reclaiming Jew as am ha'aretz
For the past 2,000 years, the Jewish social elite have been the learned folk. First among them, occupying the inner circle, are the rabbis. They are the keepers of the tradition, the arbiters of our sacred texts. But since rabbinic Judaism has a democratizing tug, almost anyone who chooses to learn, whether in the company of others or by themselves, is also be considered part of the elite, even if only on the margins.
The opposite end of the social spectrum is occupied by the so-called am ha-aretz, the intellectual boor, unlearned and crude in habit. They were considered not only ignorant of Jewish learning and Jewish law, but indifferent or perhaps antagonistic to it as well. Or at the very best, sloppy about keeping it.
But here's the thing: Am ha-aretz literally means the people of the land.
While the rabbis epitomize the people of the book, the life of the mind, the timeless and placeless pursuit of religious imagination and learning, the amei ha-aretz are associated with land, the earth, the body located in time and place.
These two are complementary elements of life. They are the aleph (eretz) and taf (Torah), the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Life can exist only in the combination of the two, when lived nestled between the two. Yet somewhere along the way, they became severed from each other.
Even back in the talmudic period, when Jews still lived in Israel and were mostly comfortable in Babylonia, the rift between the rabbinic class (the haverim - the "brethren," the initiated) and the amei ha-aretz (the distrusted and sometimes reviled "lower class") was profound.
Internecine divisions are clearly nothing new for Jews. But my point for the moment is not how we must overcome class distinctions and name-calling, as important a subject as that is. My point on this blog is to call for a reclamation, a redemption, of the very idea of am ha-aretz.
First of all, we as a people have returned to our land. We are literally as much the people of the land - especially today - as we are the people of the book. We need to burnish both sides of this coin of identity: the mind and the body, the intellect and the labor.
Even more, we need to reconnect with the romance and appreciation of the land itself. All land. Nature. The Jewish people were nurtured on the land of Israel: its geography, its images, its trees, its watercourses, its climate, its produce, its agricultural laws. Our religious cradle, our spiritual expression was bound up in nature. The vocabulary with which we spoke to God was that of nature: the first of the harvest, the first of our flocks, the final harvest all were taken up to Jerusalem to celebrate with our people. We are bidden not to go to Jerusalem empty-handed, for the bounty of our land was a demonstrated of our bondedness with God.
Now more than ever, we need to remember that part of our heritage. Now, when humanity has the capacity not just to degrade one area, one region, one watershed, but the entire earth, Jews must reclaim the lofty and sacred name Am Ha-aretz, the people of the land. It will change the way we think of ourselves, what we teach in our seminaries, our day schools and synagogues. It will expand our legal categories and impact the questions we ask of our laws. It will inform our behavior, enhance our lives, help heal the earth and reconnect us to the sacred traditions of our landed past.
Interestingly, the phrase am ha-aretz was a laudable title in the biblical world. How appropriate for this generation, then, to renew it even as in doing so, it promises to renew us.
Labels: am haaretz