‘Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist’

"One can be a great lover of Israel and still be critical, that one can be a religiously observant Jew and a feminist."

Debbie Weissman (photo credit: PR)
Debbie Weissman
(photo credit: PR)
In the life of any activist comes the day when the major question that comes to mind is “What will I leave after me?” This is exactly the question that began to bother Dr. Debbie Weissman, a veteran of Interfaith Dialogues and a pillar of the Yedidya congregation in Baka, one of the first Modern Orthodox synagogues where issues on women’s status seem to have been answered mostly positively for the past 20 years.
Weissman’s book Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist summarizes her early years in New York through to her decision to make aliya and become observant, and then her path in the interfaith encounters and dialogues for more than 30 years (mostly with Christians).
Weissman, who recently turned 70, says that the realization that all the stories – “and they are quite interesting” she points out – would disappear with her was the major reason for her decision, some three years ago, to sit down and put on paper not only the stories and the memories but also her understanding and insight of what it means today to be Jewish, observant, a woman and a feminist in Israel.
Weissman was born in New York and settled in Jerusalem in 1972. She has a BA from Barnard College and an MA from New York University, both in sociology, and a PhD in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her main field of academic research is the social history of Jewish women’s education. She is a prize-winning Jewish educator and has had extensive experience in both formal and informal Jewish education, with Israelis and Diaspora youth and adults. For nine years, she was the director of a teacher training institute for Israeli high school teachers. Prior to that, she worked for 12 years at the Hebrew University, primarily in the Melton Center for Jewish Education and the School for Overseas Students. In her work at the Melton Center, she had much contact with staff and board groups from the JCCA. Other affiliations have included the Pardes Institute, the Hartman Institute, the Institute for Training Jewish Youth Leaders from Abroad, and the education branch of the Israel Defense Forces.
In the 1970s, Weissman was one of the founders of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. She has developed a specialization in teaching Christians about Judaism. Weissman was also one of the founders and is an active member of Kehillat Yedidya, which has excellent relations with its Reform and Conservative neighbors and hosts multifaith groups from around the world. She has also been deeply involved in religious feminism and interfaith dialogue, both locally and internationally.
She retired recently as co-chair of the Inter-Religious Coordinating Council in Israel, as well as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews (the first Jewish woman to be elected to that post in the council’s more than 60-year history) but remains deeply involved and active.
Weissman sat down with In Jerusalem and elaborated on the reasons that brought her to write this book and on her vision of the present and future of this country she chose for her life.
You said, ‘I think I’ve been blessed with a rich and very interesting life. I have lived through a very interesting period, not only world history but also Jewish history, and I think I have some messages in this book.’ Can you tell us more about that?
First of all, that one can be a great lover of Israel and still be critical, that one can be a religiously observant Jew and a feminist. One can balance Jewish particularism with a universal approach to human beings. I think these are the messages we don’t hear that often.
Your interest and activism in interfaith encounters indicate that you attach great importance to religion as a means to connect rather than separate. Could it be that religious beliefs are more a solution than a problem?
That is another important message I want to convey, and the cover photo of the book [which shows Weissman shaking hands with Pope Francis] illustrates that, depicting my encounter with the pope, who is a man of dialogue and peace, and he projects a different image of religion in society. He is compassionate, he cares about social justice, and that’s important. I attended a women’s conference in 1998 in Canada, and I met very impressive women from all over the world, from nine different religions, some of which I had never heard of until I met them. And that started me on a path that led to my becoming the first Jewish woman president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
I spent 30 years of my life teaching Christians, being in dialogue with people of many faiths, hosting groups in our synagogue and at my Shabbat table. I think there are other solutions – so far nothing has solved the problems – but maybe a combination of solutions that would include on one level diplomacy on one hand and people-to-people contact on the other. In this region of the world, religion is an important factor, certainly more than in certain parts of Europe. We are not a secular region. People here, even if they don’t practice, are influenced by a culture of tradition, and we have common ground. I think that’s one of the ways to bring peace.
As a veteran of interfaith dialogues with the Christians, how do you see any eventual interfaith encounters between Jews and Muslims, let’s say over the holy sites in Jerusalem, even secular Jews? For example, in the Six Day War, Gen. Motta Gur was so moved by the renewed encounter with the Old City’s holy sites.
It’s different. But unfortunately, many Jews lack an awareness of the Other. They don’t have empathy for the feelings and the emotions and the commitments of other people, sometimes to the same places that we feel committed to. I think that whatever arrangements are made in the future, on the Temple Mount, obviously they’ll have to take into consideration that there are two religious groups in this city that have commitments and emotions and history connected with that place.
Personally as a Jew, I don’t want us to rebuild the Temple. I think that the rabbinic Judaism that developed after the destruction of the Temple is actually preferable – the Judaism of the synagogue and the study, where prayer and the study of texts replaced the Temple sacrifice rituals – so I am not interested in rebuilding the Temple, but I do respect the fact that the Jewish People have a long history of connection to that place, and you can’t ignore it, you can’t deny it.
At the same time, Muslims have a presence there, and Islam, according to Jewish authorities, is a religion of truth, it believes in one God. I think that it can be worked out. I would quote from the late rabbi Menachem Froman, who was a very orthodox Jew who found common language with Muslims. So yes, I think it can be done.
How extensively is nationality a positive tool – or not – to promote interfaith dialogues?
For me, being Jewish is not just a faith or religious identity. Being Jewish is my identity on many levels, and it includes the ethnic and national. A flag (nationality) is a piece of cloth, but it is a symbol, so I can’t make that separation between religion and nationality. I would say that in inter-religion dialogue, you focus on specific aspects that we share in common; for example, theology, prayer, ritual, text interpretation, religious leadership.
From your considerable experience in interfaith dialogues, would you say that it is easier, generally speaking, to dialogue between believers? Is, after all, religion a better tool to dialogue than a secular encounter?
There certainly are kinds of religions from among all the faiths that promote a kind of extremism, maybe even violence, but I think one of the themes that religion can promote is a sense of humility.
Usually, it is vis-à-vis God, but it is also vis-à-vis other human beings. If we believe that all human beings are created in God’s image, so if religion can help people become more humble, more compassionate, I think that all the major faiths have that in them as a potential, and each has to do the work for their own religion, to try to retrieve and rediscover these elements. They are all there.
What is your position on the Jewish renaissance we are witnessing now?
I’ve been involved in this from the days of my aliya. It has grown a lot. Just look at the Tikun Leil Shavuot [night of learning on the holiday, which now appeals to people all over the religious spectrum]. I am so glad about it. Yes, I am optimistic. It’s part of our coming back to the Land of Israel, speaking Hebrew and people influencing each other.