Like many Australian Jews I’ve visited Israel on multiple occasions. Israel excites my imagination, feeds my soul, nurtures my poetry. It also confuses my assumptions, challenges my beliefs, and rattles my identity. My most recent trip combined all these elements.
We arrived in Israel just days after the rocket bombardment. A country that once again had to hunker down in shelters as thousands of rockets were hurled at its civilian centres. It was a time of great tension, anxiety, and fear that would demoralise, if not undermine, most contemporary citizens of the modern world.
But we were greeted by a huge food festival on the iconic beach promenade. The day after the ceasefire, tens of thousands of Tel Avivians gathered to celebrate the summer and their joy of being alive in the country rated fourth in the world’s Happiness Scale (up from ninth last year). The spirit of defiance, impatience and resilience that has characterised its 75 years is alive and well – and kicking and tooting.
If the festival showed Israelis capacity for anger, our first Saturday night reminded us of their capacity for anger.
We attended the 20th consecutive public protest for democracy in central Tel Aviv. The protest had paused for only one Saturday night during the bombardment. The intensity was palpable, the outrage visceral with the chants of busha (shame) and bizah (disgrace) as loud as the clarion calls for demokratya (democracy).
Many people have commented on the diversity of Israelis attending the protests. I was struck by the peaceful and almost carnival atmosphere in this huge mass of humanity. The crowd of about 100,000 was pumped. It was enthralling and confronting to be there, energising to sing hatikva with so many of my people.
It was also unnerving to be one of a handful of kippah wearers, and to listen to some of the invective against the Haredim as well as against the right-wing extremists. I did wonder if these Israelis would regard me, a religious leader, as one of their people in this sumptuously secular state of Tel Aviv, despite my strong sympathy with many of their grievances. I am with them in their outrage at religious extremism (particularly the Ben Gvir / Smotrich brand) and in their response to some of the Haredi demands (especially financial).
While there were many speakers who were more measured in their comments, the deep fissures between secular and religious on this night, and the rest of my time in Israel, was disturbing and distressing.
All my life I have tried to bridge the gap between religious and secular, to show the human and humane face of religion, to champion dialogue and debate. I still believe that Rabbi Soloveitchik, icon of 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, got it right when he broke with his revered family rabbinic heritage and the Aggudat Yisroel ultra-orthodox movement to bravely espouse a new way of being religious in a secular society. His is a path that respects the best of Western culture and a liberal democratic education while remaining fiercely committed to upholding Torah and Halacha, an approach that can respect Jews who are walking a different way.
But today Israel is full of confrontations like the very popular daily talk show where an ultra-orthodox and secular speaker are equally rude to one another.
The ugly and vulgar vitriol on both sides makes me worry about the future not only of democracy, but also of mutual respect in our promised land. Not to mention the principles of areivut (co-responsibility) and darchei shalom (peace promotion) that the Torah community and ethical people in a humanistic society should both equally value.
On the other hand, attending Tikkun Leil (Night of Learning) on the first night of Shavuot in Jerusalem was a glimpse of Torah that unites rather than divides.
Until about 20 years ago, this night of Shavuot was almost exclusively the territory of the religious and especially Yeshiva world. Its focus was often on strictly theological and halachic topics.
In recent years, Tikkun Leil has caught the imagination of a wider public attracting many non-observant people, many young, to a wide range of lectures and fora on hot topics of the day.
In my years as Rabbi to Caulfield Shule, I worked to transform our offerings on the night from the narrowly religious to diverse perspectives that wrestled with issues of the day from conversion to LGBTI+ challenges to Modern Orthodoxy.
I witnessed precisely the same transition in Jerusalem. The Municipality of Jerusalem issued a widespread program of presentations from strictly Torah talks to contemporary reflections aimed at the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem. I chose the English program at the elegant Avi Chai Foundation on King George Street since it featured two luminaries I respect: Aviva Zornberg and Daniel Gordis.
I was intrigued by the long lines of young university age students clamouring to attend the Hebrew sessions. Most of them were not religious, but they were drawn to the excellent array of speakers and topics. They are representative of a growing number of secular Israelis who are keen to reclaim Torah as part of their heritage.
As I walked home around 3am, the streets were filled with people coming and going, and the sounds of Torah learning emanating from the multiple shuls and institutions that pepper Jerusalem.
On my last night in Jerusalem, I visited the Kotel for the evening service. The plaza was awash in a sea of black suits and hats, payot, streimels and kapottas. I assume the Haredim of different sects were singing and swaying for Kiddush Levana, the joyous ceremony to greet the new moon. We are moon people and to the wide-eyed tourists that night we probably looked like a bunch of lunatics.
I felt alien, engulfed by the Haredim colonising the entire plaza. I was aware that in their minds I am not as serious a Jew because I compromise with, and even embrace, the modern world.
I admire their passion for community, for learning Torah, for Jewish continuity; but am fearful of their monopolistic claims of Torah, their anachronistic reading of Jewish history and culture, and their attitude towards women.
I also worry about their lack of contribution to the modern state of Israel. I think journalist Anshel Pfeffer got it right when he recently wrote, ”Never in the history of the Jewish people have so many people learned so much Torah. And never have so many Jews paid for them to do so, against their will.” I have a passion for and promote Torah learning, but I worry about it as a full-time exclusive occupation for so many men at such a cost to the Jewish state and its future.
I was an outsider but when I looked for a group to daven with, I was an unquestionably acceptable minyan man. I loved the enthusiasm for tefillah (prayer) by my black hatted co-religionists. We prayed the same prayers, we danced the same dance, and the same sliver of a moon smiled down on us all. I have heard it is the English Rabbi, Jeremy Rosen, who said: “I only wish I could talk more easily with those I pray and pray more comfortably with those with whom I talk!”
Heritage takes many forms. In Tel Aviv I went on a tour of some of the iconic Bauhaus buildings that are now preserved as part of the World Heritage listing of the White City. One of the architects of a castle-like Bauhaus apartment block explained his rationale for adopting this style in the new Jewish state with the words: “Here I am, here shall I stay… says the castle building.“ For me these words are emblematic of the positive spirit of Israel as well as its challenges today.
Some 2000 years ago, with Jerusalem and Jewish sovereignty in tatters, the storied Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai faced a decision that would shape the future and continuity of Judaism. When the Emperor Vespasian offered him a gift for his people, he boldly requested the preservation of the Jewish learning centre at Yavneh.
Daniel Gordis points out he wasn’t just asking for the continuation of Jewish learning but for a paradigm shift for the Jewish people. Jerusalem was riven with internecine conflict and hatred. Yavneh was an opportunity for renewal and debate for the sake of heaven.
What we need today in Israel is not a new Yavneh but a new Jerusalem, with a place and respect for all who treasure the holy city.