Comfort from Calvin — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

I did not want to be on the plane I boarded in mid-July. I’ve been through a lot of wars, but this is the first one I was leaving the country for. How could I? I had two children in active service—a son who’s a special forces officer and a daughter in a combat infantry unit. The wonderful woman that my son was scheduled to marry in just weeks, herself an intelligence officer, had been called up as a reservist. Twice in the previous week sirens had gone off in Jerusalem as Hamas launched long-rage rockets in our direction.

      drawing by Avi Katz

     drawing by Avi Katz

But tickets for the trip, for a visit to Dad and Mom in Denver and a literary conference in New York, had long since been purchased, and Ilana insisted that I not change my plans. “It’s not as if by being here you could change anything,” she pointed out.

Ilana’s admonishment was more pregnant than she realized. For Israelis like me, loyal Zionists who have for decades spoken out for Israeli democracy, tolerance, and accommodation with the Palestinians, the Gaza War was triply depressing. We, our family, our friends, and our country are under attack and our soldiers and civilians are being killed. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds of people in the Gaza Strip, embittering a Palestinian population with whom we must find a way to live. But, no less worse, death and destruction are turning the people on both sides ever farther away from accommodation and mutual understanding. Should we give up? Are we really impotent when it comes to peace?

The power to change, the refusal to accept the world as it is and the impulse to make it better, is fundamental to Judaism. The concept of free will is built into the Jewish Bible and into the wisdom of rabbinic literature, the building block of the ethical systems of nearly all Jewish theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. Not only can we change ourselves and determine our own actions, we believe, but we can also, through our actions and words, cause other people to change the way they act and think.

How ironic, then, to find myself seated on the plane next to a Calvinist.

I didn’t know right off he was a Calvinist—that is, an adherent of a stream of Protestantism that rejects free will and believes that all souls are predestined by God to salvation or damnation, regardless of their good or bad deeds. But we eyed the books in each other’s laps, got to talking, and as two thinking and curious religious people of different faiths are bound to do, we started comparing notes.

I had very much in mind the increasing fatalism about the conflict among well-meaning and thoughtful Israelis. It’s a way of thinking with deep roots in Israeli history. In 1956 Palestinian guerrillas crossed from Gaza into Israel and murdered Ro’i Rotberg, a young farmer-officer at Kibbutz Nachal Oz. The eulogy Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan delivered at Rotberg’s funeral has become a classic statement of Israel’s doom.

Dayan acknowledged that the Palestinian refugees living overcrowded and jobless in the Gaza Strip had good reason to hate Israel and to seek to destroy it. But that was fate, he said. Nothing would change it. Israel was doomed to live by the sword. “We must not be deterred from seeing the loathing that accompanies and fills the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us waiting for the moment they will be capable of drawing our blood,” he declared.

I asked my Calvinist seatmate if I could pose him a rude question, but one that had always bothered me. “Why on earth would anyone want to be a Calvinist?” I asked. “Why would anyone want to believe in a God who has predestined the fate of my soul, and most likely sentenced me to the eternal flames of hell, long before I was born and no matter what I did with my life? Doesn’t that lead inevitably to moral paralysis?”

“Because,” he told me, “it’s liberating.”

I forgot to note one of the other rationales for canceling my trip. As I mentioned, my older son’s wedding was set for early August. Much of my family—my brother and sister, and most importantly my parents—would be coming to Israel for the celebration. So wasn’t this summer trip to visit them—planned and paid for before the couple announced their wedding plans—superfluous?

Yet there I was on my way to America, and of course nearly everyone I met shook their heads in sympathy at my plight, and in sympathy or anger or confusion at my country’s straits, and asked me whether war had indeed been inevitable, or whether Israel’s military actions really could be justified politically and morally, and how and when would it all end.

Mostly they wanted black-and-white answers. Israel, its civilians and urban centers under unrelenting bombardment from Hamas rockets, had no choice but to bomb and invade the neighborhoods, schools, and mosques from which the rockets were being launched and where tunnels-cum-invasion routes into Israel commenced. Or Israel, in its decades-long effort to quash Palestinian freedom, was again killing Arab civilians indiscriminately, in violation of international law and human decency. Or the whole Middle East was a frightening, hopeless mess and how could I possibly live there.

But I had no black-and-white answers to give. On the one hand, successive Israeli governments had made sincere and far-reaching attempts to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinian leadership. On the other hand, Israel’s policy of settling its own citizens in the West Bank in ever increasing numbers made those efforts look insincere at best. On the one hand, Israel’s military operation was necessary. On the other, some of the specific Israeli actions, ones that claimed large numbers of civilian lives, seemed hard to justify. On the one hand, Israel’s policies had helped create a situation in which Hamas felt it had no recourse other than an all-out attack on Israel. On the other hand, given recent developments in Egypt, Syria, and within the Palestinian national movement itself, it might well have resolved to attack no matter what Israel did.

So I was talking to this Calvinist on Alitalia, and he told me that the doctrine of predestination is liberating. I demurred. I did more than demure—I said, as politely as I could, that it sounded like nonsense to me.

He replied in a soft, humble voice. “The price of thinking that every choice you make, every deed you do, may well determine the fate of your soul for eternity, is often paralysis, or hubris. You become afraid to choose, or you feel that every choice of yours is of cosmic significance. Believing that your entire life is part of God’s greater plan, that everything you do is insignificant from God’s point of view, actually frees you to pursue goodness for its own sake, not as a means of salvation.”

Ok, I said. Food for thought. Still, very un-Jewish.

I spent a wonderful week with Mom and Dad in Denver before my conference. My Dad, a former journalist who still served as my best editor, was feeling very good. It was great to see, as a number of my visits over the last five years had coincided with medical crises. In January, when my parents last came to Israel, Dad had ended up spending three days in the hospital with pneumonia. When sick, he was miserable. His days centered on a long morning walk-run, weight training, and exercise, followed by extensive reading of several newspapers. His doctors could never figure out how he was able to stay so intensely active with highly blocked arteries and advanced-stage chronic lymphatic leukemia. But those ailments, along with the pain of an incessant restless leg syndrome almost completely unresponsive to medication, were leading to progressively more frequent hospitalizations and enforced home rest. So it was a real pleasure to see him so happy and joyful about life during that week.

At the end of that week I flew to New York, and on the second day of my conference I received messages from my brother and sister. Dad was hurt. It’s serious. That morning, while out on his morning walk, he’d been hit by a motorcycle. I got on a plane and returned to Denver. There was extensive bleeding in his brain. The following morning we removed life support, and Dad died later that afternoon. Family and friends gathered for the funeral and subsequent shiva.

On the penultimate day of that week I returned home. The first thing I did was thank Ilana for preventing me from canceling my trip. Unexpectedly, that week I’d had in Denver, enjoying my Dad’s company, had been my last week with him. How would I have felt had I missed it?

A few days later my Mom, brother, sister, and two nephews arrived for the wedding. The bride and groom came home from Gaza. Cease fires were declared, violated, rescinded.

“If good works are evidence of, rather than a means to gain, God’s grace,” my Calvinist patiently explained, “then if you are a good person you are saved. And if you are saved, that is an irreversible gift of God that will not be revoked no matter how much you stumble. I find that comforting.”

The Calvinist seemed to be saying that Israelis and Palestinians may be doomed to battle each other forever, yet at the same time can decide to change themselves and each other to escape that doom. One thing I learned this summer is how contingent and fortuitous human choice can be. How much those who see themselves as righteous can stumble, and how much those who seek to defend can destroy, how closely death and joy walk hand in hand. And how a theology that looks so stern and forbidding from the outside can feel warm and fulfilling to a man who believes it. Perhaps there is comfort in that, and promise, and hope.

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