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Caring for Israel’s Body and Soul

Sensitivity to the values embraced by a Jewish sovereign society need not constitute some kind of admission that the body of Israel is less important than its soul.
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior research fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal

Originally published on Times of Israel

Modern Israel seems to have known two main kinds of leadership figures. There are leaders like David Ben Gurion and Ariel Sharon who have appealed – at different times and to different Israelis – to the profound Jewish need for physical protection and strength in the face of adversity. And then are leaders like Rav Ovadia Yosef z”l, whose funeral this week demonstrated – more than any words could – the ability of a towering rabbinic figure to connect to the spiritual needs of multitudes. Indeed, whatever one thought of his often controversial views, there is no doubting Rav Yosef’s capacity to respond to a deep inner hunger of so many – for unquestioned Torah authority, for Sephardic pride, for spiritual meaning.

These two kinds of leaders reflect two kinds of concerns that dominate much of the Jewish world’s preoccupation with Israel: concern for the Jewish State’s body, and concern for its soul. In our contemporary discourse these two concerns are often spoke of in dichotomous terms. Those that care about the body are seen as more preoccupied by external threats to Israel’s future. They worry more about guaranteeing the security of Israel’s borders – from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the like – than about the kind of culture or spiritual life that is cultivated within those borders.

They are concerned by the need to ensure respect for Israel’s basic rights to genuine peace and security and equal treatment on the international stage. They want the Jewish people – so long in exile – to finally have a national home that is protected, and that we can defend.

Those who care primarily for Israel’s soul are portrayed as worrying less about security than about the kinds of values the Jewish state embodies, the kind of society we are building from within. They are focused on the place of Judaism within the state, and they ask, what is the nature of the soul that the Jewish sovereign state is cultivating? When this concern is expressed on the left side of the political spectrum, it is often animated by the fear that on issues like discrimination, the monopoly of the Rabbinate, the pursuit of peace, or the treatment of asylum seekers, that the Jewish State is not living up to the best of Jewish traditions.

In so many debates, conferences, newspaper articles, and Jewish organizations these sets of concerns are presented as two alternatives. Those who care for the body can be heard to say: the focus must be on physical survival, for if we are not able to live as a state we will have no soul to cultivate. Those who care for the soul can be heard to say: if we do not ensure that the Jewish soul is noble and worthy and uplifting, why is its body worthy of attention? Adherents to each view become passionate about one cause, and tend to give lip-service to the other.

This division is sometimes on display in crude terms. At one major Jewish conference one hears mass applause for the call to “support Palestinian self-determination,” followed by uneasy silence for the call to “support Israeli security.” At a different Jewish conference, the reaction is reversed.

The idea that care for the Jewish national body and care for the Jewish national soul can be so easily divided, or exist somehow in contradiction, is of course a fallacy. Properly understood, Israel’s capacity to defend its borders is itself a moral claim about the nature of the Jewish soul. It is about a people with self-respect and dignity that sees itself created in the image of God and owes both its predecessors and its descendants the duty to act to ensure Jewish continuity and survival. Those that are preoccupied with the body should not so easily concede that the soul of Israel is, for them, a secondary consideration which we can only attend to when the Middle East is finally at peace and secure.

By the same token, passion for the kind of Jewish soul that the State of Israel is cultivating is also no less about creating a body politic which can be protected and defended over time – creating a State that does not rot from within. Sensitivity to the values embraced by a Jewish sovereign society need not constitute some kind of admission that the body of Israel is less important than its soul. It can come from a deep understanding that the resilience of a society, its capacity to rally its people to sacrifice for it, and to rally the world to support it, turns a great deal on its moral standing and inherent legitimacy.

There are those for whom the great lesson of Jewish history is that if the Jewish people do not gather the capacity to defend themselves, and the courage and ruthlessness sometimes required to do so, no one else will. For them, a sovereign Jewish State is an imperative only if it ensures that the Jewish body is protected. There are those for whom the great lesson of the Jewish tradition is that at the core of the Jewish people there must be a soul that exemplifies the best of Jewish values as they conceive them. For them, a sovereign Jewish State is an imperative only if it ensures that the Jewish soul is nurtured and flourishes. One group claims, “What about Israel’s body?” The other retorts, “What about Israel’s soul?” The two ships pass each other in the night.

The real failure is to think that one can be achieved without the other. The challenge is to be animated and passionate about both imperatives. To understand that even if the needs of Israel’s body and of its soul sometimes exist in tension, it is a necessary tension which must be embraced, rather than excised by some artificial dissection. There is no full soul without the body, and no full body without the soul.

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