The following is a transcript of Episode 38 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today is Monday, December 13th, 2021. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast for the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Before we go on, when I read the date December 13th, that’s a really important date. 50 years ago today I made aliya.
Yossi: Oh wow. Mazel Tov.
Donniel: I just noticed it when I was typing out the date. I said, oh my God. So this is exciting. Forget about me. Let’s talk about us now. Our theme for today is ‘Tis the Season: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land. In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem, and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue.
Friends, as I’ve said in the last couple of episodes and barring some unexpected event, in our next session, the upcoming episode, we’re going to turn it around and ask you what you would like us to talk about. So please continue to send us your questions so that we can talk about them on the show. Send an email or even better yet an audio recording of your question that we complete during the podcast.
Send it to [email protected] Please, let us know if you don’t want us to use your name. We look forward to hearing from you.
Let’s begin. For Jews in the West who live in Christian societies, the winter holiday season ushers in a period of reflection and engagement with the dominant religious culture around them, from how they survive as a religious minority, to how they engage and participate together with other monotheistic faiths.
For the Jews of Israel, the winter holiday season is already over. It began and ended with Hanukkah, which from a Gregorian calendar perspective was early this year in North America. Of course, the holiday season is in full flow. Christmas is everywhere, but here in the land of Jesus’s birth, you must really search hard for signs of Christmas and Christianity, even though more than 20% of Israelis observe either Islam or Christianity. Together we celebrate very little.
This brings us to today’s conversation on the inter-religious dimension of Judaism and Jewish statehood. Is interfaith learning and dialogue so central to North American Jewish life and sensibilities merely a diasporic phenomenon as a result of our minority status or our need to adjust to the majority culture? Or is interfaith a profound, advanced towards a world of deep religious humility and pluralism?
Does being a Jewish state mean that we are finally freed of any need to interact with the two faiths that dominated us for centuries? Or are there responsibilities and possibilities that come with our changed circumstance with the fact that for the first time in our history, the Jewish people, is a majority in its land with Christians and Muslim minorities of our own?
And finally, are there opportunities for exploring new relationships with Christianity, Islam, from a position of psychological self-confidence and spiritual curiosity, rather than historical trauma? What would a mature Israeli relationship with Christianity and Islam look like? Yossi, it’s wonderful to be with you again.
Yossi: Pleasure to be with you, Donniel.
Donniel: I just came back from the United States and I felt Christmas full-on. Let’s start with this on a personal dimension. Do you miss Christmas?
Yossi: You know, I have a very counter-intuitive relationship with Christmas. When I lived in America, growing up in the Orthodox neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, I had virtually no awareness of Christmas at all. When I came to Israel, unlike most Israelis, I developed a relationship with Christmas. Here in Israel. Here in Jerusalem.
I actively sought it out and so I don’t miss American Christmas because I never had a relationship with it. And I do have a very lively relationship with Christmas as an Israeli.
Donniel: That really is one of the most counterintuitive, but that’s what happens when you make aliyah from Borough Park, from the ghetto of Borough Park to cosmopolitan Jerusalem.
Yossi: By the way, you may be saying this tongue in cheek Donniel, but I think that Jerusalem is the cosmopolitan city in Israel. It’s not Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv is a very provincial Jewish city.
Donniel: Let’s maybe come back to that because that is also so counter-intuitive because again, it depends on which Jerusalem you choose to experience because for so many people, Jerusalem is dominated by one segment of orthodoxy and they really don’t realize how cosmopolitan it really is.
Yossi: Just expand your lens of Jerusalem and suddenly the whole world is here. But you have to be willing to experience Jerusalem through a Christian lens.
Donniel: You always about how you look out from your living room and you see the wall. So now you just have to turn around and actually look into Jerusalem and you could see religious diversity right here in front of you. Do I miss Christmas? As a child growing up in Montreal I think my parents did everything in their power to make us unaware of Christmas. And the fact that we grew up without a television made it easier. So there were trees, but you know, there was a tree, but I was in Cote St. Luke Montreal without a television. And my only encounter with the non-Jewish world was that I would take a bus, bus number 161. I think it was on Van Horne street from Cote St. Luke to Ultramar. That was the only place I encountered the non-Jewish world. Christmas was not a significant other, but when I moved back to the United States in the eighties, I was already at another stage in my life.
It a very deep part of my religious commitment was never to believe that Judaism, my commitment to Judaism meant that Judaism was the best religion. I didn’t grow up in a competition between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I grew up in a world in which Judaism was just simply mine. There was no notion that Judaism is better or we have something that someone else doesn’t have. There was no superiority. And as a result, I was always very open to other religious traditions. And so my initial experience of Christmas was never, oh my God, what’s going to happen to the Jews?
In many ways, a lot of my religious life was shaped by Bishop Krister Stendahl on this issue when he coined a phenomenal phrase, which has inspired me for decades. And that is the phrase, holy envy. When you look at another religious tradition, it’s not a question, is mine better?
He says, could you reach a moment where you’re envious of something? I haven’t searched out Christmas here in Israel, as you have. I miss the feeling of experiencing the beauty of another person’s religious tradition, even the stupid, excuse me I hope I’m not insulting anybody, Hallmark movies. Where it’s positive, love and gentleness. Christmas brings out the best or aspires to bring out something good in people. And I like living in a world in which I could interact with it as a Jew and be touched by it without ever celebrating it. Or maybe in a certain sense, I do celebrate it. I celebrate its existing.
And it impacts me. And part of that multicultural experience, I’ve had it in graduate schools because I did a graduate degree in Christianity and then I finished all my coursework for a PhD in Islam before I had to drop it because my eyesight went on me, but I love this spirit of different religious traditions being able to be wholly envious of each other. And I miss that here.
Yossi: Well, for me, I really discovered Christianity and Islam in Israel. And it was a deliberate choice. I went on a year-long journey about 20 years ago into Christianity and Islam. And I wrote a book about the journey. And it was really prompted, I’d say, by two things, in particular, a piece of it into Christianity.
And that was a realization of how profoundly Christianity had changed theologically and its relationship to Judaism and the Jewish people. And also the realization of how profoundly we had changed. We were now a sovereign state with a Christian minority. We had reversed the dynamic. And so I felt this tremendous opportunity as an Israeli.
I could discover Christmas. I could open myself up to the beauty of the wonderful phrase of Krister Stendhal. I could allow myself the possibility of holy envy to a religion that I’d grown up fearing and loathing. And because I was looking at Christianity through historical Jewish eyes.
Yossi: And I wanted to experience Christianity as a religion, yes. By the state of Israel. By Zionism.
Donniel: It’s beautiful. Coming on aliyah redeemed you of your fears and it opened up spiritual possibilities and journeys for you. So how come you and I are so weird? Because let’s be honest. In Israel, first of all, we are weird and that’s one of the reasons why we love each other.
We two weird people found each other, but other than the fact that we love each other in order to transcend our own loneliness. I’m laughing here, but it’s not a joke, but in all truth, it’s very strange. In Israel, Islam doesn’t even rate. It’s Islam/enemy.
To even engage seriously – Islam equals jihad. Conversation over. But Christians and Christianity, there’s so much fear of converting us. The big conversation just doesn’t happen here. It doesn’t happen. I remember one of the core textbooks that we wrote up for public schools here in Israel was on Jewish identity.
And in the textbook, we had a medieval picture. And there was also a quote from the Christian Bible. The Knesset education committee convened, especially to talk about the Hartman Institute’s missionizing of Jews. People get hysterical here. So what do you? What’s your take on it?
Because everybody made aliyah. So how come what happened to you is not happening to others? Assess what’s going on here.
Yossi: So first of all, I think that what you and I have in common is we had some wonderful teachers, in particular, your father. Your father was really one of the trailblazers here who gave an authentic Jewish framework for interfaith. I would say it’s Greenberg as well. It’s had a very deep impression on me.
So I think we were blessed with teachers. And a lot of the hard work was done by the generation before us. We came in and we picked the fruit, but I also think Donniel that what you and I have in common is an insatiable curiosity about the other. And that’s what brought me to journalism.
I worked as a journalist for many years because I really wanted an excuse to eavesdrop and enter into all different kinds of worlds. And initially, for me, that was confined to the multiplicity of Jewish worlds. I really wanted to understand the diversity of Israeli Jewish communities. But eventually, I said, well, wait a minute.
You know, 20% of Israeli citizens aren’t are Jewish. They’re Arab. We’ve got 2 million Palestinians here.
We’ve got a hundred Christian denominations within virtually walking distance of my front door. What’s that world all about? And I discovered extraordinary riches in Christian Jerusalem and also in Muslim Jerusalem.
And to be able to have entered into those experiences – you’re not, I’m not a theologian. I wasn’t interested in exploring what you believe as opposed to what we believe. That really didn’t interest me. I wanted to experience how you as a Christian or you as a Muslim live your devotional life.
Yossi: How do you experience God in your life? How do you experience your most intimate moments?
Donniel: How come it’s so rare here?
What is it? What are Israelis frightened of in your mind?
Is it all politics or is there something deeper than that?
Yossi: First of all Israelis are afraid of these two religions. They’re afraid of Christianity and afraid of Islam for different reasons. Israelis, I don’t think have internalized just how deeply much of Christianity, especially Catholicism has changed in its theology toward Judaism and the Jewish people.
It’s a revolution. There is no religion in history that’s so profoundly changed a core theological belief about another religion, the way that Christianity did in relation to us. And that’s something we have never fully acknowledged as a people and Israelis are completely unaware of it.
And I saw it. When the Pope came, Pope John Paul II came to Jerusalem and you remember, he put a note in the Kotel. And all of the Israeli newspapers led headlines. What were they all excited about? The Pope denounces antisemitism. They miss the core theological moment, which was the Pope in his note in the Kotel spoke about the Jews as the people of the covenant. He was repudiating 2000 years of Christian supersessionism theology and Israelis missed it.
So, first of all, Israelis don’t understand what’s changed. And secondly, and this is something you’ve talked a lot about, Donniel. We haven’t fully internalized the responsibilities and opportunities of sovereignty.
We haven’t fully owned it yet. We’re the majority here. What are we afraid of? And the truth is in recent years, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this in recent years. I’ve seen some of the Christmas celebrations in churches around the country more and more secular Israelis attending. I mean, they’ll show up with cameras and it’s like experiencing a little bit of hutz l’aretz, like traveling abroad. But I think that it’s still significant in that it broke something of the psychological barrier.
Donniel: If I would pick up on that a little bit because Israelis are phenomenal tourists. They also have an insatiable curiosity about the world. And now in the midst of Corona – there was just an interview last night, how come you’re going? You won’t know if you come back, if your country’s going to be a red country, you have to go to quarantine.
And the person says, we have to travel. Like that was self-given. This was an existential – it wasn’t a desire. It was just, I have to travel. So whatever the consequences will be. But when I look at the state of interfaith dialogue or learning or openness here – so much of Israel is divided. There are 100, literally 13 Christian denominations. But while there’s so much diversity within our Jewish community, two dominant communities shape the public sphere. One is ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists and truth be told in America, Orthodox don’t engage in extensive interfaith.
There was this famous letter written by Rabbi Soloveitchik, Zichrono Livracha , which is always quoted that you can’t do interfaith dialogue. And my father was attacked for doing it. It’s more liberal Jews of America who engage in. But much of liberal Judaism in Israel is still defined more by what they’re not than what they are.
They are still more, very often than not, non-Orthodox than they are, I’m an active liberal Jew. And the interfaith engagement assumes the comfort with who you are. But if you haven’t worked out a clear identity – I might want to take a trip and see Nazareth, see how they celebrate, but that moment of holy envy, doesn’t start when you see the other. It starts when you have something that you stand on.
And I’ve always said that that the reason why it’s written so many Israelis don’t fight for religious pluralism is religious pluralism is only important if you care about where you stand and then you want to know how it gets expressed in the public sphere. Similar here. I think Jews are unprepared for it.
And very often do you know when their minds blow? When they go on their post-army trip to the far east, and all of a sudden they discover spiritual life. They never discover it. And I don’t know if they don’t engage in an interfaith dialogue with Buddhism or Hinduism, they just embrace aspects of it, and here in our own home,
Yossi: There’s an irony here Donniel. The irony is that you’re pointing out is that the very open-minded secular Israelis in some ways impair their ability to receive from another faith to relate to another faith because they’re so open-minded that they don’t know where they stand in their own tradition.
And that’s, really something. I think that we at the Institute have put as one of our main goals is – one of the things that you once said about this really stayed. And I heard you give this at a lecture to secular Israeli high school teachers. And you said I don’t care what your relationship to Judaism is. I don’t care how you describe yourself as a Jew. But if you’re going to be a secular Jew, be a serious secular Jew. What do you believe about Spinoza? What do you know about Spinoza? Be a serious secular Jew and that I think is really in some ways the deeper philosophy of the pluralism that we stand for.
We want you to be who you think you are, but we want you to be serious about it. And then that gives you the capacity to reach out to the other and receive.
Donniel: We’re actually trying right now to play with this and to use, to introduce interfaith learning and discourse not on the clergy level, but on a mass level in this program, that’s trying to ask, how do we build a shared society between Jews, Christians, and Muslims between Israelis and Palestinians here?
And so often when you try to do it, the political animosity is so front and center. Our different narratives, my political identity that the conversation comes to an end after the first meeting. So all shared civil society discourse has a rule: don’t bring up your political narrative, don’t bring it up.
So then what do we do? What does it mean? What does it mean for an Israeli Jew to meet an Israeli Palestinian? What does it mean? So what do we do? We keep all the explosives issues outside and there we create, what’s known as hummus meetings where we can talk about who discovered homos and falafel.
You know, Israelis were claiming that falafel and hummus are the original Israeli foods that we came up with him, or we talk about soccer, or we have groups of students playing in music bands together. All of these things are wonderful. They do create human interaction, but we don’t meet each other because the idea is that if you’re fully present, we’re going to have animosity.
So leave yourself outside so that we could come in. And one of the things we’ve been expecting and we’re unfolding it now in tens of schools is where we study Jewish, Christian, and Muslim values. From each one of our religious traditions, we study each other’s calendars. And the idea is that yes, Jews engage – it’s so interesting Jews when they in these meetings, we study Jewish texts. All of a sudden they’re proud Jews like, I love my texts. These are their texts, but then Yossi, how can we use religion as a vehicle for creating engagement with the other, in which the other feels seen, feels respected, feels heard, feels present.
Eventually, we’re going to have to do the political, but our whole methodology is to use religion as a vehicle. And in many ways, it’s precisely this type of interfaith engagement which we want to introduce into Israel. And so we’re trying to do it through this curriculum with teachers and students. But if I would ask you a question as we’re coming more closer to an end: I just gave one example, but what would real interfaith engagement look like in the context of a sovereign Jewish state? Here it is. You could decide. You’re the minister of education. You’re the minister of religion. interior minister or you’re a journalist who writes and people read. What is it that you would yearn for?
Yossi: First of all, it would be changing the curriculum in Israeli schools where we would be teaching, not just the history of religion, but the substance of these other religions. And what do they believe? Why do they believe it? What are they? What is their devotional life like? I would have trips by Israeli schools to monasteries. And I think that the monasteries that I know in this country would love to host Israeli groups of Israeli kids. Interestingly, it does happen to some extent in the army, the army does sometimes bring soldiers to visit Christian sites. So that’s one piece of it. For those who are so inclined, I think that we have an opportunity here to go in more deeply into it from a place of self-confidence to experience something of the inner life of Christian spirituality. When I want to get away, I go to a monastery for sure. They leave me alone. I have a wonderful place to meditate to daven.
And I had to overcome my fear of Christian symbols, of Christian space, but that’s what interfaith feels to me like in a sovereign Jewish state. You’re not afraid. These are opportunities for spiritual expansion.
Donniel: Yossi, you just revealed you’re Shabak. You’re on Facebook. Aren’t you Yossi? Are you on Facebook? So I think there’s a whole bunch of people who unliked you right now. Oh my God. What did he just say? I think you made two friends and lost a hundred.
Yossi: I’m used to it.
Donniel: As I’m hearing you talk, this giving up fear there is no doubt that if we’re going to take high school students, there might be a kid or two who’s going to get turned on by Christianity or Islam. And if you’re living in this perpetual demographic fear of Jewish continuity, oh my God, what’s going to happen in the modern world?
And paradoxically, when it comes to interfaith dialogue, all of Israel, too much of Israel wants to live in an intellectual Haredi ghetto. Where the way you deal with competition is by shutting it out. And that’s so counter-intuitive to the way so many Israelis live, but on this issue, they’re there.
If I would have one thing that I would change, there’s going to be two of course, but one would be like what you’re speaking about. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do in schools where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian students could engage in each other’s religious traditions. Not even in theory, but each one learns what are my holidays are about? What are my central values? So that we could create respect and that we create a way of seeing the other.
That would be one other change that I would institute.
And I learned this from a colleague and friend professor Danny Statman. I never thought about it. And you know, sometimes in your life someone says something and it’s just like, oh my God, how come I never thought that? Danny Statman, he instituted this at the University of Haifa and he talks about it and he says, why doesn’t Israeli society also have a number of Christian and Muslim holidays in our national calendar? The national Hebrew calendar of Israel, which is the calendar where the whole country stops working, where businesses are closed or you don’t have to take a vacation day.
What would happen if Christmas would be a vacation day for all Israelis? If Muslim holidays would be a day of celebration for everybody? If throughout our society, it wasn’t just Christians and Muslims who would have to adjust and come into the rhythm of Jews.
But we would see them. I think Israeli society and economy is rich enough that we could add another four or five holidays during the year in which the other person’s religion is nationally celebrated. If we could reach that moment, I think that would be something terrific. Yossi, last word before we turn to Elana.
Yossi: I think that really what we’re saying here is that religion is so often perceived as part of the problem especially here in the Middle East. And it often is of course but it’s also potentially part of the solution and it’s such an underutilized asset in our relationship with our neighbors that it’s a way of softening the political divide rather than deepening it.
Donniel: Let’s take a break for a minute. And when we come back, E Elana will join us.
Elana, it’s really nice to see you. How are you doing?
Elana: I’m doing pretty well. Actually, I just got back from Florida. So, no complaints.
Donniel: How were the hagim? How was the holiday season?
Elana: So the holiday season, the small menorah in our lobby is still up.
And the huge Christmas tree with lots of accouterments is right there overshadowing it. I have to say, you know, there are certain things about this conversation that really resonate with me. And then there are also things about this conversation where I’m just starting in such a different place.
I start from Jewish law. And so the conversation about Judaism and Christianity is not about what happened in the past. It’s actually a question of what are the limits of Jewish law in terms of my engagement? And so when we talk about like, holy envy, the place where it’s so easy for me is actually Islam. Islam is much easier just in terms of some of the tenants and the way that classical Jewish law and traditional Jewish law has looked at Islam.
So when we have our Muslim leadership Institute weekend, I always watch the prayer services because I’m so envious of the bowing. It’s the most beautiful thing that five times a day you would literally prostrate yourself on the ground.
Doesn’t matter how fancy what you’re wearing is, or not fancy. If you’re going to get a little bit scuffed or you’re going to get a little bit wrinkled, but you just submit and it’s the most beautiful thing. So it’s just interesting. And then at the same time, I have a PhD in religion from Columbia University.
So I’ve done plenty of study of Christianity, teaching Christianity, studying of Islam, teaching of Islam. So it’s just interesting to hear this, but I think, Jewish law plays a big role in where I’m able to go on this conversation. But I don’t want to focus on me and just wanted to share that’s somewhat where I’m coming from.
What I want to add to the conversation here is, I want to add what I think is a really smart categorization that Dr. Alan Brill offers in a book called Judaism and Other Religions. What he does is he mines Jewish tradition and Jewish intellectual development for what he suggests are three different orientations towards the other. One, he calls the exclusivist orientation, which is, your own community tradition, encounter with God is the only exclusive truth.
Another sort of on the flip, like all the way on the other side, is the pluralist tradition that no one tradition can possess the singular truth. But then he includes, he offers this in-between category, which I think is interesting, the inclusivist who acknowledges that there are a lot of communities with their own traditions but still maintains the importance of their own way of seeing things as like the truth that they accept.
So I want to give you an example from each of them and think a little bit together. He’s talking theologically, but there’s no such thing as pure theology, right? There are always social dimensions, always political dimensions. And so it’s fascinating to me that his exclusivist example actually comes from someone who is very revered by everyone in Jewish tradition. Rashi right? Our medieval scholar who wrote everything on Bible and wrote everything on Talmud. And interestingly enough, Rashi was a deep exclusivist. His deep exclusivist nature comes out, I’m just going to give you the example. This is not to be cited out of context, please. There’s a political aspect here too. And what he’s talking about is he’s writing his comments on Exodus chapter 33, verse 16, which is basically where Moses says to God, how will I know that I found grace in your sight, me and my people? And how do I know that you’ll go with us and that we’re distinguished and we’re your people from everyone on the face of the earth?
And the way that Rashi interpreted, as he says, how are we going to know that you walk with us? I’m asking you that you should not be present among other nations and we will be separate in this way. Right now, when you look at what Rashi was living through, I mean, he’s living through crusades, Jews versus Christians.
You can’t divorce the theological point. Just like the point that you two are making of what do you do when you’re a sovereign state and you’re the majority? Is the exclusivist paradigm, is that even something that makes any sense anymore, or do you specifically adopt the exclusivist paradigm when you’re feeling beleaguered?
And it has to be a Seesaw that when we’re up they’re down and when they’re up, we’re down. There’s something about mutual exclusion that is a zero-sum. At the other end, I always say Italian Jews in the middle ages you could put them in America in the 21st century.
And what they say would make plenty of sense. So on the opposite end, the universalist, the pluralist, Immanuel of Rome. This is the 13th century. This is not. 21st century. 13th century, this is an Italian Jewish scholar. He’s a satirical poet. And he wrote a parody of Dante’s Inferno called Tofet v’ Eden which is basically like hell and heaven.
And he writes, the following is an English translation and created poetically, which is really fascinating, “these are the pious among the Gentile state, who by their intellect and wisdom have become great whilst they, with their intelligence, searched out those who formed them and who was their creator. And as they pass the faiths of all under examination, but they chose of all beliefs views such as seem to them right upon which people versed in conscience had no cause to fight. And when people boastfully would attach the name of God, our hearts trembled. It shook our frame to think that each and every people should give Him, meaning God, some definite name. We, however, say be God’s name whatsoever. We believe in the first existence of the true one from whom we never from our life can ever sever.”
And what he’s basically saying is he saying, we get very nervous when other people claim God, but really God, by any name is God. Super universalist/pluralist in the 13th century.
Could you imagine? And you have to also ask yourself what was the political, the social value that gives rise to that ability to talk that way and think that way. And then for the inclusivist what you’re going to feel is this certify everybody, God, by any name is that the dah, dah, dah.
And you’re not going to feel well, it’s got to be us and not them. But in the inclusivist you’re going to feel a person who says, well, I clearly see it through my Jewish lens and I want to emphasize what we have in common rather than what distinguishes us. And for that, I want to give the example of Rabbi Yaakov Emden who’s in 18th century Germany.
He’s a Talmudist and he writes and also translated into English, “We should consider Christians and Muslims as instruments for the fulfillment of the prophecy, that the knowledge of God will one day spread throughout the earth.” He’s taking Jewish prophecy and saying they’re a fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.
“Whereas the nations before them worshiped idols, denied God’s existence, and thus did not recognize God’s path or retribution, the rise of Christianity and Islam serve to spread among the nations, to the furthest ends of the earth the knowledge that there is one God who rules the world, who rewards and punishes, and is revealed to humankind.”
So it’s emphasizing what you actually have in common, but you can see that it’s so much from a Jewish lens. And you would ask yourself, well, what do you do with Eastern religions? How would Eastern religions actually fit in? So I wanted to offer this as sort of a categorization because I don’t think it’s like pro-dialogue versus anti-dialogue.
What I like about what Brill does is he says, okay, well, who do we know who is in the exclusivist model and why? And there could be theological reasons. There could be Halakhic, like Jewish legal reasons. There also could be social and political reasons. Who do we see who’s in the camp of pluralism and universalism?
And is that for theological reasons, social reasons, political reasons? Who is in the camp of inclusivism where they’re sort of trying to hold it together in a way? And what are the limitations of that? And is that for theological reasons, social reasons, political reasons? So I just like that you’re bringing up the conversation on this triple level.
Donniel: I want to push you, Elana. What would you like to see in Israel. Because we always believe that Israel doesn’t belong to Israelis and we know you and your family, your relationship to Israel you have a stake. So I’m going to assume it’s not a big risk to say that I know that you accept that there are some exclusivists and it’s good for them if it’s good for them.
And so you’ll be a pluralist or exclusive as if you have to.
Elana: Oh, so you know me.
Donniel: But now I want you to what should we do here? Could we, should we celebrate? Should we, in Israel, learn each other’s traditions? Granted, so maybe don’t bring in a Christmas tree, but is there room in Israel for the whole country to celebrate what 20% – I want to remind you Elana you’re 2% of America. And I know the menorah is small, but still, it has given such a place in the larger public sphere.
Elana: It’s amazing that it’s there.
Donniel: Could we, in the Knesset, could the president of Israel invite Jews and Christians to a candle lighting Christmas tree, just like there’s a Hanukkah thing in the White House.
Should we? Not can we. Where do you stand on this Elana?
Elana: I would put it like this. I’m a religious humanist in the sense that I believe that God cares about everyone. And I believe that religion is a force for good in the world. And I would want to see that celebrated in some real way where people are willing to understand each other, both for their differences and for their similarities.
I have to be honest because I’m very much sort of a Jewish law person and that traditionalism really rules the way that I decide. I’d have to spend some time figuring it out. What would be something that’s inbounds and what’s something that’s out of bounds and understand that’s not necessarily the way you think about Israel writ large. But if you’re talking to me personally, I would definitely ask the question of what are the limits wherein you can actually still show that other people have a place here and that their religious engagement is valuable?
Donniel: As you’re saying that, can I challenge as an Israeli?
Elana: Yeah, of course.
Donniel: Israel is not a halakhic state. That same question could apply with: are you allowed to buses on Shabbat? So you don’t use that halakhic criteria.
Because what Elana does in her house and what the state of Israel should do you recognize that difference. Why is there more hesitation? Why is there more hesitation about now your Israel has to be a halakhic state? I’m not asking you what you should do personally.
I’m sure that president Biden’s priest might say, what, how are you lighting Hanukkah candles, a Hanukkah menorah? What are you doing here? And yet you’re saying one second I have to follow halakhic practice. I asked for the state of Israel, not for Elana Stein Hain’s house when she makes Aliyah.
Elana: Okay, so here. Let’s put it like this. You are coming up against, in your conversation with me right now the minority mindset and I’m coming up against the majority mindset. And what I mean by that is I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what the actual state majority position should be. That’s not where my mind spends its time.
And I think it would be disingenuous for me to say, oh, I know this conversation challenges me in a great way to say, what does it look like for a halakhic, basically a Jewish law-abiding Jew, to think in broader terms for the good of the state of Israel. And I haven’t done a lot of that. I haven’t done a lot of it.
I’ve done a lot of it for thinking about American Jewry and how we work together, but that’s always circumscribed by our minority identity and the desire to get along and to be together. And there are social and there’s political and there’s theological, but you’re asking me to work in a different lane which I think is a great lane. But I’m not ready to do it today.
Donniel: I’m checking in with you in one year’s time, Elana.
Elana: So on the 51st anniversary of your aliyah. I’m excited, I’m excited.
Donniel: Yossi, last thoughts or words for us.
Yossi: I think Elana is raising a really important point, which is that our experiences as a majority and minority are so different and our considerations don’t necessarily translate from one place to the other. So for example, the notion that certain Halakhic attitudes toward Christianity in particular, which developed under conditions of extreme minority status would apply to a sovereign Jewish state to me is really antithetical to my understanding of Zionism. By the same token Donniel, I think we have to recognize that American Jews do need to set up certain boundaries with the dominant culture, which we here don’t have to contend with.
So I think it’s a really interesting window into majority/minority dynamics in the context of American Jewish-Israeli relations.
Donniel: Thank you for that. And you’re right. What’s really interesting though, is that the majority of North American Jews who might need boundaries are exploring every day the dismantlement of boundaries while the Israelis who don’t need them or should be over them are holding on tight. So talk about a reverse universe and what an interesting conversation might look like.
Friends For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online shalomhartman.org.
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