Monday, June 18, 2012

What Were the Spies Thinking? Translating Belief into Action

When the Spies returned from their tour of the Land with the wonderful attributes of Eretz Yisrael, they submitted their negative, pessimistic report, describing how, in their minds, the attempt to conquer the Land of Israel would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. This of course led to a tragic night of mourning and a rejection of the Divine plan to conquer the Holy Land. As opposed to Kalev, who told the people, עלה נעלה וירשנו אותה – "we will go up and conquer it," (13:30), the spies counter by telling them, לא נוכל לעלות אל העם – "we cannot overcome the nation."
This leads me to wonder, according to the Meraglim, what were the Jewish people supposed to do? While the nation later suggests that they go back to Egypt, we never find any mention of the Spies themselves making that suggestion. If they didn't think that they should return to Egypt, but rejected the possibility of military conquest, what then did the think the Jewish nation was actually supposed to do?
I believe that they never really got that far.
The Meraglim did believe in the importance of Eretz Yisrael as an ideal. After all, if God wanted the Jewish people to be in Eretz Yisrael, who were they to argue? But they saw that belief as independent of any kind of action. They lived in their own Ivory Tower, where they could consider ideas and values without concern for real-world ramifications. To them, belief wasn't necessarily connected to action. The ideal of Eretz Yisrael didn't necessarily mandate doing something to actualize that ideal. How would it happen? Good question – but not one that the Meraglim concerned themselves with.
Yet, nothing can be farther from the truth.
According to Wikipedia, Ideology is defined as,
a set of ideas that constitute one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare worldview), as in several philosophical tendencies (see political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a "received consciousness" or product of socialization). The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer either change in society, or adherence to a set of ideals where conformity already exists, through a normative thought process.
In other words, you cannot divorce ideology from actions. The Spies had no right to simply say, "Look, we're just telling you what we see. It's not our problem what happens afterwards." Their ideas – and the fear that they spread – had very real consequences, and any attempt to claim otherwise rang hollow.
I've been thinking about this notion of ideology devoid of action, because I recently got myself involved in a minor dispute with Rabbi Gil Student, the author and owner of the popular Hirhurim blog. It all started rather innocently, with Rabbi Student posting a lovely video from Shlomo Katz depicting many nice Kotel scenes, along with the following text:
This is why, despite the many challenges of the State of Israel, I consider myself a Zionist. So many of our prayers have already been answered, but others not yet.
I couldn't hold back, and commented on the blog,
Let me understand correctly: you’re only a Zionist because you believe that our prayers have been answered. And if they weren’t answered, you would not be a Zionist? If, God forbid, we were to take a step backwards, as we did seven years ago, would that make you less of a Zionist? What exactly do you mean? What is a Zionist in your mind – someone who believes that Moshiach has come – or may be coming, or partially has come?
I thought that Zionists were people who believed not only that HKB”H would return to Zion, but that we too would do so ourselves, as He commands us to do. See this week’s parshah for more information. It seems that we throw around the term Zionist without exactly defining what it means, and what obligations it implies.
This led to the following extended discussion:
Rabbi Student: So according to you, someone who makes aliyah is a Zionist and someone who does not is not? Was Rav Soloveitchik a Zionist? Are Rav Schachter and Rav Blau? Were you before you made aliyah? Are your parents? One step backward is just a setback. If there was ch”v another exile, I would stop being a Zionist. I use the term Zionism as describing a belief system. Apparently others use it differently.
Me: Doesn’t a belief system necessarily obligate? Or, is your armchair Zionism the type that sits back and watches while other people build the Land of Israel for you? And those names that you mentioned – all of them worked (the Rav) or work tirelessly to advance the causes of the State of Israel. Your initial comment – and the ones that followed, imply strongly that you are a Zionist because from what you can tell (from nice videos and the like) things are going nicely here (and I infer that you think there’s some level of geulah going on). My understanding of Zionism is one that requires some effort – even from afar, to advance the cause of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Student: I consider that to be a mistaken opinion. I believe that someone can believe in the Torah without studying it, although he should study it. And someone can believe in God without following His commands, although he should. And he can believe in Zionism without making aliyah, although he should.
Me: I try not to rub aliyah in the face of people who live in the States, but you seem to think that we should honor your life choice as a personal decision with no religious or spiritual implications. When I lived in the States, I acknowledged the tension and the pressure to live in Israel. I was actively involved in AIPAC and other efforts to support the Jewish State. That’s the very least that you can and should do.
Judaism isn't simply a religion of dogma. It's a religion of action. Of course God wants us to believe. But He also demands that we translate that faith into concrete reality on the ground, by learning Torah and following the mitzvot; by creating faith communities dedicated to spreading the d'var Hashem, and yes, by working together to reestablish the Jewish Nation as a ממלכת כהנים in the Holy Land.
Of course God cares what we believe. But He also wants to know, "What are you going to do about it?"