“I too was present at Mount Sinai…”
Identity is both given and chosen: it is given in that one’s choices are not unlimited and it is chosen in that there are multiple groups and ideas to which one subscribes. Identity is gender, profession, religion, ethnicity, and nation among others. What pulls these together is a story or a narrative. Groups need a narrative to justify who and what they are, because they do not want to perceive themselves as either totally eclectic or as totally self-serving. We want the stability provided by the anchor of story.
Yet narratives change; they are ‘puncturable’, and we sense their fragility in the modern history of the Jewish People. Let’s think of the Zionist narrative – on my teenage Israel experience there was no more poignant moment than when we visited the ‘magic mountain’ of Masada, exploring the story of heroism and the symbol of Jewish defiance and dignity, that we had heard so much about from when we were little children. Today, we go to Masada the tourist site and the tour guide relates: ‘But you know, maybe they weren’t heroes. Maybe the story happened in a different way.’ The narrative is punctured the moment we ask: do we really want to view suicide as the embodiment of Jewish potential?
It goes deeper. Think about what Zionism represents – the contemporary realization of millennial Jewish longing for the ancestral homeland. And then recognize that one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world today is in Germany. Germany! Put that in your Zionist pipe and smoke it! Can we just carry on? When there is compelling historical evidence, the narrative is undermined. Yet within the best, most exotic stories, and the Jewish story is certainly that, there is the power to rebuild, to reconstruct, to add and to change.
This Shavuot the festive celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, I would like to remind myself that we would do well both to remember and to forget. Berl Katznelson taught us that: ‘Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed under its burden…And were we ruled entirely by forgetfulness, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness and spiritual life?’ Human beings are really good at both remembering and forgetting, although we sometimes get confused as to what should be in which category.
Eric Hobsbawm taught us that the ‘authentic’ Scottish kilt, which we suspect is an ancient tradition, only achieved widespread use as a result of an enterprising English businessman in the eighteenth century. This should give us heart. We can rewrite the lachrymose view of history, that Jewish life is an ongoing tale of woe, into a creative narrative that gives purpose for the future. The key property will be truth-likeness, rather than truth as the historical record, and its promise is that a people can rebuild and invite us into an ongoing conversation of the many and varied stories that we will create.
Our tradition teaches us that we were all present at Mount Sinai for the receiving of the Torah, those of us then and all those yet to be born, which means us. A few years ago, in a heated debate in the Israeli Knesset the interlocutors pressed their respective claims with reference to the Torah. One secular member retorted to a dismissive claim of her right to quote Torah by declaring: “I too was present at Mount Sinai.” And she continued, “even if it never happened”. Chag Shavuot Sameach.
Jonny Ariel directs Makom – the Israel Education Lab of the Jewish Agency