Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Changing Times and Golden Calves

A favourite picture from my travels in South East Asia in 2001 comes from a Bangkok temple, when in one of those ‘planned spontaneous poses’ the camera catches me (small Kippah and all) looking up at what in traditional Judaism can only be described as an ornate ‘idol.’ I wanted it to reflect the tension between a traditional adherence to Halacha (which forbids even entering ‘foreign’ houses of worship) and a modern perspective of being able to admire beauty and culture regardless of its origin without compromising one’s adherence to pure monotheism.

Judaism has always been against graven images – the second commandment of the Decalogue warns against forming statues of silver and gold while last week’s portion relates the disastrous story of the golden calf which (in addition to the sin of the spies) resulted in a whole generation of Israelites barred from entering the promised land.

Yet idolatry isn’t what it used to be, and travelling often brings into sharp focus the continued need for such a prohibition.

Last Sunday, Reut took the office out for a Yom Kef to celebrate the organization’s 4th birthday. For anyone interested, fun for ‘think tankers’ involved an early dinner preceded by a Yaldei HaShemesh , a documentary about Kibbutz children who grew up in a ‘Children’s home’ called the Bet Yeladim. The documentary is split into four parts, each one punctuated by a list of Kibbutz rules – how many hours a day children spend with their parents (it wasn’t much - parents were considered a bourgeois concept) how many hours they worked for, what age the girls and boys stopped sleeping and showering together…

The Kibbutz movement saw itself as creating a new Jewish prototype – a Hebrew hybrid of Cossack and Bedouin. They felt part of the elite, something greater than themselves. And in many ways they were – for decades Kibbutznikim made up the majority of politicians and army generals in the country. Yet two generations later the Bet Yeladim was no more. As reality changed and the rules stayed the same, the Kibbutz went from a position of strength to being unable to cope with societal changes.

From being the centre of the Israeli experience, the Kibbutz more or less collapsed as an ideology.

Reut was created in 2004 to provide
real-time long-term strategic decision-support to the Israeli Government. It based on the assumption that Israel’s case is unique – that whereas Switzerland’s national security doctrine has remained more or less unchanged in the last century, Israel is in constant flux, a situation that requires the continuous re-evaluation of working assumptions about the world to ensure their relevancy. When this doesn’t happen – when one’s mindsets don’t evolve in light of a changing reality, it creates a relevancy gap.

If left un-dealt with, relevancy gaps ultimately cause strategic surprises – like the situation leading to the 1973 war.

A friend recently suggested that an individual’s relationship with God is also constantly in flux – that our perception of the divine evolves as we mature, as our life experience becomes richer and more subtle. And similar to watching a film before reading the book, perhaps creating a graven image of God crystallizes and restricts our perception to a point where it can never evolve as our subjective perception of reality changes. Perhaps the prohibition against building graven images is to prevent us from remaining attached to old ideas and beliefs that have lost their relevancy in light of a changing reality.

The lesson of the Kibbutz movement and the golden calf suggest that unless we’re open to adapting in line with changes or living without rigid certainties, our survival is at risk. And perhaps in a country that seems wedded to traditional positions of left and right, of secular and religious, we should consider unchaining ourselves from the past, from ideologies that are often as inflexible as images of gold and silver. Perhaps to ensure Israel’s continued relevancy in this sea of uncertainty, we should be prepared to face the future with openness - on both a personal and national level.

Because even those who have already entered the Promised Land are not immune from making mistakes.