Keep Dreaming: Jewish Identity 101

by David Breakstone

Jewish Identity Day in the Knesset. A happening that included “a special plenary session, committee meetings, an art exhibition… with pertinent musical interludes” (The Jerusalem Post, February 9). Sounds reasonable enough, even commendable. But not unproblematic. Nothing’s so simple in this complex state of ours that aspires to be both Jewish and democratic.

Example. The meeting of the Committee for the Advancement of Women dealt with the need to combat the phenomenon of Jewish women marrying Muslim men. “I’d like to see what would happen if in France they held a hearing about what happens when Christians marry Jews,” commented an indignant MK Taleb a-Sanaa.

While I can’t imagine many reading this column – Muslim, Christian, or Jew – are enamored of intermarriage, I do think we have to agree that the man has a point. Is the democratically elected Knesset – the embodiment of the guarantee embedded in our Declaration of Independence that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” – the appropriate forum in which to express alarm over the dilution of Jewish identity? That’s a question, not an answer.

Furthermore, while I respect the motivation of the Tzohar rabbis who initiated the day, and am appreciative of their efforts “to become partners in the fashioning of the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, through dialogue and the search for common elements of identity,” I am also a bit wary of the implications of what they set out to do. “Our objective,” said Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar chairman, “is to show that values centered around Judaism and Jewish identity must become more embedded in how Israel operates as a society.” Agreed, but is it true, as he goes on to say, that “There is nowhere better to highlight this than in our national lawmaking body”? I’m not alone in trying to demarcate the line between employing Jewish sources to appropriately influence as opposed to inappropriately legislate. I remember an interview a few years back in which Prof. Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University and a highly respected leader of religious Zionism, went to great length in explaining why “bringing the laws and rules of the synagogue into the Knesset is a great danger.”

Less troubled by such things is MK Zevulun Orlev, who sponsored this event that sought to enhance the role of Judaism in the lawmaking process. According to the report that appeared in The Jerusalem Post, he stressed “the importance of education and dialogue in reaching an understanding over the state’s Jewish character,” and went on to say that the first step is “to learn what Judaism is.” On this point we wholeheartedly agree, but I suspect we might have a harder time concurring as to who the teachers of that Judaism need be.

For starters, I’d like to suggest that as part of their course in Jewish identity, our MKs take a field trip.

Having just returned from Limmud New York, a fourday festival of “Jewish learning without limits,” I recommend it as a first stop. Part of a phenomenon that began in England 30 years ago, Limmud NY has as its mission “to celebrate Jewish life and learning… by bringing together Jews of all backgrounds… driven by the belief that diversity of perspective [and] dedication to learning… are keys to mobilizing and inspiring Jewish individuals and community.”

And what an incredible job they do in achieving this. Some 750 Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, secular and unaffiliated Jews came together for the long weekend, leaving their labels at the door. It is difficult to describe the degree of acceptance, the ambiance of pluralism and the openness to difference that characterize the experience.

In Israel, we know at a glance whether or not we have anything to say to the stranger standing in line next to us. Head, shoulders, knees and toes – covered or bare? We take in a hundred clues all at once and instantaneously calculate the person’s position on an array of issues, from freezing settlements to Shabbat discos.

And we never know if we’re wrong, because if he or she doesn’t dress like us, we’re not likely to talk.

At Limmud, the barriers disappear. Participants of every ilk study together with rabbis and teachers of every persuasion, dealing with topics as varied as: Challenging God, The Soul’s Search for Meaning, The Spirituality of Parenting, Bereishit Yoga and Finding Meaning in Shabbat – which was welcomed in seven different groups. An excerpt from Friday evening’s offerings: “mehitza service led by men,” “mehitza service led by women and men,” “an intergenerational Shabbat experience… through prayers, songs, and guitar,” “renewal Kabbalat Shabbat, breathe out the week, breathe in Shabbos,” “traditional egalitarian service led by men and women,” “mishpahot that will sit together at Shabbat dinner” and a value oriented gathering on “Judaism as a counterculture.”

I return to Israel and a headline that “Women teaching fourth-grade boys is ‘promiscuity,’” and conclude that I must have just participated in an orgy. I wish I could dismiss such twaddle as coming from an inconsequential fundamentalist fringe, but it turns out that it is not just any rabbi who issued the decree, but Holon Chief Rabbi Avraham Yosef (son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), who is supported by my taxes.

To level-headed Jews who would agree with me regarding the preposterousness of Yosef’s ruling, but who would also reject the fertile grounds of Limmud as germinating strains of Judaism that have no place in Israel, I would caution prudence before contending that our religious establishment has a monopoly on authenticity. The detestable abuse of Halacha in the recent adjudication that it is forbidden to sell or even rent apartments in Israel to non-Jews, or the current repugnant intent to issue special kashrut certificates to places of business that refuse to hire Arabs are examples of a code of ethics as antithetical to authentic Judaism as any I could imagine.

Repeatedly, the Bible explicitly enjoins us not to oppress minorities in our midst: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34). My presumption is that this injunction entails entitling Arabs to shelter and a livelihood.

I might be a bit more prudent in raising such matters, if those charged with elucidating Judaism for us in the Jewish state were themselves fitting role models. I cannot ignore the irony, however, that on the very same page on which a story about Jewish Identity Day appeared, two other headlines screamed out at me, one announcing that Rabbi Moti Elon, former head of Yeshivat Hakotel, was facing indictment on allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors, and the other that Haifa’s chief rabbi was to be indicted for bribery and filing false documents.

I’m not arguing that Jewish life as it is evolving outside Israel is better than what we have produced here.

I am only suggesting that we not claim to have all the answers, nor expect to find them either within the chambers of the Knesset or the offices of the chief rabbi. If we really want our MKs to explore Jewish identity meaningfully – and to talk about the challenges of intermarriage in a venue where it is unquestionably appropriate to do so – then we need to create an environment where the full diversity of opinion and expression is validated. We need to bring them to Limmud.

David Breakstone is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive; published courtesy of the author.