There are moments in a man’s life when one needs to speak up. This is when something most dramatic has happened that necessitates a response. With your recent election as the President of the State of Israel, I feel that I must speak my mind.
First some background: I am the child of a totally assimilated family and I grew up with both a Christmas tree and a Menorah. I found my way to Judaism after a great deal of struggle. It was a major upheaval in my life. I had to somehow become reborn and my “delivery” was hard and painful. However, once I discovered the grandeur of Judaism, I convinced my parents of its beauty and they decided to have “chupah and kiddushin”, i.e. a traditional religious wedding ceremony. This was 30 years after their civil marriage! To be honest, all this happened so long ago that I had almost forgotten about it…
Until last week, when you, Mr. Peres, were sworn in as our new President. When I heard you speak at the Knesset about our future, your dreams, and the Jewish people in general, I realized that I had an obligation to write you this letter. The reason is more than obvious. For many of my younger years I did not know where I belonged and who I was. Was I a Jew or was I a gentile? I had no identity and let me tell you: nearly nothing is worse than that. In a world in which everyone is doing his utmost to transform you into everybody else, you have to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight to decide who you actually are. I was fortunate enough to arrive at that decision myself and so I decided to be a full fledged Jew. “He who finds himself, loses his misery”, Matthew Arnold once wrote.
And that brings me to you, Mr. President. We, in Israel, have lost our identity. Many of us no longer know who we are. We all recognize that we are in dire need of a new vision for Israel’s and our own future. There is a need for a powerful voice for change and our eyes now turn to you. Newspapers have already been imploring you to uproot corruption, to promote civility, battle domestic violence, mend Arab-Jewish relations, to foster economic relations with Israel’s neighbors and, obviously, to advance peace in the Middle East. But however important these goals may be, they are missing the point. These serious problems are the symptoms of the real inescapable crisis which has befallen us and that is the need to deal with our own identity. Let us not fool ourselves: a large percentage of our young people have no idea who they are. They are asked to serve in Tzahal, the Israeli army, risking their lives for this State without really knowing anymore why.
Many of our top leaders in the Knesset have virtually no knowledge of their Jewishness or look down on it due to an erroneous upbringing. More and more of our fellow Jews throughout the country lack Jewish self understanding and wonder why they should live in this beautiful country called Israel. It is only a matter of time before we will find ourselves confronted with a majority of fine young people who will be struggling with an identity crisis of such proportions that many will leave this country out of sheer bewilderment. And let us be honest: This is extremely dangerous and it threatens the very existence of our people and our State. Man can starve from a lack of identity as much as he can starve from lack of bread.
What is Jewish identity? Already before the establishment of the State of Israel, many had tried to disconnect their identity from authentic Judaism. Yiddish speaking societies were created, Juedische Wissenschaft and Literarische Gesellschaften, as well as the Bund and various Jewish cultural events and movements. In this way, people hoped to stay Jewish while living mainly gentile lives. In our own days we have told our Israeli youth that to be a soldier in the army is the climax of Jewishness and that Zionism is the new religion. It was anticipated that all those movements and ideologies would successfully replace the old Judaism. But it was not to be. In retrospect it must be realized that all of these attempts have actually confused our people. These ideologies were not able to promote the sort of elevating spirit which would make one thoroughly proud of his or her Jewishness, nor did they provide the same kind of “destiny” that our forefathers enjoyed for thousands of years.
These movements did not give us a mission, which we would be prepared to die for. It is true that there are great soldiers who are ready to sacrifice their lives for our country, but how long can this last unless we give them more than just a country? Men die only for that by which they lived. Ultimately, man will only live a meaningful life when he knows that there is something worth dying for which is eternal.
The moment that we Jews began to define ourselves horizontally, we found ourselves prey to a range of syndromes from insecurity to aggression, from self hatred to narrow ethnic pride. Like our forefather Yaakov after his wrestling with the angel, we started to limp.
This problem, as no other, stands at the center of modern Jewish and Israeli life. As long as we do not give our people a sense of ultimate Jewish meaning, we will not be able to change their attitude towards life. No nation can live on borrowed identity. We will not be able to promote civility, battling domestic violence and corruption if we do not first become aware of whom we are. As long as we continue to be messengers who forgot their message, we will not be able to cause any real change in ourselves or in the world.
To be a Jew is to be a moral heir of those who stood at Sinai, to pledge oneself to live by the truth of the great foundations of Judaism and to be part of a Kingdom of Priests, to be part of a nation which is dedicated to the wellbeing of all mankind through the teachings of the Torah. To be a Jew is to celebrate Shabbath, the greatest institution of liberty the world has ever seen and to eat kosher because there is dignity and holiness to the act of consumption, and to be obsessed with the spirit of our prophets.
We must admit that all that we have gleaned during the past years is that, in the long run, Jewish identity can only be understood in religious terms, albeit in terms foreign to other religions. We can not predicate our survival on remaining a culture, a constellation of fading memories or some kind of nostalgia or even on the Israeli army or Zionism. We must accept this. It is an inescapable feeling that we have somehow lost the script of the great Jewish story and we must now re-discover it.
It is here that your role as President of Israel becomes crucial. You could either be highly successful or you could fail. The choice is yours. At this hour there is one characteristic which must stand out: Unbridled courage. You must lead the people back to their Jewish roots and do this by personal example and with a clear vision. You are in the fortunate position of no longer needing to prove yourself. You are now old enough and wise enough to realize that a great man can ignore the applause of the multitude once he knows himself. There is a moment when man has to realize that instead of being dedicated to fame he is dedicated to a truth which surpasses his own interest.
Therefore: take a keen interest in Judaism, start learning its great wisdom and forget what you may have learned in your youth which apparently turned you away from your roots. Try to rediscover it for your own sake. Let it do something to your very being. Assemble Jewish religious thinkers at your presidential home and listen to their words. Go to the synagogue on Shabbath and festivals and try to capture these great Jewish prayers. Make Kiddush on Shabbath at home and sing the songs of our holy days. No, I am not asking you to become orthodox but to live a life which abounds with a great love for Judaism, for everybody to see.
Do not be afraid of what people will say when you make this change of direction. Nobody knows better than you that one can only answer for one’s courage when one is in danger. Inspire people on radio and television to follow your example, tell them what you have discovered and organize open tents of learning in which both secular and religious Jews study Jewish texts concerning civility and tolerance. Call these tents the Ohalei Avraham, the tents of Abraham, the first Jew who put us on the map and who had the courage, when he was as old as you are now, to change his ways. His message became eternal and so could yours.
Return to your people what they have lost. This nation is thirsty for identity and spirituality and it is your task to show them the road back. You have done great things for the State of Israel but, like all of us, you also made mistakes. However, you can now remedy many of them.
By doing so, you will have achieved more in your years as President of the State of Israel than you did for decades as a member of the Israeli parliament. If you live up to this challenge, you will indeed leave a legacy making all your other achievements look pale in comparison. Only then, when the citizens of Israel return to themselves, will they return to civility and domestic peace. Only when we all know who we actually are, will we be able to negotiate peace out of strength and not out of weakness. (Would it not be wiser to look after our security first before trying to make peace?)
Finally, Mr. President, we are in need of a voice of greatness and I believe you can deliver.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Dean, The David Cardozo Academy