Saturday, March 3, 2007

Educating Tami

It takes a trip to Israel; I don’t mean a UJA mission, but an intense few days where one has the opportunity to engage in serious conversation with old friends. It’s sobering, and at the same time also confusing. Confusing, because accepted norms and values formatted in chutz laaretz are necessarily discounted when put in the context of Israel. Do issues such as assimilation, intermarriage, ritual Judaism loose their significance when framed within the context of a modern state? Do these loaded issues in chutz laaretz (living outside of Israel) pale when seen through the lense of Medinat Yisrael?

Last month I took my daughter for a week long exploratory visit to Israel as she intends to follow in her parents footsteps and study at Hebrew University. Most of our time was spent in Jerusalem and although she had been to Israel dozens of times in her 18 years, I was determined that she would see Jerusalem like she never had before. Her education was to include exposure to intense discussion and conversations between me and my friends regarding our perceptions of the future of the Jewish people and Eretz Yisroel.

In the many years that I lived in Israel I cultivated deep friendships with three types of people. Atheists, Agnostics and Believers. Not surprisingly, all three were very important to me because they all reflected the deep conflicts running through my soul then as well as now. Interestingly, when I surf the net and read various blogs I’m amazed at the amount of thought that goes into issues of orthodoxy or quirky behavior from my Haredi (ultra-orthodox) brothers. Rarely do I pick up on serious conversation from admitted atheists and agnostics. In the years that I lived in Israel, while these belief issues were of primary importance to me they began to recede into the background once living in America.

Living in Israel didn’t require personal manifestos because by living in the land one fulfilled his Jewish destiny. What more was there to say! I remember the visits I had from some frum (ultra-religious) American relatives, while serving in the IDF, and their questions regarding personal religious practice. I remember how I categorically discounted them because while they were living contentedly in chutz laaretz, I was living out the Jewish destiny in Eretz Yisrael. It didn’t matter whether I was mechallel Shabbat-- it was in defense of the moledet. What greater Mitzvah can there be? Doesn’t hatzolos nefashos (saving lives in defense of ones country) trump all other mitzvoth. Wasn’t that one of the sublime messages of the Macabbees, (“v’chai b’hem velo yamus-you shall live by them and not die)?

Living in chutz laaretz puts a whole different slant on things. The mitzvah sometimes, becomes the end in itself rather than a means to an end. That being the case we begin to obsess over performance of mitzvoth. But it is the nature of people to obsess, and so when during the years I lived in Eretz Yisroel, I too obsessed-not over performance of mitzvoth, but in fundamental belief systems. Was there a G-d, and if there was, what had he planned for us – the human race, and did we as Jews have a special role?

Coming back to Israel with my daughter and walking the campus of H.U. triggered once again these timeless and precious questions. In particular and because of the debacle of the last war and the looming threat of Iran I was deeply concerned and so searched out my friends to investigate once again and possibly resolve those questions plaguing me.

I met with my frum friends, who happen to be haredi in practice as well as politically. It was comforting to be with them because they were so complete and at peace in their emunah. They knew Hashem had a plan and that they were there to play out Hashem’s will. Will there be a secure Eretz Yisroel in the years ahead? It didn’t matter to them. Whatever Hashem’s will, they would be his willing tool. They understood the issues in stark colors of black and white. There weren’t any hues of black or white. They really had no questions. To them, the current government did a botch job, and that there would be a day of reckoning when we would have to deal with the muslim populations in Eretz Yisroel. They were utterly convinced that they were on the side of zivaot hashem ( army of G-d). No matter what happened this was the place to be.

Coming away from that conversation with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose I met with a dear friend who defines himself as agnostic. He can’t say he believes in a G-d, nor can he deny G-d. He obviously is not religious and doesn’t seek any guidance through sacred text or ritual observance. I prompted him with some leading questions about the direction Israel was taking regarding the Muslim populations in the west bank in light of the last war and his response was startling. Also in the back of my head was the fact that two of his sons fought in the past war, one as a reserve tankist ,the other as a conscript in the tanks. He believes that it’s his destiny as a Jew to live in the land of his forefathers. It is the only place where he can express himself fully as Jew, even if he doesn’t practice ritual Judaism. It is his belief that as a Jew he has no choice but to live on the land. If he were to leave, there would be no reason to maintain his Jewish identity. His identity as a Jew is inextricably linked to the land. As such, he doesn’t understand, given our common history, how I can live as a Jew in good conscience in chutz laaretz.

My third conversation was with an atheist. She was absolutely convinced that there was no G-d and that it was purely man’s creation. When I asked her why she lived in Israel if the Bible, had no credibility, she countered with a startling argument. Her position was it made no difference what the bible promised. The bible was irrelevant because it was fictitious. What wasn’t fictitious was her attachment to Israel based upon recent history. Her grandparents fought and won the right to live and build a country. Might makes right, and as long as we are strong it will remain ours. She too sees her destiny in Israel. Interestingly, while she is a pure secularist and atheist she defines her Jewish identity through culture and history—not religion.

Needless to say my daughter who passively participated in these conversations came away from it all with greater clarity and a deeper appreciation for the Jewish people. What was crystal clear was that the Jews of Israel are totally different from the Jews of America. The Jews of America are obsessed with the assimilation trends amongst the liberal end of the spectrum. In Israel, the issues do not revolve around assimilation but how we as Jews will fulfill our destiny and under what circumstances and conditions.

Regardless of the fact that we aren’t monolithic in our belief system, we all value a priori the deep fundamental core attachment to the land. It didn’t matter if you were haredi, agnostic or atheist. Israel belonged to the Jewish people—the only issue on the table was the quality of Jewish life and how was that to be defined.