Joshua Hammerman
Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Suddenly Everything’s Kosher!

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The Hebrew word hechscher, which comes from the three letter root כשר (kosher) means several things. One of them, “kosher slaughter,” does not bode well for Cinnabon, a cute baby goat featured on the front page of my local newspaper, born last week at the Stamford Nature Center’s Heckscher Farms. The farm gets its name from the Heckscher Foundation for Children, which provided the grant money for the farm’s opening in 1955.
But another meaning of hechsher is “to deem fit and proper,” and it would definitely not be proper to slaughter a kid born on a farm built for kids. So unless it’s Passover seder and father is about to shell out two zuzim, Cinnabon is safe at Heckscher Farms.
This week, the word hechsher was used in a completely different context, not to end a life in order to put food on the table, but to set the table for a political change that could be potentially revolutionary.
When Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government expired, a dozen years of his leadership may have ended. That in itself is revolutionary. That he may be replaced by a unity government including at least seven parties from across the ideological and demographic spectrum is another dramatic turn that, if it works, could change how Israelis relate to one another and how diaspora Jews relate to Israel.
But the most dramatic move occurred before Bibi’s bye-bye, when he was straining to find any combination of parties to reach the sacred majority of 61 Knesset members, and for the first time in Israel’s history, he entertained the possibility of bringing an Arab party into his government. The Ra’am party, also known as the United Arab List, expressed a willingness to eschew hard core ideological goals in order to achieve a better quality of life for Arab Israelis, but even with that current moderating tack, the fact that Netanyahu was willing to cross that red line was remarkable. It was a “Nixon in China” moment – if China had been in a 100-year war with America, with bus bombings.
Bibi went as far as to pressure far-right rabbis to approve the shidduch, but his most extreme partners weren’t buying. And to the end, the Religious Zionist party, which Netanyahu nurtured in order to broaden his right wing base, took their homophobic, racist and anti-Arab toys and went home rather than going into a government with Ra’am, thus denying the Prime Minister his majority. You can’t make this stuff up.
For the past few weeks, far right rabbis and politicians have been bemoaning that Netanyahu gave his “hechsher,” his imprimatur,  to bringing Arab parties into the government. This was the same Bibi who had famously pleaded to his supporters on one Election Day that the Arabs were “voting in droves,” who had demonized Arabs from his revisionist cradle (and one could argue that he was even more anti-Arab than his movement’s founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky) .
Now, when Yair Lapid needs a few more pledges to put together a government, he will be able to do what no other Israeli leader has done before – bring in the Arabs, and create what will truly be a unity government, unlike anything Israel has seen. it won’t by itself forge a two states or end discrimination against ethnic minorities (or non-Orthodox Jews), but it will make Israel a more functional democracy. Once this government is formed – if it is – it’s likely that Haredi parties will also find their way in, but they won’t be able to dictate the terms. A new paradigm for a multi-tribal, shared Israel will have been forged, the fulfillment of President Rivlin’s “Four Tribes” vision, and just weeks before Rivlin’s own term ends.
Am I being unduly optimistic? Probably. But don’t wake me, I’m just getting started. The implications of a more moderate, unified Israeli body politic would have international reverberations, including in America, where the sight of an Israeli government that truly reaches across the aisle will show us that anything is possible.  If an Arab presence in the Israeli government can gain a hechscher from a right wing Prime Minister, maybe systemic taboos can be ripped away here as well. Vice President Kamala Harris broke a few of them last November. With the logjam broken on Balfour Street, who knows, maybe next Mitch McConnell will stop sounding like the Khartoum Resolution and finally get to “yes.”  Accommodation can be catching.
The Australian Jewish e-zine J-Wire suggests that lots of hechshers have been handed out lately in Israeli politics. Naftali Bennett, who would likely be the first Prime Minister in the rotation, was anathema to many progressives for his far right views on annexation and settlements.  Same with his compatriots Gideon Sa’ar and Ayelet Shaked. No longer.  They’ve been sent to the same whitewash factory as Liz Cheney.  The libs love ’em!
And the right wingers, including Bennett. Sa’ar and Avigdor Liberman, are willing to go into a government with the leftists from Labor and Meretz, whom they’ve demonized, whom some extreme rabbis consider “worse than Arabs.” The lion is truly cohabitating with the lamb, the hawk with the dove, and everybody’s suddenly kosher.
This week’s portion of Behar-Bechukotai describes the idyllic laws of Shmita, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, when the land will rest, servants go free and debts released – a return to status quo antebellum, before humanity laid waste to the earth. The Jubilee year begins with the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur and the proclamation made famous by its appearance on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
The year of Covid, the futility of four Israeli elections and one American Big Lie-inspired insurrection, seems have primed us for a similar kind of reset. New leaders, new alignments, and a whole new set of hechschers.
Moment Magazine just published a symposium on the changing meaning of community during the Covid era. Great Shabbat reading. One contributor defined community as “a group of people who trust each other and believe that others will act in a way that is good for all of them.”
His name? Charles Heckscher of Rutgers, author of “Trust in a Complex World.”
It’s that simple. Build trust. Replace the Big Lie with Big Truths. Yair Lapid said it all in his first news conference after getting the mandate from the president, speaking about the need to build trust. “Israel is tired of fighting,” he said. “Israeli society is looking to its politicians and asking when they will stop arguing and start working? Our answer is now.”
Like Cinnabon the kid, we all live on the knife’s edge. Here’s hoping that the knife will be used to cut not through Cinnabon, but through the cynicism that has infected our politics for too long. And may all our hechshers – and Cinnabon’s – be for life.
About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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