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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Saving Israel

Elder of Ziyon reviews a book that I'd love to read, Daniel Gordis' Saving Israel.
So what does Gordis suggest? He wants the very definition of what it means to be Jewish to change. He wants Israel to become a central part of diaspora Judaism and he wants Judaism to become the central part of Israeli life. He is equally upset at how Israeli schools ignore all Jewish history between the Bible and the birth of Zionism as he is at how the Chief Rabbinate of Israel ignores the opportunities to lead the entire country in debates about the religion, choosing instead to concentrate only on the religious sector.

Only when Judaism returns as the centerpiece of the Jewish state can Zionists articulate the purpose of Israel. Only a people who know who they are and how they became that way can justify their existence and their self-defense.

Gordis, ordained as a conservative rabbi, couches his suggestions in a pluralistic Jewish way. He doesn't refer to his beliefs in the book and one could argue that Conservative or Masorti Judaism has not exactly inspired masses of Jews in America. Nevertheless, his ideas make sense. Israelis need to become Jewishly literate and there need to be public debates about every difficult issue not (only) from a Western perspective but from the rich Jewish tradition. The divide between the religious Zionist, the haredi and the secular Israelis is too large and the religious have been too insular. Gordis shows that non-religious Israelis seem to want to learn more about Judaism as well but all too often do not have the tools.


Do these suggestions solve the problems that Israel has? Hardly. Gordis' questions are better than his answer. But his ideas are a prerequisite to solving Israel's problems. Israeli Jews need to be confident enough and conversant enough in their own Jewishness to rely on it to inform their decisions. Without that, the Jewish State could, God forbid, turn into just a Hebrew-speaking America that has nothing unique to offer the world and world Jewry.
Elder recounts several incidents from the book that illustrate how little some Israeli Jews know about Judaism. Having worked with Israeli Jews in Israel and with non-Jews in the US, I can confirm every word about how little the Israelis know. I used to get far more intelligent questions about being Jewish from non-Jewish co-workers in New York than from Jewish co-workers in Tel Aviv. And the extent to which some Israelis - Ashkenazim even more than Sephardim - are detached from Judaism is simply beyond belief. Let me give you a small example.

In my very first job after moving to Israel (in which I was urged by co-workers to "go back to America before you get stuck here), I often stayed late. The very first time I stayed late, my co-workers told me that they were ordering dinner, but they were sure I would not order with them. I told them I probably would not order with them, because I assumed from the way they were talking that they were ordering from a non-Kosher place. They said yes, they were ordering basar lavan (white meat). Never having heard that term before to describe the 'other white meat,' I assumed they meant white meat chicken. When they were explicit about what kind of white meat they were ordering, I looked at them in shock. They asked if I was shocked that they would order such a thing. I said that I was not shocked that they would order it, but that it was readily available in Tel Aviv (that was 18 years ago - it's much worse today). The reason I was shocked was that I knew that there is a law in Israel that prohibits raising swine "on the land of Israel." What I did not know is that there are several Kibbutzim that circumvent the law by raising swine on platforms (I kid you not).

The extent of the detachment of many Israeli Jews from Judaism is shocking.

Read the whole thing and read the book if you can.


At 7:05 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I have often wondered what was teh point in resurrecting the Jewish state if the people were to become Hebrew speaking goyim.
If that was the goal , than moving to the US would have been better. I have always been amazaed at how the most reform American Jew is often more culturally Jewish than secular hilonim.
Once again we see how all non-Ortho isms die by the third generation.

At 7:14 PM, Blogger Shtuey said...

I remember having that same sense of shock on my second visit. Finding out that bar and bat mitzvah is not a matter of course in Israel was almost mind numbing.

As a Jew who grew up in the conservative movement I can tell you that it can inspire one to embrace Judaism, though not all do. What I think it fails to do is do what your post illustrates that Gordis proscribes; making Israel the center of Galut.

Conservative synagogues raise thousands of dollars to have roofing and air conditioning fixed, or building new buildings. I can't help but feel that instead of inspiring congregations to renovate their shuls in America, they should be preparing them to build them in Eretz Yisrael.

Where I live now the community is pouring millions of dollars into constructing a community center in an area that also has synagogues, schools, etc. When one is building in exile they are clearly not putting their focus where it should be in these times: Israel.

I have reached a point where my focus is now on coming home. I have some personal obligations here, but as I fulfill them I am moving toward that goal. Rabbis of all denominations should be encouraging their congregations to do the same.

It usually takes a disaster to motivate Jews who live comfortably in Galut to go home. This time around I'd rather it be inspired by an awakening. Here's hoping this book helps do that. Thanks for the tip.

At 9:48 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israeli alienation from Judaism is not good for the Jews and not good for Israel's future. Without faith in G-d and in a distinctive Jewish identity, Israelis will perish just as the northern Israelites succumbed before paganism and passed out of history. It will not be Israel's enemies that will have brought that about. Jews will have done it to themselves. Anti-Semites are not a problem, they are a solution. They make Jews remember who they are. Israel can inspire Jews to come live in it for the sake of preserving the Jewish future. And when that happens, only then will the Jewish State have attained that long elusive sense of security it finds missing from the world today.

The Jewish people in short, are G-d's people and and that has been true for over 3,000 years. As long as they remain to true to it, their saga will continue through time to come and climax in the redemption of the entire world.


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