The Torah and the Flag - Remembering Ilan Ramon (Ideas #63)

Last week was the second yahrzeit of the great Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. His tragic death only highlighted the importance of what he represented. Perhaps more then anyone in recent times, Ramon symbolized what has allowed the Jewish people and the state of Israel to survive the dual realization that all Jews are one nation and that the core identity of this nation is to be found in the Torah.

Many Jews, especially in the modern era, have argued that we rescind one side of Ramon's proposition in favor of the other. For some, this meant that the Torah is an ancient relic that has very little importance to a modern nation. For others, it meant redefining community as only those loyal to Jewish law, thereby excluding all other Jews. Ramon's noble gesture of bringing both a Sefer Torah and the flag of Israel with him into space, eloquently articulated the existential unity between the Jewish nation and its unique heritage.

In the 19th century in particular, many secularist Jews tried to find a new basis for the continued existence of the Jewish nation. They wanted the identity of the Jews to be determined by their culture, history and language, like any other nation. In one such manifestation, Yiddish was to take the place of Hebrew as the national language of the Jews. It logically followed that if the Torah is of little value, so too is its language. Thus, it would have made sense to look for the distinctive language most common to the Jews, which was Yiddish. It is noteworthy that the fate of the Yiddish language aptly represents efforts to eradicate the connection between Jewish culture and the Torah: In 1910 and even in 1930, who would have predicted that less than a century later, Yiddish would only be the mother tongue of the most die-hard traditionalists, whereas Hebrew would be the mother tongue of millions of Jews from all walks of life? What the Yiddishists did not realize is that Yiddish will always be no more than a medium by which Jews communicate it is only a tool and therefore in no way defines who we are. It will be used so long as it is useful. Once that is no longer the case, it may well go the way of all things. Not so Hebrew it is not something we can ever discard, anymore than we can discard our own limbs. As history has shown, it is a part of who we always have been and who we always will be.

The success of Zionism over the more popular movements with which it competed has very little to do with its content and everything to do with its acceptance of Jewish culture for what it is. Early Zionism lost many adherents because it was viewed as old-fashioned and overly connected to symbols of the past. Its association with the land of Israel and its ancient language was something that many modern Jews found reactionary. For them, Zionism was overly steeped in things that had long become irrelevant. In truth, many secular Zionists were themselves ambivalent about their loyalty to our ancient heritage and some even preferred Uganda to Eretz Yisrael for this very reason. Still, the Zionist movement was directed by the intuitive national spirit of its members. If they could not all properly explain their decision, the men and women who gathered to vote on the Uganda proposal, concluded that just as Yiddish cannot replace Hebrew, neither can Uganda replace Eretz Yisrael. For these largely secular Jews desperate for a refuge from virulent anti-semitism, bypassing Uganda was anything but obvious. In this, what moved them is likely the same thing that moved Ilan Ramon the core understanding that Jewish identity will not exist without a loyalty to our heritage alongside a national consciousness.

On the other side of the coin, it has not always been intuitive for religious Jews to understand their connection to the rest of the Jewish people, in times when secular Jews seem to have no regard for Jewish tradition whatsoever. No less a lover of the Jewish people than the great Rav Kook once expressed such an idea, stating that the inner difference between those who preserve Judaism and those who abandon it, is even greater than the difference between Jews and non-Jews.(1) Indeed, many have come to the conclusion that religious Jews need not have solidarity with those who have left tradition. Yet, here too it was the intuitive national which spoke through the greatest leaders of the religious camp, who would not allow the Jewish community to be defined in strictly religious terms. The Netziv, who was for many decades the leader of the greatest yeshiva in Europe, wrote against those who wanted to create separate religious communities, so as to avoid having to work together with non-religious Jews. He stated that for Israel among the nations, there is no help except... to be joined in one body. Then no nation will be able to destroy us. How then can we propose separating ourselves one from another, lest the nations come and wash us away little by little, Heaven forbid.(2) Similarly, when the Chazon Ish found a way to reinterpret a halachic category that would define secular Jews as part and parcel of the Jewish nation and as a group that must be treated favorably, one wonders to what extent the Chazon Ish could truly explain his position. As with the Zionist Congress' decision regarding Uganda, the greatest of our leaders expressed what all Jews know to be true in their hearts, but cannot always explain with their minds.

Thus, when Ilan Ramon took up both symbols of the Jewish people together, he struck a responsive chord among the Jewish people. With his simple action, Ilan Ramon was expressing a truth that has recently become unfashionable in some circles the essential unity of the Jewish people and its heritage. This truth will not go away, even as it will not always be obvious.

Perhaps it is no wonder that this somewhat inexplicable doctrine finds its most pristine formulation in the most esoteric work in Jewish literature, the Zohar There, we find the statement that the Jewish people, the Torah and G-d are all one. As with this statement in the Zohar, Ramon did not give us complex theology. At a time of growing polarization between those aligned with the Torah and those aligned with the Jewish people, he elegantly united what intuitively must be united. Together with his own soul and body, he brought the soul and body of the Jewish nation back to G-d, thereby recreating the most profound unity that can ever exist.

We are not in a position to know why G-d decided to end Ilan Ramon's life in such tragic fashion. Yet one does know that the most fitting memorial is for the Jewish people to listen to the most basic message that he carried into space and then back to his untimely death.

Yehi zichro baruch..

(1) Etzot meRachok, HaPeles 2 (1902), p. 30.

(2) Meshiv Devar 1 Section 44.