Earlier this week, George Prochnik wrote about when Gershom Scholem discovered Zionism, when Gershom Scholem discovered Kabbalah, and navigating the continuous transformations of Judaism and claiming Zionism as Jewish spiritual practice. With the release of his new book Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem, George is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
After leaving Jerusalem it was nearly ten years before I returned. Memories of the life I’d tried to build there were too raw and painful. But when I finally did make the journey, just to see friends, and take a few walks through my old haunts I had no real expectations. Perhaps because I had so harshly suppressed all thoughts of Jerusalem in the intervening years, the place struck me with a profound, sensual force when I returned. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the physical nature of the place was. This recognition was immediate, and didn’t at first change my thinking about the city. But for years afterward I went back and back, trying in effect to understand what it was that kept pulling me to return. I spoke with people in young progressive political movements and arts groups, Israeli and Palestinian. I visited libraries — at the Dome of the Rock as well as in West Jerusalem. I went to religious neighborhoods and services. All of it was interesting, but none of it got to the heart of my response to the place.
On each of these trips back to the land, it became my habit to take a walk in one of the parks or nature reserves around Jerusalem with an old friend who is both a naturalist and a person of the theater, a director, puppet maker, and clown. We would talk a little about the abiding problems in the country, but mostly about the land itself that we were walking through: the plants we saw, the animals, the deeper geology and visible landscape, the smells, the sounds. Gradually the recognition began to draw on me that this in fact more than anything else was what had made living in Jerusalem so powerful: the pressing imminence of an extraordinary natural world from which different religions and even historical movements had taken inspiration. Ironically, the inspiration taken from the nature of Jerusalem invariably ended up turning Jerusalem itself first into a kind of stage-set background, then into a theological or ideological abstraction. But what would it mean to take what had been background and switch that into the forefront of thinking about the city? What would it mean to take hints from Gershom Scholem’s own writing that the poetry of Walt Whitman (an unexpected, deep passion of Scholem’s), with his naturalistic pantheism, might hold clues both to a new lexicon of kabbalistic symbolism and a fresh political approach to the Land? What if the endless invocations of the Land by the mystics were taken out of the metaphorical realm and read as a guide to treating the physical place as a sacred charge? What if the deep mystical notion of tikkun olam today were taken as an injunction to literally “repair” or heal the earth — not for the sake of making the land yield a livelihood, but for the sake of the survival of the physical place?
For decades we’ve been hearing that the last moment for the two-state solution may have come and gone. At this point, it could be that this option has truly expired, and no state can survive any length of time in this place that does not fully enfranchise all its inhabitants. Perhaps the only hope at a moment when the effects of climate change have already begun playing out aggressively in the region — and the two peoples are already coexisting and sometimes even “co-resisting” in the land, if in a crazy, inequitable patchwork — is to re-frame the political debate so that the focus turns to the land as a common trust.
Scholem always maintained that Judaism has no fixed essence — that it consists of whatever Jews say it is. If Zionism was the next phase of Kabbalah, perhaps an ecological pluralism rising out of Jerusalem must became the next chapter of Zionism.