Normalcy and Covenant

Bemidbar By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On May 19, 2007 / 5767 | Torah Commentary

Numbers always stands in pointed contrast to Leviticus. The overarching order of the book of the Torah that we have just completed — the routines of sacrifice, the hierarchies of priesthood, the distinctions between purity and pollution, permitted and forbidden — all this soon gives way to B’midbar, “in the wilderness,” to challenges of a different sort. The book starts by counting the people and arranging the camp for travel. But soon, we know, all those counted will be held responsible for the spies’ rebellion. Moses’ cousin Korah will attempt insurrection. The camp will wander without hope of reaching the Promised Land. We turn from Leviticus to Numbers, aware that the real world awaits us there: the one in desperate need of sacred order. We, like the Israelites, clearly have a lot to learn,

That is why, I believe, the book is so concerned with politics: the attempt to reorder the world’s arrangements and priorities, in concert or conflict with other human beings who at times share our view of how things should be and at times see things very differently. Power may be necessary to disrupt the current arrangements. Violence will be mover and obstacle to realization of our— and God’s — intentions. My word (inspired by Zionism) for the way things have been and generally continue to be is normalcy. For Jews in the Diaspora normalcy means protecting the interests of a perpetual minority. We need to secure precious rights and freedoms, guard interests, form alliances, and keep our community together. In Israel normalcy means defense of a sovereign state, the quest for good government, the responsibilities of citizenship.

In both cases Jewish politics must serve higher interests. Following our tradition, I call this covenant — our reason for being, grounded in encounter with the source of all being. Arguably it is this combination of normalcy and covenant that has kept Jews going as a people for two millennia. Survival for its own sake would not have achieved that feat, and covenant has required normalcy not only to live but to have a chance of realization.

In my book Taking Hold of Torah, published in 1997, I summarized the current status of these two aspects of the Jewish political situation this way. Little seems to have changed in the interim.

In America today, Jews enjoy full participation in the larger society, a degree of attainment and at-homeness new to Jewish history. The vast majority do not regard themselves, as almost all Jews did until a century or two ago, as “temporary residents” in transit to Zion, their only real home. They do not sit waiting for God’s messiah to take them there. Nor need Jews rely, as they still do in some countries of the world, upon “court Jews” or other notables to plead their case before Gentile powers. With full benefit of Emancipation, and ample use of the influence that has come with economic clout and other achievements, American Jews today work with allies (and against opponents) through the normal democratic process of give and take, bargaining and leverage. Like other groups, they act both to protect communal interests (variously defined) and to pursue (one version or another of) a distinctive societal vision. The community’s political skills are by this point quite refined, and justly admired. Its attainments are enviable, even if still haunted by the fear that America will not prove as much an exception to previous Diaspora history as Jews might wish.
Israeli Jews, possessing actual sovereignty over a piece of territory for the first time in two millennia and maintaining one of the finest armies in the world, of course enjoy a far greater degree of control over their society, economy, and polity. “Normalization” — a primary goal of Zionism from the outset — has to that extent been achieved. Its consequence is that Israelis practice a still more revolutionary Jewish politics than American Jews and face more of a challenge in fulfilling covenantal duties. It is one thing to call for social justice in the name of Isaiah, or cite the Torah’s demand to “seek peace and pursue it,” or cry out with Leviticus against oppression, when one has little or no power to act on such demands, lacks influence sufficient to see that they are met, and bears no direct responsibility for the outcome of decisions once they are made. Jewish politics is quite another matter when it weighs competing needs or goods, uses state power to counter other groups and their traditions, justifies both the use and abuse of power in the name of God and Torah, and often enough must decide to settle for no good at all but only for the lesser of several evils.

For both communities, Israeli and American Jews, the political situation remains very much a wilderness, the demands of normalcy and covenant very much in tension. As I have explained in Taking Hold of Torah,

Both in a very real sense await and depend upon the coming of messiah: Israelis because, given the normal course of power politics, the odds are heavily stacked against their state’s long-term survival in the Middle East; American Jews because their vitality, if not their actual survival, depends on the achievement of a true pluralism and tolerance that until now in the world’s history has been a utopian dream rather than a political reality.

None of this would be a surprise to the Book of Numbers. Take for example the head count with which it begins. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelites community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.” Every political community requires boundaries. We have to know who is included, who is responsible. Once the census has been completed, the polity-in-formation is ready to receive its marching orders. The Israelites are standing beside one another and before God. They are ready to move forward.

Their journey will not be without incident, of course. It will rarely be said again in the book of Numbers chapter 1, verse 54, “The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.” But there will be progress. At the end of the book they will be well advanced toward the goal, ready to cross the narrow river and take hold of divine promise. Politics for us, as for them, is a matter of fits and starts, highs and lows, obedience and stubbornness.

The Israelites portrayed in Numbers are not irredeemable, a fact that gives us hope, though they are — again like us — often frightened and perhaps even traumatized: they by slavery, we by Holocaust. Desire often gets the better of them as it does of us. Farce sometimes is succeeded by tragedy. And yet along the way there are occasions of true nobility, signs of genuine holiness, and at the end there are palpable signs of redemption. The children of the people Israel are getting somewhere. Israel will heed “the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon [them] through Moses” (Numbers 36:13), at least some of the time. Normalcy and covenant will coexist and even strengthen one another, as the Torah had imagined. This is perhaps the best that politics can offer. The beginning, as always, is to raise our heads and be counted.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.