Reanchoring Judaism

Writer Bonna Haberman explores what it means for the Jewish people to be in its own home.

Writer Bonna Haberman explores what it means for the Jewish people to be in its own home (photo credit: BAZ RATNER,REUTERS)
Writer Bonna Haberman explores what it means for the Jewish people to be in its own home
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER,REUTERS)
 AFTER HAVING her book “Rereading Israel” receive the US National Jewish Book Award for 2012, and recently publishing another book, “Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink,” on the history and goals of the Women at the Wall, writer and social activist Bonna Haberman could be excused for wanting to take a break from the onerous chore of writing and demonstrating.
But the thought never enters her mind.
When The Jerusalem Report caught up with her in her Jerusalem home, she reflected on the way her life has veered between theory and practice.
“‘Rereading Israel,’” Haberman, who earned her doctorate in Ethics and Education at the University of London, recalls, “began as an academic paper, which I delivered at a conference in Boston. “It marked a major step for me, in that I was criticizing one of my own heroes, Avraham Heschel, who taught that Judaism was essentially a way of life that sanctified time. I began to understand that Heschel’s concept – as much as I admired it – was primarily Diaspora thinking. I began to think of holiness in space, where Israel was the spatial embodiment of the Jewish people.”
“In the book, I attempt to open the unfolding of the Jewish textual tradition with Israel in mind. What does it mean for the Jewish people to be in its own home? What implications does this fact have for aesthetics and the economy, law, social values and democracy? What should be the form of the institutions of government? Is the Jewish tradition rich enough in inspiring texts, from the Bible onwards, to offer answers? “The rabbinic tradition has always been able to make texts relevant. The ancient sages, for example, use marriage and divorce as a metaphor for the relationship of the Holy One, the people and the land. So much of the way we interpret our love affair with the land and with God are by means of this very evocative relationship; the land becomes the medium for the fulfillment of it. It’s not coincidental that the longest aggadic passage in the Talmud, concerning the reason why the Temple was destroyed, appears in the book of Gittin on the laws of divorce. It is the divorce that the sages were experiencing by living in exile in Babylon.”
When she turns to contemporary concerns Haberman’s analysis is no less pointed, although it, too, is rooted in tradition. “There is the kind of leadership which we get from Moses from the exodus to the border of Israel. This is different from the leadership that accompanies entering the land with Joshua.
“Now, in the current state of Israel, we, too, need a different leadership model and organization. The whole infrastructure of society needs to change. When we were in the desert wandering, we were completely dependent and we had no responsibility; we had divine revelation. Entering the land was different. A change had to take place. We are in a similar situation today.”
But how does Haberman envisage changing these models? Was it possible to shift from one to the other without losing much that was authentic? In a world where cynicism often replaces hope, where postmodern man understands that there are no moral imperatives, where philosophy’s aspirations to ground human goodness had basically crumbled, what is one to do? One response has been fundamentalism – a desire for some anchor or root that doesn’t rely on modern intellectual liberal western values.
“The question I asked myself was how does Judaism propose to reanchor itself? How can we go forward with confidence and commitment, and simultaneously be open-minded? In my mind Judaism has a response – that is, if we don’t continue going around in circles. I believe that feminism is moving rabbinic Judaism forward by taking very profound ethical questions and applying them to our source.”
HABERMAN IS not worried just about Jews. She sees that her tradition has to be in continual dialogue with others. “What is our relationship with the other? I am trying to find a standard by which other cultures and nations can also evaluate and look at their own values and standards, and draw from their deep cultural resources to improve the quality of their society.
“In a sense, all of the issues that Israel is facing intensely make it a microcosm of the major issues that Western societies are facing.
Europe, for example, is similarly involved with very challenging relationships with Islam, but is not doing very well in finding a solution. I’ve been involved in discussions in Europe with the problem of how we deal with large populations that dissent from the foundations of our civil society.
“Israel is geographically at the nexus of what we’re facing in the Muslim world, both on the inside and around us. In ‘Rereading Israel’ I try to open the door for Zionism to address those major areas and to find profound inspiration in the process.”
How do you think that this could be achieved? “A lot of people outside don’t understand the tremendous diversity of Jewry. In Israel there’s a great opportunity to come to a very fruitful process of creativity. In the first paragraph of Genesis – it speaks of lehavdil – to distinguish – not as a negative force. It’s the opposite; differentiation generates the massive and powerful tension of creativity.
In examining the history of humanity we tend to focus on the question of identity, which has generated enmity and war.
“One of the novelties of the post-modern world is that difference is a value in and of itself. If we welcome difference – and obviously this takes a lot of work – we will feel confident and secure enough about ourselves to meet with the other. This is something that most Jewish communities have not achieved. In the book I try to focus on the creative dispute, where the outcome is a constant turning and reviewing ourselves and improving our society. It’s rabbinic tradition in practice.”
But what happens when the rabbis have taken the tradition over to the extreme right? Can people relate to it? “In the book, I address the urgent issue of the separation of Judaism and ethics, which has happened very recently in our tradition.
Up until the modern period, I don’t know of any rabbinic authority who assumed that the halakhic decision wouldn’t be ethical. I argue that Judaism, ethics and Zionism need to come together in one confluence. If we abandon ethics – which unfortunately many teachers of rabbinic Judaism do – then we are gravely in danger of losing our claim of integrity. That is what the world is saying to us. Of course, every cultural and religious tradition needs to be scrupulous in making sure that its ethics are at the forefront of its choices of its decisions.
“It’s no novelty to say that political decisions are very rarely based on ethical or altruistic values. I really do believe that Israel is a beacon in taking ethical considerations into account on every level. Having looked at the ethical standards of behavior and the norms that the IDF follows compared with any other culture, Israel has set the highest standard and is still in the lead compared to any other army.
“The American army, to take one example, is way behind in what it considers acceptable in term of collateral damage. Recently, there was a report of an American soldier who witnessed what the Americans were doing in Bangladesh. It was, said the soldier, tantamount to genocide. What happened? They gave the soldier his marching orders.”
In the book, Haberman cites an Israeli student’s PhD thesis, which claimed that Israeli soldiers did not rape Arab women because of feelings of superiority towards them. The student was awarded her doctorate.
“I put this episode in purposely to show those people whose ideology is blinding them and that this reflects negatively on how they see Israel. The anti-Zionism that has become so dominant in the world began in Israel’s academic departments. We fed it to the Diaspora and to Europe. We gave the world the opportunity of being critical about us.”
Ultimately, Haberman is cautiously optimistic. “I feel that people are really yearning. It’s not a happy life to be cynical, because it alienates us from each other. It betrays something about us – our inability to relate to each other in a meaningful way. How can we relate to each other if we’re cynical? “My book tries to inspire in people a love of Israel, through feeling and connection.
There are difficulties and challenges, and I’m calling on people to stick it out. Here we are, present with each other. We’re all here together at a unique moment in history, let’s fulfill it.”