Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Imagine there's no countries..."

John Lennon, 1971
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

If one were to sum up the 60’s and 70’s in a single word “chutzpah” would most appropriately describe these decades. Complete upheaval - socially, politically, religiously - the drug culture and shaking off of societal norms these were nothing if not audacious. With its dream for the abolition of religion and borders and “living as one,” “Imagine” certainly became the anthem of a generation. It is in this culture that my parents generation came of age. My generation, born after the height of the “hippie era” did not experience this phenomenon in “real time” and by the time we hit adolescence the ideals of “free love,” “a world without borders” had become accepted norm themselves. We grew up in the post-hippie era, yet it’s ideals and values branded an implicit mark on our upbringing. In the “modern orthodox” world this influence is so profound that despite our study of classic Jewish texts we are more familiar with the prevailing pop-culture than with authentic Jewish sources. It is no wonder that when we encounter true Jewish values we often run the risk of having them misrepresented or misunderstanding them entirely. One of the greatest problems facing our generation is that Lennon’s ideals have supplanted authentic Jewish ideals.

The question begs to be asked: Are the ideas expressed in “Imagine” incompatible with Judaism and if so what is so wrong about a world without “heaven,” or “religion,” or “countries?” Lennon’s dream of a world without countries and people “sharing all the as one” seem revolutionary and very much in tune with the times. However, a look into classic Jewish sources reveals that this dream of a border-less world really is nothing new. One need look no further than the chapter of the Tower of Babel to find our first encounter with this ideology.

After the flood the Torah recounts how Noah’s descendants are divided and alloted portions of the earth by nation: “Of these were the isles of the nations divided in their lands, every one after his tongue, after their families, in their nations.” “ מֵאֵלֶּה נִפְרְדוּ אִיֵּי הַגּוֹיִם, בְּאַרְצֹתָם, אִישׁ, לִלְשֹׁנוֹ--לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם, בְּגוֹיֵהֶם.” (Genesis 10:5) One should note the interrelationship between nationality, language, land and borders. In essence there is a direct correlation between a land and the unique cultural identity of its inhabitants. In the post-modern age of globalization this is a lofty concept to grasp but a Torah tenet nonetheless. Even without understanding what the sin of the builders of the tower was, the world being “of one language and of one speech,” is not viewed favorably. Chazal deem the building of the tower as outright rebellion against G-d and as punishment for this G-d mixes up their languages and scatters the people across the face of the Earth. The post-modern, globalized world may advocate creating a global culture, dismantling cultural barriers and becoming “one” but this is antithetical to the Torah. Unity may be a Jewish value but sameness is not.

We often speak about the value of Jewish identity, about the connection between the people of Israel and the land of Israel. However, the building of the tower occurred before the Jewish people entered the stage of human history, even before Abraham and certainly before any discussion on the Jewish peoples chosen-ness. The land of Israel is indeed granted a measure of holiness (kedusha) rendering it distinct from all other countries. However, even before we can accept this principle we must first admit that a country-less world is incongruous with the Torah.

“Imagine” may only be a dream but it cannot be claimed as the dream of the Jew.