The following is a transcript of Episode 174 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity/Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, we’re recording on Tuesday, January 30th, 2024.
So a few weeks ago when I was in Israel with Hartman board members and supporters on a solidarity mission, we made a visit to Kfar Aza. Kfar Aza is one of the kibbutzim in Israel in what’s known colloquially as the Gaza Envelope, which makes more sense in Hebrew than it does in English. It’s a network of towns and communities around the Gaza perimeter. And it was one of several such communities that was attacked and ransacked by Hamas infiltrators on October 7th.
In the past few months, an industry of sorts has sprung up around this area for groups with support and under the supervision of the IDF, who can visit and take stock of the loss and the damage. You can visit Kfar Aza, which is about a kilometer and a half from Gaza itself, across just a few fields. Or you can visit Kibbutz Be’eri, which is just a few kilometers south. Some of the Kibbutzim you can’t visit, though, because the extent of the damage and destruction is just too severe.
Our group made three stops in southern Israel. We stopped at Kfar Aza. We stopped at the Nova Music Festival site, which is basically a big field in a park near Kibbutz Reim. And we made a short stop at a freestanding shelter near a bus stop on the main road, which is where a number of young people had fled from the festival and hid out until they were either murdered in that shelter by Hamas terrorists or taken captive.
In the crude GoPro footage recovered from the Hamas terrorists on that day, you can see Hersh Goldberg-Polin being pulled from that little room, his arm already blown off and loaded onto a Jeep to be taken into Gaza, marking the last time he was seen alive. We stopped by that shelter briefly for my colleague, Elliot, Hersh’s cousin, to say a prayer and light a candle. When we got there, it was swamped with soldiers.
There’s not much I can say about visiting Kfar Aza that will surprise you. It combined all the elements of a beautiful, serene kibbutz that looked lived in, with kids’ bicycles still leaning against houses with an eerie sense of quiet only periodically punctuated by the sounds of bombings in the nearby Gaza, and combine that with other elements drawn from the set of a horror movie, especially when you came across the burned out houses and buildings, and especially when you paid attention to the graffiti markings on some of the houses, which were painted there by the rescue and retrieval units to indicate that bodies had been found in those homes. I walked through all of these sites with a seething, simmering rage.
I’ve gone to pilgrimage sites my whole life. The Kotel, for instance. Or maybe as a more apt parallel, visiting concentration camps in Eastern Europe as part of the March of Living when I was in high school. But I’ve never made pilgrimage to a place so quickly after the events transpired, and never because of the underlying reason that those visits are taking place, because the only reason we were in Kfar Aza now and why the military escort was so desperate for us to be there, even though it’s still an active war zone, and even though it’s drawing resources away from the actual battle, it’s because there’s such widespread doubt and skepticism already being cast about the atrocities of October 7th, and the survivors and the state of Israel and the army are desperate for anybody who can come to come to bear witness and to help them fight an abominable information war against those who are gaslighting them.
That’s why I was so mad. I felt that the whole thing was rooted in a loss of dignity. I felt it was undignified for the survivors of Kfar Aza to be poking around their destroyed homes. More generally, it felt undignified that it’s like Jews could not be trusted to narrate their own victimhood and for people to just believe them without so many more eyewitnesses.
It reminded me a little bit of how Deborah Lipstadt gave years of her life to prove in an English court that the Holocaust had happened, that her work was so important, and how deeply rooted that responsibility was in this attempt to take away her and our dignity, forcing her to prove the truth of our victimhood.
Not everyone in Israel is so keen about the idea of making these sites available to visitors. A Times of Israel story recently reported that some people were taking souvenirs and were actually turning the place from a place of pilgrimage into something more akin to the icky business which is known as grief tourism. There’s so much loss in these places. And the more that there are visits, I wonder whether they’re ever gonna be able to recover their ability to simply be places that people live in that had something terrible happen there in the past.
Neta Stahl wrote in the recent issue of Jewish Review of Books about Kfar Aza that, quote, we have called it home all these years, although most of us left it long ago. We call it home now as it lies in ruins, a political spectacle, a museum of death.
I’m scared for these people and for these places, especially when some of us come to visit them amidst all of this ruin and the fresh aftermath of their ongoing suffering. And I’m a little bit scared for us too.
We were accompanied for the day on the bus by Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum and a few other educators and rabbis and guides. The rabbis led by Tamar led the group in some singing and some prayers and tree planting at the Nova site, and they facilitated a larger prayer circle at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, where a small group of Americans was then joined by many more Israelis, and where there is a constant vigil of families who have people abducted into Gaza.
It was smart that we had Tamar on the bus. These trips are brimming with pastoral opportunity, even or especially as they sit on the precipice of such recent death. I’m not sure our participants visiting from America and Canada, overwhelmed by the experience, could have gotten through the day without these interventions. For months now Tamar has been kind of a pastoral and spiritual storm chaser across the state of Israel that’s tossing and turning constantly these days emotionally and, I might even say, metaphysically.
Tamar is the founder of ZION: An Eretz Yisraeli Congregation in Jerusalem, the co-founder of the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis at the Hartman Institute, and Ha Midrasha at Oranim. I would describe Tamar’s rabbinate as constantly weaving textured attachment across boundaries between religious and secular in Israel, between Jews of different ethnic backgrounds, between spiritualists and skeptics, between Jews and people of other faiths.
And I wanted to speak to Tamar today about what it means to be this kind of rabbi on the front line in Israeli society today, what the work of being a rav b’yisrael, a rabbi in Israel, actually means right now, and what it takes, and what it’s costing us to be in the work of holding us all up.
Tamar, let’s start on that bus. Why are you going on the bus rides? I know you went with a group of rabbis not long after October 7th, and you wrote quite a bit about it. What does it mean for you to be back on these trips, and what do you want from people on the buses, and what are you there to do? Because I think you’ve done a bunch of these.
Tamar: I hope it’s okay to start with saying thank you to you for this opening and for coming and for holding that grief and sorrow and also anger together and for telling this story because it is so unbearable and impossible to tell it by ourselves. We need to do it together. And so your question about the bus is exactly this. We cannot leave those people by themselves. I think that sometimes we desert trauma twice. The first time is when it happens and the second time is when we do not acknowledge it.
And one of the incredible things that our people has done for generations is being really a mission of witnesses. We are an ancient mission of witnesses. Arriving to the place of the wound, of the trauma. Witnessing it. Bearing that sorrow together with others and making sure we will never forget it and we will tell the story not only the victims but all of us will hold it together.
And so when we decided not long after the 7th of October to go down to Kfar Aza, Be’eri, to the Nova site, and to other places, starting off with the rabbinic seminary, with the Rabbanut Yisraelit, we felt that it was our duty to do something for those who cannot speak and say that story anymore. For those who have gone through it and cannot say it over and over again by themselves. For the soldiers who are there and are going through such difficult times and days and they need us to come and support them and see them and witness their courage. And also for many, many others who would like to do so and live in different places and cannot come.
You know, I want to say that at the very beginning the destruction was just impossible to bear. You stood there and you could still hear the screams and you could feel the sadness and the brutality and the despair in the air. And I felt it was our job to stand in that place.
Our ancestors teach us that we have to stand in a place where miracles happened, to remember that place. And I think that we have to stand in the place where the atrocities happened and to remember that place and to be not only witnesses and bearers, but also those who take the responsibility to support those who have been there so they can one day go back and create a life from the beginning and never be alone as they go back to that place.
Yehuda: One of the things that’s painful for me about hearing you talk about this as a sacred mission is that I’ve come to your shul many times and I love to hear you speak and teach Torah and it feels to me that so much of what you teach is actually about building and constructing and visioning a new Israel, a new Israeli society, a society that’s predicated on tolerance and love and compassion.
And there’s something that feels so doubly tragic about being a pastor in a place of death, when I hear you talk about this, and forcing us to reckon with, it’s almost like the difference between, are we spending our time talking about tomorrow, or do we have to keep spending our time talking about yesterday?
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what it’s felt like to you to have to shift your rabbinate in some ways in that way, and to actually move from talking about Yisrael Machar, which we will talk about, Yisrael Tomorrow, and still have to talk so much about what was taken away from us or what was done to us on October 7.
Tamar: I think you’re touching one of the greatest pains. All of us were thinking about tomorrow, and it’s not that we’re in today, we are barely in yesterday. And it’s more than yesterday, we are deep in our terrible Jewish history.
I have never felt so close to my grandparents than what I feel today. You know, here in Israel, we were always the children of our parents, and their history was the Zionist history. It was the history of independence, of asking ourselves what is our role in this world and what should Jews do now that we have our state, the state of Israel that has Jews and many others, and how will we be a blessing to the world and what are the great serious challenges that we face in this country. But today I feel very close to my grandparents and to the feeling of helplessness in many ways.
But I want to tell you that it also revealed to me something about my Judaism and where it starts. And I understood suddenly that the Torah itself starts from the abyss. The Torah and the story of our people, of our world, it doesn’t start on a beautiful white page. It actually tells us that the Tree of Life was planted on the abyss, that God chose as God saw that the world is an abyss, that there is an abyss in our reality over and over again, chose to plant a tree of life there. I think sometimes, especially in our modern, successful world, we want to plant on a high mountain of success and tell the story of the ability to overcome the great difficulties of humanity and the flaws of our human family, community, and the challenges of our people.
And we were thrown back to the greatest challenge of all, sticking to life, asking whether we can live, whether there’s a place for us in this world, whether we want to live, what is a life worth living?
I think what I have done as a rabbi in the past 116 days is really to ask myself, how do we help each other choose life? And how can one choose life, and choose to be Jewish, and choose to be part of this history and really create a bridge between yesterday and today. We’re talking in these days around the end of January, the 27th of January is the International Day of the Memory of the Holocaust. It was the Day of the Liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. There was just a meeting in the Knesset of members of people who were refugees, who were moved from their house, due to what had happened on the 7th of October, and all of them are Holocaust survivors.
Can you imagine? Holocaust survivors? There are more than 1,800 Holocaust survivors in Israel who are now refugees. They have gone through the Holocaust, arrived to Medinat Yisrael, to the state of Israel, thought that they had planted that tree, that it will never happen again. All of us wanted that to never happen again.
And yet here, in our beloved home, we find together with all our brothers and sisters all around the world in their beloved’s homes that this is part of our story and that we have to plant over and over again and replant the tree of life on the abyss, and that might be some of what we have to teach to the world that we plant the tree of life constantly, courageously, truthfully on the abyss and we choose life and we choose the sanctity of life.
And the Tree of Life has many, many branches, and we do it only together with all the people of this country, with all the partners of this society. We do it in the name of all these people who had done so before us, and we do it in the name of the children that we will have, and the grandchildren we will have, Bezrat Hashem, God willing, who will have to learn that this is part of what we do.
And I think that when you think about it in, you know, a world of trauma, you really understand that the Torah is speaking truth. It tells us that this is the deep quality of choosing life, when you plant it on the abyss. So I want to tell you, I am a much better rabbi than I was before the 7th of October. I wish we didn’t need to go back to that yesterday and to be close to our grandparents, but I think we are learning something very serious about the devotion of our people to life. In any situation, in any disappointment, and our moral responsibility to choose life over and over again, even here, even now.
Yehuda: I’ve thought about the metaphor of the Tree of Life many times, obviously, but I’ve been so stuck on the story as such an obvious metaphor for enlightenment and for departure, but I’ve never spent time thinking about it as a cyclical story of replanting—because we ultimately leave the Tree of Life. We ultimately leave the Garden of Eden. And that’s the more evocative piece, but what is the actual rebuilding of it look like.
Our Rabbi in our shul, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz, spoke on the Shabbat after October 7th about the same idea of, what does it mean to actually inhabit the “tohu vavohu” as the essential characteristic of the world, that can only be responded to? And his insight was with naming. The act of naming, because the act of naming humanizes, and ultimately that’s the redemption from a dehumanized chaos to a humanized world.
Let me ask you, quoting from a different rabbi who I think we both know. Benay Lapppe teaches a lot about the crash, the crash of the narrative, and what has to emerge once all big stories and all big communities experience a crash. And we talked about it this morning with our team here in North America about how many North American Jews are experiencing a crash of what they believed to be true about Israel, about our own safety, about the structures of liberalism.
It sounds to me, Tamar, like you are experiencing this October 7th at that kind of scale, at a kind of cataclysmic loss. Not, there have been terrorist events in Israel and this is just the biggest one. Not just, there have been wars in Israel and this is another furtherance of this bloody history between Israel and Palestinians. But as a genuine cataclysm, as a chorban. Can you unpack that a little bit, why it feels that is such a story of such magnitude, and what’s really being ruptured about the story of Israel and Zionism for you about October 7th?
Tamar: I think what you saw here and what we’re talking about and what I feel and see with the people I meet, whether it’s hostages, families or bereaved families or wounded soldiers and many others, is really a mourning state. A whole society is mourning on so many levels. First is the most private level of our own families.
In my own family people we have lost as a family, friends. So many lives, so many wounds. It’s unbelievable. We’re talking about huge numbers. You know, when I think of my daughters, the eldest is in the army and the two younger ones are here at home, I cannot tell you the amount of funerals we went together to as a family. Not to talk even about the fact that in the middle of those many funerals in Har Herzl, in the mountain of Herzl, there were sirens, and you could see the people mourning everything, even their ability for one moment to dignify that person that fought for us all.
You know, my brother is buried in Har Herzl, and that area in Har Herzl was empty. And there are a hundred new graves of people we all know of families we all know. So when I say mourning, a whole society that mourns, it’s the most private and personal and real mourning for the friends and beloved children of our friends that we have lost.
But there’s also mourning our hopes, our ideals, our sense of security, Zionism and the thought that it would protect us, there are so many realms of mourning that we feel. And there’s another realm, mourning the feeling that we were supposed to be part of a world, an international community that sees us as partners with which we walk in the journey of justice and support for everything we believe in, for all these ideals. And suddenly as women and as humans, we find ourselves so lonely and so deserted in face of these atrocities.
So we’re talking about mourning on so many levels and feeling so helpless in so many levels. I think one of the horrific things is that so many of us did not find words. We were just lost in the silence. We were shocked. And I think one of the most important missions of rabbis, all the rabbis of the Rabbenut Yisraelit from all denominations who work together from our Beit Midrash and network alongside many other rabbis all around Israel was to just walk around allow that silence and also give words and bring back some of our humanity, some of our sense that we can protect that humanity to be fragile, and also to be heard, to be seen, and to have a place in this world.
And I also want to say that this ability to talk with each other brings back our dignity as human beings. And since we were robbed of our humanity and we are defending our humanity, it’s not something that only soldiers defend in the borders or in Gaza, it’s something that each one of us has to defend in our private and national life within this country together.
So we must talk with each other, we must console each other, and help each other, and hold and guard that dignity, and be defenders of that human dignity in the everyday life that we lead right now.
Yehuda: I know that a lot of the work that you and your colleagues have done with Rabbanut Yisraelit has been focused on the displaced families, both from the South and then from the North, hundreds of thousands of people who are living totally different lives. Some cases communities are held together in one hotel or in a network of hotels. In some cases people are spread around the country.
I know one of the things that you did and a lot of your colleagues did was basically just show up, probably a combination of a bikur shiva, a shiva visit, and talking to people. Maybe you could share a little bit about, I’m terrified by thinking about it for a couple of reasons. One is like in many cases you talk about secular families who maybe didn’t expect that a rabbi would show up, even a rabbi who maybe doesn’t look like what they expected the rabbi to look like. But also like we know that the we know that like the burden of visiting somebody who’s lost everything is to sit with them and not necessarily comfort them or not comfort them falsely. And then the secular-religious divide feels very heavy.
So maybe tell us a little bit, give us some insight into what those encounters have been like, because my sense is they’ve been very meaningful for a lot of people maybe who didn’t expect that this would be a part of their spiritual lives now.
Tamar: First I want to say that Israel right now is all these homes together. You know, it’s a Beit Avelim, it’s a house of mourners, it’s a Bet Cholim, it’s a house of people who are deeply wounded and need to heal, and it also is full of people who had plans, bar mitzvot plans, wedding plans. How do you hold all these houses together when you lost your house? How do you do that? Is it even possible?
And I think that while space was attacked, one of the only things we still have is time, the realm of time, to sit together, to be silent together, to give time to that pain and sorrow, and to be human beings, which is exactly what we were threatened by, people who chose to be monsters. And it’s our way of going back to everything we dreamed.
And so first I want to mention one of our incredible members, students, Avi Dabush from Kibbutz Nirim, who was the one to call us, you know, a day after he was there holding the door in his kibbutz together with his wife Anat. And after arriving to Eilat, he said, I need you here. All of us need you here. And I think it’s really important also to receive permission. I want to say that, you know. I’ll never forget many rabbis who just entered, stomped into rooms, deciding that they will be the ones to save someone, and I think there’s something very gentle about consent, about being invited, about coming when you’re called, and when you feel someone on the other side actually wants it.
And we arrived there and it was very important for us to bring with us the DNA of the Israeli Rabbanit, which means that we came with many various, different, varied voices. We had Chiloni rabbis, secular rabbis, we had Dati rabbis, we had Conservative, we had Reform, we had Mizrahi, which was very important too, and we had Ashkenazi. Women and men, different affiliation, different genders, and we came in order to just give different options for the different people. They come from different kibbutzim. Some of them came a whole kibbutz together, and some of them, like the people of Sderot, are completely different communities who have all been put together in a hotel. And how do you do that?
And so it took us time to gently find a way to see what people need, what the children need, what kind of songs they want, who they need to listen to, if they need to. Sometimes they need to just be quiet. I remember one of the places where someone said, I want to speak about God, and I’m not sure I can speak about God in this moment, in this place. And everyone was quiet. There’s nothing to say. There’s only space for that question, for that doubt, for that yell.
And then a friend of his said, and it was beautiful, from Kibbutz Holit, on one of the Motzei Shabbatot in Havadalah, he said, I want to speak about the word peace. I’m not sure I can ever say it again. And I want to say it. I don’t want it to be robbed from me. Can anyone talk about it? Can any rabbi here say to me what our ancestors said about peace? Is that a durable, an enduring idea? Is that something I’m even able to say right now?
And slowly and gently, one of the rabbis spoke about peace in our tradition. And I thought it was a beautiful moment. There were places that wanted to sing niggunim, all kinds of Hasidic tunes, and places that wanted to sing only Naomi Shemer and Israeli songs. And I felt that it was a way of honoring the different branches of our tradition and different segments of our tradition that has wisely found a way to collect all these different human notions and to bring them to this moment and to be tools coming to the aid of all these victims and survivors of that moment.
And I want to say that some of them wanted it to last and they wanted us to come over and over again into some of the places we came every Motzei Shabbat, for a very long time and until today, and some of them needed one time. Some of them needed us to just put a space in the middle and put candles and say the names of all the dead or say the names of all the hostages and say prayers, ancient prayers.
And I was struck by the fact that Chiloni people really knew that they wanted to have a ceremony and they wanted to speak in their Jewish language. And they asked for it and they also shaped it. You know, we have also a ritual center, and we brought into the ritual center all the different prayers that were written in that time, during those weeks, by Chiloni Kibbutzim, by David Grossman, one of the known Israeli authors, by rabbis, a beautiful prayer for the hostages written by the Rebbe of Piaseczno, in 1945, in the ghetto. We brought all these things together and people could choose, so they came in and they said, I have a funeral today for my friend who was just found and recognized, and I want to enter and see the richness of our tradition and I want to find something that he would have liked me to say, and we found that a very delicate way to bring back our tradition in the most respectful way, in relevant way to our lives.
And I’ll say that we did the same with the victims of the sexual abuse and atrocities that happened on the 7th of October. And we created an evening through Brit Emunim, which is an initiative of guarding the different aspects of safeguarding our communities. And so we had an evening where women and men wrote prayers for those victims in different languages. Someone wrote El Maleh Rachamim for those victims on the 7th of October. Someone wrote a niggun, a new niggun. Someone spoke in a chiloni, secular way, and read a poem of a secular poet.
And there were so many different ways to express through tradition, because in many ways tradition is the voice, the ancient collective voice of the conscience. It’s a cry. And we have to give it place. It cries in the name of our grandparents. It cries in the names of the words we do not have. And I think it has to be respectful of the different voices that we have.
So for me, one of the most unbelievable experiences was to see how rich, strong, deep, creative and free our people here are. And I just hope it’s okay to say beyond the Jewish story, our story, that just this past Friday I went to visit the family of Ahmad Abu Latif. He was a 26-year warrior in the IDF who was killed. And I asked his father, Tewfik, and his family, what would they like me to do? What would really strengthen them? And I asked it as a rabbi visiting them on their shiva.
And he said, I want you to talk in your synagogue. I want you, in the prime time of your communities, to tell the story of Israel, of Israeli society, of our devotion to this idea. And I asked him, what do you want me to say? And he said, I want you to say that my son, Ahmad, went to Auschwitz to see what had happened to the Jews and came back and said, Abba, Father, I want to be connected to the Jewish story. It’s a story of courage because it’s a story that comes from darkness. And I want to show the world that from the darkness we can build something very, very courageous and truthful, never lying to each other about ourselves and about the world and about the challenges. And this is what I want you to say in Shul, in Beit Knesset.
So I want to tell you the very same thing. We are responsible to stand at the meeting point between darkness and light. To stand there, not in the light, but at the meeting point between darkness and light. And in that place, to bring as many voices as we can from our tradition so that no Jew will stay and be left without a rabbi of his choice or a text of his choice or words of his choice to comfort him and stand alongside with him, and that no Israeli would feel that in that moment.
And rabbis are connectors and rabbis are coordinators of that ability to bring that, and you know what, when I think about it, that’s planting Etz Hachayim, because Etz Hachayim is that huge civilization that has been talking about those traditions and giving these words from generation to generation in so many different places in the world, in so many different temperamentim, in so many different ways. And this is what we have learned and that is the Etz Hachayim that is planted in the abyss.
And it’s our responsibility not to let, not only to not let our people die, but not to let that tree die with all the incredible, wise, courageous treasures that were written at the meeting point between darkness and light.
Yehuda: How do we know we’re there? I mean, how do we know we’re at the meeting place between darkness and light and not still in darkness? Again, this morning, I was talking with, we have the whole North America team here for a couple of days, a staff retreat, to plan. And we talked the whole morning about what the last 115 days have been, the whole work changed, and everything has been responsive and interpretive, right? This is what, trying to understand the moment, how do I help other people understand what’s going on in Israel? How do I understand the Jewish people in the family of nations when Tal Becker has to stand in the Hague defending the state of Israel? How do I understand all of these things?
And it’s interpretive and responsive, and it’s not constructive. And at one point we said, we don’t want to always be in the crisis. You want to be in a different place, which to me is that point between darkness and light when you feel like you’re emerging, right, Plato’s cave, you’re emerging onto the other side. And one of the people raised their hands and said, but we’re still in a crisis. We might be in this crisis for a long time.
So I’m moved by the notion that to be, because what you’re doing is you’re in some ways coming in from the light and helping somebody come from the afelah, from out of the darkness, but you’re actually all sitting in the dark. Something, I don’t know how to do that, how to build Torah and light when actually there’s a long haul ahead of you and certainly a lot of the people, they’re living in the Dead Sea, they have no idea when they’re going back to Kibbutz Be’eri or Kfar Aza or all these places.
Tamar: First I want to say I don’t know and I’m not sure at all. I do think that Shabbat teaches us something about light. It’s not constant. It’s not on Sunday and Monday, though the Hasidim said that one day it’ll be every day. I hope so. It comes every once in a while. It’s not a story of conquering. Light doesn’t conquer, like Chanukah, you don’t start, despite the fact that Beit Shammai thinks you start with eight candles, the truth is we chose differently. We chose to say that it starts very, very slowly, courageously because we are not sure we will have enough for the next day.
And I think the truth is that every Shabbat is the story of courage to say, I do not know if the light will stay here and what will happen tomorrow, but today, there is light. And I think light is really about, not only about courage and truth, I’m not sure there’s light without darkness. I mean, you know, had the world been light and everything here would be completely lit, I’m not sure I would believe it.
But I do want to say Shabbat teaches us something about light. It teaches us that it is a time of safety a time of being together with those you love, a time of meaning. And I want to say something very strange. Sometimes in these days of darkness, I feel exactly that light in the midst of darkness, because we are in days when we guard our safety and we guard each other like we have never done before after a horrific year where we were the ones to endanger each other. And we felt endangered by each other.
And these are days in which we come closer and try to understand what is our responsibility to guard each other. And these are days in which we look for meaning because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow. I’m not sure what’s going to happen to my family tomorrow. You know I told you about my brother, Nadav, the son of my sister, my nephew, called after my brother, Nadav, is in Gaza right now. What will happen to my family, I do not know, but I think we’re understanding something about our responsibility to do the right thing today, to give meaning to this day, and to create a worthy society right now for our people.
And so I think the story of light is a very, very significant one. And I think we have to understand what the contrast of it is to darkness and what our responsibility in it is and to take the responsibility to make everything and every day here worthy.
Especially when I think about the soldiers who are now defending all of us, I think we have a very great responsibility to defend everything that is dear to all of us and our society right here. So I’m not sure I’m giving you a good answer, but I’ll just tell you the last thing. We spoke about time and we spoke about space. Shabbat is the light in time and it does not promise anything. And I think Jerusalem is the light in space and that too does not promise anything, but it does promise.
And it also is an oath that despite everything I have said right now, there’s another realm of time. And that realm of time and space is the horizon. And all the most important words in Jewish tradition are words of horizon, Yerushalayim, it comes from the future. Yisrael, it comes from the future. These are words in future tense. And I think it is our responsibility not to be afraid every day right now, but to give meaning to every day right now, and to create a bridge to the future. It is the longest bridge because it’s not really from today, it’s from yesterday to the future, the bridge had broken. But this is our responsibility.
So as a rabbi I want to tell you something that is very different from everything I’ve said until now. This is something I demand from ourselves. And when a young child asks me, is it okay if I celebrate my Bar Mitzvah now and the couple asks me, is it okay if I celebrate a marriage right now? I say to them, no, it’s not only okay, this is your responsibility, because you are right now holding the only feeling of tomorrow that all of us have. And if you had this gift of receiving a tomorrow, share it with everyone around you. And that is a generosity that’s needed right now by everyone. And I think the Jewish people was radically generous, with itself, with humanity and giving a tomorrow, when he didn’t even know he has today.
Yehuda: You know, Tamar, when I came to your house this summer for Shabbat dinner, which was the highlight, when we came into the front hallway, you had a whole section of your front hallway which had the protest posters, and you talked about it, how it was like, there was like a whole ritual dimension to this. Shabbat ends, we finish Havdalah, we come to the front, we pick up our posters, we go out, come back, put them in that spot and then wait there for next week. Like a ritual object.
And I think there are a lot of people who would hear you speaking a prophetic language as a part of your remnant that seeks to really break down the barrier between how we talk about spirituality, how we talk about politics, because anytime you’re talking about the future and you’re using a religious voice, there’s no boundary really between spirituality and politics. It’s about building a world that you’re supposed to have instead of the one that you currently have. And who might come to the conclusion that like, great, the minute that something like this happens, the prophetic rabbi again takes to the streets to protest their government, and you’ve actually done something very different. You’ve taken to the homes to be with the people.
And I’m curious if you feel that gap actually between liberal rabbis here and liberal rabbis there. That’s an interesting thing. But even if you don’t wanna touch that, like do you have a pull back towards the signs? Is there a moment when you think in your rabbinate, it’s back again towards protesting either the government or the war as a religious mandate, which sounds like something you’re not really doing? I’m curious how that negotiation is taking place about all of the possible responsibilities that a rabbi might have in a moment like this.
Tamar: I’m so happy you were here and I can’t wait for the next time. And it strengthens, it strengthens our family, our home. Friendship strengthens us. We have lost friendship in the past year. Deeply, deeply lost our friendship. This disconnected within families, within friends, within partners. I’m not sure we really understand the depth of our weakness and how these terrorists understood it, maybe even better than we did, maybe deeper than we did.
And so we now have a chance to heal our friendship. Now this does not mean that we have to give up the core values of everything we believe in. Not at all. But it does mean that we have to believe and check and work on creating a centrist world. When there’s a very big coalition of leaders and Israelis who want to find themselves in the center and do not want to be led by the extremists. And that happens only when you heal friendship.
I think that’s why Shabbat starts, apropos everything we said about Shabbat, it starts with Yedid Nefesh, with friendship. And also, Yerushalayim is the place of yedidut, it’s called Yedidut, that’s one of the names of Yerushalayim.
This is one of the ways to heal our shock and question about humans. Are they destructive to each other? Even us, ourselves, are they destined to be destructive to each other? Or can we and must we not only create a life, but a worthy life? Because the question is really not to live or not to live, the question is how to live.
And so this is our responsibility right now, and I see it as the first responsibility. In our community in ZION, as well as the Rabbinut Yisraelit, we have many voices, and our responsibility is to understand if and how we can create not a harmony, but a conversation, a serious and also respectful conversation, taking into consideration the differences, the different approaches that we have, but also the fact that we have grown from the destructive state in which we were, both in the fact that we are able to come together and decide upon some things, and also on the fact that we disagree and will not accept to be led by deconstructive extremists, and we will stand against them together.
And one of the things I want to say, you know, and share is that so many of the bereaved families talk about it. When you sit with them in shiva and afterwards in the Shloshim and you hear what is the thing that pains them the most, the thing that pains them the most, and also they feel terrified, is that we’ll go back to that time and it’ll even be worse.
And I was just down south and talked to soldiers and they told me that they felt that this is the one thing they will not be able to accept as they come back from Gaza. They had done so much and they had tried to be the worthiest defenders, guardians as possible, as humans and come back when they can live with themselves. And they feel that coming back and seeing what might happen here is just the one thing they cannot bear. So this is a very serious responsibility.
And I do think that this is a completely shared responsibility of rabbis in America and anywhere in the world and rabbis in Israel. I actually think it’s something all of us need to do. And the reason I’m saying this is because the whole world is becoming extremist, everyone around this world.
Part of it we’re now seeing as we stand in complete devastation after the 7th of October, looking at what some of the people and leaders of the world say about what had or hadn’t happened on the 7th of October. The world is really going to a very extremist and extreme and destructive place. And as Jews who come from a tradition of conversation, who have exercised a tradition of conversation, this is our time to shine and to show the world how you lead conversation, controversy, agreement, consent, stand together within all of that against extremism, and find a voice to be able to say that very clearly together and not accept extremism as an equal partner in this conversation.
And this is something we have done for many, many centuries. We’re good at it. And we need to teach it back again to each other. So I need, and we in the Rabbinut Yisraelit need our partners in America. You are facing such difficult challenges. And many times I find that the challenges my sisters and brothers go through in America and in other places are so much more worrying for me. And sometimes, that’s why I don’t sleep at night and I ask myself, why am I not in a witness mission in America? And I think it’s so important. So I think this is our challenge.
And I think rabbis and leaders of all the Jewish world should now be doing that together and showing it to other leaders and doing it together with other leaders. Because unlike politicians, who use power many times in order to deconstruct and create a world where everything is standing against each other, our responsibility is to ascend that and to create a together influence that constructs in our very, very chaotic world. And I think this is our time.
And this is not a Jewish mission only for the Jews. This is a mission for humanity. Humanity is in the abyss. So this is our time to teach humanity. And you know, I’ve thought a lot about the fact there’s a beautiful, beautiful commentary of the Hida, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai. And he says, unlike Chachamim, the sages, who have said that the moment of Sinai was a moment where God spoke to Am Yisrael and said what’s gonna happen no matter what they say.
He says exactly the opposite. He said God taught that when everything was shaking, it says that the mountains was shaking, that the people were shaking, it was like a moment of earthquake, a trauma. God said, I came here to speak. I came here to do a world of speech, of conversation, of consent, of agreement. And he teaches that Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, come from “hidebrut,” from talking to each other. The project of God was talking. Conversation, disagreement, that was the project. And this is our project. We are in an earthquake. And our job right now is to, within this earthquake, to be able to create a conversation.
Yehuda: I think something Israelis understood better than anywhere else, and also are baffled by when no one else understands it, is the extent to which Hamas’s attacks were a battle against civilization and not against Israelis. I think that’s something that I intuited right away when I was in Israel, and I think it’s confusing for Israelis who think the world sees this as a continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israelis, especially like you, who’s actually spent years building relationships with Palestinians are like, nope. This isn’t about Palestinians. This is about either humanity or not humanity.
Last question, Tamar, since you’ve been generous with your time, and since it’s late in Israel. What do you want from us, from North American Jews? Do you want us to keep coming? When we come, what would you like us to do? What should be on the itinerary? And for those who can’t come, how can they use a moment like this to be part of that bridge? What would you want to ask for?
Tamar: I want to ask for a covenant. I want us to write a covenant for our people, wherever we are. This covenant should be a way of showing the world what the human covenant should be. This should be the greatest contribution of Jews and rabbis and Jewish leaders after this horrific experience, collective experience, which has so many implications on Jews wherever they are.
We need to write the covenant of life, the covenant of the future, the covenant of the collective as a commitment to the individual, the covenant of the conscience standing against a rising world of faults and lies.
And I think it needs to be written. It cannot be something each one of us only does separately and orally with our students. We need to be able to create something in writing. And I feel it’s like sending from a ship, wherever we are right now, from the shore, wherever we are right now, we need to send through the spaces and the times, wherever it is, to whoever will receive it. We need to create a new covenant of humanity.
I feel like Noah. This is, as you said, this is not a Jewish and Israeli moment. This is a crisis for all humanity. And we are now in the ark. And it’s a big question, will there be a moment where the dove will come? But if she comes, what we have to give her is words of hope, commitment, action, that invite every leader on this earth to be part of them.
For a very long time in the past 100 years, we have thought that the world is guarded by countries and by the United Nations after the Holocaust, after the Shoah. Right now, many countries and the United Nations are threatened by extremism. And it is the time for religious leaders, for religions to take back their positions, and for educational leaders to take back their positions, to bring their communities together, and to create a higher bar for what we expect humanity to be. This cannot be the job of politicians. It will not be the job of politicians and even not diplomats. This is the job of the faith leaders.
So that is what I would like to see. And this will happen when we talk with each other, visit each other, learn from each other, ask each other, and also demand from each other. And when we do so with all our communities, it has to reflect the conversation. It can’t come from above. It has to come bottom up, but it has to reflect the pain, the sorrow, the darkness, and also the ability to give some kind of serious hope for the future that sets a new human bar for all of us to agree on and to take upon ourselves. That will be what the State of Israel came to do in the world. That will be what the Jews came to do wherever they live in the world. And that will be what we were expected to do in the time we received in this world, no matter how much it is. It will give meaning to this moment.
Yehuda: Thank you so much for listening to our show and thank you to our guest this week, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum.
Identity/Crisis is produced by Tessa Zitter and our executive producer is Maital Friedman. This episode was produced with assistance from Sam Balough and Sarina Shohet and edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC with music provided by So Called.
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