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The No-Longer Silent Majority

The following is a transcript of Episode 76 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi, my name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. And this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage Project. Major support for For Heaven’s Sake comes from the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. Our theme for today is what’s next for the Israeli protest movement? 

In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow here at the Institute in Jerusalem, and myself discuss, together with Elana, a current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then, Elana Stein Hain, head of the Beit Midrash of Shalom Hartman Institute North American and senior fellow, explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. Let’s begin. 

What’s next for the protest movement? Israel’s remarkable pro-democracy movement, and we feel it’s remarkable, which has brought out hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on a weekly basis to defend the independent judiciary, is now approaching a crossroads. After nearly six months of intense activity, the crowds are starting to get thinner and inevitably the energy is beginning to wane. 

The ongoing negotiations between the government and the opposition have also raised hopes for a compromise to the crisis. And also, as we’ll elaborate later, most Israelis are actually for a compromise. There’s almost nobody who is for the reform, and there’s almost nobody who’s against any reform. And these things have also had an impact on the size and on the passion of the protests. 

If a government does try to unilaterally change the judicial system, the massive and passionate crowds will likely return. But the current relative lull raises a crucial question. What will happen with all the energy that’s been unleashed? Will the movement prove to be a passing phenomenon, like other Israeli protest movements, like in 2012, the uprising against the cost of living, that also brought out hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the street and then eventually evaporated? Or is something deeper, more lasting, happening here? 

Where should the protest movement be heading? How can it capitalize on the energy and commitment we’ve seen over the last months? Has liberal Israel finally awakened and is it ready for the long, hard work of transforming Israeli society? This question is not merely a question about the protest movement. In many ways it’s a question about the future of Israeli society. Yossi, Elana, it’s wonderful to be with both of you again.

Yossi: Wonderful to be back with all of you.

Elana: Always.

Donniel: So, Yossi, starting with you. Is it just going to evaporate or does it have to evolve? And if it has to evolve, where should it evolve to?

Yossi: I think it’s premature to eulogize the movement and to downplay the necessity of the protest movement because we’re still facing an ongoing emergency. There’s tremendous pressure on Netanyahu to move toward unilateral implementation of judicial transformation to essentially leave the negotiating table, which is now, the negotiations, in any case, have been suspended, and to take those parts of the judicial plan that Netanyahu believes he might be able to pass under the radar, that aren’t that provocative. And so I think we’re still facing short-term, urgent, an urgent need for protests. 

But it isn’t premature, and here I do connect deeply to your point, it isn’t premature to begin thinking about what do we do in the long term with this tremendous energy that’s been unleashed. 

Now, the first thing here is that liberal Israel is no longer amorphous. We now know what we stand for very clearly. We stand for a liberal definition of democracy, which means democracy as a dance between the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority. That’s one essential part of our agenda. 

The second is a liberal definition of a Jewish state, which is that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and not the state of Orthodox Judaism. That already creates two very clear lines from where liberal Israel needs to proceed. That’s the ideological infrastructure which has emerged in the last months. 

Practically speaking, where we go, I think, the first thing is to totally avoid the temptation of creating a new political party because there’s a lot of political energy out there in the streets. There are leaders that are emerging. And I think there will be the temptation to create one more center, center-left party, which would be an enormous mistake. I think we need to take this tremendous energy and move it into grassroots social work to begin working with those parts of the population that have been hostile to the democratic movement. How do we reach out to them? And it’s very tricky because we have to do that while at the same time continuing the pressure on the government to prevent unilateral judicial transformation. 

How do you see this, Donniel?

Donniel: I share a lot with you, but our positions on this diverge a little bit. We’ll call it a machloket of some form, but it’s minor. Number one, I agree with you, and I still show up every Saturday night. I’m there. But the energy is completely different. There’s even like, I’m in front of the president’s house, there’s a whole segment to the left of the stand, which doesn’t even have a speaker. That’s where the people go who don’t wanna listen to the speeches. They wanna talk to each other. It’s very funny.

There’s in front of the stand, to the right of the stand, and then there’s the far right of the stand, and then you have to the left, there’s like a whole bunch of people who are just, you know, because part of what the demonstrations meant, is a feeling that we’re not alone. And the elections, there was a sense that we lose Israel. You know, and there’s so many polls, half of the students and all this, and you know, the non-Zionists and all the demographic doomsayers. There was a sense that, you know, is this over? And part of the reason for going to, it was like going to shul. There was a shul dimension, let’s call it social Judaism. You know, you go, it’s like, to be with your people.

Yossi: But also like shul, a spiritual dimension too. There really was a sense, 

Donniel: It had a spiritual dimension too. That’s right, there was a tallis. It has its own tallis. It had a spiritual dimension. It had a values dimension. And it had a very strong social dimension. And I feel that the social dimension is becoming more dominant. And I actually think that needs to be maintained, because as long as the social dimension is maintained, the force to reactivate is there. 

It’s when we dissipate, you know, like when you said that liberal Israel is no longer amorphous. The demonstrations are a statement here. This is a normal Judaism, this stands for some form of normal Judaism and normal Zionism, or in our minds, our notion of a certain type of liberal Jewish democratic Israel. So they have to continue, but I think like all things, nothing stays the same. And if you don’t evolve, you become irrelevant. 

Here I wanna differ with you slightly. See, I feel we need to shift as a society. And I think you said this partially, from fighting the reform to building a new social coalition. You know, demonstrations are great when they’re simplistic. And by the way, we love it when our enemies are simplistic too. You know, we love calling all the people who are for a reform, against democracy. We love it. Now it’s true, there are a lot of people who are for parts of the reform because they want to get rid of democratic checks and balances, so that a certain vision of Judaism, Zionism, nationalism, could prevail over essential human rights. But that’s only one small part of this. Or maybe it’s a big part, but it’s only one part of those who are for judicial reform. 

There are people who are for it because they believe that this actually enhances Israel’s democracy. They felt that the Supreme Court had a dictatorship dimension to it. And now I’m not saying that it would be passed, you know, I’m not getting into what the government was or is. I don’t want to go there right now. I don’t want to talk about the government. I’m just talking about the issue itself. 

The issue was much more substantive. But the demonstrators, there’s this very cute saying, Bibi, you fell on the wrong generation. I feel this, the reform fell on the wrong coalition. And it became completely, or those of us who are demonstrating, we’re trying to protect the country because we felt that anti-democratic forces were taking over. And they’re still there. But as time has passed, there is some significant shift in Israeli society. 

Listen, 10, 30 percent of Likud, 30 percent of the religious Zionist party say they don’t want to vote, they’re not going to vote in the same place anymore. And even Ben-Gvir. So the question is, do we keep on fighting a clear enemy, or are we able to distinguish between those for over whom we have a significant cultural battle? And it really is a battle over democracy. And those members of the society, I’m not talking government, those members of society who we want to engage with, because the real question that we’re going to face is the reform is going to either be there or not. 

But our whole concern for the reform wasn’t like the Supreme Court was an end unto itself. What we were fighting for was core, as you said, core values that we feel should define the Jewish state. And that means we’re gonna have to get rid of some of our enemies, Yossi. I really feel it. We’re gonna have to get rid of some of them and the demonstrations are gonna have to find a way to change the tone. It’s not to pretend as if the issue’s not there anymore and it’s not pretend as if the dangers are past. They’re not. Nefarious characters are at the heart of our power structure. And we have to watch. But I think there’s going to be a shift, and I think there needs to be a shift, from talking exclusively about the reform and to talking about some of the issues. 

Like, for example, do you know what the last Saturday night demonstration was about? Didn’t even talk about the reform. It talked about the unbelievable. horrific ongoing murders going on in the Arab Israeli Palestinian sector. And those were the speakers and that’s what the demonstration was about.

Yossi: And that are being effectively ignored by the government.

Donniel: Or, I think it’s a little more complicated. I think we have a society who for 70 years didn’t think we need a powerful police force. And I think, you know, even whether Ben Gvir cares or not, whether they had the ability to turn things around this quickly, but that’s a separate issue. It’s about, there’s real substantive issues that we have to start talking about. 

Elana, where does this hit you? Or meet you?

Elana: Well, I think that, you know, what we’re talking about here is really moving away from just standing against something to standing for something. And one of the things that I think has been so powerful, well, two things that I think have been so powerful to watch about this protest movement from afar is first of all, just how long it’s gone on. Meaning for people to come for, what is it, 23 weeks in a row now, what it actually shows you is that the people who keep showing up. they actually are, they’re interested in being involved in something that takes a long time. 

And how do you harness what usually is like crisis mentality but when you ask people to do incremental work that takes a long time, they’re not willing to do it. What this feels like is that these are people who are willing to do work that takes a long time. So how do you actually harness that and notice that that’s a real strength? 

And then the second thing is that I think it’s made very clear to the rest of the country that there is a serious silent majority here that’s not silent anymore. And the question that you’re asking, Danielle, how do we not paint everyone as our enemy just because they don’t agree on all the different things? I think the reverse has happened also, right? Meaning people who voted saw this and said, wait a second, we thought we were voting our interests, but actually the social fabric is tearing. And I think using that understanding that you’re seeing is also something, right? Meaning there are new aspects that have been created. 

So I don’t think it’s just changing from we’re fighting against to standing for. I think it’s actually using some of this incredible energy that’s been created to do something that takes a long time and to actually change people’s understandings of why they vote in the first place.

Donniel: Yossi? I have a feeling that you have something you want to say.

Yossi: Oh, I, I, I may indeed have something I wanna say. There, uh.

Donniel: I wanna listen, Yossi, I’m here. 

Yossi: You’re both defining the challenge for the protest movement and also my personal challenge, and that challenge is, and I’ve said this before in our conversations, which is that we can’t afford to use the language of delegitimization that defines American politics today. I can’t consider all those who voted for this government as deplorables. 

And the reason for that I think is very simple. We’re a small embattled country. We’re entwined with each other. We’re on top of each other. We don’t have the expanse. We don’t have the luxury of America to demonize each other. This country will not hold together if we adopt the American political mindset. 

The problem that I have, and I have to be honest with you, is that after seven months of seeing what this government has done to the society, dismantling the most basic sense of social solidarity, risking the cohesiveness of the army, all of the consequences that we’ve seen here, I am I have to ask myself, how do you keep supporting this government? 

And so can I really make a coherent distinction between a deplorable government, and for me this is a government of scoundrels, and at the same time say that those who vote for this deplorable government are not deplorables, they’re my fellow Israelis who care no less passionately about Israel than I do, and I know that’s true, but the way in which they express it is increasingly bewildering to me. And so what do I do with that? What do I do with that?

Donniel: Should I tell you what you do? I could just tell you what’s happened to me.

Yossi: Dear Donniel, dear Abby, what do I do here? 

Donniel: Yossi, Yossi, my son, let me share with you. Let me share with you the wisdom that I have acquired at my age and in my experiences. I’m a teacher, Yossi. And I’ve been teaching, together with demonstrating, I’ve been teaching. Do you know how many students in the Hartman Institute are for a reform? Do you know how many students,

Yossi: for a reform or this government’s reform?

Donniel: A reform. No, it’s, 

Yossi: There’s a big difference. 

Donniel: No it isn’t, Yossi, for you it is!

Yossi: I’m for a reform but this government is beyond the pale.

Donniel: Dear Abby gets to talk, Dear Abby gets to talk, Dear Abby gets the

Yossi: In the age of social media, you get to push back against Dear Abby in real-time.

Donniel: Fair enough, but I know Yossi, you can’t get off of that. And I’m not telling you to. And one of the reasons why I’m not telling you to is because it won’t help in any event. 

I can just tell you. I am meeting hundreds of people, hundreds of people, who voted for the right and are not anti-democratic and are not anti-human rights. Hundreds. I am meeting hundreds of people who share most of my values about what a Jewish democratic state should look like.

Why they voted? They vote for a whole complex slew of reasons. Many of them, it’s a tribal thing. Some of them, it was still on security and out of a deep trust in Netanyahu. Did they think that the primary agenda of this government was going to be this total reform in the way it was? No.

But many of them are so, I’m not finished yet, many of them are also for a reform. Most people who were for the reform have changed their mind. And they know that there needs to be a compromise. They don’t even want all of it. And by the way, I could tell you also, because amongst my people I live, almost all the people who are demonstrating, intellectuals and laypeople alike, say, you know, of course we have to do some reform. So like all of a sudden, there’s been this shift and a move. 

Like, my students in my class, my rabbinic students, principals and teachers, hundreds of principals and teachers in my programs, students in my high schools are people for whom I would never want to define parameters in which they would be outside of the conversation. And part of what is inspiring me now, and this is my challenge, is that hate is powerful. Elana, you’re right. It could keep you going for a long time. But hate also blinds you. It does. 

And at some point, our challenge, and here I accept what you’re saying to me, Yossi. I accept that there are forces here that I should not say these and these are the words of the living God. I can’t take Hartman pluralism and apply it. Okay, these and these are the words of the living God, everything is wonderful. No! There are people whose vision of Israel is, from my perspective, destructive to the future of Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people. 

But I’m now in another mode. See, I’m not in defense mode anymore, Yossi. I’m in offense mode. I’m in a mode of asking, how do we begin to build a new social coalition? Now, I believe the demonstrations, if they stay in the anti-mode, are just going to solidify the us-them conversation. And you can see it. Do you know why you see it the most? You see it the most amongst politicians because they’re the most invested, because their political power is built on the us-them. I’m on this side and you’re not on this side. I love this. You hate this. It’s great. 

But something is shifting. And I think we have to keep the sense of, I would shift it from anger to being more fear. We have to be fearful for our democracy and not necessarily be motivated by an anger which vilifies, alienates, delegitimizes, also misquotes, misrepresents, all the things that come with this. When you cancel somebody, when you, when you, make them transparent. And in the demonstrations, you could see, sometimes there’s chance and they just don’t work the same anymore. So I think the country’s at another place, and I think we have another responsibility right now. We have to start building.

Yossi: Okay. I’m with you. I’m with you. I agree,

Donniel: Okay, can we stop there for a second?

Yossi: No.

Donniel: No, I’m not stopping you. Could we just take a break for, just take, could I just, could I just enjoy? I’m with you. Just give me three seconds. I’ll just take three. One, two, three. But.

Yossi: And now comes the but.

Donniel: I’ll give you the but. Go for it.

Yossi: The but is, the but is that when you speak about being fearful for the future of democracy, I like that formulation. It’s always good to leave anger behind in any situation. Anger is always a destructive emotion. 

The question is, and this is a theme now that you and I have been struggling with for months, which is how do we simultaneously lower our guard in the sense of opening ourselves to people who voted for the government, perhaps even continue to support this despicable government, and at the same time, maintain that acute fear. Because if the only advantage of anger is that it maintains fear at a high pitch. And I believe that the threat that we’re facing requires a high pitch of fear. I want to be able to maintain that vigilance without anger. 

Donniel: You know, Yossi, I want to share with you an experience. I hear you. I want to share with you an experience.

Yossi: Ah, but, wait, wait, can I just, wait, wait, Donniel, you just said, I hear you. I want to savor that moment.

Donniel: Good. Oh, come on, Yossi.

Yossi: We’re good, we’re good. Go ahead.

Donniel: We are now gonna give three seconds for I hear you. Okay, we’re here. 

I had two very interesting experiences. One in February, at the end of February, and one just two weeks ago. You know, at Hartman, we have a network of schools and principals and teachers. And there’s over a hundred principals and close to a thousand teachers who have gone through Hartman education and are committed to implementing in their schools a liberal Jewish curriculum, for which Avi Maoz says the enemy of the state is the Hartman Institute, because we have basically infiltrated the total Jewish educational system of the public secular school system and he’s right.

Yossi: And Avi Maoz is now in charge of, quote, Jewish identity for the educational system.

Donniel: Yeah, but it’s so interesting. He’s in charge. Actually, when you speak to the principals, you realize he’s in charge of nothing. But we’ll get to that. He has a lot of money to spend, but nobody’s listening. 

But so I had 50 principals at the end of February and 50 principals two weeks ago for a weekend. My agenda in both was the same. My agenda was, how do we go on? I knew that our principals were divided 50-50. They come from across the country. As one of them even said, I’m a Bibist. I didn’t know there was even such a term. I’m a Bibist. It’s like it’s a, you know, I’m a feminist, I’m a this, I’m a Bibist. It’s like, it’s now, I don’t know what that is, but linguistically it’s a something. 

So I grew up,

Yossi: That’s exactly the kind of person that I’m asking myself, how do I relate to them?

Donniel: But it’s not just her, there was a whole bunch. Now, February, when I spoke, I was speaking from, while I was being hopeful, and I was asking the people, how do we build a new coalition together around the ideas that have emerged from the demonstrations, not about the reform, but about liberal Judaism, about human rights, about religious pluralism, about a public sphere of Israel which is not dominated by any single ideological perspective. 

In Israel, which respects Jews and Arabs alike, basically the Declaration of Independence. And I said, look, how do we go here? 50 percent of the principles were with me right away from the beginning. Who were they? They were the ones who were demonstrating. The 50 percent who weren’t, by the end of the weekend, I got maybe another 30, 40% of them. 

Yossi: How did you do it?

Donniel: I was teaching and I was talking and I was speaking about what are the values I care about. And I was telling them it’s not about you could, I kept on saying, it was my mantra. You could be for a reform and not be the enemy of democracy. You could be concerned. 

And I was quoting all the things that I learned, that Israel’s Supreme Court, if the reform goes through, will be the weakest Supreme Court in any democratic state. And if the current status quo remains, Israel’s Supreme Court is the most powerful of all Supreme Courts of any Western democracy, that there is room for compromise and conversation all in. 

And I’m talking and talking and talking. And a lot of them began, and I said, okay, now let’s go to the values. You share these values with me. Let’s not talk about the reform. Do you agree that people of different religious ideologies should have an ability to share, to have place within the public sphere? They were saying yes, yes. 

Some of them, you know, at the end of the weekend, somebody said to me, you know, Donniel, I agree with 90% of what you say. I just don’t believe you. You know why though? And then, and a whole group. Even though ideologically these are graduates of Hartman, these are people who’ve sent their teachers, these are people who are using Hartman curriculum in their schools. We stayed at one place. 

Now two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, I had 90% of the people after my first speech. 90%. And one of the principals said, why didn’t you talk about this? One of them was in both times. He said, why didn’t you say this the last time? And I said to her, I did. It was almost identical, but you know what changed? Me. 

Last time I was still very, very angry, and unbeknownst to me, what I said was heard differently. And so part of what happens is that I saw the consequences. Now, I’ve had months and I am so deeply committed to embracing people who differ. This is the core of Hartman. This is my core. I’m not a relativist. There is evil and I want to confront it, but I’m in another place. I’ve developed greater skills and as a result people hear me differently.

So the dance that you’re mentioning, this is the critical one. It is two things. And then I’ll give you the last word and then we’ll turn to Elana. And I’ll give you more than the last word, truly. 

A, when you get rid of the anger, you speak differently and other people feel that you really see them. And even when you try, there’s characterizations which come in. And by the way, those who were on the other side were also very angry. So when angry meets angry, we know what happens. I don’t believe you. People now in Israel are at another place. I’m not talking about the population. These people, only 15% of Israel is for unilateral reform. 15%, that’s it. And almost all of them come from the religious Zionists and ultra-orthodox communities. They’ve shifted and we were able to talk and say, let’s talk about what we care about. So A, that changing the fear is critical. 

Now I realize this could endanger the demonstration. This could endanger the energy. And that’s why we have to move to the second stage, which I saw, and that is moving to exciting and engaging people with positive visions of our Israel. Now, will people come out to demonstrate when it’s only positive and not fearful? That will be the great test. And I wanna tell you, so many people here, we use different analogies at the Hartman Institute. The reform demonstration is a hundred-yard dash. The liberal Jewish democratic agenda is a 5K, 10K, a marathon. And how we are able to shift to those multiple levels is going to be critical not for the demonstration, but gonna be critical for the future of our country. 

So Yossi, last word and then we’re gonna turn to Elana.

Yossi: So it’s very powerful what you’re saying, Donniel. Very moving and inspiring. The but here is that we’re not out of the woods. And it’s true that only a minority of Israelis want a unilateral imposition of judicial transformation. The problem is that they’re in power. And I don’t think Netanyahu at this point wants a unilateral transformation, but most of the people around him do. And what we’ve seen from this version of Netanyahu over the last seven months is one surrender after another to the extremist forces around him. And so the question is, how do we begin to lessen the intensity, lessen the volume of our protests, while at the same time realizing that we’re confronting the same threat from the same government. The government hasn’t changed. And Netanyahu

Donniel: I think the social dimension of the demonstrations, therefore, is the critical component. Because as long as we don’t go home and we shut down, and even if less people are there, as long as the institution remains, it’s like we have a mechanism. Like, shuls, people check out, but they check back in on Rosh Hashanah, they check back in when they have yahrzeit, they check back in for their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. We need, the demonstrations are a mechanism. They’re a framework for putting a liberal Jewish democratic agenda. And as long as it’s maintained, and it might be maintained by a smaller number, instead of 200, 300, it might be maintained by 100. 

But if it’s there, it could get activated whenever the danger emerges. And then we will prevent what you’re rightfully frightened of. It’s not yet clear what the final decision will be and who will force and decide what. So this is a dance. Let’s bring Elana into our dance. Elana?

Elana: Yeah, so it’s really interesting because the conversation, it sounds like there’s actually two focal points right now. One is continuing to fight what feels existentially urgent, and the other is to build a movement that has a little more social cohesion with others. And it’s not so easy, but if you can have two foci at the same time, there’s what to do there. 

The other thing I want to say before I bring in the Torah is that I actually think fear is more dangerous than hatred. I think fear is very, very dangerous. I think fear can really make you kind of flail in a way that anger that comes from a more rational consideration, even anger can’t do. So I actually wanna be cautious. I wanna think more about this fear question and where we wanna go with it.

Donniel: Before you get to the sources, could I be so audacious as to quote your Proverbs? They’re yours. 

Elana: Oh yes, of course. And I’m honored, I’m honored the book of Mishlei, the book of Proverbs, are you gonna tell me,

Donniel: They are yours. They are yours. You are the master of Mishlei.

Elana: I know what you’re gonna say. “Ashrei adam mifached tamid.” That a person should always be fearful.

Donniel: Ashrei adam, how happy it is. Ashrei is

Elana: Let’s go with praiseworthy. It sounds less.

Donniel: How praiseworthy is the one who is frightened always. 

I hear you, fear could also be destructive. So we’re trying to thread needles here. So,

Elana: Yeah, for sure, I’m saying it just to throw it into the hopper, to think about how we want to talk about it.

Donniel: Yeah, and just remember. Because tou’re not allowed to contradict your teacher, the Proverbs, you could say anything you want to say, but your loyalty to Proverbs has to remain.

Elana: That’s, first of all, that’s beautiful. And I hope I can live up to that. Let me tell you, I hope I can live. Next week I’ll come back with the context of that verse and explain it’s different from this.

Donniel: Oy oy, I know, I know that’s what you’ll do.

Elana: Okay, let’s go with, let’s think social movements for a minute, okay? Here’s the social movement I wanna think about. I wanna think the social movement after the temple falls, the movement from essentially the priest to the rabbis. Not that the priests have no significance, they have significance, but there’s a serious transformation. And the place you see it is like unsuspecting. 

When you look in Pirkei Avot, when you look in Ethics of the Ancestors, chapter one, section 12, Mishnah 12, it says the following: Hillel says, be like the students of Aharon, as in the original of the priesthood. Be like the students of Aharon, lover of peace and pursuer of peace. Lover of creatures, meaning God’s creatures, and one who brings them closer to Torah. 

Now one second, one second, one second, one second. I have looked through the Chumash, the five books of Moses. I do not think that the way I would describe Aaron is as a lover of peace and pursuer of peace. I think I would describe Aaron as someone who does the worship in the Tabernacle, who passes that down dynastically to his children. Meaning this way of looking at the priesthood, which is, it’s about values, not, it’s about a pedigree that allows you to do worship in the temple, is a huge switch, a huge subversive switch in rabbinic literature. 

And what I think is remarkable is there’s a whole story, it’s not, I don’t know if the story explains it, but it certainly is, like, I don’t know if it’s meant to be an explanation of where it comes from, or that the story itself just reflects that moment of transformation, the social change that’s involved in that kind of moment. It’s in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, which is a tractate that’s all about Yom Kippur, which of course, the Kohanim, the priests are at the center. Right, 71B, and the description is after the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies and makes it out safely, has affected atonement for all the people, right? Like what have you done for me lately? A lot, like just right now, a lot. And the only reason I can do this is because I’m super pedigreed and because I have certain knowledge of what I’m supposed to do. It’s not because I have good values, that has little to do with it, right? Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t, but that’s not what makes you a Kohen. It’s not what makes you a priest. 

The rabbis taught once there was a high priest who came out of the temple on the day of atonement after achieving atonement for the people and everyone was following him. But then this group saw Shmaya and Avtalyon. Now who are Shmaya and Avtalyon? Shmaya and Avtalyon are two rabbis. They’re not priests. They’re not pedigree. They may have been Jews by choice or descended from Jews by choice. So they’re not pedigreed in the way that the priest is pedigreed. 

So the people see Shmaya and Avtalyon, it’s Yom Kippur afternoon, they left the high priest and they follow Shmaya and Avtalyon instead, right? It’s a nice protest movement. Nice big take-to-the-streets movement. We don’t want the high priest anymore. We want Shmaya and Avtalyon. We want something different. 

So in the end, Shmaya and Avtalyon go over to the high priest to say goodbye to him. Now, presumably they were saying goodbye out of a sense of reverence. But certainly people could have seen it and been like they’re saying goodbye out of a sense of victory. So what does the high priest say to them? He says, let the children of the nations, you Gentiles, because they were either Jews by choice or they were descended from Jews by choice, let you Gentiles, you go in peace. That’s what he says to them. 

Meaning pedigree is everything. Because I’m a priest and that’s what it is. They retorted back to him, you know what? Let we Gentiles who behave like Aharon, the original high priest, go in peace, but the actual progeny of Aharon, you, who doesn’t behave like Aharon, you know what, you go in peace yourself. 

Now, this is a great, it’s a great anecdote that’s explaining the switch, right? There was a serious social movement here away from the priesthood, towards the rabbinic leadership. And the way it’s being defined in the moment of transformation is, what are your values? How do you behave? What are you going to become? And I think in some ways that’s kind of what we’re talking about here. Meaning, that moment of moving from the high priest and everyone leaves the high priest and walks out and follows someone else, that’s an ugly moment. That is not a beautiful moment. It really isn’t. It only becomes something worthwhile if it gets translated into values. And if it gets translated into good values that you actually want everybody to have. 

And I’ll say one more thing, which is, and it’s hard to figure out what comes when and who comes when, but the famous story of Hillel being on the roof of the study hall because he couldn’t get in, because he couldn’t pay the money to get in. Do you know who the people who left him up there, all night, who didn’t know that he was there, didn’t notice him? Shmaya and Avtalyon.

Donniel: Shmaya and Avtalyon

Elana: And then they realize and say, oh, get this guy inside. There’s this whole legacy within rabbinic literature of, wait a second, if we’re making this move, we have to stand for something new, something that can be an agreed upon value. And I see that in what we’re saying here. And I think we’re really still in that moment of leaving the high priest. And it’s an ugly, ugly moment. And I think the question of whether you can take that and build something that has character, has deep character that isn’t just anger and fear character, but is something else, but is the values that by the way, as you said, the original declaration meant to have in the DNA here, right? That’s what they’re saying to him. The original values, you’ve lost those, right? That’s what we’re trying to do here, right? That’s what we wanna see.

Donniel: That is such a beautiful story. It really is a remarkable one. How political struggle can get redeemed. 

Elana: Right, but you need to redeem it.

Donniel: You need, you need to claim it. You need to claim it. And today as well, to paraphrase, I believe we all have to start incorporating a little more of Aharon in our souls. 

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman with support from Michal Taylor. It was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silversound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. Maital Freidman is our vice president of communications and creative, and our music was provided by Socalled. 

Major funding for For Heaven’s Sake is provided by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation of Los Angeles because of our shared commitment to strengthen the connection between Jews in North America and Israel. 

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 at We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people discover the show. You can also write to us at, subscribe to our show. Everywhere else podcasts are available. 

See you in two weeks. Thanks for listening. And stay tuned to this ever evolving story of Israel, which is, it’s a beautiful story and a critical story for our time. Yossi, Elana, an honor and a privilege to be with you as always.

Yossi: Thank you.

Elana: Definitely. 

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