At the core of the constant complexity of any society’s identity is its struggle
with the “other.” Whether it is the religious other, the stranger, the
immigrant, the differently colored or sexually oriented from whatever “norm,”
these struggles ultimately define its morality.
If one should judge a
society based on how it treats its most vulnerable then the core moral message
of the Bible – to care for and protect the most vulnerable especially – should
make for a moral society. It recurs like a chorus of ethics throughout the
Torah: Protect and care for the widow, the orphan, the poor person and the
stranger. In the text (see Deuteronomy 26:12 for example) it is clear that
whether we ourselves are in a period of feast or famine, we are to help feed and
protect these vulnerable souls. In caring for them we ultimately are also
defining ourselves because how we treat them defines our collective
Given the multiple kinds of “others” within Israel, how they
are treated is a good gauge of the extent to which the ideals set out for us in
Deuteronomy are being upheld. How might we now judge ourselves and our society
today? This Hanukka week, when we retell our own struggles as minorities denied
basic rights, we ought to be especially mindful of the impact of such denial on
the development of a people.
Given all the ways that we Jews have been
strangers and oppressed and denied religious freedom in our long history it is
no wonder that our tradition stresses that we should maintain an undeniable
moral sensitivity to the suffering of the other. As we light and sing and eat,
we celebrate our survival of the darkest times, and celebrate our return to
sovereignty. We should also be mindful of what we are meant to do with our
remarkable survival and unprecedented success: ensure the rights and freedoms
and survival of others who are vulnerable.
The creation and modern
development of Judaism also struggled with these tensions especially as
Deuteronomy laid out the framework for an ideal society in the Land of Israel.
Israel as a modern nation state, a sovereign society made up of Jews of
differing cultural backgrounds and religious commitments from across the globe
has tested the still relatively young democratic State’s understanding of itself
also – or primarily – as a Jewish State. Whether or not Israeli women or
non-orthodox Jews have equal access to public sites or to state funding is a
complex matter but we’ve gotten lots of attention from Jewish all over the world
since last Hanukka.
Yet our suffering from our “minority” status can
hardly be called suffering in comparison to how the fully “other others”
I keep hearing my young children singing Hanukka songs about
light and darkness, about heroism and hope in times of darkness. We can’t help
but question what we are really doing today with all our “light”, our gelt, our
religious freedom and our unprecedented political, economic and military power.
Are we using it to protect the vulnerable? Are we mindful of the needs of the
strangers suffering in our midst? Are we sure we have done what we could to
prevent and remedy the disastrous situations now taking place for Israeli
Bedouin? For the asylum-seeking immigrant? For the orphan, the widow and the
poor? Conflicting values and Zionist methodologies are particularly apparent in
the current plans for the Bedouin of the Negev desert. While much needs to be
done, current government plans and discussions seem to fail to recognize how
other possibilities might preserve their historical connections to parts of the
Negev, affirmed in early Zionist documents. But what lies at the core of the
conflict is the dilemma of otherness of the Bedouin, and the failure of the
larger society to live up to its moral mandate.
Despite the endless best
efforts of many forms of democratic policies, social justice organizations, and
aid programs, there remain several populations in particular whose otherness
remains a constant and enormous challenge to Israel’s goals of being an
enlightened democracy. How these challenges are addressed in the coming decade
will ultimately define Israel’s moral character for the foreseeable
What we do now will determine whether and how this period of
Israeli history will be worth celebrating.
The writer is a rabbi and holds a
PhD. She is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. Her
column appears monthly.