Print | Email  

Do we learn from History?

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-07-16

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Imagine two boxers slugging it out. A heavyweight and a flyweight. The flyweight is beaten to pulp but still refuses to give up.

The referee is looking the other way. The seconds of the big man want him to stop but the seconds of the other fellow are sending in doctors, pumping him with pain killers and promising him millions if he keeps on slugging it out. The crowd is howling for the flyweight. They are willing him to get back into the fight. They hate the heavyweight. They throw missiles at him, sponges, bottles and coins. But still every time the flyweight hurls himself back at his opponent the big guy smashes him up again.

Anyone living in Europe now is fully aware of the fact that amongst academics, the chattering classes and liberal Christians, Israel is regarded as an illegitimate rogue state that has no right to exist and is sadistically beating the flyweights into pulp. But they simply cannot see the broader picture.

Francis Fukayama famously wrote about the End of History and the Last Man. What he meant by this was that it has become clear that liberal democracies are now the best form of governments and have put all alternatives in the shade. In this he is right, for the time being and within the limited span of human history. But his theories, plausible as they are, tend to overlook human fallibility in pursuit of the great idea.

I remember a brilliant lecture I heard many years ago in Jerusalem, given by Lord Bullock, Hitler’s biographer and Master of St Catharine’s in Oxford. He started his lecture by quoting the Russian proverb

“He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye.”

And the overwhelmingly Jewish, Zionist audience gasped.

“But,”’ he continued after a theatrical pause, “ the second half of the proverb goes on to say that ‘He who ignores the past is in danger of losing both eyes.’”

Here we are in 'The Three Weeks' that lead up to the 9th Day of Av, the anniversary of our losing two Temples and our land and we look to the past but we do not learn the lessons of the past. We think this is the end of history. Too many rabbis end their sermons with Messianic fervour, the Messiah is knocking on the gates, He is round the corner and this relieves from us any need to confront reality. Have Faith. Indeed, but faith is not an excuse.

Never mind that our Talmudic tradition tells us that we lost twice because we were corrupt, dishonest and insensitive. Never mind that we had on both occasions a profusion of religious and political zealots who argued that we should ignore everyone else and just go it alone. And on both occasions those few religious leaders who actually stood out against the howling mob or the majority of charismatic rabbis, were marginalized and scorned.

Judaism believes that History only ends when God says so. But in the meantime we are required to be sensitive custodians and use the tools given to us to try to conduct our affairs in a moral manner.

There is always a powerful argument for the status quo. Vested interests in particular prefer it. But we saw after the 1967 war that staus quos don’t last. Similarly the so-called religious status quo in Israel based on a very unsatisfactory compromise fifty years ago, has also crumbled. Status Quos are excuses for inaction.

It would take a leap of imagination like Begin’s or suicidal risks like Sadat’s and Rabin’s. But unless someone or some political leadership emerges prepared to break out of this tit for tat, unless we have leadership that can ignore the howling mobs within baying for the blood of others and the howling mobs without baying for the destruction of the only Jewish State from the hypocritical safety of their liberal havens, we will be all be in danger of falling into their trap and losing at least one eye, possibly both.

The model I started with can be understood in two ways. In the short term Israel is the Heavyweight and the Palestinians are the lightweights. But in the long term, Israel is the flyweight dashing in against the weight of history. You might argue as indeed Muslims do that the Almighty has promised us. We have thousands of years of experience that tell us that God’s promises depend very largely on us and if we ‘blow it’ so will He (or She or It).

Yes we have all made mistakes. Who hasn’t?

In the realms of ritual there are two models. One is that blind obedience is enough It is an act of submission. The other is that without the right intent and  translating it into daily action, using it to improve oneself, it becomes empty.

I tend towards that second position. What is the point in fasting if we don’t learn the lesson?