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Israel in ExileJEWISH WRITING AND THE DESERT
By RANEN OMER-SHERMAN
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2006 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRepresenting Desert Wilderness in Jewish Narrative: Poetics and Politics
"Thus says, the Lord, I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you Followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown." -Jeremiah 2:2
My name is Solomon Levi, The desert is my home, My mother's breast was thorny, And father I had none.
The sands whispered, Be separate, The stones taught me, Be hard. I dance, for the joy of surviving, On the edge of the road. -Stanley Kunitz, The Testing Tree
The Jewish textual and physical encounter with the desert is surely one of humanity's most imaginative, spiritual, and in some ways mysterious adventures. The journey that began in Mesopotamia, traversed the Fertile Crescent, descended into the Nile, and culminated in a mysterious encounter with a demanding deity at the base of an unknown desert mountain would have expansive reverberations in humanity's relation to the sacred throughout the centuries that followed. Site of privation as well as inspiration, the desert was a formidable presence in the moral vision of the Jewish prophets, a paradigm that would later prove intrinsic to some of Jewish literature's most imaginative approaches to the ethical dimensions of exile and homecoming, dispossession and occupation. Yet the present study is written out of a deep conviction that just as most of Western humanity is now oblivious to its nomadic origins, the vast majority of Jewish readers and critics have given little consideration to the immense relation between the stark, spare landscape of the desert and the most profound expressions of the Jewish ethical and literary imagination, beginning with the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, as a French scholar of ancient texts ironically notes, "the symbol of the desert is one of the most fertile in the Bible" (Chevalier and Gheerbrant 187). Of late, there have been vital indicators that the field of Jewish Studies, joining disciplines such as critical anthropology, human geography, and political science, has begun to respond to the compelling need to intensify the exploration of the relationship between place and identity. This path offers exciting ways to transcend the well-worn binary opposition of Diaspora versus Israel that has often dominated discussions of contemporary Jewish identity. I welcome these efforts to consider the Jewish relation to crucial dimensions of spatial identity that transcend the neat antithesis between homeland and exile.
Since undertaking my own project it has become clear to me that the desert experience carries its own permutations of wandering; the Jewish imagination never strays far from the threat and promise of peripatetic movement of one kind or another. In the chapters that follow, I undertake to illuminate how the universality of desert space serves as an urgent reminder to many Jewish writers that exile and alienation remain the essential human condition in spite of the ostensible transformations wrought by Zionism and other territorial nationalisms. Beginning with Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (1964) and as recently as Susan Brind Morrow's remarkable meditation on language and the desolate spaces of Egypt and the Sudan in The Names of Things (1997), contemporary philosophers and poets have proposed exciting paradigms of what in essence is a notion of non-human space as haunted by an imaginative process that converts the world into emotionally and figuratively endowed geographies often in mysterious ways that transcend empirical or positive forms of knowledge. Indebted in part to these and other non-Jewish sources the reader will encounter in the chapters that follow, my work must also wrestle with the ways that nature is overwritten by the human. Similarly, though technically speaking a literary study, I adopt a flexible approach by referencing important non-literary sources. Therefore I hope to complement some of the most innovative recent cultural and theoretical work being done in Israel Studies, including Oz Almog's The Sabra, Meron Benvenisti's Sacred Landscape, Ilan Troen's Imagining Zion, and Yael Zerubavel's Recovered Roots. The question of space, place, and identity in Jewish culture has lately received critical attention in these and other important works.
My own theoretical point of departure is that ever since the composition of Exodus, many outstanding Jewish writers have "listened" to the desert silence, interpreting the void-as if responding to the challenge of Chateaubriand's perception of the "mute" landscape (which serves as one of the epigraphs to this study) in order to situate the Jewish self in relation to place. For it has often been posited that monotheism's origins were dependent on the vast expanses and simple oneness of desert and that the latter lends itself to resisting the tyranny of the image. For instance, one finds the theologian Belden Lane linking the "aniconic images" of cloud, desert, mountain, to a revolutionary discourse that stirs us to "question the overconfidence in words that sometimes characterizes the theological enterprise" as well as expressing "the deepest, virtually indescribable, human experiences of pain and joy" (4). Or as Israeli anthropologist Zali Gurevitch says so evocatively, "Between the place and the world lies the non-place, the desert, wherefrom the voice comes and where the book is given" (210). In the struggle of such writers to articulate an ancient mystery, it is clear that the desert of Exodus still provokes its interpreters, disengaging from any sentimental notion of the earth as merely nurturer and healer. Most significantly, in terms of the contemporary Jewish literary imagination, it is important to note that the desert experience is much more than an aberrant hiatus between slavery and the return to territorial possession. Indeed, it is a constituent of the earliest antiroyal strand of Israelite history which rejected any sovereign other than God. Hence, to a large extent, this study considers the dilemmas of present time against the desert and wilderness narratives of the past, investigating neglected intersections between geography and cultural production.
As if beckoning back toward Abraham's radically complete dependence on God's will, Moses and Joshua lead the people into an austere environment that necessitates the organic growth of the people under divine guidance. Unlike many other religious narratives of place and revolution, the Hebraic narration of the receiving of the Law in the desert exhibits no interest in ecstatic experience. Instead, Moses, who in his encounter with God sees only God's back or perhaps only the wake of God's passing, must return to engage the people with the concrete realities of a new social and ethical vision. When contemporary readers revisit the complaints of the Israelites (especially from the perspectives of their own deeply troubled age), they are reacquainted with the earth as a hostile and indifferent place in which human beings, if they survive, must do so as ethical beings in relation to other ethical beings.
After a silence encompassing four weighty centuries of slavery and oppression, the voice which spoke to Abraham now greets Moses, outside the constraints of empire, in the desert. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he is told by a disembodied voice: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Exod. 3:5). In spite of this tangible suggestion of sacred ground, the desert of Exodus offers a stern rebuke to those who would fetishize place. As Gurevitch points out, the site of holiness is "an arbitrary unrecognized piece of land" destined for obscurity immediately after the voice departs (212). In the monumental absence of the voice, one of the most critical spaces in the mythic mapping of Jewish destiny is not dignified as "holy" (nor, for that matter, does the Pentateuch ascribe "holiness" to Canaan itself). As for Moses, he is fated to remain in the desert, outside the contours of his own story as it were. In Gurevitch's nuanced reading:
Moses ... is held back in non-place. He is never allowed to enter the place: "Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel" (Deut. 32:52). The voice must remain in the desert, and is never to be placed, to be embodied in the land as locality-country, kindred, father's house. The place is of the voice and not vice versa. Only the voice must remain holy, not the land. Thus, the voice that delivers the Israelites from slavery to bring them into the promised land, remains in the desert to keep the desert a living essence of the myth. (212)
This book invites the reader into several of the pivotal literary texts of the recent Jewish engagement with the desert, the implications of "non-place" for Zionist consolidation of space and territory, as well as diasporic considerations of power and powerlessness. For a striking range of modern Jewish writers, it would seem that the prospect of a world that permanently overcomes its desert spaces is apparently undesirable.
Even in the critical and often awkward phase of early-twentieth-century formulations of modern American Jewish identity, an influential Zionist essayist like Josephine Lazarus (sister of the poet Emma Lazarus) expressed the conviction that the spiritual and ethically beneficent legacy of the Eastern desert would be transmitted to the West if the latter was sufficiently open to the contributions of its Jewish Others. Through "interdependence and interchange of gifts spiritual and material" Lazarus argued that the Jew would only achieve at-homeness in America by reclaiming a distant origin in the desert sands, the ethos of which would redeem the host nation:
The West has never originated any great religion. It has only adapted and elaborated theologies and systems of philosophy, fitting or misfitting them to Western forms and purposes. But we Jews still carry in our hearts the divine spark-the day star of the Orient.... We still bear in our soul the soul of the desert-the wide, vast spaces, the great silence, the great solitude, the silent watches of the night under the calm, large stars of the East, the flight of the alone to the Alone. (268)
As this grandiose passage suggests, Lazarus's desert ethos struggles to transcend the smooth materialism of American democracy for a more inchoate spiritual essence of the "East." But as this study demonstrates, a far more fraught and consequential struggle ensues in the more recent literary works, the cultural products of the uneasy Zionist return to the desert. For instance, Abraham Shlonsky (1900-1973), one of the leading poets after Hayim Nahman Bialik, produced a vision of the desert that radiates a stridently Orientalist hostility in which the "Eastern" desert is desolate absence when juxtaposed with the "Western" program of industrious Zionism:
Many, many, many generations The sands lay still like ivories, Latent, their rebellion quelled: None approach To disrupt them.
.... Suddenly the all-conquering shovel glimmered And the sand herds bleat
.... I have vanquished you on this day Languishing camel: It is you who shall bring the mortar For the cement.
The hostile struggle against the desert's obdurate futility ("With a psalm of victory I desecrated/Your seed-hating desolation") eventually culminates in this triumphant image: "Thus a road-oh, bridle straps! Houses upon houses-like fists in the void!" As Ariel Hirschfeld suggests, there is little room to doubt the ominous "ethnic identity" of Shlonsky's threatening wastes:
Now I know: the wasteland Howls by night a prayer of vengeance. And from afar, Above the high domed roof of the mosque: A crescent moon moves, Like a scimitar. (1022)
In sharp contrast we find another militant Zionist poet, Shaul Tchernichovsky (1875-1943), crafting a sequence of seven quasi-pagan sonnets that expresses a decidedly exuberant embrace of the Eastern desert as a wellspring for the poet's imagination (perhaps because he was still far removed from the scene of Palestine in his native Russia):
In my heart the dew yet lodges that descends on Edom's steppes And moistens the sand in the desert of God, And in my ears lives the song that comes with shadow's coming And a gentle star glitters to primeval ways.
In these lines, the poet evokes the biblical term for the eastern borderlands of ancient Israel as well as Jacob's desert sojourn on his return home from Aram. The scene delineated here and in the succeeding stanza seems to embrace the "primitive" origin of the modernist Jewish poet's imagination. As Arnold Band observes, the imagery is "not from Greece or Canaan" but Sinai (Mintz 87) expressing a fervent attraction to the desert origins of the Jewish story.
Excerpted from Israel in Exile by RANEN OMER-SHERMAN Copyright © 2006 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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