Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. At times I worry whether enough is being done to maintain her democratic character, and at times I worry about whether or not we are preserving her Jewish soul. At the moment, it is the Jewish side of the equation that troubles me. This concern was brought on by two brief items in the Israeli press.
ITEM ONE: A few weeks ago, a competition was held for eighth grade students in the Israeli school system on Pirkei Avot (The Chapters of the Fathers), the ethical/legal tract from the Talmud that is studied throughout the Jewish world in the period prior to Shavuot. Students were asked questions about the text and rabbinic commentaries on the text, and the three winners – all girls – impressed those present, including Education Minister Gideon Saar, with their mastery of the material. At the end of the ceremony, Saar praised the students for “swimming in the ocean” of rabbinic wisdom, morality, and values, and expressed the view that if all Israeli children were to study Pirkei Avot, Israel would be a more enlightened country and also a less violent one. The competition came immediately after some terrible acts of violence had shaken the country, including a vicious murder by some young boys.
As reported by Sivan Rahav-Meir, writing in the Hebrew edition of Yediot Aharonot on May 11, two Knesset members, Ilan Gilon and Dov Khenin, rushed to condemn Saar for his “unfortunate utterance,” a view seconded by others on various websites. My question: Whatever one’s level of religious observance or belief, shouldn’t it be self-evident that serious study of Jewish texts might, just might, offer an alternative to the culture of violence to which some of Israel’s youth have been drawn? Text study is not the only answer, but surely it is part of the answer, and why in heaven’s name would such study be objectionable to members of Israel’s Parliament?
ITEM TWO: Israel’s army has decided to recommend that a text used at Memorial Day services for fallen soldiers should say “May the nation of Israel remember” rather than “May God remember.” The decision to omit the word “God” was made by a committee appointed by the Chief of Staff and must now be approved by Defense Minister Barak.
The text, originally written by a Labor Zionist leader, was amended to include “God” after the Six-Day War, but a controversy erupted last year when a bereaved mother who is secular objected. The issue was extensively debated a year ago, but for now I will simply say that as reluctant as I am to question any bereaved parent, the fact is that the reference to God seemed not to offend anyone for over thirty years. And it is worth noting that in the United States, with its strong tradition of church-state separation, references to God in public ceremonies and documents have been judged acceptable by the courts because of their “ceremonial nature.” Surely at a service of remembrance for fallen soldiers in the Jewish state a reference to God is not only acceptable but, indeed, appropriate and desirable.
I am committed to religious freedom in Israel and to civil and human rights for all her citizens; and I am deeply distressed by the coercive nature of Israel’s religious bureaucracy. Nonetheless, while these problems are being addressed, Israel cannot cease to be what it was created to be: a state intended to promote the religion, civilization, and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant majority. The Jewish state is to be the one place in the world where the national anthem is Jewish, where Jewish holidays provide the rhythm of the calendar, and where Jews openly apply Jewish values to every aspect of life. In such a state, it seems to me, the study of Jewish texts is encouraged and one does not hesitate to mention God on public occasions.