What are we to make of Jacob’s dream? Midrash Tanhuma interprets it as follows: ‘”And behold the angels of God ascending and descending” – these are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Medea, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom [i.e., Rome] ascended and no-one knows how many!’ How is the Jewish people to survive, the midrash seems to be asking, in the face of unprecedented non-Jewish strength, the contemporary might of the Roman empire? The medieval commentator Sforno provides an answer: ‘Indeed ultimately, having gained ascendancy, the gentile princes will go down, and the Almighty who forever stands above, will not forsake His people as He promised (Jeremiah 30:11): “For I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have scattered you, but I will not make a full end of you.”’
This is a philosophy of Jewish history: while the nations of the world face inevitable decline, the Jewish people is eternal. This worldview was fleshed out in modern terms by Nachman Krochmal, a 19th-century Galician historian and philosopher, in his book Guide to the Perplexed of the Time. Krochmal writes that like every other nation, the Jewish people experiences cyclical rises and falls but, uniquely, at the end of each cycle of decline they rise again. The Jews are different in that their universal, spiritual nature connects them to what Krochmal calls ‘Absolute Spirit’. This enables them to transcend their strictly historical nature and to be reborn at the end of each cycle.
But what is this connection to Absolute Spirit which enables the Jews to transcend the laws of history? Zionist thinkers have argued that the constant driving force of Jewish life is the connection to the Land of Israel. Jewish history has a clear shape and a well-defined end-point: the Jews originated in the Land, the connection to the Land sustains them, and it is their destiny to return there.
In my teens and twenties, I was attracted to a Zionist conception of Jewish identity which derived from this traditional model, and so, after completing a degree in Jewish history, I booked my flight, got my visa and went on Aliyah. My plan was to live out my life in Israel. But ten years later – in a strange parallel to the Jacob story – I found myself on a plane back to the UK for what was planned as a short break but which has turned so far into a seven-year stay.
The reasons for my return were largely personal but, perhaps inevitably, they had ideological implications, notably coming to terms with minority existence in the Diaspora as a legitimate mode of Jewish life. This new understanding also assumes a different view of Jewish history, one articulated by the pioneering historian Simon Dubnow. Dubnow saw Jewish history as a story of ‘migrating centres’, in which each period is marked by one dominant community (e.g., Talmudic Babylonia or medieval Spain) which manifests the most powerful combination of positive cultural and social energies. Israel was no more than one such centre among many.
Rashi explains why Jacob’s angels ascended the ladder before descending – unexpectedly, for beings who live in heaven. The angels which accompanied him in the Land, unable to step outside, were being replaced by those which would attend him beyond its borders. I take from this that both choices, and the diverse conceptions of Jewishness which flow from them, have the potential for holiness.
Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.