Community Blog Israel: Much More than an Experiment

By Rabbi Daniel Lehmann

An Organic, Complex, Ever-Evolving Reality

Last week, Hebrew College’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a statement on the College’s relationship to Israel developed and affirmed by key academic and administrative leaders. The purpose of this statement is to articulate and clarify the central role Israel plays in our educational mission. Hebrew College has a long-standing, passionate commitment to Israel and we feel it is important to communicate that commitment to our various constituents. Here is an excerpt from the statement:

Our attachment to Israel, and our commitment to its centrality in contemporary Jewish life, continue to make a profound claim on us as Jews living in North America.  We feel a sense of responsibility to help all of our students cultivate a connection to Israel that is rooted in a love of the Jewish people, a deep understanding of Jewish history and contemporary Israeli society, and a commitment to democracy, pluralism, and human rights. [Hebrew College Statement on Israel]

Israel is an organic, complex, and ever-evolving reality which is home to nearly half the Jewish population of the world, and soon a growing majority. Unfortunately, many American Jews judge Israel on the extent to which it fulfills their dreams for an ideal Jewish society. An example of this misguided approach is the piece recently published in Tikkun Magazine by David Gordis, my predecessor as president of Hebrew College. Gordis claims that Israel has “discarded the rational, the universal and the visionary,” values that he correctly asserts are central to Judaism’s attempt to balance opposing values such as the affective, particularism, and the focus on Jewish interiority. Gordis concludes his brief essay with a sweeping and dismissive assessment of the State of Israel. “So, sadly, after a life and career devoted to Jewish community and Israel, I conclude that in every important way Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a failure.”

The problem with this critique is that it makes a categorical mistake. Israel is not an experiment the success of which is determined by whether it fulfills the aspirations of a particular person, especially one who is not its citizen. Israel is a vibrant, democratic community that has produced its share of great achievements and deep disappointments. It, like the human beings that comprise it, is imperfect and challenged by many imposed and self-imposed constraints. It is also situated in a very difficult part of the world and, despite this, has constantly strived to create a stable and safe environment in which a diverse set of people can prosper. Gordis may not like the balance that Israel has struck at this particular moment in its history, but to claim that the rational, universal and visionary values are completely absent from Israel’s social and political setting strikes me as more incredulous than credible.

I recently returned from a trip to Israel where I experienced examples of each of these values manifested in important and specific cases. I landed in Israel just after the recent decision by Israel’s Supreme Court to grant non-Orthodox denominations access to state-run mikvaot for conversion. During the very week I was in Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court also overwhelmingly defeated an attempt to prevent an Arab-Israeli citizen accused of anti-Israel rhetoric from running for a Knesset seat as part of the Arab party list. Both of these decisions are testaments to the role of the rational in Israeli public affairs. The Ruderman Family Foundation recently conducted a survey of Israeli citizens which found that over 80 percent agree that “all Jews, including Reform and Conservative, should feel that the Western Wall [Kotel] belongs to them and that every Jew should feel welcome in Israel.” The Foundation also polled Israelis on whether “it is important for Israeli legislators to consider the Diaspora when deliberating on legislation like who is a Jew,” and over 70 percent surveyed answered in the affirmative. Israelis seem to be more “rational” than some might expect.

I visited with Hevruta, the cooperative North American and Israeli gap-year program co-sponsored by Hebrew College and the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. One of the participants described his group’s volunteer work with African refugees in Tel-Aviv to be an expression of the value placed on universal human dignity in Jewish tradition. He and his Israeli peers were enacting their commitment to the well-being of non-Jewish refugees within Israeli society as part of their vision of Israel’s universal responsibility.

Finally, I witnessed the maturation of a relatively new, native, Israeli-led religious community that is developing a distinctive vision of spiritual creativity, cultural diversity, openness to Jews of different religious perspectives, and a passionate commitment to chesed, lovingkindness toward others. I sat in this community’s moving Friday night service next to an Israeli with Orthodox ordination from an American rabbinical school who is part of a new, non-denominational program to develop spiritual leaders for those elements of Israeli society, secular and religious, who seek new possibilities for spiritual growth and community. Visions for the future of Judaism continue to emerge from the soil of the holy land.

It is true of most societies that the balance of opposing values may at any given time shift in a direction that is disconcerting. Watching the American presidential primary process, I feel that way quite often these days. Israel has produced a remarkably robust democracy, welcomed and integrated millions of immigrants from the four corners of the earth, generated impressively creative and compelling scholars, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, military leaders and communities of caring. Jewish life exists there in great intensity and diversity despite government’s coercive and often corruptive powers. It is a work in progress, but not an experiment. We need to get beyond the narcissistic tendency to view Israel through the lens of our own desires and see the beauty that lies within its complex, contingent reality, warts and all. We need to relate to Israel with love and respect for our people, our land, our language and our history. I have confidence that Israel will continue to play a central, constructive role as a homeland for the Jewish people, a beacon of democracy in a troubled Middle East and a society grappling with some of the most momentous challenges of our pluralistic era.

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is President of Hebrew College

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