In a new symposium at The Lehrhaus entitled “Reclaiming Torah u-Madda,” I was given the chance to reflect on the state of “Torah U-Madda” (the relationship between Torah and Western culture) in the Modern Orthodox community today. I sought to address this topic on a philosophical level, through an analysis of a wonderful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as through some “real-world” examples of how these ideas might play out in practice. My latter comments generated more controversy than I would have liked. I would like to emphasize that my account of what has challenged me personally about my native community is not meant to constitute a comprehensive indictment of all that is wrong with Modern Orthodoxy. My goal in the essay is to introduce a philosophical framework and then briefly suggest how this framework might cohere in real-life scenarios. I don’t mind disagreement about the relevance of these scenarios but I am even more interested in discussing the worldview that underlies them.
This past February 14th marked the 116th anniversary of the publication of Theodor Herzl’s manifesto The Jewish State, which lay the groundwork for the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel. That same evening a special event took place in the Jerusalem Theater: a performance of Herzl’s play The New Ghetto, written in 1894, just a few short weeks before he began composing The Jewish State. It is commonly understood that the turning point for Herzl—the moment he realized there was no escaping from anti-Semitism even in enlightened Western Europe—was the Dreyfus Affair that began in the fall of 1894. Yet The New Ghetto, written shortly beforehand, is proof that, as some scholars have argued, a proto-Zionist sensibility had already been roiling in Herzl’s mind.
Last month’s production was a historic privilege for those who attended it: it was the first time the play has ever been performed in Israel.
Earlier this year, our family left a suburban Jewish community in New Jersey that we loved in order to fulfill a dream of making aliyah to Israel. In the years leading up to our move, we frequently discussed the merits and drawbacks of life in Israel versus the US. We discussed matters like the dangers of living in an isolated enclave surrounded by enemy states versus our seemingly comfortable and secure American lives. My husband often pointed out the spiritual dangers of life in the diaspora as well as the potential for established ways of life to degenerate rapidly, even in advanced Western societies. We boarded our aliyah flight against the backdrop of a common web of excitement, anticipation, and doubt.
Once in Israel, however, our commonplace constellation of concerns was complicated, perhaps overshadowed, by a new set of events. A wave of antisemitic incidents in the New York City area in late 2019 left us to glued to American news sources for updates. I grew up in the idyllic religious community of Monsey; in my mind it was the peaceful foil to whatever uncertainty we encountered in Israel. Yet the attack on a local Hanukkah party by a machete-wielding lunatic revealed that this place was hardly immune from hatred and violence. Sitting in Israel with rockets from Gaza falling in the distance, my heart was nevertheless in New York and New Jersey, concerned about family members and friends. I had the stomach-churning sense that the problem was unlikely to dissipate anytime soon….
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.