Return and Repentance in Modern Jewish Literature

Nov. 16 2018

Best known for such novels as The Chosen and My Name Is Asher Lev, both which tell about defectors from Ḥasidism, Chaim Potok was also the author of a number of plays. Most of these, in Sarah Rindner’s estimation, have little merit, except for one that puts something of a twist on Potok’s favorite theme:

Out of the Depths . . . depicts the life of the great turn-of-the-century Yiddish writer S. An-sky. Born Shloyme-Zaynvl Rappaport, An-sky authored the iconic and [supernatural] play The Dybbuk, [alternatively titled Between Two Worlds]. An-sky’s journey from traditional Jew to radical socialist and ultimately back toward affiliation with, and advocacy on behalf of, the Jews of his native Russia has been told before, but Potok turned it into the stuff of a Potok novel: an account of the unresolvable tension between traditional Judaism and something else—in this case, not art, psychology, historical scholarship, or East Asian religion, but [revolutionary-socialist] concern for the suffering of the Russian peasantry.

Yet, unlike [the comparable characters in Potok’s novels], this Potok protagonist does not teeter painfully between two irreconcilable worlds. Disgusted by the hypocrisy of the Bolsheviks and horrified by their persecution of the Jews despite their universalist rhetoric, An-sky comes back to the fold—decisively. To drive the point home, Potok depicts An-sky dying alone in a decrepit Warsaw lodging house, wrapped in a tallis. . . .

The word for repentance in Judaism, t’shuvah, translates literally as “return.” A secular Jew who becomes observant is deemed a ba’al t’shuvah, literally a “master of return.” Or, in modern Israeli parlance, a ḥozer bi-tshuvah, which we might translate as a “returner to returning.” (His Christian equivalent is described as undergoing conversion or, in certain circles, as being “born again”—both of which suggest something more radical than returning.) The word t’shuvah implies that no great break is needed on the way to spiritual renewal. Rather, moving forward is a process of getting back in touch with what was there, in some sense,  all along. . . . Return need not to be to any discernible prior place at all. The Talmud writes that God created the possibility for t’shuvah before creating the world. Return is a state of mind. . . .

Rindner points out that the sort of return to Judaism experienced by An-Sky—not a literal return to halakhic observance or to traditional belief, but a return to identification with the Jewish people and Judaism broadly construed—has become a motif of contemporary Jewish fiction. And in contrast to the standard homecoming narrative that has as its archetype in the Odyssey, the Jewish idea of t’shuvah “offers the idea that the home to which one returns is endlessly dynamic, a source of vibrancy and depth.”

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More about: Arts & Culture, baalei teshuvah, Chaim Potok, Jewish literature, Judaism, S. An-sky

The Military Perils of Ceding Israeli Control of the West Bank

April 24 2019

In the years since the second intifada ended, no small number of retired high-ranking IDF officers and intelligence officials have argued that complete separation from the Palestinians is a strategic necessity for Israel. Gershon Hacohen, analyzing the geography, the changes in warfare—and Middle Eastern warfare in particular—since the 1990s, and recent history, argues that they are wrong:

The withdrawal of IDF forces from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state in these territories will constitute an existential threat to Israel. The absence of an Israeli military presence in the West Bank, especially along the Jordan River, will enable the creation of a terrorist entity, à la the Gaza Strip, a stone’s throw from the Israeli hinterland. This withdrawal will box Israel into indefensible borders, especially in light of the major changes in the nature of war in recent decades that have made the astounding achievements of 1967 impossible to replicate, not to mention the stark international response [that would follow Israel’s] takeover of a sovereign state.

The deployment of international forces in the West Bank will not, [contrary to what some have argued], ensure the demilitarization of the prospective Palestinian state, let alone prevent the entry of Arab forces into its territory (with or without its consent) and/or its transformation into a springboard for terrorist attacks against Israel. . . .

Israel [now] maintains control of some 60 percent of the West Bank’s territory, . . . which is mostly empty of Palestinian population but includes all of the West Bank’s Jewish communities and IDF bases, as well as main highways, vital topographic areas, and open spaces descending eastward to the Jordan Valley. The retention of this territory constitutes the absolute minimum required for the preservation of defensible borders and meets two conditions necessary for Israel’s security: the Jordan Valley buffer zone, without which it will be impossible to prevent the rapid arming of Palestinian terrorist groups throughout the West Bank; and control of intersecting transportation arteries, which, together with control of strategic topographical sites, enables rapid deployment of IDF forces deep inside Palestinian areas.

It is the surrender of such conditions in Gaza that has transformed the Strip into an ineradicable terrorist entity. Uprooting the West Bank’s Jewish communities will also make it difficult for the IDF to operate in the depth of the Palestinian state, especially if it is forced to fight simultaneously on a number of fronts, [since] simultaneous fighting in Gaza, which will be an integral part of the future Palestinian state, is a foregone conclusion.

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More about: Israeli grand strategy, Israeli Security, Palestinian statehood, West Bank