Meir Feldman
Founder Project 97b

Judicial Reform? Yes, No or Teshuva?

There is a fire burning in Israel. No matter what side of the ‘judicial reform’ crisis one sits on, the dangers of the fire seem very real. To his great credit, President Herzog, and many others, are urging the sides to sit, listen, and solve this crisis in a way that raises all of Israel higher. This should remind all of us of the debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
“Rabbi Eliezer says – if Israel does teshuva, Israel will be redeemed. If not, it will not be redeemed.” BT Sanhedrin 97b. Rabbi Yehoshua disagrees. He says that redemption will come, not through teshuva, our own choices and actions, but through some divine intervention. But who’s right? Will our redemption ultimately come from a divine miracle or from our human-initiated efforts? Sanhedrin 97b suggests that: a) they are both right; and, b) this talmudic moment should be the central debate going on in the Knesset.

Rabbi Eliezer is speaking about a new, transformed future for the state of Israel, a future that God imagines for the Jewish people. R. Eliezer can see and hear an entirely new mode of public debate, filled with serious and deep offerings of teshuva. Eliezer imagines the day in which a courageous, self-reflective conversation takes hold among the leaders of Israel. He’s telling us about a moment that has never before been seen or recorded among the Jews.

On the other hand, Rabbi Yehoshua is speaking about a future for the Jewish people that looks just like our past. Never before have we brought teshuva to our public, communal disagreements, to our boiling anger, to our debilitating divisions. Rabbi Yehoshua doesn’t believe it’s possible. He can’t imagine a first – a first time that the leaders of the Jewish people will have the inner strength and courage to lead with teshuva. He can’t envision the moment that we Jews will choose the power of teshuva over the politics of power. Relying on teshuva to transform our hate and bitterness into curiosity and compassion has never been the path we’ve chosen. Why would it happen now?!

But teshuva is the only genuine cure to a family’s most fundamental threat – internal family breakdown. Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua may look as if they are having a disagreement about teshuva. But not to me. Their disagreement is not about teshuva but about us, the Jewish people. Eliezer believes that a generation will come, the first ever in our history to embrace teshuva. Yehoshua says, no, that generation of Jews will never come about.

Yehoshua looks backward and is clear that history will repeat itself. Yehoshua may well agree that teshuva is the Jewish calling, the Jewish, spiritual technology that can reverse the degenerating, downward spiral of politics. He just doesn’t believe in us, in our courage to do it. Eliezer, from his own life, knows all too well about our past, our painful and tragic moments of self-destruction. But he sees the possibility of change.

Today, shouldn’t we be doing all we can to align ourselves with Eliezer? There is plenty of teshuva to be done, for both Yair Lapid’s opposition and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition. Teshuva is our way up, our aliyah.

Both Yehoshua and Eliezer knew very well that days before Revelation (Ex. 19:2), we encamped just below Mt. Sinai. At first, we were a contentious, discontented crew. וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר – “Va’yachanu”- plural, they, the combative and divided bunch, encamped. And then, something amazing happened, as the Israelites prepared at Sinai for Revelation. According to Rashi, within a matter of days, but in the very next clause of verse 2, this aggressive and quarrelsome group of Jews teaches the most important lesson for all of Jewish history to come. וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל. This mixed and hostile group became a united people. Va’yichan – now a singular unit – encamped. Rashi asks about the transformation from “Va’yachanu”- they plural to “Va’yichan” – to a singular, united group. His answer – כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד – they became “like one person, with one heart.” The reason the text changes from plural to singular, from v’ya’cha’nu to va’yi’chan, is to describe the inner, internal transformation that we experienced as a people. Preparing for our most important moment, we embraced teshuva.

For us Jews, teshuva is the most authentic and critical cure. Three (3) times daily, we strive to transform our da’at, our highest kind of knowledge, into teshuva. The most powerful threat to our national well-being and eternal sovereignty calls for the most powerful force of healing known to the Jewish people – teshuva. Rabbi Yehoshua whispers to us: since Sinai, it’s never happened. Thus, we have no legitimate reason to believe that it will happen again. Rabbi Eliezer disagrees. “It is possible. We as a people can rediscover our courage to do teshuva.”

Maybe Eliezer, with Purim just days away, is remembering this moment in our celebration. Let’s recall these words in Megillat Esther 9:27: קִיְּמ֣וּ וְקִבְּל֣וּ הַיְּהוּדִים֩ “They, the Jews, fulfilled and accepted.” Rashi explains these words like this: “They/we Jews again accepted Torah willingly ‘In the days of Ahasuerus’.”

In my mind’s eye, the vision I see is this: a) debates in the Knesset, our people’s seat of democracy, building a shared, united focus on teshuva; and, b) 100,000’s of Israeli flags flying in every corner of this amazing country – with one monumental tweak. Attached, somehow integrated into every single Israeli flag is the message of teshuva. The banner of teshuva must be at the very heart of our flag. “Kimu v’kiblu” – may we fulfill and accept, once again, in our days, in this moment.

About the Author
One of the most profound and inspiring experiences of my life was attending the Wednesday night Bible Study class at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That was July 1, 2015, just 2 weeks after the tragic and horrific murder of the Charleston 9. The pain and faith, the heartbreak and hope of the grieving family members we met (and hold as dear friends to this day) was one of the most uplifting religious experiences of my life. Alongside Rabbi Tara Feldman, I served as a congregational rabbi for over 20 years, including the last 13 years at our beloved Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. There were so many highs throughout those years -- one of them was to bring 8 amazing sisters of Myra Thompson to Great Neck. What I now know is that for many years as a law student and attorney, long before my rabbinical journey, I yearned for a different sense of meaning and purpose. That was what I discovered in my second mountain, in my steep and beautiful climb into a passionate Jewish life (taking a term from David Brooks). And now, having made aliyah with my wife and children, I think that I am experiencing the blessing of a third mountain. That is what Israel, Jerusalem and Project 97b feel like – yet another inspiring and deeply challenging ascent to a beautiful and unattainable peak.
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