Needing Jeremiah

By Aryeh Tepper
Wednesday, November 10, 2010

One of the most significant accomplishments of the Zionist project was to re-vitalize the Bible as a Jewish national document. Or, if not the Bible as a whole, at least parts of the Bible. The early Zionists were attracted in particular to those books, like Joshua and Isaiah, which appealed to the dream of return and political restoration. One biblical book that most definitely didn't fire the Zionist imagination was the book of Jeremiah.

The prophet Jeremiah lived in the period leading up to the destruction of the first Temple (586 B.C.E.), and while he began his career dreaming about the reunification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judea—the two had split after King Solomon's son Rehavam came to power—he ended by prophesying destruction and, according to Jewish tradition, composing in its aftermath the great howl of grief that is the book of Lamentations. Concluding that the nation in its moral degeneration had moved beyond the point of no return, Jeremiah had also counseled submission to the rule of Babylon, thereby renouncing Jewish political sovereignty. For this he was regarded as a traitor by some of the patriots of his time and, closer to our own time, as a repudiator of one of the principal elements of the Zionist vision.

To this day, indeed, Israeli high-school students are exposed to only a very small portion of the book of Jeremiah, while to most Israelis the story of the prophet's life remains unknown. This is a situation that Rabbi Benjamn Lau, a leading figure of the religious-Zionist camp, has set out to change in Jeremiah, a Hebrew-language book that is soon to be translated into English. In redeeming the prophet from the margins, Lau both retells the book's "plot" and enters a striking claim for Jeremiah's relevance to contemporary Israeli concerns.

Two obstacles stand in Lau's way. The first is that the text of Jeremiah is choppy and the story doesn't always proceed chronologically. The second is that, absent a prior familiarity with the history narrated in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, the reader will have little sense of the pertinent context. Lau has overcome both of these difficulties by rearranging the book's narrative according to its proper chronology and supplying the historical-political context, occasionally adding insights culled from academic historians and archeologists.

The precision of Lau's retelling can be contested, but the broad strokes aren't in dispute. During Jeremiah's lifetime, the kings of Judea, from Josiah to Jehoiakim to Zedekiah, all failed to recognize the limits of their power and became unnecessarily embroiled in external adventures, while the nation as a whole foolishly placed its faith in foreign alliances and the succoring presence of the Temple in its midst. As against this twin dependence on power politics and the Temple, Jeremiah insistently and repeatedly proclaimed "a necessary connection between social justice and national existence." True Jewish patriots, he declared, were moved by a sense of justice and sympathy for the weak, by "the cause of the poor and needy. . . . Was not this to know Me? said the Lord" (22:16).

From this it is easy enough to discern where Lau locates Jeremiah's contemporary relevance. The state of Israel is weighed down today by serious social problems, from the status of foreign workers to forced prostitution—problems often pushed aside by the need to focus on the country's strategic situation. Among some, there is also a kind of insouciance about the country's supposed indestructibility, an attitude no less superstitious than the ancient dependence on the Temple. As Lau notes toward the end of his book:

There are still false prophets in Jerusalem proclaiming, "We have a tradition from our forefathers that the third commonwealth [i.e., the state] won't be destroyed." Their function is to put us to sleep and make us forget our weighty responsibility: to be deserving of this house.

Lau's Jeremiah is thus a rabbi's warning against national and/or religious self-confidence divorced from a social conscience and the commitment to moral excellence. In one sense, it may be said (though Lau doesn't say it) that his warning goes to the heart of the modern project itself, and to the war waged by hard-boiled thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes to emancipate politics from theology. Reversing the trajectory, Lau's Jeremiah reconnects the two by implying that their disconnection was what doomed the Jewish state in the first place.  In this sense, his warning is pertinent to contemporary situations, and dilemmas, well beyond the state of Israel.

More specifically, though, Jeremiah constitutes a challenge to Zionist and religious-Zionist pieties. Among secular Israelis, interest in the Bible has waned with the passing of the heroic phase of the Zionist revolution. Meanwhile, within the religious-Zionist camp, a battle has been waged between those who would read the Bible "at eye-level"—meaning, on its own terms and without the mediating presence of traditional commentaries, and those who consider it forbidden to read the text without the aid of those commentaries.

Lau comes down firmly on the side of the former camp: his Jeremiah is an "eye-level" reading that by and large bypasses rabbinic interpretations. It thus remains faithful in its own way to the Zionist project of reclaiming the Bible through the recovery of the plain, surface sense of the text (especially, for the early Zionists, its political sense). By proceeding in this way, he has indeed succeeded in reanimating the text for a new generation. No less importantly, he has also succeeded in demonstrating the enduring power of the Bible's most tragic prophet, and—here is where his challenge to certain of today's pieties comes in—in bringing front and center that prophet's core, clarion message: the hazards of hubris.

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