Spiritual sparring

A 40-year-old correspondence between a high-school kibbutznik and a hesder soldier reflecting on the religious-secular divide still resonates

Dov during army service at Ras Sudr521 (photo credit: Courtesy Gefen Publishing)
Dov during army service at Ras Sudr521
(photo credit: Courtesy Gefen Publishing)
‘All I Have to Do is Dream” was the title of a song we grew up with in the ’50s, after two major wars. Dreams motivated the development of the computer and the landing of man on the moon, among other great strides.
The dreams of that era paralleled the dreams of the early ’70s here in Israel.
They are captured in the interaction of two people, through the mail, in Letters to Talia.
This book of perceptive letters written back and forth by two young Israelis, one in a hesder yeshiva and one a highschool kibbutznik, is an important read as we deal with our nation’s spiritual, material and security problems.
I was taught long ago that a human being has many facets, but that what we should never forget is the spiritual element that Judaism defines in its own special manner.
There is a partition in Israeli life between the secular and the religious, which sadly grows wider every day. The correspondence between Talia and Dov reaches out across the divide, showing the hopes and dreams of two youths for this nation.
What is so moving is that this soldier, described as a “bookworm” by Talia’s father, can so readily share insights into Judaism while at the same time seeing the worldly beauty that surrounds him.
In one letter, Dov describes a scubadriving trip with his army unit when they are off duty on a beach near Sharm e-Sheikh. Initially they see the usual coral and fish while snorkeling in the water. Then Dov’s friend signals for him to swim to where he is. Dov experiences, as he says, the shock of his life there hidden under the water.
“Beneath me was a cliff going hundreds of meters down. The whole cliff was made of coral in a rainbow of colors, such as I had never seen in my life.
All the colors I could imagine were there... The sight was really amazing – as though you had been placed in an imaginary world of infinite colors in constant motion.”
In this passage, Dov, who died in the Yom Kippur War, describes to Talia what a beautiful world God has blessed us with. How magnificent it is that we can see and feel this facet of the universe.
The correspondence began when Talia, a high-school student on a kibbutz, wanted to know more about Judaism after attending a seminar through Gesher, which provides opportunities for religious and secular high school students to meet. “Everything we know about religious people comes from newspapers and the radio,” she said. Her father suggested she correspond with a student in hesder, which combines yeshiva study with military service, whom he had met during reserve duty.
The years 1972 and 1973 seem to fly by as we read letter after letter, each rich with expressions that resonate with spirit. These letters are symbolic of an entire generation of Israelis who are now in their 60s.
Where are we? Who are we? What are we? Talia’s and Dov’s answers enlighten us whether we agree with them or not.
The main issue they return to is the deep division between those who are religious and those who are not. When Talia is angered by the “primitive separation [of the sexes]... in the age of equality of women,” Dov provides a long explanation of why this is an “essential part of Jewish culture.” It is more than just religious law.
“I think a society interested in preserving the stability of the family must preserve fences regarding male-female relations outside the family unit,” he writes. “In Jewish tradition this network of limitations is called ‘tzniut’ – modesty.” For Dov, the cultural and societal aspect is important in many of the topics he discusses with Talia.
Dov writes with deep feeling. “Talia, think about what an amazing thing is happening before our eyes,” he writes.
“No nation exiled from its land thousands of years ago has maintained its identity and survived.... Yet tiny Israel, which was exiled thousands of years ago and dispersed to the four corners of the earth, lives and endures!” He proceeds to list what the Jewish people have managed to preserve.
“After thousands of years we were privileged to return that homeland... and make the desert bloom.”
He emphasizes that “this whole process” is “described in an exceedingly detailed manner in the Bible.”
In Talia’s reply, she recalls how a group from her school visited Sde Boker and met with David Ben-Gurion.
“I remember that at the end of his talk he repeated several times (each time raising his voice even more) that without the Bible, our country cannot endure.”
In Talia’s mind Dov goes a little too far, though. “I was also very insulted by your declarations that without faith in God there are no values and no morality.” She has to defend where she lives. “What? In our kibbutz there are no values? Look how people on our kibbutz forgo the good salaries they could be earning if they lived in the cities.”
We can visualize her dream when she points out that on the kibbutz there is “quality of life... and the values of cooperation.”
As you read this book, you will better understand what Israel was like 40 years ago. The wonder of these letters is that while they deal with religious issues, they also reflect society as it was then. The discussion between Talia and Dov is so civil that we are reminded that such a dialogue can exist and the tear in Jewish life can in fact be rewoven.
Perhaps it will be young people like these two who will lead us forward to a brighter future so that we can be a light unto the nations. ■