Profanation

This article, by Solomon Simon, appeared in the New Yorker Vokhnblat in the fall of 1951. Simon loved the land of Israel and the people of Israel unambivalently, but was extremely ambivalent about the State of Israel. I believe that his skepticism regarding Zionism was one reason his work, other than his writing for children, was marginalized in the United States. A fuller discussion of his relationship to, and ideas about, Israel are in his book Medines Yisroyl un Erets Yisroyl.

The article is also interesting because his ‘piety’ is on full display. He had far more reverence for scripture (though interpreted through his own modern ethical lens) than his fellow Secular Yiddishists of his time.

This translation is not finalized. Please do not quote from or reprint it without permission of the translator, David Forman. Thanks.

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*Profanatsiye (1951). In New Yorker Vokhnblat, Sept. 28, pp. 25 – 26.

When I was in the State of Israel, soon after the War of Independence, I actually felt the glorification of war and war heroes in the air. But I consoled myself with the thought that it was not a deeply rooted feeling. I thought: it is a natural thing, after all, after a war that literally saved the Jewish Settlement from being wiped out, that the army should be idealized, and the fallen war heroes worshipped, above all when the community is small and everyone knew the fallen soldiers personally.

True, here and there I saw obvious signs that the glorification of military power, and a desire for expansion are not incidental. Take, for example, the exhibition by the graduating class in Kibbutz R—H.

The installation that the graduating class as a whole had put together took up the most space. It took up two full walls of the room. A long bench stretched the length of the two walls. On this bench, the children had set up exhibits worked out of clay, which portrayed the development of humanity from the first humans to the present time. Civilized Man stood in the Land of Israel. A magnificent map of the State of Israel and the surrounding area had been formed out of clay, cement and stones. Every bit of land that Jews once ruled was marked with a special stone. Above was a sign: Our Homeland –– מולדתנו.

Extraordinarily interesting were the written works about the prophets. These were thorough and in-depth, despite the fact that the texts were written by fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys and girls. But the emphasis in all the compositions was laid on those passages in the prophets where there was a call to revenge; where war, victory, and national pride were sung, along with promises of national glory.

A grotesque scene in a religious kibbutz made a disagreeable impression on me:

The crowd sang the passage from Psalms[1]: “The right hand of God is exalted. The right hand of God is triumphant.” The passage was sung a dozen times and each time, when the words, “God’s right hand is exalted” were sung, a redheaded young man along with two other young men with beards and peyes who were standing with rifles, ready to go off to military service, lifted their rifles up in the air, as an illustration of the verse.

A conversation with the children in the public school of Ra’anana also gave me no pleasure.

But I consoled myself that these were individual cases. Against these military sentiments I placed my conversation with the wounded soldier who told me:

“We stood and defended Jerusalem. The rifles were old and they killed few. Suddenly, one evening the news arrived that new rifles with enough ammunition had come. We took the rifles right from the lorries, tearing the paper wrappings off them ourselves. The rifles were smeared with grease, ready to fire. And bullets? Crates full of them. I grabbed my rifle and hugged it to my heart as one would hug a bride. Suddely a storm whipped up in my gut:

Listen, why are you so happy? It is an instrument of destruction, for murdering human beings! But I was, in fact, happy. I could not help myself. With rifles like these in our hands we would sooner stay alive than with the other rifles. And I ask you, who wants to die?”

I consoled myself, hearing the bus driver admit, after the unsuccessful Bialik commemoration and the successful military parade:

“It’s not good and it’s not right that a military parade should captivate the whole community and only a bare quorum should come to Bialik’s commemoration. It hurts my ears to hear of it. We should blush, we deserve to be ashamed.”

In the face of each sign of militarism and chauvanism, I sought the old Jewish virtues of compassion and reverence for the spiritual—sought and, in the end, found them. I guarded myself against making generalizations. I took the mood of militarism and chauvanism, which was so blatant that you could feel it with your hand, for a temporary apparition. I remonstrated with myself:

These are our heymish, good-hearted Jews, the same Jews that you know from the bygone shtetls in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. They looked at war with disgust and horror. These are, after all, the children of those Jews about whom Sholem Aleichem wrote, saying that in war he did not want to shoot over towards the enemy, because he might, Heaven forbid, kill someone. So, now, when it was necessary, they took a rifle in hand. But to glorify the rifle? Nonsense! These cannot be my exalted Jews, these pious ones, who lift rifles up in the air when they sing a verse of the Psalms?

— OK, the Jewish rabbis are still a long way away from the Christian bishops who stood at the fronts of armies. The heirs of Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yitschak Elchanan, the Vilner Gaon, and Rabbi Yisroel Salanter will not become generals overnight.

But now I was shocked. I received a present from the State of Israel—a little Book of Psalms, a booklet the size of an old “bentsherl”[2]. Three inches wide and twice as long. Such booklets are usually printed as presents for children. The psalms cannot be read without a magnifying lens. It’s nothing more than a plaything. It is beautifully bound. The front cover is adorned with gold leaf, and the whole booklet is illustrated. The illustrations are what shocked me. Such profanation of the psalms’ text I have never seen in any language. To print a Book of Psalms with such illustrations is only possible in an atmosphere of extreme militarism and chauvinism.

The illustrations bring the text of the psalms to the present day. This is not a fault. On the contrary, from a pedagogical standpoint it is a virtue. Jews have always made the texts and heroes of the Tanakh contemporary and transmitted them “to the children in the cradle”. From an education standpoint, therefore, some of the illustrations are not bad at all. For example, on page 152 there is an illustration of the verse: “Many have pressed me from my youth, and still they have not overcome me (Psalm 129:2).” The picture shows how the White Paper (the document England issued against the Jewish Settlement in Israel) was burned, while a group of young people danced a hora around the flames that devoured the shameful document.

The passage “to take revenge upon the nations (Psalm 149:7)” is effectively and cleverly illustrated—a picture of smoking chimneys in a concentration camp.

These illustrations are militaristic in places, but the passages are not falsified. Even [when] according to the spirit of the whole chapter they are not completely true. For example, for the verse “He trains my hand for war, so a copper bow is bent by my hand (Psalm 18:35),” the illustration is: Two soldiers, one with an ordinary rifle, and the second with a machine gun. It’s not in the spirit of the psalm, but it’s not as bad as it might have been.

A little worse is the illustration of the verse: “He will rain hot coals on the wicked, fire and pitch and a burning wind will be their portion to drink (their cup; Psalm 11:6).” The picture does not show a rain of fire and pitch, but airplanes flying and dropping bombs on the enemy. One may look askance at this interpretation, but it is not scandalous.

There are several more such illustrations to which exception could be taken: Psalms with tanks, canons, and airplanes? But pedagogically speaking they could be defended by splitting hairs.

But now we come to illustrations that are openly militaristic, chauvinistic, and vulgar, and that profane the text:

“Because God will help Zion and will build up the cities of Judah and they will dwell there and inherit it, and the children of His servants will have it for a possession (Psalm 69:35-36).”

These words are the border of a map, which encompasses the length of Syria and in breadth from Transjordan to the sea. An overtly imperialistic map.

A still worse illustration is of the verse from Psalm 27. Who of us does not remember this Psalm of David “The Lord is my light,” that we used to say the whole month of Elul? The verse, “Though war should rise up against me, I will nevertheless be sure (verse 3).” It means because God protects me. Rashi interprets this verse— I am secure from danger as it is said earlier in the first verse: “God is my fortress, my strength.” Ibn Ezra interprets the verse in two ways: The first is as Rashi interprets it. The second interpretation is that the phrase “With that I am secure,” belongs with the following verse— that the psalmist David is sure that his prayer, for him to have the merit to be in God’s house, will come true. Naftali Gross interprets: “If a war should rise up against me, even then will I be secure.”

What does the illustration show? The artist depicts a soldier stopped, half kneeling, holding a rifle with a bayonet, ready for battle. The interpretation, “with that, I am secure,” with that, meaning with the rifle in my hand I am secured from danger.

Can there be a greater falsification and profanation than that?

“Israel, trust in the Lord. He is their help and their shield (Psalm 115:9).” The illustration is: A tank and on top above the tank, the Ten Commandmants!

Another such delightful illustration is for the passage, “God the Lord is the strength of my help; [he] has protected my head on the day of war (140:8).” The illustration: A soldier holds a Torah scroll in his left hand. His right hand is held up in the air and in it is a rifle.

The Book of Psalms is published by a press with the name Sinai (no more and no less), in Tel-Aviv.

I confess, I was shocked, when I leafed through the booklet. Have we come this far? That is to say, we are not just satisfied with the necessity of militarism but we are making a cult out of it.

I do not know if the press is a commercial or a private one. It may be that publishing it is the undertaking of one canny shopkeeper who simply sensed a few pennies of earnings. Even if this is a private undertaking it still saddens the heart. It means, after all, that the spiritual atmosphere is so poisoned that it paid to print such a profanation of the Psalms. And who knows? It could actually still be that it is a community publisher.

Regardless, the appearance of this Book of Psalms may not be met with silence. The Jewish community must know about this profanation.

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[1] From Psalm 118:16. All scriptural quotations in the article are given first in Hebrew, then in the author’s Yiddish translation. I have omitted the Hebrew.

[2] Bentsherl—a small booklet containing the blessings to be recited after a meal.

sinai

I do not know whether these are the cover and title page of the specific booklet Simon describes, or a later booklet by the same publisher.

3 thoughts on “Profanation

  1. I think had he been in a death camp and liberated by either the Russian or American army, he may not have been as indignant. There is something too precious about his higher ground, too intellectual. And I do not think that it was a prescient sense of the current situation. Very complicated, of course.

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  2. Wonderful! I especially like the bite in this one: “Israel, trust in the Lord. He is their help and their shield (Psalm 115:9).” The illustration is: A tank and on top above the tank, the Ten Commandmants!”
    No wonder I am so proud of his daughter!

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