William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Israel: Jewish life’s change-agent

Two thousand years ago Jewish life underwent revolutionary change in response to exile from our homeland.  Dynastic leadership was democratized as priests gave way to rabbinic sages. Temple-centered offerings were replaced by local prayer communities. The Pascal offering was succeeded by the Seder plate; the altar by the Sabbath table.  It is time to ask: How has our return to our homeland revolutionized Jewish life?  If historic destruction remade Judaism, how has restoration changed Jewish ways and means in our times?

At home, Israeli Judaism is undergoing profound changes.  Previously areligious Israelis are reclaiming their religion with purpose.  The fervor of the fundamentalist is being countersigned by passionate paths of young Israeli seekers imbued with Jewish meaning and empowered agency.

Abroad, North American Jewish life is changing dramatically.  Israel is now a major pillar of Jewish identity.   Israel stirs feelings more palpably than any other aspect of Judaism.  So many Jews around the world viscerally understand what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “To dwell in the land is to sense that the idols of cynicism are tottering.”

Of course, the picture is considerably more complex.  For some who now self-identify as ‘Israel-conflicted’, the Conflict has deposed enthusiasm for our national rebirth.  Moreover, the dynamic between polarizing views reveals a troubling trend.  It has shifted from a healthy tension between inward and outward turns, to one group’s passion accelerating another’s disaffection.  This is not good for Jews or Judaism.

A lesson from this week’s portions of Torah offers a helpful reminder for how the center may continue to hold.  Tucked within categorical distinctions and boundaries the Torah twice encourages similarity.  Sandwiching the clarification of forbidden mixtures between wool and linen, harvesting certain plants, and cross-breeding animals (Lev. 19:19), we find an urge toward sameness.  “Love your neighbor as yourself” kamocha (Lev. 19:18) is later echoed by the command to “Love the stranger as yourself” kamocha (Lev. 19:34).  In the special new Documentary, Ben Gurion, Epilogue, Israel’s founding leader explicitly and emphatically clarifies how Jewish goodness internalizes both of these teachings.  In so doing, we avoid the equally disturbing choices to only be for ourselves or to never be for ourselves.

Once upon a time, the first exile from our land kept us in Babylonia for 70 years.  Having entered the State of Israel’s 70th year as of this week, it is high time to appraise and appreciate – not simply how Zion is being rebuilt, but also how Judaism is being remade.   May we continue to merit the privilege that history has granted us by bringing forth the first fruits of our willing hearts and hands to this sacred honor. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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