Dynamic Dreams in Israel

March 1, 2006
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Bambi Sheleg

Yitzchak Rabin’s murder changed my life. While this may sound overly dramatic, it’s true. At that time, I was the editor of a religious-Zionist children’s magazine called Otiot ( Letters ). The focus of my cultural and social life was primarily within the world of religious Zionism. While I knew people who held different opinions than mine, they didn’t serve as an effective counterbalance to the ideas and beliefs governing my life.

The murder shook my world and the assumptions with which I lived. I suddenly felt a pressing need to turn a critical eye on my educational upbringing, the society I inhabited, and the unassailable belief system that has accompanied me since my adolescent years. I came to the conclusion that I had no real understanding of Israeli society and that, moreover, I didn’t understand the value systems, beliefs, and pain of the many different groups comprising that society. I wanted to learn about the Jewish and Israeli reality that the non-Orthodox had created for this new generation.

But venturing forth on such pilgrimages – examining one’s education and chosen social world as well as the world in which you raise your children – can prove painful. Often, there is a gap between how you view yourself and the reality of your life; how you have viewed the “other” in society doesn’t mesh easily with the reality you uncover.

A few months ago, a young Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man, 29 years old, from the “Mir” Yeshiva, walked into my office. He told me that he approached all the young men of his age in the yeshiva and asked them the following questions: Where will you be ten years from now? How will you be raising your children? He told me that his questions were greeted with overwhelming silence and despair. I understood that he was standing on the threshold of his own journey, much like the one I had undertaken, attempting to get at the heart and soul of Israeli society, and I told him – I have good news and bad news for you. The bad news is that some of the beliefs and some of the education we received don’t withstand the test of reality. The good news is that every sector of Israeli society suffers from this same malady. And the additional good news is that some of our beliefs and some of our educational experiences do withstand this critical examination.

Israeli society embodies the steadfastly held dreams of its citizens; many of these dreams are ancient. Existing alongside them are an equal number of fantasies and broken dreams. What is a nation to do, whose children carry within them these ancient visions? Whoever journeys into the consciousness of Israelis, and Jews, will soon learn that our greatest challenges stem from how we define ourselves while remaining oblivious to the existence, feelings, and needs of all other groups. Orthodox Jewry leads the pack when it comes to ignoring the existence and needs of others. The Orthodox have a powerful argument; they keep halakhah, Jewish law, alive. They are the faithful sons who have neither left the fold nor attempted to alter its reality. Is their claim, that they are the “real deal” and all others are an historical forgery destined to wither and die, true? The answer to that question is yes and no; yes, because within Orthodox Judaism there is a tremendous feeling of unconditional responsibility for the future of the Jewish nation, and no, because Orthodox Judaism believes that it offers the only true expression of Judaism.

By paying attention to a wide spectrum of Jewish voices, both in Israel and abroad, one discovers that there are many who wish to be a part of what constitutes Judaism. Listening to these voices also demonstrates that the attitudes of the Orthodox educational establishment toward important questions concerning, for example, national identity, have not been significantly updated over the last 200 years, significantly impacting the relationships between Jews who choose to be religiously observant and those who do not. This attitude has an alienating influence, at times evoking feelings of hatred and contempt among various groups. Following is a list of some of the questions that need to be asked precisely of those who choose to follow halakhah, and who view it as the unequaled heart of the cultural future of the Jewish people.

What is the religious-halakhic significance of the fact that more than a third of the Jewish people perished in the Holocaust? Doesn’t this fact, in and of itself, demonstrate the need for an unconditional sense of obligation, as well as a sense of shared responsibility for our destiny, from everyone, including those living at a distance from a halakhic way of life? Doesn’t this necessitate cooperation in many wide-ranging areas with people with whom Orthodox Jewry has nothing in common? What about the fact that in the past, all of Russian Jewry lived under a virulently suppressive regime that, for the 70 years of Communist rule, forcibly robbed the Jews in Russia of their Jewish heritage? Does the current halakhic world truly have the ability to address effectively and respectfully these very same immigrants from Russia, wherein the majority of the families in this group arrived in Israel with at least one family member who is not Jewish? What should the official stance of the halakhic establishment be toward the immigrants from Ethiopia, many of whom were peremptorily subjected to a “stringent conversion”? Is it logical to demand that the members of Beta Israel – who underwent the seven circles of hell because they are Jews and who came to Israel with almost unimaginable self-sacrifice – convert? What are the broad halakhic implications of the fact that the Jewish people have become a majority in Israel and currently, in contrast to their long history of exile, now constitute a sovereign nation, ruling over and responsible for non-Jewish minorities in their midst? And as for the modern world: is it possible to continue to relate to women in the Orthodox Jewish world as if they are lesser beings than men? Can we continue to consent to the terrible injustice perpetrated on women in many of the rabbinic courts, women who find themselves denied the freedom of a “g et ” (a religious divorce issued by the rabbinic courts) year after year?

In short: What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How should its Jewishness be expressed? By means of its Jewish majority? Or perhaps is there something more exigent here, something that touches on the metaphysical underpinning of Jewish existence, which lost its moorings with the arrival of modernity, suffered through the hell of the Holocaust, and stands crestfallen and vital in the face of the historical wonder known as “the Jewish State”?

The return of Jews to the land of their ancestors has been a traumatic, soul-wrenching process, full of heartbreak and agony, and one that requires an almost matchless tenacity from the surviving nation. We have witnessed a powerful progression, full of incredible energy, and it has been borne aloft not solely on our strengths and hopes, but also on the vigor and dreams of all the people of Israel who for centuries anticipated and prayed for the return to Zion.

When I speak with emissaries who work with Jews in the Diaspora and when I speak with Orthodox rabbis, I tell them: don’t tell the Jews who they are, ask them. Ask them what they remember from their upbringing, what they remember, if anything, from their grandparents. What in their opinion is at the heart of their Judaism? The Torah is not only written in books; it is being written in the cumulative experiences of Jews. It is a unique human experience, and it is worthwhile to listen. It is impossible to assume that everything that has happened to us has already been explained in our ancient legal texts.

For Israeli society to endure, we need to embrace a profound internal compromise based on the realization that all citizens of the state – Jews, non-Jews, Arabs – want to feel at home and respected, with equal rights and responsibilities.

Will the state be able to transform the ancient Jewish dream from one that is static to one that is dynamic? That is to say: the new Israel must close the gap between who we as Jews aspire to be and who in actuality we are. Taking responsibility for who we are – accepting reality, with all its difficulties – will guide us to safe shores.

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Bambi Sheleg is Editor of Eretz Acheret magazine and a contributor to Maariv. Translated by Felice Kahn Zisken.

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