How does a community, a culture, move beyond trauma? Some lessons from the Jewish past: Today (August 3) is the fifteenth day of the lunar month of Av or Ramadan – the day of the full moon. It comes six days after the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem. During the period of the Second Temple, from about 600 BCE to 75 CE, that day was a day of celebration. Young women went into the fields in white dresses, dancing and choosing husbands for themselves.
They exchanged dresses with each other so that a woman whose family was poor might wear a fancy and expensive dress, while the daughter of the High Priest might wear a poor woman’s dress. Thus the men they courted could not respond to them on the basis of their wealth, but only by their vivacity in dance and conversation.
Vivacity: the root of the word is “life.” Seeking a sexual and emotional and spiritual partner, the key is vivacity: fullness of life.
Why am I writing all this? Because it seems to me this day was an attempt to renew life after the sorrow of Destruction. And I think in Modernity we have lost – or been robbed — of both deep sorrow and full joy.
This is true in many individuals suffering from trauma, and in whole cultures and societies afflicted by “post-traumatic stress.”
The Jewish people are still traumatized by the Holocaust , imprisoned by its effects. Indeed, they are imprisoned worst of all in Israel, supposedly itself the cure for the Holocaust because there the Jewish people has power — even H-Bombs. But even there, especially there, the sense of the Jew as victim is reinforced by many elements of Israeli culture. The stock of H-bombs is symptom not of freedom, but of fear.
When Yitzhak Rabin stumped from Israeli town to farm to city, arguing for support of the Oslo peace agreement , again and again he insisted that the Jews were no longer victims and pariahs. But he was murdered and his successors have strummed every nerve of Jewish fear (with great help from every terrorist attack). Nothing more dangerous than the welding of power to fear.
The Book of Lamentation ends, “Turn us to You, You Who are the Breath of Life, and we will indeed be turned around. Give us days like the joyful days we knew long ago.”
Some individuals have learned to transcend their traumas. But as cultures, societies, we have not created the days that would renew our vitality as a culture, unafraid, erotic.
Arlene Goldbard, the president of The Shalom Center, pointed me toward the writings and speakings of Esther Perel, born in Belgium, a Holocaust survivor, who now practices as a therapist in New York. In the community of survivors in which Perel grew up, she learned that it’s “not just about surviving, but it’s about reviving, it’s about bringing back aliveness, an essence and vitality into the world.” Watch her share her wisdom in her own vivacity by clicking here:
“In my community, there were two groups of people. Those who didn’t die and those who came back to life. The people who didn’t die often lived very tethered to the ground, very fearful, didn’t take the risks anymore to go out into the world, didn’t trust that the world was a safe place, generally could not experience much joy without guilt, and neither could their children. They were surviving, but not really alive.
“And the other group were people that had come back to life, and those were people who understood the erotic as an antidote to death. Eroticism, sex, when you experience it at its full intensity, you are defying death. You are alive like no other moment, and it implies playfulness, and it implies risk, and it implies daring, imagination, and it implies once again being able to experience—the key word is aliveness. Eroticism for me is about aliveness. It’s the mystical sense of the word rather than what modernity has done, which is reduce it to sex.”
Meanwhile, Palestinians create the Naqba, the annual day of the disaster that continues under Occupation, so that their own trauma is not even “post.” Truthful indeed, but where is the full moon of Av, or Ramadan? Even in the midst of Occupation, ought there to be a day of joy, joy that Palestinian identity and culture survive against all odds, a day to celebrate with nonviolent resistance, a day to dance in the streets? Indeed, to dance in the very streets forbidden to Palestinians, the access roads built by the Israeli state to give Israelis swift access to the settlements imposed through the Occupation?
Meanwhile, the United States – supposedly the most powerful state in the world –has been traumatized by 9/11, by the power of a few people to kill 3,000 office-workers, destroy one symbol of overwhelming financial power, and damage a symbol of overwhelming military power.
And American society is still more deeply scarred by the experience of slavery, segregation, racism. Still repeating the past. Those who celebrated the election of a somewhat African-American President as if it were the full moon of Av ignored the imprisonment of more than two million Americans and the subjugation of millions more in the “probation” system –- the highest proportion in any nation. Ignored the fact and the meaning of the fact that most of them are black or brown, most of them imprisoned for violations that were not violent.
Is the full moon of Av –- egalitarian and erotic — a kind of miniature Jubilee? What would it mean for America to make a biblical “Jubilee”? To free our slaves, our unviolent prisoners? To restore their right to vote? To forbid denying them jobs by reason of their “previous condition of servitude”? To redistribute ownership of the means of production as the Bible demands redistribution of land, in Leviticus 25?
The biblical Jubilee was intended to follow immediately upon Yom Kippur, a fast of clearing ourselves from perpetrators’ guilt and victims’ rage. What would it mean for America to begin a Jubilee with a national fast to redeem ourselves -– victims as well as perpetrators – from the practice of racism? From the practice of Empire? From the practice of Earth-destruction?
Notice the many question marks above. For the Jews, the Palestinians, the Americans, we certainly do not yet have answers. Perhaps “responses are more important than “answers.” We welcome responses, below.
Shalom, salaam, pax — Arthur