This year marks the 75th anniversary of the epic film Gone With the Wind.
The grand, sweeping drama revolves around the spoiled daughter of a wealthy Southern plantation owner – played by Vivien Leigh – and her dashing beau Captain Rhett Butler, played out against the backdrop of the American Civil War. It captivated audiences worldwide and won numerous awards, including Oscars for best picture, best director, best actress and best supporting actress (which went to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American ever to win an Academy Award).
The film, the most successful in box-office history, is based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller published three years earlier.
Gone With the Wind – the only book Mitchell ever wrote – is considered to be the second-favorite book by American readers, just behind the Bible, and has to date sold 30 million copies. The movie has been seen by hundreds of millions of people, graphically bringing home the trauma and tragedy of the War Between Brothers, the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States.
Throughout the film, Scarlett faces numerous personal crises, including disease, failed romances and the loss of Tara, her plantation. But rather than deal with them frontally and directly, she prefers to procrastinate, deflect the problems and put them off ad infinitum. “I’ll think about that tomorrow” is her constant mantra.
It seems to me that Israel, all too often, suffers from “Scarlett O’Hara syndrome.” Rather than follow the famous advice of Ethics of the Fathers – “Who is wise? He who sees that which is yet to be born” – we rush willy-nilly, without a great deal of forethought, into the most complex of situations, allowing the problems that result from them to fester and ferment, only beginning to react when we have already entered panic mode.
Take, for example, the burgeoning conversion crisis. We knew full well, when we opened the gates to immigration from the former Soviet Union, that a large percentage of these olim – anywhere from 20 percent to 30%, depending on whose figures you accept – were not halachically Jewish. But in our understandable rush to absorb our Russian brethren – who were the last, greatest reservoir of Diaspora Jews willing to join the state – we downplayed, if not outright ignored, the demographic time bomb that lurked within. We chose to close our eyes and open our borders because we knew that whole families would simply not come here unless they could also take their non-Jewish family member(s) along with them.
But we were only delaying the inevitable crisis.
Now, as this population has become firmly embedded within our body politic, we face two decidedly imperfect options: Either we ignore the halachic criteria, and allow the non-Jewish Israelis to marry into the Jewish community, or we assign them “spiritual second-class citizenship,” carefully screening our sons’ and daughters’ suitors so as to protect our “Jewish pedigree.”
What should have happened is that we should have been well-prepared for all this. For years, we fought hard to force Russia to lift the Iron Curtain, sincerely believing that our efforts would succeed and that these compatriots of ours would ultimately “come home.” We should have organized, right from the get-go, committees of tolerant, enthusiastic Orthodox rabbis – of the Tzohar or Beit Hillel type – who would have taken the “new recruits” under their wing and guided them slowly but surely into the fold. Utilizing a more lenient halachic approach, rather than taking the strictest line possible, we could have bestowed a proper conversion upon thousands of these people.
Instead, we abdicated our responsibility and meekly passed the problem along to the rabbinic establishment, which – wonder of wonders! – dug in its heels and did nothing.
Then there is the current battle over universal conscription. In the early days of the state, there were no more than several hundred yeshiva students who sought, and were granted, an exemption from military service. That was the right time to lay down the law and make concrete a policy that would have equalized the commitment of every sector and instilled in every citizen a sense of attachment to his or her country. We should have insisted that every able-bodied man and woman devote a segment of their lives to either army or national service; if they refused, they would be denied the privileges of state, including the right to vote and monthly stipends for their children.
We could have created a network of appropriate service for even the most observant of young people, who could have administered the synagogues on army bases, supervised the kashrut and prepared Shabbat and holiday meals and activities, or even taught courses on Jewish philosophy. Indeed, no less a figure than the late Grand Rebbe of Gur – a hassidic leader far ahead of his time – appealed to the yeshiva world to break down the wall of separation and allow yeshiva students to do their fair share in “giving back” to the nation.
If they did not, he warned presciently, they would eventually provoke major animosity and resentment from the general public, resulting in a terrible hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name.
Tragically, the rebbe’s plea was rejected, the number of yeshiva exemptions grew exponentially, and the problem was left to simmer and boil. Now, the polarization and hatred it has created has divided our nation and been laid bare for all to see.
And let us not forget the aguna situation. Here, too, the numbers widely vary as to just how many women are “chained” to their former husbands, unable to receive a get and begin to live full and free lives again. But the numbers are not really the issue; every woman who cannot get justice suffers immeasurable anguish and injury, and must be rescued from her plight.
And here, too, a solution was within our grasp.
While Jewish law prevents the courts from forcing a man to divorce his wife, we could have made his recalcitrance awfully painful. We could have legislated that just as all brides are required to immerse in a mikve prior to the wedding, so all marriages conducted by the Chief Rabbinate be accompanied by a prenuptial device. This would have required get-refusing husbands to continue to pay their wives’ expenses, including rent, food, clothing and utilities, until they underwent a religious divorce.
In the US, where I served as rabbi for many years, I insisted on such a document, which was approved and promoted by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. While it did not completely prevent agunot, it reduced their numbers significantly. At the very least, it provided civilly divorced women with an ongoing income and a modicum of self-respect.
But again, we fell flat and did nothing.
The good news is that the solutions to each of these crises are still absolutely available. The government – which for the first time in many years is not being held hostage by Shas and the haredi parties – seems finally determined to dismantle the ultra-Orthodox “state within a state” and integrate the yeshiva students, hopefully to be followed by the Israeli-Arab community, into the workforce and national service. Grassroots organizations such as Beit Hillel are steadily pushing the envelope on a “kinder, gentler” approach to halachic conversion. And Tzohar, feeling the pressure from below, recently declared that from now on, its rabbis will be required to employ a prenup at weddings at which they officiate. As get-advocate Rachel Levmore, who has helped pioneer the “mutual respect” agreement between couples in Israel predicts, “Little by little, the people will compel the establishment to finally take action.”
Yaakov Kirschen of Dry Bones fame once wryly observed that “Israel never really solves any of its problems; it just finds new and different problems that make us forget the old ones!” But the downside to continually shoving our problems under the rug is that eventually, the piles get so big we end up tripping on them, and we fall.
Far better that we make a determined, proactive effort to solve our most pressing issues, as early as possible, rather than hoping that we will just wake up one day and find they are, well, gone with the wind. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rabbistewartweiss.com.