Galilee Diary – Jewish Values

[Jeremiah] spoke to King Zedekiah…: Put your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon; serve him and his people, and live! (for this is Israel’s punishment for injustice and idolatry)
– Jeremiah 27:12

…The prophet Hananiah son of Azzur…said: Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: I hereby break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (for God will protect and support Israel unconditionally)
– Jeremiah 28:1-2

I recently attended a demonstration of the “Light Tag” coalition, in front of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence. We were about 500, with many familiar faces, especially from the Reform and Conservative movements (though the outstanding speaker was an Orthodox rabbi, Benjamin Lau). “Light Tag” (tag me’ir) is a pun on the name of the phenomenon it opposes: “Price Tag” (tag mechir ) – the name given to the recent spate of Jewish hate crimes. It seems that some of the more extreme elements of the settler youth – and supporters and copy-cats from elsewhere – have taken it upon themselves to exact a “price” for the government’s conciliatory (?) moves toward the Palestinians, by torching mosques, vandalizing churches, spitting on priests on the street, violent attacks against random Arabs, puncturing Arabs’ tires, etc., throughout Israel. There have been proposals (by the minister of police) to label these activists as “terrorists,” which would give the police additional tools to deal with them. But such a decision keeps getting put off. It is interesting, as many speakers pointed out at the demonstration, that the security services, who can find and detain every 11-year old Arab kid who ever throws a stone, seem helpless against this current “plague.” It is hard to avoid the feeling that there are leaders in the political and religious spheres – and lots of people on the street – who don’t see these actions as such a big deal, or who even sympathize with them. When popular author Amos Oz recently called the perpetrators “Jewish neo-nazis,” he aroused a public outcry on the left as well as the right.

There are amusing anecdotes from the early years of the state, when Jews expressed pride and gratification at the normalization of the Jewish people: Finally, we had a real state, meaning we had Jewish police and Jewish prisons – and Jewish criminals and Jewish prostitutes – just like everyone else. Alas, the cuteness has worn off, as we see our former president in jail for rape, our former prime minister sentenced to jail for bribery, and a daily dose of reports on hate crimes against non-Jewish religious leaders and institutions (and against liberal Jewish institutions too). Normalization sounded like a good idea, but did we really mean it “all the way?”

Many of us in the liberal wing of Judaism are wont to declare that a Jewish state needs to be a state that exemplifies Jewish values. In this respect we are like the nationalist Orthodox school, who argue that normalization is not our ideal: our destiny is not to be just like everyone else, but to be exceptional, to be a state that implements the values of the Torah in real life. The problem is, of course, that we have not achieved consensus on just what “Jewish values” are, and on who gets to decide. In recent years a number of publications by nationalist Orthodox rabbis have gotten a lot of attention – bringing proof from traditional sources to support discrimination and violence against non-Jews. When we liberals object, they tell us that “the halachah is not pretty,” and that we are distorting Judaism to fit our western liberal values; then we bring our proof-texts to show that theirview is a distortion of Judaism. If we didn’t have a Jewish state with an army and a police force, this could be a philosophical discussion, as it was for centuries. We could happily be pluralists and agree to disagree. However, in our time, we cannot escape the challenge of having to implement our values, using real power in a real state. So we cannot really afford to be pluralists about our beliefs in this sphere.

It seems we’re in a culture war, similar to the one in Jeremiah’s day. That time the good guys lost, and we are still mourning the outcome.

Re-printed from the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah, June 4, 2014

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein is the retired director of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education and the current director of the Israel Rabbinical Program at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

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Big Thoughts over Brunch in Baka

Pre-Shabbat in Jerusalem is digestion time. On Friday mornings in my neighborhood of Baka, the main avenue teems with voracious brunch-devourers eager to squish a weekend’s worth of consumption into one extended meal. As Shabbat preparations commence and stores rush to fulfill orders for 30 hours of commercial hiatus (shops close here!), unemployed students like me seize the moment to click out of Morfix1 and into Israel. Digestion for me is 25 percent brunch and 75 percent psychology. While I scoop labne (Israeli yogurt) onto scrambled eggs and conquer the ziggurat of cucumbers and tomatoes shoveled generously onto my plate, I try to make sense of the previous week’s Jewish, academic, and social intensity.

Having lived in New York City since the age of 17, with time spent in Berlin, Madrid, Paris and Washington, DC for academic and professional pursuits, I became convinced that Manhattan was the definition of urban vibrancy. But after 10 months in Jerusalem, I must admit that the Big Apple has a contender. The Jerusalem week is like a pitching machine that spits out obligations and opportunities at a fervent pace – and the unrelenting force of serious questions pushes this wired New Yorker into new realms of exhaustion.

In Manhattan, career and partnership are my major concerns. After I decided to pursue the rabbinate, and fell in love with my now-fiancé, I felt as if my scores were in – I had passed – and could move from being interrogated into the role of interrogator. I was comfortable, but somewhat despondent. Had I peaked by age 27? Was I to exchange my cloak of youthful mystery and dynamism for a pair of safe and static orthotics? Thankfully, in Israel, this option is off the table.

Even the minor moments in Jerusalem demand big thinking. My cab driver doesn’t care where I’m going – (we decide that before I open the door) – but he wants to know how it is possible to live as a “real Jew” outside of Israel. My lunch conversations at school revolve around questions of whether maintaining a Jewish demographic majority can harmonize with democratic values. And on my walks to school, I’m enmeshed in an internal debate over the values and drawbacks of secular vs. day school education for my fiancé’s and my future children. Cruise control is a luxury that Jerusalem cannot afford, and therefore one is accountable for every moment. My cab driver seems to have the same privileges as my grandmother, asking questions that that no one else would think of asking me.

I did not acclimate to this audacious atmosphere with ease. I was a case study in defensiveness. At first, I was a tourist in denial, then a frustrated resident, followed by a bruised family member, and now, after almost a year, I am an empowered-but-struggling advocate. To thrive in Israel, you have to read and ruminate, listen and linger. During my first few months here, I spent Fridays buried in The New York Times and catching up on missed seasons of Mad Men. I used my only time off to do a system update on my New York self, consistently avoiding the incipient Jewish-Jerusalem identity that was blooming despite me.

When winter break arrived and I finally made time for Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, an insatiable appetite for Israeli literature was born, and with it, a willingness to check my New York loyalties at the door in order to give this miracle of a Jewish State a chance. Oz’s autobiographical novel opened a window to the birth of the Jewish state through the eyes of a brilliant and sensitive young Jerusalemite whose life converged with many of Israel’s founding intellectual elites.

In David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, I met Ora, a woman with a desperate love and concern for her soldier son who attempts to evade wartime fate by hiking the National Israel Trail. The sensory discovery of her connection to Eretz Yisrael has guided my own trips to the Galilee where much of her journey takes place.

Noted historian Anita Shapira illuminates the multi-faceted constellation of modern Israeli identity, among which journalist Ari Shavit and fiction writer Etgar Keret shine brightly through their individual encounters with modern Israel, real and imagined. This outpouring of hearts in turmoil is complex and critical, daring and deep, and the more I read, the more I identify with these authors’ participation in the task of Am Yisrael – to build a Jewish and democratic state that reckons honestly with the promise and pitfalls of power.

As I write this I am studying Parashat M’tzorah, which presents a treatise on categories of purity and impurity. With elaborate and time-consuming instructions for cleansing the tainted, we learn that transition between these categories is not lurching, but laborious. So, too, has been my transition from inexperienced tourist to implicated ally. I did not slaughter any turtledoves (Lev 14:22), but the journey between these two identities has demanded the sacrifice of that tender naivety that allowed me to look away from Israel toward iTunes and other distractions. I’m hooked now. I fell in love.

Once again, I’ve conquered my vegetable ziggurat, my eggs have gotten cold and the labne has made its way from my plate to my sleeves. The café is closing for Shabbat and another 30 hours of urban rest is descending upon us. I thank God for the blessing of a city that demands so much and reciprocates by shutting down and backing off. I need Saturdays to snuggle up with my Israeli authors and continue this incredible journey. For the more I read, the better I love, and the deeper this imperfect Jewish miracle plants itself into the landscape of my soul.

  1. Online Hebrew-English Dictionary
  2. Amos Oz. In the Land of Israel, 33.

Juliana Schnur is a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. 

Re-printed from the UREJ Ten Minutes of Torah, April 16, 2014