There is something objectionable to the hard line reactions to news of Yair Netanyahu’s out-of-faith romance. It isn’t that the critics are wrong; only, they are going about it all wrong.
Since news broke that Bibi’s 23-year-old son has been seriously dating Norwegian Sandra Leilkanger, there have been some extreme responses. One anti-assimilation group scolded the prime minister, saying that were his son to marry Leilkanger, Yair would be joining the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The boy’s uncle has denounced his nephew, stating that Yair is spitting on his grandparents’ grave. Furthermore, he would personally prevent Yair from visiting the burial site, and would tear out his own hair in mourning if they wedded.
Surely the prime minister is tortured by the prospect of his son intermarrying. After all, no Israeli leader speaks more eloquently about an eternal Jewish nation. Netanyahu turns a speech to young Birthright participants into a persuasive appeal that they cherish their heritage and Jewish identity. Bibi studies the bible religiously, and speaks proudly of his son Avner’s title of “bible champion.” Could it be that he is unconcerned that Yair might be lost to the people of the book?
Yet, the prime minister is reported to have spoken glowingly of his son’s relationship when he met with Norway’s Erna Solberg in Davos. This is a detail that has ignited the Israeli right wing, and one that leaves me mystified.
To be sure, Netanyahu carries the weight of the Jewish people to an extent, and as such, he and his household ought to be an example to the rest of us. But can anyone show me a Jewish father who has sway over his child’s heart? Sadly, this is the Jewish narrative of the time. Boy meets girl (or the other way around), and roughly sixty percent of the time, one party is not Jewish.
In dealing with this issue, one can tell a child who is at risk of assimilation that his actions are causing his grandparents to turn in their graves. But how exactly does the discomfort of the dead inspire him to want to live a Jewish life? You can invoke the Holocaust and admonish him for “accomplishing what Hitler could not,” but true as it may be, it won’t work. It does not work.
On the other hand, it’s shortsighted to claim that Yair’s choice is inconsequential. Some argue that Netanyahu’s is not a royal house which prince Yair would be destined to lead. This is a misunderstanding of Jewish identity.
What makes Yair Netanyahu special is not that his father is Prime Minister, but that he is Jewish and thus heir to an enduring inheritance. It is birthright that makes him and any other Jewish boy and girl royal. A single missing letter in a Torah scroll invalidates the entire body, as a lost Jew leaves a gaping hole in the Jewish collective. It is a very big deal.
There is specialness in being Jewish, and meaning in Jewish discovery. The critical, depressing, and irksome reactions to assimilation are uninspiring and unhelpful. If we are to retain Jewish youth, then Judaism needs to be communicated as the meaningful faith that it is. It needs to be transmitted as such, even when a Jew is on the ledge.
In our present Torah portion we learn of the winged angels that stretched over the Ark of the Covenant. They were molded of pure gold, and bore the face of children. Similarly, Jewish children are valued not simply because they shield our tradition as the Cherubim guard the Ark, but because they are a treasure with a golden core.
I recall once traveling to Paris to guide a young lady who was torn between marrying her non-Jewish boyfriend and embracing her Jewish self. It was a huge responsibility, and for many hours I desperately argued, explained, and taught. Before I departed, the young woman informed me of her decision to terminate the relationship. She would do so not simply because I had made a good argument, rather, as she put it, “I realized that if you can travel to another continent to speak exclusively with me, you must love me more than my boyfriend does.” Judaism would not let her go without a fight, and which girl doesn’t appreciate a duel for her affection?
To tempt someone out of a relationship, they need to be presented with something far more attractive. Few will abstain from marrying out because their families might sit shiva for them. But they may do so for a Judaism they can love above all else.