Forever Engaged, Never Married, to the Land of Israel

By Assaf Inbari

Homeland as an object of passion and desire.

Zionism was not a marriage with the land of Israel. Marriage is the enemy of yearning, and the success of Zionism depended on keeping that yearning alive.
A wedding ceremony is bound up with loss. Loss not only of a bachelor’s freedom, but of his beloved, as well, in a ritual that transforms her into his wife. The glass smashed under the wedding canopy is not the only thing shattered at a wedding; the wedding itself marks a shattering of sorts. Desire, having swelled for months or even years, inevitably crashes, wave-like, against the safe shores of family life. That is the joy. That is the sorrow. A man and a woman once aflame with desire now lie down together to rest.
To marry a lover is to separate from her. As it is written in Genesis, “And it came to pass in the morning, behold, it was Leah.” Jacob’s palpable disappointment in the replacement of his lover is experienced by most not as a contradiction between two women, but as the sudden, depressing metamorphosis of the woman who has been so desired until the wedding night into Leah—that is, into a wife—in the morning.
She did not suddenly grow ugly or old; hers is the same body that appeared in hundreds of his dreams. But now she is his, and one can hardly long for what one already possesses.
Two thousand years of exile enabled the Jewish people to labor for Rachel, but never wake up in the morning with Leah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” cried the Jews, their longing for the land of Israel a perpetually deferred engagement. Each year was next year. Like Beethoven’s passionate letter to his “Immortal Beloved,” Jewish prayer forever reinforced the distance so essential to keeping the thirst for Zion alive.
Every beloved is distant; it is thus that she is beloved. She is “there,” not here, “then,” not now. Tristan and Isolde did their utmost to forestall their union; only they, in the end, disallowed it. The medieval troubadours of Spain and France chose a life of eternal craving: Unilateral devotion to the wives of lords and counts, who were, from the outset and forever, unattainable. Romeo and Juliet desired unto their death, and yet in their death escaped desire’s fulfillment. While Shakespeare provides a plausible justification, plot-wise, for their double suicide, is it not possible that he in truth serves up this melodramatic ending to release them from what really frightened him, and them—the “happy ending” of marriage?
This is the essential structure of Western desire: Yearning on one hand, and marriage on the other. One must marry, since procreation is the way of all flesh. Yet, it is not via marriage that a man finds relief from the humiliating prison of his biological urges. Perhaps a physical, base form of “happiness” was indeed the whole story in the ancient world; in the new, Western narrative, however, “this world” was pitted against “the world to come,” and man, in turn, divided into a “body” and a “soul.” The pagan notion of immanence is, in fact, precisely what the fathers of Western thought sought to overturn. Plato defied this notion in his Theory of Forms, which holds that our sensory world is but a paltry shadow of an ideal realm; the Gnostics challenged it through their belief that an evil god, whom they called the demiurge, created the physical world, including the vile flesh of the humans who populate it. It is the soul’s task, the Gnostics argued, to free itself from the prison of the flesh, and return from earthly exile to its source in the one, true God. The early Christians balked at immanence when they conceived of life as death, and death (the “Kingdom of Heaven”) as life in the world to come.
In Athens, in the secret caves of mystics in Iran and Judea, and in Nazareth, Western culture was born as a culture of yearning, of alienation from nature, of utter contempt for the relief of bodily urges. And when Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, establishing that faith as the dominant religion of the West, the rift between longing and marriage, “Nature” and “Grace,” only deepened.
It was then that “happiness” came to mean something different—and with it, the concept of love. If “this world” was no longer understood to be the whole world, but merely the corrupt one, marred by human existence, then succumbing to one’s desires is not happiness, but suffering; if flesh is not man in his entirety, but merely his unholy shell, attachments of the flesh (via the socially sanctioned institution of marriage) are not love, but the slavish satisfaction of man’s basest desires.
True, Christianity—monks and nuns notwithstanding—never criticized the institution of marriage outright. Yet the Church’s most pronounced legacy to the culture of the West—the division of “body” and “soul,” needs and yearning—condemned marriage to the lesser, earthly axis, as opposed to the higher, spiritual one. “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s,” said Jesus, “and unto God what are God’s”; give Nature what it demands of your worldly body through the acts of marriage and childbearing, and give God your soul.
Judaism was born amidst this same cultural revolution. True, Judaism’s biblical, monotheistic forebears, such as Moses and the prophets, had already rejected immanence in favor of transcendence. Yet the Hebrew Bible viewed “this world” as the realm of redemption. Nowhere does the Bible speak of a “Kingdom of Heaven” beyond the world man inhabits. Reward and punishment for earthly deeds are doled out during one’s lifetime, since earthly life is the only one acknowledged. “For dust you are, and to dust you will return”: There is neither paradise nor hell for the souls of the righteous and the sinners. Biblical man has no transcendent “soul,” trapped in an unclean body.
There is no life after death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones—bones that return to life—is not a messianic “resuscitation of the dead,” as it was often interpreted; it is in fact a mere allegory. “Thus said the Eternal,” Ezekiel prophesied: “Behold, I am opening your graves and raising you up from your graves, my people, and I will bring you to the soil of Israel.” The “graves” of which Ezekiel speaks are the lands of the exile, and the “raising up” of the dead the return of the nation of Israel to their homeland. Indeed, even if we were to read this passage, as does Maimonides, as a literal resurrection, what the text describes is a physical return to life, not the rebirth of a “soul” independent of a body. Like the rest of his biblical contemporaries, Ezekiel was not familiar with the concept of the “immortal soul.”
In the Bible, it is here, in the flesh and among nature, that man must choose between good and evil (for not all that is earthly is evil, as Christianity maintained). The land of the Bible—the land of Israel—is the scene of an endless contest between various moral, cultural, and religious alternatives. In this land, for instance, walked the believer Abraham, but also the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah; this is the world of the sensitive, merciful Saul of Benjamin, as well as of the brutal rapists of Giv’a (Benjaminites like him). In this land dwelled Jacob, a loving, doting father; so, too, dwelled Jephthah, who sacrificed his own daughter, and the countless others who surrendered their children to Molech. This land also produced the righteous Naomi, and the murderess Jezebel, and contained both a temple to God and several to Baal, Ashtoreth, and Dagon. This land was the site of them all, and it was here, and here alone, that biblical man was forced to shape the outcome of his life. There was no recompense to be had on the other side of the grave.
But it was during the first Babylonian exile, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, that the nation of Israel was transformed from what Friedrich Schiller describes as a “naïve” culture, based in physical matter, to a “sentimental” one, which yearns for the past and seeks spiritual escape from the present. Ezekiel’s dry-bones vision marks this transformation’s conclusion.
During the Second Temple period, the nation of Israel absorbed four hundred years of Hellenism, under the influence of which it became the “Jewish” people. The biblical nation state was now a national religion that did not require a state. It did not, it must be noted, become a cosmopolitan religion (that was Christianity’s innovation, later adopted by Muhammad). But Judaism, even while still centered in the land of Israel, nonetheless turned into a religion that was fundamentally extra-territorial.

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