Saturday, March 3, 2007

Lihyot O Lo Lihyot Am Hofshi B’artzenu

Israel, throughout its short and tumultuous history has managed to chart a balanced and level course in spite of its wars and many waves of immigration because of its vision and sense of destiny. The State of Israel, founded on Zionist ideology coupled with the underpinnings of democratic principles have been the defining central values of Israel. A balance was created whereby these values were complimented with a deference to halacha. Halacha was never viewed as a core value our founding Zionist fathers, but was seen as an adjunct, a qualifier with respect to particular issues. Elements within the ultra-orthodox / haredi community are intent in altering this delicate balance with the intent of shaping a state never envisioned by its founding fathers. Rather than have as its ideology Zionism and democracy as its underpinning, they would prefer the rule of halacha.

Menachem Porush,( in an opinion piece in the Jewish Press, Dec. 15, 2006) is unhappy with Yossi Beilin’s attempt at redefining “who is a Jew” to include anyone who as one Jewish parent or has undergone “a secular conversion”. In Porush’s signature style of melodrama he calls this “a knife in the heart of the Jewish identity of the state” and is violating halacha. Halacha, he maintains, was one of the identifying markers of the state and sites the negotiations between the Jewish Agency and Agudas Yisrael. In that agreement a Jew was to be defined halachically. The question is whose version of the halacha? And although the complexion of the state was agreed upon to have halachic overtones, never was it determined that the interpretive guidelines would be orthodox or of a particular flavor of orthodoxy.

Menachem Porush and others of his ilk seem to believe that they have a monopoly on halacha. Society isn’t static and halacha, for it to be viable and serve society must sculpt itself to meet the norms and demands of a dynamic country. He would be wise to understand that the state wasn’t founded on the underpinnings of halacha (it being incompatible with democracy), but upon Zionist ideology and democratic principles. If halacha is to be applied effectively it will require enough creative flex in order to meet the needs of the culture it seeks to compliment. Israel isn’t a theocracy and the application of halacha ought not be thought of as the gold standard by which to mold and model the country.

The liberal movements of Judaism maintain halachic standards and apply them as per their interpretive guidelines. To refer to their standards of conversion as “secular conversion” is inflammatory, condescending and disrespectful. Their interpretation of halacha is no less valid than that of the ultra-orthodox / haredi variation.

Another issue that the religious establishment oftentimes points to is the corruption of the political leadership. The original version of the Hatikva, Emanuel Feldman (former editor of Tradition), in an opinion piece (International Jerusalem Post, Jan.19-25, 2007) points out, was amended and “lashuv leretz avoteinu” was replaced with “lhiyot am hofshi b’artzenu”. “Hofshi” according to Feldman meant not only political freedom, but freedom from the past. He couldn’t be more wrong!

The ultra-orthodox / haredi community, for some unexplainable reason, believes that they have a monopoly on truth, history and religious values. Most Israelis however are very committed to their history and tradition, understand it and accept it with all its warts and foibles. How they chose to express our tradition is part of the beauty and dynamics of a free society which treasures and values democracy, freedom of thought and expression. The haredi community, on the other hand, understands history according to their scheme of things revising it as a justification for their raison d’etre.

Feldman points to the critical standards of Isaiah. Had he read our prophets critically he would have realized that society then was probably more corrupt than contemporary Israeli society. Yes, there is corruption in Israel, but unlike the monarchical system of ancient Israel, we have the checks and balances to detect and correct those problems. King Saul was corrupt, so were Kings David and Solomon. Some would even call into question Solomon’s commitment to monotheism. Many of our high priests were nothing more than political appointments, lackeys to the ruling power.

To place contemporary Israel within historical context is to appreciate the great success of Zionism. Feldman contends that the founding fathers of Zionism wanted to create a “new Jew”. Wrong. The Zionists wanted to create a normal Jew. The normalization of the Jew was the goal of Zionism. They wanted to create a country that could raise its own army of defense, productive citizens, and a political system that would give us relative control over our destiny. They sought to socially engineer a people who for too long were accustomed to having others “do” for them while they studied in yeshivot incapable of providing for their families, relying upon the haluka and other charities for sustenance. Where would you be, Mr. Porush, and what would your life be like Mr.Feldman without the great success of Israel? You had better pray that Israel continues on its course; otherwise you and your descendants won’t have a future.

I’m happy that the original Hatikva was amended to “lhiyot am hofshi b’artzenu”. Every time I say those words my eyes well up with tears. I’m proud of what we are and who we are – too bad you’re not!!