Thursday, June 30, 2016

Looking Back and Ahead

One of the books I’m planning to read this summer is Chuck Klosterman’s book, But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, published earlier this month by the Blue Rider Press, a Penguin imprint. (Klosterman, whose work appears regularly in Esquire, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine, is best known for his acerbic essays evaluating pop culture and modern mores. His books Eating the Dinosaur and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs will be familiar to at least some, I’m sure.)  I bought the book because its slightly outrageous theme—how our world will appear to people attempting to evaluate and explain it five hundred years into the future—called out to me. What he has to say, I’ll find out soon enough. But I thought that I’d take my leave of you all for the summer by answering the question, or attempting to answer it, first on my own.

To begin to wonder how we will seem to people in the distant future—in the first weeks of summer in 2516, say—we would probably do best to think for a long moment about how people five hundred years in our past seem to us. 1516 was a long time ago. And I find myself able, therefore, to make its events sound distant and wholly unfamiliar. But I can also make the year 1516 sound fully familiar and recognizable….and I find myself able to do both those things on the transnational level and on the level of the individual.

On the global level, I could, for example, describe a world that has nothing at all to do with our own, a world of treaties no one’s ever heard of (the 1516 Treaty of Noyon, for example, in which France—to our thinking oddly—granted hegemony over Naples to Spain in exchange for Spain recognizing France’s claim to Milan, or the Treaty of Brussels, signed that same year, that established peace between France and the Holy Roman Empire) and battles like the Battle of Younus Khan that are obscure today even to relatively astute students of world history. But I can also describe the world of 1516 in a way that will be strangely familiar: that year half a millennium ago featured a Middle East in turmoil (the Battle of Younus Khan, fought near Gaza City, was basically fought between the Turks and the Egyptians to see who would be the dominant force in the region), Europe in endless agony over the degree to which its nations wished to be each other’s allies (the Treaty of Brussels, also mentioned above, was at least in part about the degree to which the nations of Western Europe could function as partners and peaceful neighbors), countries vying with each other to do business in ever-increasing volume with China (Rafael Perestrello, a cousin of Mrs. Christopher Columbus, became the first European to arrive by sea in mainland China for the purpose of developing trade relations in 1516), and Europeans being somehow able to integrate republican ideals with vicious anti-Semitism (the Jews of Venice were forced from their homes into a ghetto, Europe’s first, in 1516 as well). Putting it that way, the world of 1516 doesn’t sound so foreign, does it?

And that dual way of looking at the past that works on the macro level works just as well on the personal level.  The world in 1516 was wholly alien from the one in which we live…but only in a certain sense. There were, obviously, no cars, no trains, no electric lights, no internet, no television (even not cable), no recorded anything, no computers, no nukes, no e-books, no telephones, and no cellophane. I could make a much longer list of things too we take for granted that were unknown in the sixteenth century, but that’s only one way to think about life five hundred years ago….and in a different sense life was not at all that different from life today. Young people grew up and fell in love. Parents struggled over the right way to raise their children. Children felt burdened but also challenged by the demands put upon them by their parents. Students studied to pass their examinations. Soldiers served in their nation’s armies. Composers wrote music. Painters painted. Preachers preached. Teachers taught. Dancers danced. The old found the young brash and foolish. The young found their elders annoying and stodgy. Employers found their employees lazy and demanding. Employees found their bosses imperious and greedy. People feared illness and death, but people became sick and died anyway. Babies were born. Eggs were hatched. The sea was filled with fish. That doesn’t sound so unfamiliar, does it?

And now we move to the future. It is 2516 or, as I expect the Jews will privately call it, 6276. Everything will be different and nothing will be. I can’t even begin to imagine what technology will be like. Even the most basic questions about life in the twenty-sixth century resist answering. Will human beings still live only on earth? Will computers still be external machines that people use to do things, or will their abilities by then be so fully internalized into the body that people and computers will no longer exist as independent entities? Will the countries of today’s world still exist? For that matter, will any countries exist…or will globalization at a certain point make it bizarre to think of the world’s peoples divided down into national states instead of as fellow-citizens of a global republic? Will we have visited nearby stars? Will their citizens have visited us? How much of today’s landmass will be submerged beneath a vast global ocean once the ice caps melt entirely? Will there still be Coke? To none of those questions, do I have any ready answers.

And yet, on the other level, the level of the individual, I imagine that things will be unchanged. The heart will still follow its own rules.  People will occasionally wake up next to the wrong person and have to bear the consequences of their own folly. Friends will fall out and reconcile…or not. Children will live up their parents’ expectations in some ways and disappoint them in others. People will yearn for wealth, only to discover later on how little money can really buy. People will grow older as the years pass, but only some will succeed at doing so gracefully. Parents will describe their children’s favorite music as noise; children will know their parents well and not at all. Siblings will occasionally resent each other. Love will be elusive…as will also be happiness. No one will really think he or she is earning enough or being compensated adequately. The sky will still be blue.

If I can narrow my gaze to the world I know best, things will also change and be the same. Nations will rise and fall, but Israel, the am olam, will endure…always on the brink of disaster but never quite vanishing from the pageant of history. When people imagine that only the ḥareidi world will survive and the rest of us—including everybody not self-isolated into hermetically-sealed communities and self-deprived of the option of going out into the real world and earning a living there—that we will eventually assimilate into the general population and be gone from the world, they’re missing the point of being an am olam, an eternal people, in the first place. There will always be people, I fear, for whom intellectual and spiritual integrity are inconstant with “real” religious life, but in my opinion it is those people who are far less likely to survive the onslaught of time. To hide, after all, only works for as long as you can remain hidden; when that option no longer exists, the only remaining choices will be to live in a world you have no training to encounter or else to flee to even more remote hideaways located in even less accessible places. Eventually, all who play that game will lose…and those whose faith requires engagement with the world and who can therefore adapt to an ever-changing environment without resenting the challenges life places upon the living—those, in my opinion, will be the ones who endure.

When I compare the Jewish world of 1516 with the one I imagine for 2516, the details change but the pillars upon which the world stands—Torah study, public and private worship, and a thick sense of inner-communal responsibility—remain the same. The seas will rise, but Jerusalem will endure. The sonim will cackle and jeer, but the power of a single individual reciting the Shema with a full heart and a willing spirit unsullied by ulterior motive will prove mightier than even the most oppressive regime. It’s hard for me to imagine the world dishing out worse punishment than the Jewish people has already endured, yet the divine spirit that guides and protects the House of Israel—as regretfully opposed to individual Israelites—exists outside the context of action and reaction, of violence and stoic endurance. The Jews of 2516 may wonder how we ever survived our own history…but much would be fully familiar if we could only peer through the looking glass that far into the future. There will still be children falling asleep at Pesach seders. Rabbis will still be wondering what to say about Parashat Tzav. The price of truly fine t’fillin will still seem exorbitant (including to those who shell out the dough and buy them anyway). And no one, even half a millennium from now, will truly understand what the etrog is meant to symbolize. All this will endure! And, in the end, the part that never changes will prove more profound than the part that does. In that regard, the history of the am olam is the same as the story of any individual: the part that changes as the years pass, for all it feels distressing to contemplate, is the less crucial part of the mix…and the part that is inviolate and unchanging, the spark of divinity that animates the soul and which exists without reference to time past or time future, that is the part that matters, that truly counts.

A week from today, I hope to be sitting at my other work desk, the one located on Gad Tedeschi Street in Jerusalem, and working on some of my summer writing projects. I am never more at peace, never more relaxed or more focused, than when I sit at that desk and look out at the walls of the Old City hiding in the distance behind the tall trees that line Rechov Ha-askan, the street that leads from our neighborhood north towards the Haas Promenade, one of Jerusalem’s loveliest look-out points. There is real peace for me in that place…and I wish I could share it will all of you. Barring any unexpected adventures like we encountered in 2014, I’ll write to you all again upon our return. In the meantime, I bless you all from afar and in advance with the peace of Jerusalem, and pray that God keep us all safe until we are together again in August.

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