Book review: Fighting the good fight

Weissman is sensitive to both groups, emphasizing that tikkun olam is a continuous undertaking. We are grateful to her for sharing her stories.

Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist (A Life of Activism through Dialogue) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist (A Life of Activism through Dialogue)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At this time of yet another election, with hatred being peddled wholesale in the marketplace, Debbie Weissman’s Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist is a much needed antidote.
One cannot help being pessimistic about peace in the Middle East. One cannot but feel despair about the rise of antisemitism and hatred of the “other” around the world. But more than ever, one cannot afford to lose hope. This down-to-earth memoir is, in many ways, a handbook for dispelling despair. Although published two years ago, it is particularly relevant today.
Debbie Weissman is a woman who has stood up for justice as a woman and a Jew, and these became touchstones of empathy for all human rights causes. She has frequently been involved in dialogues between Palestinian and Israeli women, and describes emotion-laden experiences of women singing songs from both traditions at a Shabbat table.
“Evenings such as this one, have helped to sustain my belief that we could achieve some kind of peaceful existence,” writes Weissman. “It has also been my experience that women on two sides of a conflict often find it easier to dialogue than do their male counterparts.”
Before the concept of Orthodox women rabbis emerged, Weissman was the virtual rabbi of Kehilat Yedidya in Jerusalem, the first synagogue to expand women’s participation in Orthodox services. But it is not only as the leader of an Orthodox synagogue that her skill as a rabbi and sage emerges. She is constantly expounding Jewish sources, eliciting principles of moral insight from Jewish life and lore. This is often done with humor, an appreciation for fun.
Weissman declares that there is no contradiction between being an Orthodox Jew and a feminist. She also has no problem being a religious Zionist and a champion of rights for all people. She describes how in 1988 she attended the World Conference of Churches for the first time, where 60 women from nine different religions discussed religion, politics and feminism.
“I decided to introduce myself as a religious Zionist who believes that the best fulfillment of Zionism will come when there is a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel,” she says. “During the break, many women came up to me expressing their pleasant surprise.”
Through this kind of honesty, Weissman gives lie to the stereotypical view of Zionism. She is constantly revealing the complexity of people’s identities and ideologies. Where does this openness come from?
Weissman grew up in a warm, deeply committed Jewish home – her parents were both social workers, educated activists, and later among the founders of the Pnai organization for parents of children who made aliyah. Debbie herself participated in Young Judaea, eventually becoming national president of the movement. Here she realized that there was no contradiction between Zionism and humanistic values, and she brings this to bear throughout her memoir. The belief in the equality of all men and women is complemented by the understanding that people need a sense of belonging to a community or nation, with its own unique customs and culture.
Committed to Judaism, she retains this great ability to move out of her original comfort zone. The book describes her involvement in most of the revolutions of the second half of the 20th century. She was a feminist in the Orthodox camp, marched with Martin Luther King, worked for Soviet Jewry, made aliyah, was director of a teacher’s college, and served in the Education Corps of the Israel Defense Forces. Here she exposed IDF soldiers to issues of identity, and the “other,” in connection with Israel-Diaspora relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
After the Six Day War, as a reaction to Gush Emunim and the Greater Israel movement that flourished at the time, she was one of the activists in Oz V’Shalom, the religious Jewish peace movement.
At one of the many dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, she spoke about the Torah portion Behukotai (Leviticus 26:3-27:34), which enumerates blessings as well as rebukes of the Jewish nation. The rebuke includes the phrase, “and you shall flee but there will be no one pursuing you.” Weissman concludes from this that one of the greatest curses is paranoia. “We have to get over our fears and be open to making peace with our enemies,” she declares.
In recent years Weissman has expanded this vision of reaching out to the “other” to include Christians and Christianity. “There have been great changes in the attitude of Christians to Jews,” she says. This has encouraged her to become active in interfaith relations. and she served as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
Her extraordinary power of articulating her beliefs and practices have brought respect and appreciation for Judaism. This is an amazing memoir of tikkun olam; it reflects upon feminism, grapples with the Arab-Jewish conflict, and evaluates these movements today, focusing on the new issues that have arisen in their wake. It describes the discomfort and division created among Jews who desire to go forward and those who want to say, “Enough is enough.”
Weissman is sensitive to both groups, emphasizing that tikkun olam is a continuous undertaking. We are grateful to her for sharing her stories. She is a model of one who has the passion of a revolutionary, and the wisdom of restraint in dialogue. In these frenzied times this is much needed.