The Alternate Concepts of National Narrative

The Alternate Concepts of National Narrative    Rabbi Michael Graetz

The key to understand the existential situation of the Jewish nation today, in the Jewish year 5775, is to understand the National Narratives, which are based upon the perceived history of the nation. This history is passed on from generation to generation through ceremonies, rituals and literature.

The Bible

The Bible is the key religious document created by Israelites, redacted, edited, ordered, and finally canonized and fixed by Jews, mostly rabbis. Redaction and editing include not only the texts themselves, but also the order of the books. If we look at the corpus as a whole we see a grand text of stories, laws, poems, and, perhaps, even music. It has a sweeping outline, beginning with the creation of the whole world, continuing on to the main and central point of the creation of human beings as being unique, in the image of God, and of ultimate value merely because they are born into the category of humans. There are other main points which grow out of this central one. How humans formed nations, language, civilizations. How humans learned to rule the world and themselves, and how they learned how to judge the ethical nature of human actions in order to implement Divine values, beliefs, in their human societies and nations. A corollary of this is the concentration on one such group that became a nation, Israel. Their story includes an experience of God’s protection, love and salvation on their way to nationhood. This story, of the nation of Israel, comprises the bulk of the Bible, but it always is narrated in the context of the whole world and other nations.

Israel’s status as a ‘nation’, is a key to understanding the predicament of the state of Israel and the Jews. Jewish existence can be described as the tension between a desperate desire to be a nation, versus the unbearable existential burden of nationhood living in a world of violence, hatred and competition between nations. If an ideal of nationhood is based upon a striving for peace, love and cooperation, then the tension with violence, hatred and competition rises to the highest levels.

The whole arc of the Bible can be understood as a concrete expression of this tension. For example it explains why the Bible begins with the creation of the world and goes into distinct details about nations and who were their ancestors and how were they created. The nation of Israel is born in an entirely different way. It is unique in the summary of the history of the world and nations. The Bible recounts how the nation of Israel is formed from families, from common history, from common language, from common beliefs, religion and laws. It presents a common narrative of founding fathers and mothers. However, all of this is presented in the biblical presentation of the creation of Israel the nation in a way which includes differing attitudes toward major events. For example, Rebecca is portrayed both as the strong woman who works to implement what she knows as God’s plan, and at the same time the narrative demurs on the righteousness of her character.

The Biblical story includes the mapping out of a territory on the face of the earth as its home, and under its rule. It deals with how the nation is to relate to members of other nations who happen to reside in its territory. Attempts are made to spell out ideals and norms of behavior, ethics, right and wrong; and to address the fact that many times people disregard these items because of personal gain or other reasons.

The bottom line is that the Bible represents the pedigree for the nation known as Israel in all of the above categories. There were clearly other texts extant at the same time, but those were rejected by the nation’s leadership, and have since disappeared. One result of this process is that the nation longs always to be restored to that status. There is no flaming sword blocking their ability to return to a status of nationhood with territory and all of the other trappings mentioned above. Indeed, one of the great debates in the subsequent history after the bible was over the question of whether the return to the status of independence and autonomous territory and government could be brought about by human actions, or whether it could only be brought about by Divine action.

The end of the status of nation in its full definition was brought about by the conquest of Judea by Rome and the destruction of the second Temple. Yet, the longing and desire stayed, and the religion and culture of the nation was transformed into one which expressed at the same time the longing to return to that status, and various ways to insure that a strong connection to the past, culture and religion of the nation would remain forcefully in every situation of exile imaginable. Indeed, the central prayer of Jewish life, the Amidah, is grounded upon reminders of the full status of nationhood, an idealization of that status, and unbridled longing to return to that status accompanied by petitions and supplications to God to cause that return to happen in the real world.

The iconic representations of nationhood in Jewish civilization were all based upon Biblical narrative. The icons include being the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the land of Israel given as the national territory for those descendants, Jerusalem as a religious and civil capital, the Temple as the focal point of worship and encounter with God, and the dynastic line of King David, the earthly government. Indeed, if we examine Jewish prayer we find these icons recurring over and over so that every Jew internalizes them as a sort of ‘catechism’ of self-identity.

The National Narrative

The National Narrative [NN] of the Jewish nation has been dramatically changed from what it was in the Bible. In the Bible, as spelled out above, which I will call the NNB, is of a nation which achieves status among all other nations despite its origin as slaves. It includes the internal struggles of that nation in maintaining nationhood in its land. It includes a strong religious sense of being loved by God, so that their aspirations may be met. In the present NN, which is post Biblical and I will call the NNE, all aspects of NNB in the Bible have been changed or modified to accord with the events that happened to the nation from the end of the Bible to the present day. That narrative, while keeping the longing for the nationhood status of the Bible, basically focuses on how the nation survived in exile despite its status as “hated other”, or even as demonic by surrounding religions and cultures. In other words the NNE of today is heavily influenced by a sense of suffering and victimhood, together with a strong distrust or even dismissal of other nations.

Prof. Benzion Netanyahu and in the same vein Prof. Nirenberg have shown how hatred of Jews was connected to hatred of Judaism as a rival religion. Even though Judaism was the “father”, family relations were not good. Netanyahu even showed that the hatred of the Jew was more akin to racism, and not necessarily connected to religion. This view led to a re-embracing of the exile NNE and integrated well with the views of the “official” religious leaders of the state. Although I believe that it was not Netanyahu’s intention to abandon the Biblical NNB, in the end it seems as if it was inevitable from the beginning.

The Elephant in the room of any discussion of the Jewish people today is the fact that a national movement known as “Zionism” arose in recent times, and one of its avowed goals was to emend the NNE of suffering and victimhood; and in most cases it was couched in some form or other of a “return” to the NNB of the Bible.

What happened was that this goal of the Zionist movement slowly dissipated after the creation of the state to a point where it is only a memory, and at that only for those who knew it existed in the first place. The prevailing NN of the last 2,000 years or so has taken hold again, and with even greater force than before. One of the main causes, perhaps the main cause, of the strong revival of the exile NNE is that this narrative was intrinsically bound up, both in creation and in perpetuation, with the development of Jewish religion as we know it for at least the last 1,500 years. Because the mainstream of the Zionist movement, which proposed the updating of the NNE to a more Biblical one, did not engage at all in religion, and it blindly allowed the extreme leadership which created and needed to protect the exile NNE to become the “official” spokesman for Judaism. The end result was a slow but sure turn away from the efforts to renew the NNB of the Jewish people with a status of a nation among the nations, and a return to the Jewish people as victims. This status was interpreted as justification to use unbridled force and power against all nations in order to save Jews.

No doubt that state power and military force are central to any modern NN of the Jewish nation. But, the question is how do we decide to use that power as a member of all the nations? Even if the thesis of Netanyahu and Nirenberg is accepted, that there is a general “racist” hatred of Jews as part of modern cultures, it makes no difference at all to how we should behave in the light of that reality. If we accept the call to transform the Biblical NNB for our own era, one thing would be clear, namely that there is no room to be lax in our commitment to behave according to the ethical and moral dicta that we find in the Biblical tradition. Yes, that would mean that we are allowed to kill first whoever comes to kill us, but this permission is dependent on clear rules and limits which are based upon ethical considerations. The very fact that you have a ruling which justifies killing imposes the obligation to truly justify it in each case. One can never use the argument that the ends justify the means.

In terms of the Biblical NNB we must ask what force do we ascribe to the Biblical icons for our own time. Is there a need for change of how we understand these icons, or perhaps there is even a need to dismiss them, or parts of them, altogether?

For example, how do we refer to the Temple in our prayers, and what are our prayers for it?

What does praying daily for a Bet Mikdash to be rebuilt mean? It could imply that we wait for God to do it, or it could imply that it is our duty to carry out the commands and mitzvoth connected with Bet Mikdash as a holy enterprise. Such a topic is very complex and also exceedingly important to the continued survival and flourishing of the Jewish people, it’s religion, and it’s state, Israel. But, after an in depth inquiry into the Biblical NNB perhaps we might reach the conclusion that such prayers should be disavowed.

Since that is my starting point, it should be clear by now that the discussion needs very much more thought, study, and understanding of sources, sociology, the psychology of religion, and politics, in particular of Israeli political parties and Israeli society. IT IS NOT A THEORETICAL EXERCISE, BUT RELATES DIRECTLY TO OUR SURVIVAL AS A NATION. Up to very recently that statement in caps would seem to be the murmurings of a madman, but I assure you that I only shouted it out, in caps, because it is now true, and thus deserves our utmost attention.

The paradox of living with good and evil is intensified when you actually have the power to do untold good or evil. Thus, it is intensified in a state, particularly if that state has enemies. The Biblical NNB recognized this paradox, and presents many ways to live with it, all the time striving to maintain one’s status as a nation among the nations. Biblical religion, and the earlier stages of Rabbinic Judaism, included a larger spectrum of possible positions on every aspect of national life than the NNE that developed in the phase of exile.

One thing seems clear: an “official” state religious hegemony which is totally committed to the exilic NNE is an inherent threat to developing a NN for an independent state. This hegemony needs to be stripped of its national status and power. However, the NN of most Jewish citizens of Israel is the exilic one, and until there is a change in that fact it would be less than realistic to think that the hegemony could be forgone.

Fortunately, there are significant numbers of Jewish leaders and rabbis whose NN is more in line with that of the style of the early leaders of rabbinic Judaism and the Biblical NNB. These leaders need to be encouraged and supported to spread their understanding of Judaism and its role in a modern NN of statehood.

A Post Exilic NN [aka the Zionist NNZ]

I propose that there is an opportunity to develop a third NN for the Jewish nation, which I will call NNZ. Like the first two it begins before it really could claim any rights to being a NN with dreamers, prophets, and activists who pledge themselves to create a renewed identity for this nation and thus to change its status in the world. It is the Zionist NNZ, and one of its major goals was to remove the Jews from exile, both physically and spiritually. A premise was that physical conditions impinge heavily on spiritual conditions, and the fact of “statelessness” was a major factor in the spiritual dimension of Jewish identity.

Each new NN develops over time after a great national disaster which prompts Jews to wonder if their time is over, if it is the end of the Jewish people. The Biblical NNB evolves out of slavery in Egypt and the miraculous deliverance from that condition to one of statehood. The Exilic NNE evolves out of the destruction of the state of Israel and the Temple of the Lord that was the religious focal point of world Jewry, and it adapts in amazing ways to a condition of statelessness, i. e. permanent exile. There is a hope that this reality will end, but the NNE leaves it as a pious wish, and is premised upon permanent exilic status for the Jews until the end of time, i. e. when God sends the Messiah to change Israel’s status.

I propose that the Zionist movement, perhaps unwittingly, changed all of this and began the embryonic development of a new Post Exilic NNZ. This could not have been stated so clearly before an actual state was created, but in 1948, like it or not, this new NNZ of Jewish identity and status among the nations began to be formed. Clearly it is at odds, even in conflict, with the Exilic NNE. This is most evident in the fact that some extreme Jewish religious groups reject the state of Israel just because it counters the Post exilic NNE, and in a way dismisses the Messianic narrative part of that NNE.

As in the other NNs the national catastrophe which was the catalyst to the generation of this new NNZ was the Holocaust, perhaps even a greater disruptive calamity than either Egyptian slavery or the destruction of the second Temple. Indeed, the struggle over the actual lessons to be learned from the disaster reflects clearly the different views of the two main Jewish NNs in place before the ideas of Zionism began to be spread.


As stated the idea that the Jewish people are a nation includes automatically and without reservation the idea that this nation has territory in the world which is “theirs”, and that they must create a society for the members of the nation in that territory. In general philosophical terms that means the necessity of government, that is, a political system. In modern terms that means a state. Thus, one of the requirements for nationhood is a system of laws which include all branches of government, and rules for proper relationships between citizens. In the case of the Torah, this system of laws includes what are usually thought of as superanuarie rules, that is, ethical or moral rules which in modern terms are outside of the legal system.

As to rules formulated out of a reaction to the trauma of the holocaust, Prof. Yehudah Bauer, one of the great historians of the Holocaust, once summarized the “rules” that the nation Israel needed to assume from what happened: “don’t be a murderer, don’t be a victim, don’t be an uninvolved bystander”.

The greatest change introduced into the NN by NNZ is the necessity of politics and a state in a given territory. The only element with almost total acceptance by all members of the Jewish nation is on the territory, the ancient home of the Jews, the land of Israel. Even though there are disagreements on the exact borders of that territory; almost all sectors of the nation agreed on some version of the Biblical territory of Israel as the land of the nation.

Immediately following the revelation of the Holocaust, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a treatise called “Pikuah Neshama”, the saving of a soul. Heschel’s keen intuition and prodigious knowledge of Jewish history and sources led him to write about the possible shriveling up of the Jewish soul as a reaction to the extreme trauma of the Holocaust. He poetically and philosophically pleads to not give up on the central point of most Jewish writing concerning the possibility of transforming human society into a sacred space. He writes of the concern for compassion for life, of all humans, which is the central characteristic wished for the Jewish soul. He is concerned about a change of that conception into a soul inured to violence and concerned solely with its own survival at any cost. To me, this treatise seems to be the necessary companion to Zionist ideology. It is what can make that conception Jewish in the best sense of the word.

The conflict between different sectors of the Jewish people, conflicts which are rooted in the different NN’s adopted by each group as the basis of its vision of Israeli society, is being played out in the state of Israel today. Indeed, because the self-identity of each group and its most precious hopes for the future are bound to the NN’s they prefer, the conflicts are so strident and existential. One could describe the situation as a “civil war in the making” without being so hyperbolic as to be thought of as delusional.

We are ignoring the A bombs, plural, among us in our very society, in the very political culture and process which rules. These A bombs are far more dangerous to the existence of the state of Israel than the one of Iran. These A bombs are, at least in theory, within our control to destroy or at least to defuse. And yet, the politicians, and most citizens do not react to them at all, unless some special event happens. Even then there seems to be no planning or great drive to get to the bottom of it, and to change society so that such bombs will no longer be an existential threat to the State.

The time has come for a serious nationwide public discussion, on all levels of society, about the NN best suited to defuse bombs and enable cooperation, compassion and coexistence within Israeli society. The concept of “win or lose” must be dropped, for we will exist or suffer destruction by how we deal with this effort. It needs to be a nationwide government funded and sponsored period of discussion, and with trust in the good will of all Jews we can gain our future.