When Ruth Calderon, a member of Israel’s Knesset for the political party Yesh Atid, delivered her first Knesset speech after the recent Israeli elections, a video of the event went viral. Calderon masterfully taught a passage of Talmud, deriving from it a lesson about prioritizing human relationships. She argued that our sacred books belong to all Jews — not only to the Orthodox. And she concluded with a prayer invoking the foremothers as well as the forefathers.
Calderon’s speech was moving by any measure. But it spoke so powerfully to American Jews because it represented a rare instance of our own Jewish values and religious thinking showing up loud and clear on the floor of the Knesset.
The majority of American Jews identify with a Judaism that is egalitarian and committed to social justice. We’re proud, too, that these values of democracy, justice, and communal responsibility are also central to the founding principles of the State of Israel.
But it has become increasingly hard to locate these values in Israel’s current political reality — even when that reality has come into existence through a democratically elected process. We cannot square our own Jewish principles with a government that permits ideological settlers to take land from Palestinians, that arrests women for praying at the kotel while wearing prayer shawls (tallitot), or that deports Eritrean refugees without granting them a chance to apply for asylum.
For most of the past six-plus decades, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has been an uneven one. Diaspora Jews send money, and Israel preserves Judaism for the future. And, for the most part, we ask no questions. Many argue that those of us living outside of Israel should have no say in the politics there since we don’t have to live the country’s day-to-day reality. Others counter that we should have a say in a country that continuously asks for our tax dollars and charitable contributions and that purports to represent us.
A talmudic story offers a provocative lesson on the relationship between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. The story takes place in the third century C.E., when most of the Jewish community, including the major scholars, had moved to Babylonia following the exile from Jerusalem. In this story, Rav Kahana travels from his home in Babylonia to northern Israel, where a small Jewish community remains. Before he leaves, his teacher advises him to wait seven years before challenging Rabbi Yochanan, the major sage of the land of Israel.
When Rav Kahana arrives, he finds Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan’s study partner, reviewing the day’s lesson with some students. Rav Kahana points out a number of difficulties in the presentation. That evening, Resh Lakish warns Rabbi Yochanan to prepare well for the next day’s lecture, as “a lion has come up from Babylonia.” The next day, Rabbi Yochanan places Rav Kahana at the front of the room, in the row reserved for the best students. But, heeding the advice he received before his travels, Rav Kahana does not respond to the lecture, and he is quickly demoted to the last row of the lecture hall. Rabbi Yochanan comments, “The lion has become a fox.” Finally, Rav Kahana can stand it no longer and he challenges the sage. Rabbi Yochanan humbles himself by removing the seven cushions on which he has been sitting until he and Rav Kahana are seated at the same level.
Eventually, Rabbi Yochanan begins to consult Rav Kahana about all difficult matters. The former tells his students, “Don’t think that this teaching is ours; it is theirs [from Babylonia].” (Talmud, Bava Kamma 117a-b)
Like many Diaspora Jews, Rav Kahana is expected to keep quiet — even when the leaders of the land of Israel make mistakes. He opens his mouth only when insulted — as American Jewish religious leaders have done when the Israeli establishment insults our mode of religious practice (for example conversions to Judaism). But, once Rav Kahana does start talking, he has much to contribute — and his contributions deepen the learning in the land. Rav Kahana does not, however, replace Rabbi Yochanan as the head of the academy. This is not a story about the Diaspora superseding Israel, but rather about each discovering that they have much to learn from the other.
Diaspora Jews have developed a rich and thoughtful Judaism that is egalitarian, committed to the human rights of all people, and grounded in the values of our tradition. We can best serve Israel not by keeping these teachings to ourselves, but by partnering with Israeli leaders to ensure that the Jewish state reflects the best of “our” and “their” learning. In some cases, the understanding of Jewish values brought forward by American Jews will differ from the policies put forward by Israeli elected officials. The reality of politics is that elected officials are moved not only by values, but also by political considerations. It’s the responsibility of Jews on both sides of the Atlantic to draw from our own traditions and history to ensure that Israel comes as close as possible to embodying the Jewish and democratic values sacred to its founders and to our tradition.