Dear President Shimon Peres...

Men can starve from lack of identity as much as they can from lack of bread.

Peres taking seat 298.88 (photo credit: GPO)
Peres taking seat 298.88
(photo credit: GPO)
Your recent election as president of the State of Israel has given me an urgent motive to write to you. I am the child of a totally assimilated family - to the point that I did not know whether I was a Jew or a gentile - who found my way to Judaism after a great struggle. When I heard your inaugural speech at the Knesset, I realized that my struggle to find my Jewish identity may provide an important key in reaching a new vision for Israel's future. We, in Israel, have lost our identity. We turn to you in need of a powerful voice for change. However urgent your immediate goals may be to advance peace in the Middle East, prevent corruption and domestic violence, all of these problems are symptoms of the real, inescapable crisis which has befallen us: the need to deal with our own identity. Most of our young people have no idea who they are or why they should risk their lives as Israeli soldiers. Many of our top Knesset leaders have virtually no knowledge of their Jewish heritage. Our fellow Jewish Israelis lack Jewish self-understanding, which can easily lead to their leaving this country out of sheer bewilderment. This extremely dangerous situation threatens the very existence of our people and our state. Men can starve from a lack of identity as much as they can from a lack of bread. WHAT IS Jewish identity? Even before the establishment of Israel, Yiddish-speaking societies were created, as well as the Bund and Jewish cultural movements, all aiming to maintain Jewishness while living mainly gentile lives. In our own days, we have told our Israeli youth that to be a soldier in the army is the climax of Jewishness, and that Zionism is the new religion. While all those movements and ideologies were meant to replace the "old Judaism," it was not to be. They could not promote the elevation of spirit to make one thoroughly proud of being Jewish, nor provide the kind of destiny our forefathers enjoyed for thousands of years. The moment we Jews began to define ourselves "horizontally," we found ourselves prey to a range of syndromes ranging from insecurity to aggression, from self-hatred to narrow ethnic pride. Like our forefather Jacob after his wrestling with the angel, we started to limp. THIS PROBLEM stands at the center of modern Jewish and Israeli life. As long as we do not give our people a sense of ultimate Jewish meaning, we will not be able to change their attitude toward life. No nation can live on a borrowed identity. We will not be able to promote civility, or battle domestic violence and corruption if we do not first become aware of who we are. As long as we continue to be messengers who have forgotten their message, we will not be able to cause any real change in ourselves or in the world. To be a Jew is to be moral heir of those who stood at Sinai and to pledge oneself to live by the truth of the great foundations of Judaism; to be part of a nation dedicated to the well-being of all mankind through the teachings of the Torah. To be a Jew is to celebrate Shabbat, the greatest institution of liberty the world has seen, to eat kosher because there is dignity and holiness to the act of consumption, and to be obsessed with the spirit of our prophets. We cannot predicate our survival on remaining a culture, a constellation of fading memories, or even on the Israeli army or Zionism. We must accept this. It is an inescapable feeling that we have somehow lost the script of the great Jewish story and we must now rediscover it. IT IS HERE, Mr. Peres, that your role as president becomes crucial. At this hour there is one characteristic that must stand out: unbridled courage. You must lead the people back to their Jewish roots, and you must do it by personal example and with a clear vision. You are in the fortunate position of no longer needing to prove yourself. You are old enough and wise enough to realize that a great man can ignore the applause of the multitude once he knows himself. There is a moment when man has to realize that instead of being dedicated to fame, he is dedicated to a truth which surpasses his own interest. Therefore: Take a keen interest in Judaism. Start learning its great wisdom. Try to rediscover it for your own sake. Assemble Jewish religious thinkers at your presidential home and listen to their words. Go to the synagogue on Shabbat and festivals and try to relive these great Jewish prayers. Make Kiddush, the blessing over the wine, at home and sing the songs of our holy days. I am not asking you to become Orthodox, but to live a life which abounds of a great love for Judaism, for everybody to see. Do not be afraid of what people will say when you make this change of direction. Nobody knows better than yourself that one can only answer for one's courage when one is in danger. Inspire people to follow your example, organize open tents of learning in which both secular and religious Jews study Jewish texts concerning civility and tolerance. Call these tents Ohalei Avraham - the tents of Abraham, the first Jew who had the courage, when he was as old as you are now, to change his ways. His message became eternal; so could yours. RETURN TO your people what they have lost. This nation is thirsty for identity and spirituality. Live up to this challenge, and it will be your greatest legacy. Only when the citizens of Israel return to themselves, will they return to civility and domestic peace. Only when we all know who we actually are will we be able to negotiate peace out of strength and not out of weakness. (Would it not be wiser to look after our security first before trying to make peace?) Mr. President, we are in need of a voice of greatness, and I believe you can deliver. The author is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem.