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Reclaiming our vision of a Jewish State

We need to develop a new Jewish conversation in Israel, one which religious, traditional, secular, and all others in between can participate in together


By Donniel Hartman


Religion is supposed to be about big and noble ideas. It is for this reason that it is so important and can justify its claim on our loyalty and fidelity. While most religions, and Judaism in particular, have great respect for details, these details nevertheless must be a part of bigger picture and end, which give to the minutiae of religious life a direction and thus purpose and justification. "You shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6); "You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy" (Lev 11:44); "You are my witnesses whom I have chosen so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am He" (Isaiah 43:10) – are all examples of the bigger ideas conversation that ought to serve as the foundation for Jewish life.

Now, in the Bible, the daily details of religion and the larger vision were often divided between two different institutions, the priests and the prophets, who worked side by side and ideally were meant to compliment each other. The priest worried about the details, knowing that even the smallest blemish or impurity could render the sacrifice unfit. They were also the carriers of the Torah and its teachers. The responsibility of the prophet, on the other hand, was to ensure that the system as a whole was functioning on track and in accordance with its core values and purpose. In addition, the job of the prophet was to serve as the social critic of the system and the people who often over-emphasized certain details and lost sight of Judaism’s core priorities and purpose.  

Thus, for example, Isaiah 58:5-7 declares:

    "Is such the fast I desire? A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes. You call that a fast – a day when the lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire – to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home." 

A Judaism, which for example, in the end of the day can only think about the rituals of fasting and which forgets a larger social justice agenda is misdirected, mediocre, and fails to serve the ends after which Judaism strives.

It is not that ritual is unimportant, but rather that it loses its significance when it is disconnected from a vision of what type of people and society we are supposed to create. 

After the biblical period, the classic division of labor between the priests and the prophets came to an end; both responsibilities fell into the hands of the rabbis. It was the rabbi’s task to both develop our legal system with the utmost care and respect for every aspect of the law, yet at the same time continue to provide a vision of Judaism that can inspire a larger mission and purpose. The great challenge to the rabbis and the system as a whole is how to maintain the proper balance, and to ensure that both voices remain vibrant and ever present in our tradition. 

As 2009 in Israel comes to a close and I look back at the discussion around Judaism that has permeated the country over the last few months, it seems that we have lost this balance. In particular we have lost our prophetic soul and our people and religious leaders have all too often abandoned their dual responsibilities. We seem to have become a religion of priests alone. We have become a religion of details with no vision. We have become a religion of mediocrity. 

The voice of religion rings loud and clear when the issue on the table is parking lots on Shabbat or parades in Jerusalem. Its voice is silent about how we can live together and ought to share our capital as one people. In the name of Judaism, we are ever ready to give great focus to those details that potential converts must not forget and in whose name we are willing to keep countless people out and even overturn the conversions of those who have already joined. Yet we are silent about how we ought to make Judaism more inviting and in detailing our responsibilities to our family which have come home to Israel and want to rejoin our people. The voice of Judaism rings loud and clear when it comes to declaring the holiness of war and encouraging its continuation, but is silent when it comes to the conversation regarding the moral conduct of this war and what does a Jewish army look like. It aligns itself clearly on the issue of maintaining the Jewish majority of Israel, but is silent when it comes to the obligations we have as a people and a religion toward refugees who come to Israel in search of safe haven. 

Where should be the voice of Judaism on each of these and other similar issues? When we talk of Israel as the home of the Jewish people, what type of Judaism do we need in the State of Israel? Is it more Jewish law or more Jewish vision? Is it to make sure that ever more aspects of national expressions of Judaism are in line with halakhah, properly under the control of the official rabbinate, or to ensure that in Israel, Jewish conversation and practice are determined by Judaism’s larger values and ideas?  

As a people, for at least the last 200 years, we have not agreed about the details of Jewish daily life, yet have chosen to build a Jewish society together. Let us leave the details of Jewish daily life to each individual to choose on the basis of his or her convictions. These belong to the private sphere, in any event. The public space cannot be Jewish on the basis of its adherence to the details of halakhah.  It can, however, be shaped by the ethics and values and larger ideas and aspirations of our tradition.

We need to develop a new Jewish conversation in Israel, one which religious, traditional, secular, and all others in between can participate in together. A discussion that is worthy of Judaism and Israel’s aspiration to be a Jewish state – which focuses on the type of Jewish society we want to build here and not, for example, on the national kashrut policy during Pesah. A discussion that inspires Israelis to live up to a larger and nobler Jewish vision both individually and collectively, instead of focusing on power, politics and control over the religious freedoms of our different citizens.  

In Israel, we need fewer priests – and more prophets.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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