An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am sitting down to write this article in the middle of the night, having just returned from the slihot prayers, which we recite ahead of each new Jewish year and until Yom Kippur.
As I returned home from the prayers, I was inspired to start thinking about what challenges lie ahead both personally and for our nation.
I am both shaken and hopeful. I remain shaken by a comment that has stayed with me for decades. It was a former colleague who once said to me: “David, we can never really be friends, because your ultimate goal is to make me religious.”
What gives me hope, however, is that I believe that the modern State of Israel is gradually proving her argument to be wrong.
On the one hand, Israel remains a polarized society in so many ways. But as we prepare to usher in the new year, this young state of ours is showing maturity in ways which we sometimes overlook. Some would prefer to overlook it because they prefer that it would not happen. Others overlook it because they are too preoccupied with the problems to notice the positive developments.
We are grappling with many problems. We sharply disagree. But we are talking more than ever before. Already, I am sure some are calling me naïve. Others will label me as trying obsessively to be seen as politically correct.
Whatever you might call me, I believe that Israeli society is learning to talk: talk and disagree, but talk nonetheless with a growing sense of mutual respect. It has not yet taken the country by storm, it may not be prevalent, but it’s happening.
Is a member of the Jerusalem City Council who says that he observes Shabbat in an Orthodox manner betraying the religion, if he also says that he is torn about how to resolve the problems involved in how the Jewish Sabbath should look in the Holy City? The sensitivities of the Orthodox must be taken into account, he says, but what about secular Israelis, non-Jews and tourists? Is a solution possible? Should the Jewish state be condoning what a large number of Jews would call a desecration of the Sabbath? These are excellent questions. But if the sides are talking in a mutually respectful way, many might very well argue that it’s a positive development.
Are some prominent Orthodox rabbis betraying the religion if they propose that people who have come to live in Israel, but perhaps only their father is Jewish, be allowed to convert to Judaism even if they do not accept upon themselves the full “yoke of mitzvot?” Is it all right that these rabbis suggest instead that such converts commit to a “secular style of the Jewish religion,” taking upon themselves the tradition, taking into account that many of these people already consider themselves Jews in every way, including serving in the IDF? Is religious secularism a contradiction in terms? Or is it a solution that aims to ensure the unity of the Jewish people? These types of debates, despite the still widespread fierce opposition, are becoming more accepted.
Rabbis, including a chief rabbi, addressing a demonstration that condemns the murder of a participant in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade does not mean that these rabbis suddenly believe that the Torah speaks in favor of homosexual behavior. It means, one hopes, that all rabbis condemn violence, and that some, perhaps many, rabbis embrace all sectors of the population, and want to talk to them and hear from them.
In the same way, the religious Jerusalem City Council member is not saying that he is in favor of Sabbath desecration, nor are Orthodox rabbis speaking on the conversion issue saying that they believe that a secular or otherwise non-Orthodox lifestyle is the correct way to observe the Jewish religion.
Orthodox Jews need not be apologetic about the religion. Their vision is of a beautiful religion that believes in a pure lifestyle that adheres to strict rules in order to lead to the full redemption. Too many people are embarrassed to say that there is a Jewish vision to build a Third Temple, because it sounds politically incorrect at best, and violent at worst, in a world that largely does not understand, or does not want to understand.
But this vision does not mean dividing us. I have been told by various friends and colleagues in the religious community that God’s Judaism is not a touchy-feely theology, and that instead Judaism demands an uncompromising approach to basic tenets in order to be observed properly. On a personal level, I agree with much of that statement, and each year, I try to meet higher standards. On the other hand, many rabbis equally committed to the religion have said that the ultimate redemption will come from unity among the Jews, and from the Jewish people spreading the word that we are in fact “a light onto the nations.”
This does not mean being so open-minded that our brains fall out, as the expression goes, but it means a realization that the redemption is not just for you and your neighbor, but for all the Jewish people, and that the State of Israel is the primary place where this latest dramatic stage of Jewish history is being played out.
The modern State of Israel is still trying to find its way. Debating is good. Respecting is imperative.
May this new Jewish year bring us closer to unity, peace and the ultimate redemption.