A Model of Maturity
A Message for Yom HaAssma'ut 2018
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Several years ago, film critic A.O. Scott penned an article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Surveying a decades-old shift in American film and general culture, Scott wrote about the emergence of “an essentially juvenile vision of the world.” He noted the current popularity of comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development. He pointed to the embrace of Young Adult fiction by many “not so young adults,” and described the widespread conception of adulthood as a “forever young” state-of-being. Scott struggled with his own feelings regarding this phenomenon. He weighed the advantages of a world that is “our playground, without a dad or mom in sight,” with a potentially serious “loss of something.”
Leon Kass noticed a similar trend in his search for the underlying factors for the societal shift away from traditional courtship and marriage. He wrote about today’s shared clothing styles, spoken lingo and interest in music between parents and children, commenting: “Youth, not adulthood, is the cultural ideal, at least as celebrated in the popular culture.” Kass explained that today’s young man doesn’t feel the urge to take his father’s place, as he has seen his father continuously running from it “with all deliberate speed.”
Writer Joseph Epstein described this exact phenomenon over a decade ago, adding to it his own critique and misgivings. Epstein began “The Perpetual Adolescent” by contrasting the “grown up” attire one beheld at the baseball games of the 1940’s and 50’s – tailored suits and fedoras, to the youthful jeans, caps and T-shirts that fill the seats of today’s games. Broadly observing many of society’s general trends, he noticed a sharp shift from a society that conceived of adolescence as necessarily transient to one that yearns for its eternal existence. Epstein viewed this perspective very negatively. He suggested that it lowered the tone of national life, took away from its richness, and lowered intellectual expectations. He argued that an observable “dumbing down” of society is to be attributed to this mindset, as contemporary journalism has lost its depth by necessarily adapting to the short attention span with the soundbite, photo-op, quickie take and a general suppression of complexity.
I believe that the State of Israel, in both its historical and modern existences, can provide a necessary counter-balance of maturity.
Thus said God: I remember the affection of your youth,
The love of your espousals,
How you went after Me in the wilderness,
In a land that was not sown.
Yirmiyahu’s portrayal of a “youthful” Am Yisrael during their sojourn in the desert is likewise familiar to us from Yehezkel’s portrayal of them to a physically maturing young lady (Yehezkel 16:6-7), recited in the haggadah every year. Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid similarly noted the Torah’s description of Am Yisrael as “families” directly prior to leaving Egypt and throughout their travels in the dessert. He suggested that according to the biblical narrative, the period of maturity began when Am Yisrael entered a cultivated land and settled it. Schweid then drew attention to the paradox of that accomplishment:
On the one hand, entering the Land of Israel symbolizes the purpose of wandering in the desert, as the people at last reaches its home. On the other hand, entry into the Land of Israel is only the beginning of a long path, strewn with setbacks on the way to political independence.
As they settled the Land of Israel, Am Yisrael no longer enjoyed the supernatural sustenance of the manna, nor the security of God’s pillar of cloud and fire. They were now tasked with establishing independent sovereignty, and providing their own sustenance and protection. The adolescent existence of the desert had transitioned into maturity, and with that came the hardships of self-responsibility.
The historical symbolism of settling Eress Yisrael has repeated itself in the last sixty-nine years, following the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. The dream of settling the Land of Israel has led way to a national maturity. Building an economy from scratch, enlisting young men in the army and the daily threat and circumstances of terror has built a counter-cultural reality in modern-day Israel.
Joseph Epstein lamented the loss of the positive aspects of a mature society. He yearned for “a more articulated sense of the ebb and flow, the ups and downs of life,” and dreamt of the values of “a clear and fit conception of reality.” Am Yisrael’s historical settlement of Eress Yisrael and its current establishment of Medinat Yisrael may yet provide the necessary counter-perspective for a society in sore need of maturity.