(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Pluralism in Israel has always been a challenge.
From its inception, with the turbulent drafting of the first (and so far the only) canonical text of the nascent state – the Declaration of Independence in 1948 – Israel has always struggled to balance opposing views and contain multiplicity of voices.
Hanukka this year (December 21, 2014) marked the launch of a new initiative, which many hoped would become a new paradigm for pluralism in Israel.
“929: Tanach Together,” referring to the number of chapters in the Tanach, is aimed at establishing the practice of reading one chapter of scripture every day (modeled after the “Daf Yomi” practice of reading a page of Gemara every day), making Tanach an integral, fundamental part of the daily lives of all Israelis. The initiative’s website was intended to provide a platform for sharing biblical interpretations, commentary and creativity from across the spectrum of Jewish thought, with Rabbi Benny Lau at the helm.
It was a nice idea. Commentators include politicians from the Right and the Left, rabbis from the settler movement and from the reform movement, educators who affiliate Orthodox, liberal, traditional, secular and everything in between. Musicians, IDF officers, you name it. Pluralism at its finest. It only took nine chapters for the project to run into trouble.
Ari Elon, one of the most prominent, influential and well-respected scholars in the world of secular Jewish thought was invited to participate in the project and write his daily commentary on the daily chapter. Elon is known for his provocative and audacious commentary on the Torah and the Talmud, challenging the concept of God with linguistic acrobatics and unconventional associations (author of Alma Di: From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven). Only nine chapters into 929 and Ari was already disinvited. “Cool it,” he was told by Lau, “your secular approach is insulting and angering some of the Orthodox rabbis” (paraphrased from Ari’s Facebook page).
The controversial commentary which got Elon in trouble relates to Genesis 9 verses 5-6: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.” A moral decree, needless to say, given on the heels of the great flood, which destroyed the vast majority of the creatures of the world. Ari dared to point out that God himself doesn’t follow his own edict. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. What does God have to say in defense of his own actions, Ari asks. In a clever play on the words of the scripture, Ari poses the ultimate heretical question: “What kind of man creates such a God in his own image?” The result of Elon’s participation in 929 has been the birth of a Glatt-Kosher version of the initiative.
Heaven forbid the Orthodox be exposed to such sacrilege. The result of Elon’s expulsion is the deep disappointment of all of us who truly believe in Jewish pluralism and its importance in the formation of the character of the Jewish nation. I, too, am often personally offended – either as a woman, a liberal or an ignostic (i.e. one who does not know what others mean by employing the term God) – by the Torah commentary of many Orthodox men, but I do not deny their right to voice their opinion or the legitimacy of dissent. If we can’t learn and teach Torah together in a virtual space (eliminating such obstacles such as men and women in the same room), how can we hold together the future of this young endeavor called the Jewish-democratic state? My colleagues and I from BINA – the movement for Jewish Social Change – who work diligently to strengthen Jewish pluralism in Israel, are disappointed.
We were rooting for this initiative to succeed. We all hoped that a modern, respectable and respected Orthodox rabbi, such as Benny Lau, would be able to convene a diverse representation of all sectors of Jewish-Israeli society in an inclusive cyberspace. We all recognize that pluralism has its boundaries, but if Elon is out of bounds, I am afraid this game is foul play.
The problem is not that there are rules to the game, it is about who holds the key to the stadium. The initiative, funded by the Education Ministry, purported to be pluralistic, is shown to be just another example of the Orthodox hegemony, which continues to control who plays and who doesn’t, what is legitimate Torah and who is expelled from the Garden of 929.
The author is a teacher and Deputy Director of BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture.