawidowicz penned these words in the late 1940s, capturing perfectly the moment in which the absolute despair of European Jewry was transformed into the radical hope that produced Zionism's astounding historical victory.
Today, that radical hope is all but gone. The redemptive Zionist project, so self-confident in the 1950s, has come apart at the seams, its many latent contradictions exposed like raw nerves. Who can guess what horrors this summer's dismantling of Jewish Gaza may yet bring? Israel has so far survived the hatred of the Arabs, but can it survive the religious resentment and political absolutism that divides its Jewish citizenry?
Haredim -- often referred to as Hasidic in these parts -- detest Israel as the embodiment of "Zionist hatred for God and Torah." Yesha (the settler movement of messianic Zionism) reviles Israel's elected leaders as "enemies of Zionism and the Jewish people." When the heirs of Zionism have lost all concept of its meaning, we must wonder -- has the reconstruction of Jewish life in national-political terms utterly failed?
The Jewish State once laid plausible claim to embody Am Yisrael's historical spirit. Today the state seems more like a bloated sacred cow, surrounded by hyenas, Arab and Jewish, awaiting a share of the staggering carcass.
If, God forbid, the democratic Jewish State falls to the Palestinian nation, what will replace it? A vengeful bloodbath, for sure, followed by the Democratic Republic of Palestine, to which the last Jews may kindly apply for exit visas. And if it falls to Jews? Maybe less blood. But is it crazy to imagine a Taliban-like rabbinic theocracy administered by the Gedoylim of the "Torah Camp," or an administration of "purification" supervised by our very own Brown Shirts from Eretz Yisrael HaShelemah?
Choose your nightmare. If any of them survives into daylight, what reconstructive cultural project can American Judaism offer in response? No doubt we'll take in more than our share of Israeli refugees. But what then? What could exile mean again in this century after the Holocaust of 193345 and the redemption of 1948? How many of our pulpit rabbis are up to that d'var Torah for the coming generation, and who will come to hear?
Our straits are dire, but we are not without resources. As the Ever-Dying People, we are also the Ever-Transformed People. Even now, as we conclude the weeks of mourning that lead us to relive the collective trauma of Tisha b'Av, we anticipate the solace of the weeks of consolation and the confidence of the season of repentence. The message that Torah brings to us this season should not be lost upon us: the loss of the Temple -- of everything that sanctifies the truths we hold about ourselves -- is the precondition of our perpetual rebirth.
Maybe this is why King Solomon cautioned disciples against the writing of books. Historians tell us where we've been, but the future can only be written by our actions. And actions, to be truly bold, must be unfettered by what historical memory alone holds forth as possible.
Let the King over Israel in Jerusalem have the final word:
"The words of the sages must be like goads,
Like nails sunk into flesh --
Gift of One Shepherd
Human books tell us what was, but Torah min HaShamayim -- the disclosure of God's power to heal and transform -- propels the redeeming deed.