ruth calderon 521.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For her freshman Knesset speech, Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon ascended the podium
with a Talmud, declaring: “I am convinced that studying the great works of
Hebrew and Jewish culture are crucial to construct a new Hebrew culture for
Israel.... Nobody took the Talmud and rabbinic literature from us. We gave it
away, with our own hands, when it seemed that another task was more important
and urgent: building a state, raising an army, developing agriculture and
industry, etc. The time has come to reappropriate what is ours.”
Devora Haberman’s Rereading Israel, a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist
in the United States, presciently issued the same call.
Zionist narrative of modern Western nation-statehood repressed Jewish sources,”
she states in the first chapter. “This book addresses the convergence of Jewish
text with Jewish life at the meeting-point between the Jewish People and our
historic homeland.... Rereading Israel opens texts to the current page of Jewish
life, inviting readers from all traditions to participate in exploring an
extraordinary human endeavor.”
Canadian by birth, Haberman has solid
credentials. She taught at the Hebrew University, Harvard University and
Brandeis University, where she founded and directed the Mistabra Institute for
Textual Activism. Now living in Jerusalem, she was a founding member of the
Women of the Wall movement, which advocates for religious pluralism.
book takes note of the renaissance in Jewish learning “[f]ar beyond the orbit of
the religious faithful” – a phenomenon for which Calderon can take partial
credit – and opens a textually based conversation about Israel’s future to
anyone wishing to join.
For the most part, the author avoids steering
this conversation to any conclusions.
Instead she offers starting points.
The chapters focus on texts dealing with the concepts of Israel as home, Israel
as garden, Israel as sacred.
One chapter compares, in depth, modern
Zionism with the Maccabean revolt: “Both Maccabees and Zionists alike call upon
us to find and test the meaning of our lives beyond our own personal interest,
and to accept responsibility for the flourishing of Jews and Judaism now and in
the generations to come.”
One of the strongest chapters of the book
examines the mind-body connection with the land that the texts seem to set out
as an ideal.
“The relationship between the obligations of work, study,
and national service are pressing issues for Israeli society,” she writes, with
no small amount of understatement.
Whereas manual labor was the hallmark
of early pioneers, today’s average Israeli – whether sitting in a Tel Aviv
start-up or a Jerusalem kollel
– has pulled the pendulum to the opposite pole.
Haberman reminds us that “one of the driving purposes of Zionism [is to] better
integrate the dualism of Jewish mind and body on a personal and national
She carries this theme through to the chapter on “home-building,”
noting that the Tabernacle “combines diverse human endeavors and encourages
participation without separating manual from mental work.” An innovative table
included in this chapter outlines parallels among the human body, the Tabernacle
and creation – for example, the ribs, spine and limbs of the body = wooden beams
and boards = mountains and trees.
The demise of the Temple, she
continues, replaced manual service with words, and the blood, incense, anointing
oil, music and priestly garments with prayer and study. In Israel, she argues,
“Jewish mind, spirit, and body can live at home together” despite the reality
that the “idealism of the connection between labor and spirit has all but faded
Though the book is infused with pride in Israel’s
accomplishments and offers reasoned rejoinders to anti-Israel rhetoric, it
employs the worn tropes of “the occupation” and “the religious settlement
movement” without analyzing how these terms may be applied unfairly and
inaccurately. Haberman implies that religious settlers expropriated the garden
ideal, and yet correctly points to exciting new concepts of pioneering and
settlement taking root among non-religious Zionists in the Negev and
In suggesting future directions, she reveals a relationship
between ambivalence toward the Jewish homeland and ambivalence toward Jewish
texts that may be difficult to resolve.
“While some passages in the Torah
and Talmud are gratifying, others chafe against our contemporary sensibilities,”
she writes. In particular, she appears troubled by the foundational idea of
“How will the Jewish People subdue our ethnocentrism, while
honoring our uniqueness?” she asks, asserting that many are uncomfortable with
the “tone of superiority” in Isaiah’s “light unto the nations”
It remains to be seen whether Rereading Israel
as a compass pointing native English-speakers to a more successful, more
text-inspired Zionism even as Calderon attempts to do the same for native
“This is an historic moment for our generation to step
forward with desire for Zion aroused,” the author concludes. If her book
can provide a bit of fuel for igniting such a desire, it is worth the read.