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Vision of Greatness

A haftorah of dire straits and new directions

Liel Leibovitz
July 16, 2010
(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; protesters photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images; poster: Franz Krausz via David Lisbona)
(Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; protesters photo: Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images; poster: Franz Krausz via David Lisbona)

Summer is upon us, so allow me to adopt the heated language of film critics everywhere and claim that if you’re going to read just one haftorah portion this year, make it this week’s.

The Hollywood jargon isn’t entirely inappropriate. The scolding sermon in question, by the prophet Isaiah, has everything a blockbuster can hope for: Sex (“how has she become a harlot, a faithful city”)! Corruption (“everyone loves bribes and runs after payments”)! A happy ending (“Zion shall be redeemed through justice and her penitent through righteousness”)! Good luck getting all that from a bunch of brooding vampires.

Isaiah laments the moral depravity of his people and preaches justice and compassion. While his fellow Israelites engage in worldly pursuits, he devotes himself to ethereal visions. This is why this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Hazon,” or the Shabbat of the vision: As we prepare to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, we’re instructed to reflect on Isaiah’s divinations and chart our own course toward repentance and redemption.

And what’s true for Jewish people is even more pressing for the Jewish state.

For the past year, I have frequently used this column to tie the prophets’ ire to Israel’s contemporary woes. Too often, I was saddened to discover in the ancient rebukes sharp lessons for modern times. The lamentations felt fresh, as if the sinfulness and hard-heartedness that so pained Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the rest of their holy ilk were committed not in biblical times but just a short while ago. But this week, I wish to linger on no specific ill. This week, I’d like to think about vision.

It’s a strange thing, of course, to believe that a state must have a vision. The overwhelming majority of nations, after all, owe their existence not to some ephemeral organizing principle but to geographical proximities, historical consequences, and ethnic similarities. They inhabit contiguous slivers of land long enough to mine for shared cultures and common ways. They become nations the way animals become fossils, a centuries-long journey in which a once-living entity becomes an immutable part of the landscape.

Israel is not such a nation. Israel was founded on an idea. It came to be because generations of Jews looked back at the covenant between God and his Chosen People and decided that they could no longer wait for the Messiah to lead them to the Promised Land. They had a vision. Some called it Zionism, others mixed in elements of socialism or militarism or literature or labor or religion. But the Jewish vision hadn’t changed in millennia. It remained the same from the destruction of the Temple onward. The vision called for an independent and just Jewish community in the Land of Israel, the sort the Lord had in mind when he spoke, at Sinai, of a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. That was the vision that propelled scores to war and hardship, the vision in whose name I and so many others took up arms. And that vision, alas, is in peril.

The problem isn’t left versus right. It has nothing to do with Palestinian violence or the Iranian threat. It looms far above the petty concerns that fill up the pages of our newspapers and our dinner-table conversations. The problem is existential: Israel, I believe, has lost its vision.

How else to explain a nation that so desperately and candidly craves peace and yet time and again lends its unequivocal support to military escapades that gain nothing but calumny? How to account for a population that disagrees bitterly with the settlers’ zealous dream of grasping on to Judea and Samaria yet votes enthusiastically for those politicians who continue to build more and more Jewish outposts on the West Bank’s contentious hills? What do we say when no plan is in sight, no hope foreseeable, and the sole comfort comes from slinging mud at enemies, real or imagined?

These days, I can think of little else. These questions are at the heart of a new book I’ve co-written with Todd Gitlin—The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election—and I hope to have the opportunity to discuss them in greater length in the fall. For now, however, I can say this: The way out is further in. If—as Todd and I became convinced when researching our book—Israel wants to be a Jewish state, then let it be a Jewish state. Let it take Isaiah’s warning seriously and commit itself once more not merely to the mechanics of Judaism—its rituals and rigidities, its tired symbols and battered tropes—but to its wonderful and wild and vibrant soul, the same spirit that witnessed the birth of monotheism and made it its mission to tell the world of God and his mercy. Let it listen to the prophet and abandon its fantasies of might and money. Instead of accusing the world of hypocrisy for judging Israel by a different standard than the one habitually applied to other nations, let it cheer and reply that any nation that was forged in the crucible of divine election, that was founded on faith in being God’s favorites sons, has no choice but to accept double standards as a matter of fact. Let it learn to tell the difference between the malicious few who burn with hatred and the perplexed many who look at Israel’s actions and wonder—as every sensible and conscientious person must wonder—just what kind of future the Jewish state imagines for itself.

As we ponder these questions, let us praise the instruments of war or the pirouettes of peace, each of us according to her or his heart; for some the road might be clear, for others pebbled with the debris of broken promises and shattered dreams. But let us never stop thinking about our vision, and let our vision never stray far from that bequeathed to us from above. This summer, if you have only one thought of transcendence and fate, let this be the one.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.