Meir Feldman
Founder Project 97b

Reforma vs Teshuva

Judicial reform versus teshuva — for sure these are not opposites. Rav Kook writes:  התשובה היא תופסת את החלק היותר גדול בתורה ובחיים. “Teshuva holds the greatest portion in Torah and in life.” He continues: עליה בנויות כל התקוות האישיות והציבוריות. “Upon teshuva are built all of our hopes, both personal and communal.”  Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, in his debate with Rabbi Yehoshua, teaches that teshuva is the indispensable ingredient for Jewish national redemption. Sanhedrin 97b. “If Israel does teshuva, it will be redeemed. If Israel does not do teshuva, it will not be redeemed.”

Both Rav Kook and Rabbi Eliezer are whispering, screaming, begging us to understand that the language we use in our public square must radically change.  We cannot solve Israel’s most threatening national problems unless we speak the proper language. The language of politics is insufficient. The language of the courtroom is insufficient. The language of liberal democracy is insufficient. They are all foreign languages that will fail the Jewish people. Even though it’s Hebrew that fills the airwaves of the courtroom, the media, and the Knesset – we’re still not speaking the correct language.  

Rav Kook and Rabbi Eliezer (and so many others) are telling us that teshuva is our language. Teshuva is the language that has within it the power, the spiritual energy, the divine je-ne-sais-quoi, that can transform and ultimately redeem our national well-being.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is horribly wrong in comparing the violence and vandalism that Jews committed in Huwara to the peaceful protests of 100,000’s of Israelis throughout the country. Of course that’s a brutally misguided comparison that he thankfully has retracted. But the Prime Minister is right in championing (to the world and to the Palestinians) that Israel is and must always be the Jewish state of the Jewish people. He’s right. And Rav Kook and Rabbi Eliezer are whispering to him – “Mr. Prime Minister, for Israel to truly be a Jewish state, we must make the language of teshuva, the deep emotional wisdom of teshuva, central in every public debate. Become our teacher, Mr. Netanyahu. When you speak of Huwara and every other matter in our public sphere, model for us that teshuva has the power to transform and to redeem Israel. Lead us to the highest understanding of being a Jewish home, the first Jewish state in 2000 years.”

Yair Lapid, during his campaign, spoke powerfully of equality, human rights, protection of minorities, and other important values that are near and dear. Yet, the extraordinary Daniel Gordis, while agreeing with those values, rightly criticized Mr. Lapid that Judaism, Jewish identity, the Jewishness of the Jewish state were inexcusably absent from his campaign.  

To all leaders of Israel – powerful, wise, learned, brilliant and more – please listen to Rav Kook and to Rabbi Eliezer. Every matter of public debate in this Jewish state should be addressed through the lens of teshuva. Protests with 100,000’s of Jews, right, left and center, are profound expressions of love for this place. But the language of liberal democracy cannot be the exclusive language of our communal discourse. They are inadequate to the task of transforming and protecting our beloved home. 

To all of our brothers and sisters in the Haredi and Orthodox world, this is a moment of transformation. To this right-wing, religious government – teach us. Model for us. Lead us into the distinctly Jewish language of teshuva. Long before “Start-Up Nation”, we Jews blessed humanity with a technology called teshuva. Teshuva is the “tech” that we and the world need, more than ever.  

“All of our personal and communal תקוות/hopes are built upon teshuva,” says Rav Kook. Yes, we need a powerful army and police. But neither have the strength to bind us together, to heal our deep wounds. Even the army and police must learn and rely upon teshuva. Teshuva is the most powerful force we possess for protecting and ensuring the Jewish national project.  

I conclude with a question. Which is more impossible to imagine for all of us lovers of our Jewish home – the creation of a Jewish state in 1940 or 1948, or a state that is devoted to teshuva in 2023?

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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