Or What To Do (1)
As Israel stands at a crossroad, with its existence challenged as never before, it is time to realize that the national trauma surrounding the disengagement is only a symptom of a much deeper and dangerous problem – the liquidation of the inner spirit of the Israeli Jew. Israelis may be exposed to a great amount of information about their Jewishness and its traditions but much too little to its spirit. There is a lot of proficiency but much too little reference, too many skills but too few inner attitudes and appreciation. One cannot build the everlasting future of a nation solely on knowledge. There is an urgent need to cultivate inner values and feelings and to abstain from doing so is a serious abdication of responsibility. Israeli society including a large part of its religious segment has become high jacked by mass culture that in a most powerful way has captured the minds of old and young. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the desire for luxuries represent a major threat to independence, sensitivity and inner balance which are detrimental to the spiritual freedom of today’s Jews. There is an ongoing flattening of the inner spirit which reflects itself in spiritual boredom resulting in the search for extreme materialism, cheap entertainment and sincere lack of sensitivity towards ones fellowmen.
There is a deep need for spiritual audacity, educational guts and defiance which will create a radically different atmosphere in Israeli society. It is suicidal to argue that unless the climate favors these principles, there is no chance to successfully make major changes. The environment has never been conducive to spiritual concepts. Judaism’s major essence is warfare. It was Avraham the first Jew who declared war against spiritual indolence and desensitization. His daring personality turned the tables on the world and created the greatest revolution ever to take place in human spiritual history. Although aware that he had everything against him, nothing disheartened him knowing that the inner spirit of man could be rescued. Why was Avraham so successful? How was he able to become the founding father not only of Judaism but of much of the moral value systems of other monotheistic religions and western civilization? Avraham
realized that there was little value in starting to teach people about the oneness of God, the need to observe Shabbath or the importance of eating kosher. To superimpose these important values would no doubt fall flat on the deaf ears of his generation. He was fully aware that these concepts are conditioned by a set of assumptions and opinions which were totally alien and irrelevant to most people of his generation. Avraham
searched for a common dominator about which all men could agree and concluded that this could only be found when he would be able to reach the inner life of his fellowmen, the core of their being. To cultivate their souls and not just their minds. Avraham knew that deep down man is searching for meaning. A moral being looking for empathy and reverence and above all needing to do good towards his fellow man. Only then would man discover his real self .Once he can find a sense of personal vocation and mission man could surpass himself.
And so Avraham started his Tent Revolution which became the backbone of authentic Judaism. High on a hill, so as to be seen by all, Avraham built a small inviting structure which became the centre of social intercourse where people of totally opposing backgrounds could meet, speak and share. Here he started the greatest educational-interpersonal project ever. It was through his astonishing dedication to bathing his fellowmen in goodness and showing love even to the most crude idolater that he reached the hearts of all he met and thereby took the world by storm.
What Israel needs is to return to Avraham’s Tent revolution. It needs to build tents of Avraham throughout the country in which inspired teachers and laymen, whether orthodox, liberal or secular teach, debate and exemplify the great Jewish ethical values as found in the classical sources of Judaism. Not as academicians or scholars trying to decipher an ancient text but as feeling human beings looking for ways to craft a society in which menschlichkeit has the overhand.
There are too many yeshivot and too few (if any) tents of Avraham. Most yeshiva students should, after elementary studies, be motivated to prepare themselves for the great task of bringing Jewish ethical values back into the centre of Israel life. In a time of great danger we can no longer afford that most of them study Talmud for its own sake. Unless we make these tractates relevant to the overall needs of the Jewish people and share them with their fellow Jews we badly underestimate the power of the Jewish Tradition and rob our fellow Israelis of what Israeli society needs the most, namely Jewish ethics. One is at times saddened by the sight of grave scholars gathering faggots in a forest of mighty oaks to prepare a potage of very thin gruel. No doubt this requires a radical restructuring of the Yeshiva curriculum.The need to read the great classical texts of Jewish weltanschauung will have to become the centre of these studies. Whether these are found in the writings of Yehuda Halevi, Maimonides, Maharal, Abraham Joshua Heshel, Franz Rosenzweig or Joseph Behr Soloveitchik is of secondary importance. What is important is that all of them focus on the powerhouse of Jewish ethical wisdom. Not as dry texts but rather as moving passionate teachings. This applies even more so to many university teachers who sometimes in their obsession with philology or comparative studies lose sight of the great spiritual message of the texts they discuss with their students.
Since the mass media is by now the most powerful way to create public opinion, Israeli society should initiate programs on radio and television which enthuse its audience to want to emulate Israel’s sages. Jewish Tradition holds an infinite storehouse of highly inspirational stories showing the Sages sensitivity towards the feelings of their fellowmen. Posters on bus stops and in shopping centers should ask Israelis whether they smiled this morning to their fellowmen. (He who shows his neighbor the white of his teeth, (who makes him cheerful) is better than he who gives him milk to drink Ketuvoth 111b)), helped an old woman to cross the road, gave charity to the poor, a lift to a soldier, dropped in to see an old acquaintance, said thanks to the waitress. While some Israelis will identify a person with sensitive character traits as a freier they will have to learn, that they are the backbone of our society. Better an Avraham complex than a Narcissus affection.
There is an almighty need for coherence and unity in today’s Israeli society today. This can only come about when Israeli society returns to its Jewish ethical and compassionate roots and rediscovers and recreates them with passion and commitment. Only when we return to Avraham’s tent will we succeed and overcome our problems in spite of all the obstacles. The great question in Israel is not whether there will be a Palestinian State, but whether the State of Israel will be a Jewish State.
(1) This essay was send to the Jerusalem Post for publication.