70 Faces

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 22 – “Israel@70: A Peoplehood Perspective” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Doron Krakow

Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) refers to “70 faces of Torah.” It seems that at one time there was a good deal of debate among scholars and rabbis about the precise interpretation of the Tanakh. Hard to imagine. Jewish leaders of disparate opinions about matters of scripture, tradition and law? Jewish communities, or schools of thought, devoted to particularistic interpretations espoused by charismatic, enlightened and powerful figures? An absence of consensus? So unlike us.

In time, it became clear that a single interpretation was not only unlikely to prevail, such an interpretation would run counter to the very scope of the material. The Five Books of Moses are so rich and expansive, so broad and diverse, so extraordinary, it became inconceivable that any single analysis, insight or understanding could possibly do it justice. So, the wisest of our people concluded that there are 70 ways to interpret the Torah; each equally worthy, relevant and significant; no single “face” more meritorious than any other. The wisest among us began to view this unique prism through any number of its faces, allowing the Jewish people to evolve an ever increasingly nuanced understanding – as we pursue a perpetual path of discovery and wisdom.

Imagine how limited we would become if we confined ourselves to only a small subset of the faces of Torah. How much would we miss? How little would we see and understand? How much more limited would we become as a people? As a nation?

Not long ago we entered the 70th anniversary year of the miraculous modern State of Israel. The first generations to come into the world since the Zionist Movement brought about its independence in 1948 are privileged to have been born into the greatest moment in nearly 2000 years of Jewish history. What would our forebears have given to have tasted of such a world? A world in which this stiff-necked people is entirely self-reliant; not dependent on the benevolence of others for our very survival. A world in which a liberal, democratic State of Israel has ingathered the exiles and, in an increasing number of ways, become a light unto the nations. A celebration of unprecedented proportions would not be unexpected or unwarranted. And yet…

With so much to commend it, how is it possible that for far too many Jews across the diaspora, and in particular in North America (the largest Jewish community outside of the Promised Land), we are somewhat tepid in regard to our “comfort” with the State of Israel? Unsure of the level of our commitment; ambivalent about Israel’s place in the world and about how “connected” we are comfortable being.

One reason is that the conversation about Israel has been disproportionately confined to only two issues: the peace process (geopolitics) and the Kotel (religious politics). To be sure, these are two central issues. They are issues that arouse a great deal of passion on the part of virtually every interested member of our community. That there is no consensus on either issue is what makes them so compelling. That we are impassioned by them is an indication of the breadth of our interest and the depth of our commitment.
And yet, the institutions of Jewish life here in the US and Canada are not particularly comfortable with aggressive confrontation, emotional dissent or the prospect of alienating key figures in our community, much less major funders or supporters. So, we have drifted away from working to assure that the foundation upon which such debates take place is a broad, deep and passionate commitment to Israel as our starting point. And now we find ourselves confronting the apparent divisions arising from these debates and concluding that perhaps it is better to avoid the issue of Israel altogether. After all, we are devoted to community building. “If we can’t bridge these differences of opinion, let’s just focus on those things around which we enjoy greater consensus.” Such an approach is incredibly short-sighted and potentially damaging to ourselves and to our future as a community and as a people.

By choosing to avoid the topic of Israel as a means of avoiding confrontation, we perpetuate these divisions through an absence of engaged discussion and debate. In doing so, we give rise to an interpretation, on the part of those who don’t know Israel as well and for whom engagement with Israel is dependent on the very institutions, organizations and leaders that are choosing to avoid the topic, that Israel is, in fact, a source of discord and division.

While our divisions around these two aspects of modern Israel are significant and important, the issues themselves are just two faces of a far more comprehensive reality; the reality of the modern State of Israel. Israel, the center for technology and innovation. Israel, the world leader in medical science and biotechnology. Israel, the water-superpower. Israel, the start-up nation. Israel, the fulfillment of Herzl’s dream; of Ben-Gurion’s vision. Israel, the land of the Bible. Israel, the inclusive. The diverse. The beacon of freedom in the midst of a sea of totalitarianism. Israel, the Eurovision champion, the home of 12 Nobel laureates and 8 Olympic medalists. Israel, home of the heroes of Entebbe; of Operations Moses, Solomon and Magic Carpet. Israel, the first responder in the face of natural and man-made disasters across the globe. I could go on and on and on.

When did we stop making it possible for the members of our community to see these other faces of Israel. Are they less relevant? Less worthy? Less significant? If there are 70 faces of Torah, is it such a stretch to see 70 faces of Israel? We have failed to adequately instill in ourselves a commitment to assuring that the members of our community see Israel in all its breadth and complexity; not just through narrow and altogether too parochial lenses. We’re living in a golden age for the Jewish people. An age defined by the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish homeland. Once we make it possible for more and more of our people to see Israel in ways that bring us together, our very engagement with Israel will become an engine for building and strengthening Jewish community; rather than an issue that divides us.

Yes, the debates will continue. That too is a great Jewish tradition. But they should take place against the backdrop of a common commitment to Israel and to taking part in its continuing evolution; the unfinished work of the Zionist movement. After all, it may well be that what happens in Israel will have more to do with the kind of Jewish lives our grandchildren will live than anything we do here in our own communities. The more we engage, the more we learn, the more we visit, the more we debate, the more likely we are to be meaningful stakeholders in Israel’s future and in the future of the Jewish world.

Seventy faces. We can continue to insist on seeing Israel only by looking at two of them, but we do so at our own peril. Or, we can rise to the occasion and showcase them all. Im tirzu ein zo agada – if you will it, it is no dream. (Theodor Herzl).

Doron Krakow is the President and CEO of JCC Association. Doron has spent the past 25 years in senior positions with Young Judaea, the Jewish Federations of North American and the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.