My mother underwent heart surgery several months ago at an Israeli hospital. She is seventy-seven going on seventeen and has lots of reasons to live, including six pre-adolescent grandchildren at whose weddings she fully intends to be present. So when the telltale chest pains and shortness of breath woke her up one morning this past spring, she was appropriately terrified.
I was too hurried and worried on the way in to do more than reflex read the names on the plaques that adorn so much of hospital architecture and equipment: “The Sheila and Max Pearlstein Cardio-Vascular Diagnostic Center,” “The Doris and Fred Blumenthal Magnetic Resonance Imaging Department,” “The Sandra and Howard Rubin Recovery and Rehabilitation Pavilion,” “The David. E. Weintraub Electrocardiogram Monitoring Device in honor of his parents, Simon and Libby Weintraub, may their memories be for a blessing” – and so on, everywhere you look. I’ve made up the names, but anybody who has been sick in Israel knows it’s a pretty good approximation.
I was too busy to dwell on it at the time, but looking back now I recall that each set of names my mom and I passed through managed to calm me down just a little bit more: our family was here with us. Sheila and Max and Doris and Fred and Sandra and Howard and David and the rest – all of them having grown up like my mom, on the streets of Jersey or Brooklyn or Philly or Chicago or Toronto – they were all there, and their names, as it were, whispered soothingly:
“Don’t worry, Marilyn dear, it’s going to be alright: you are about to encounter the largest concentration of Jewish doctors on the planet, trained in the top-notch medical schools that we helped build, and assisted by the latest, state-of-the-art equipment that we have purchased for the purpose with our hard-earned dollars. Because you are one of us, Marilyn; because we love you even though we have never met you; because our grandparents and yours went through the worst hells the world has witnessed, and they did so together; because you had the spunk and courage to pick up and move to the craziest and most dangerous region on earth and join and contribute to the incomparably romantic national project of our people; because you drove your son to the draft center to become a Jewish soldier, weeping all the way with a combination of pride and fear, and barely sleeping for months afterward because you are a Jewish mother; because you helped raise Hebrew speaking, Hebrew singing grandchildren in the renascent land of our forefathers and matriarchs. Because of all this we are here for you, we are here with you: we Jews are a family.”
While wheeling my mother through the hospital corridors from unit to department to doctor’s office to operating theatre to cafeteria, I saw Jews of all ages and backgrounds (and, it should be noted, not a few Muslims and Christians, as well), people in pain and at their lowest ebb, all of them enveloped and supported by the strong, soft embrace of their brothers and sisters from abroad. It’s not an adjective one generally associates with hospitals, but it was beautiful.
I was shocked into writing this article. My friend and colleague at the Shalem Academic Center in Jerusalem, Rabbi Daniel Gordis – renowned educator, prominent author and tireless champion of the State of Israel – has just called on Diaspora Jews to cut off all donations to Israeli hospitals.
That’s right. Rabbi Gordis, like many other Reform and Conservative Jews worldwide, is profoundly angry at the Israeli government – in particular Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – for caving in to ultra-Orthodox demands and postponing (Gordis suspects: indefinitely) the dedication of a “Pluralistic Prayer Pavilion” at the Western Wall where men and women can pray together. But “How to Make Israelis Care” about his and their anger, asks Gordis. His answer is this:
Israeli hospitals survive in part thanks to American Jewish philanthropy. The flow of money should stop. Meetings with hospitals’ fund-raisers should be canceled.
The hospitals did nothing wrong, but when they start running out of money, Israelis will start to care. That is the kind of coalition crisis the prime minister does not want. You don’t feel comfortable doing that? That’s fine and decent. So prepare to lose.
Actually, this is only part of Rabbi Gordis’ answer – the rest smack of nothing less than a BDS campaign (boycott El-Al, shun Israeli government officials, etc.) – but it is the truly unforgivable part. As anyone with a sick loved one knows, top notch medical care can often mean the difference between life and death. The “faltering hospitals” that Gordis calls for in his article mean one thing (otherwise how would they “make Israelis care”?): Israeli elderly, perhaps even Israeli kids, not receiving the best or even the requisite treatment and therefore many of them dying. And then more of them dying, and then even more – until finally a hue and cry goes up from the anguished citizenry of our country (as if we didn’t sacrifice enough lives already for the sake of the Jewish people) and the government has no choice but to go in and strongarm the recalcitrant, primitive, benighted, evil Orthodox Jews into giving up on their millennia old, tenaciously held principles. Which they will never do, and so even more people will die…
Oh, that’s right: the Orthodox also have principles, not just us enlightened progressive Jews. Principles that they care about, that they believe in, that they have died for – principles that have preserved the Jewish people intact throughout the most challenging and often horrific history any nation has had to endure – whereas our principles, by the way, have demonstrably and miserably failed to maintain Jewish continuity (as Rabbi Gordis himself vociferated in an excellent piece sometime last year).
I say “our” principles because I was the best man at my brother’s wedding to a man; because my daughter reads Torah in front of the congregation (beautifully and without a single mistake, adds the proud father); and because to the extent that I was raised on any Judaism at all (I come primarily from communists and anarchists), it was Conservative and Reform Judaism. That Judaism always emphasized, always held up on the highest pedestal and drove deep into our young hearts, one powerful idea: Jewish peoplehood. It was their camps, their schools and their synagogues that preached, epitomized and sought with all their might to realize Theodor Herzl’s resounding cry: “We are a people, one people.” We are a family. We look out for each other, have a soft spot for one another in our hearts, we stick together despite the deepest disagreements, we forgive each other, defend each other, even love each other.
So what happened? How can Rabbi Gordis, a scion of Conservative Judaism, urge the members of his movement to bring about a situation in which Jews (for the most part secular and masorati Jews, let it be noted) aren’t cared for, even die, as an instrument of war with which to beat down his Jewish enemies? What happened to his ahavat Yisrael? What happened to his humanity, while we’re at it?
I do not wish to focus on Rabbi Gordis. He has more Jewish and Zionist bona fides than virtually anyone else I know. His righteous anger got the better of him, and since he is a noble man I am hoping that he will print a sweeping retraction (no one will think less of him: is it only in the movies that important figures publicly admit their mistakes?). While he’s at it, he can explain what health minister Litzman, for the appointment of which Gordis says we Israelis should “pay the price” (and whose picture crowned the article) has to do with any of this? Because that sounds like pure haredi-baiting.
And I don’t care right now about the details of the kotel controversy – though the devil is definitely in them (hint: the real problem for the Orthodox is less the “Pluralism Pavilion” itself, more the access corridor that the other side insists upon that will daily force the haredim to witness that which – in their eyes – is an unthinkable desecration of Judaism’s holiest place). What I want to address is how we as a people got to this awful place today. What happened to the simple, loving embrace of Sheila and Max?
The answer, “on one foot,” is this: it’s Zionism’s fault. I’m not saying sections of am Yisrael didn’t find themselves at daggers drawn before the rise of the State of Israel – they certainly did, all the way back to the time of the Talmud. Nor would I ever argue that the negative results of the Zionist enterprise outweigh the positive results – give me the honey with the sting any day: that’s why I’m here. But it seems pretty clear that when the Jews lived scattered among the nations, there was a centripetal force that propelled us into each other’s arms, that worked for unity, whereas now that six million of us are jammed together in this vestibule of a country, things have turned fiercely centrifugal.
I remember, about a decade ago, there was a psychologists strike in Israel (really). A radio interviewer asked the strike leader: “You know, there are reports of an increase in the rate of suicide lately, but there are those who say that this is due to the onset of the holiday season.” The shrink responded, in so many words: “Ridiculous! Those suicides are the direct result of our strike, and don’t let anybody tell you different!” Several months after that there was a lifeguard strike (fact check me!). An interviewer asked the strike leader: “You know, there has been a rise in the incidence of drowning lately, but there are those who claim that this is due to the influx of Russian immigrants, who swim in the sea at ungodly hours.” Mr. Baywatch: “Preposterous! Those people drowned because of our strike!” Only two weeks into my first semester teaching at the university here, the professors went on strike for three months. At a strike meeting I was stupid enough to stand up and ask how, for the sake of a few extra shekels, we could inflict such serious damage on the up and coming generation of Israelis – our students – who would determine the future of our country? I was booed and laughed at by an auditorium full of scholars, of anshei ru’ach (“people of the spirit”), who immediately went back to planning in detail – indeed, with relish – how to destroy their students’ education in order to force the government’s hand. Ya brechen!
Israeli Conservative and Reform is not like the USY we grew up in. My wife and I moved to Tel-Aviv after we got married, and on the first Yom Kippur we attended the local Conservative synagogue. The place was packed. When it was time for the rabbi’s sermon – the most important sermon of his rabbinical year – he spent an entire forty minutes doing one thing: lambasting Orthodox Judaism and its supporters in government. I have seen this time and again in Israeli Conservative and Reform congregations. To hell with peoplehood: we have to win.
Are the Orthodox blameless in this matter? Not by a long shot. They are in many ways the first to “discard the rest of us as dross,” in Peretz Smolenskin’s evocative image. They care more for Judaism than for Jews, even though the Torah – sans any modern Zionist gloss – should have taught them otherwise. They are, or at least many of them are, incorrigibly close-minded.
But they didn’t grow up in USY. They didn’t imbibe Zionism and Jewish nationalism cum lacte. We did. So it’s up to us even more than it is to them to try to bridge the impossibly wide gap that has opened between us. They are our family, and you don’t treat family members like the enemy even if they treat you that way. You try with all you’ve got to heal the breaches. That’s what families do.
The first step in bridging the gap is to remember this: from the perspective of the Orthodox, it is not they who are “extreme,” it is we. And by the way, in historical terms they are right. Yes, the haredim are in some ways more frum (religious) these days than their ancestors were (though whoever tries to paint the Talmudic rabbis as liberalists in comparison with today’s haredim is in for a rude awakening). But all considered, it is we who have left them, not the other way around; it is we who have abandoned a hallowed tradition of centuries in order to tread new paths. It is we who have walked away.
And it is important for us to understand just how far we have walked away, because we truly lack awareness of this, of the extent to which our novel ways represent the diametric antithesis of all that is right and good and holy and beautiful in the Orthodox view, of the extent to which we are – from their perspective – traitors and desecrators.
My favorite Star Trek episode has the U.S.S. Enterprise land on a planet where humans had discovered silicon mines (silicon powers the warp engines of the spaceships). The guys working the mines found millions of these white silicon balls, and they built a factory to crush them en masse and produce fuel; on off hours they have fun smashing the balls against walls or playing soccer with them. Captain Kirk was sent there because a monster recently began murdering the miners. They catch the monster, called a Horta, and Mr. Spock does the Vulcan Mind Meld on her. Guess what he finds out? Every couple of million years all the Hortas die out except one female, who is charged with reviving the entire race by laying millions of eggs. That’s what the silicon balls were.
We believe in the things we do, in the way the live, at least most of time. We take for granted that our lifestyle, our behavior, is the best of all possible worlds. But let us be sufficiently pluralistic to remember that there are entire vast communities of our fellow Jews for whom what we do and how we live is nothing less than anathema. You have to comprehend this, and care about it, before you can try to do anything about it. Grasping the chasmic character of the gulf between us, being aware of it and sensitive to it, and not assuming that ours is the one and only proper way – that is the essential first step (yes, even if our haredi cousins are incapable of taking it in return). Revive the family feeling and add it in to the equation, and we might have a smidgen of a chance of communicating, even possibly reaching a modus vivendi or two. It’s the only way.
Yeah, and my mom came through with flying colors and she’s doing great. Thanks for asking. And thank you, Sheila and Max.
Ze’ev Maghen is professor of Arabic Literature and Islamic History at Bar-Ilan University and Shalem College; he is the author most recently of John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage.