As we commemorate the saddest day of the Jewish year here in Israel, it is a time to reflect and soul search. The 24-hour fast is supposed to be a catalyst to action. The important aspect of the fast is to remember what led to so much of our misfortune as Jews, and to try to work together towards a solution. In the immortal words of Rabbi A. I. Kook,
Just as the Temple was destroyed through baseless hatred (Sinat Chinam), it will only be rebuilt through baseless love (Ahavat Chinam).
Recently I was at a presentation by Professor Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, a world-renowned expert on anti-Semitism. (The film “Denial” was made about her successful defense against an infamous Holocaust denier.) When someone in the audience asked her what was the greatest threat to the Jewish people, she responded, “the Jews themselves.” She explained that throughout our long history we have failed to focus on what we have in common as Jews. She added that in addition to historical lack of unity and different sects within Judaism, we also have the contemporary phenomena of ignorant Jews who do not feel connected, or a link in the chain of Jewish continuity, and therefor marry out of the faith. Judaism in the only monotheistic faith in numerical decline. Finally there is also the extremely disturbing phenomenon of self-hating Jews, who one can witness on many liberal college campuses in the United States.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks solution to this problem is positive Jewish education. Our young Jews need to understand that it is an honour to be a Jew and not a burden. They need to understand that there is more to Judaism than death and food. They need a positive connection to our wonderful homeland, gained through an Israel experience trip. Rabbi Sacks reflected that,
There is nothing inevitable about the crisis of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. It is the result of a century of bad decisions, one above all: we neglected Jewish education. The result is that we know little about Judaism, and our children know less. They know about the Holocaust, and how Jews died, not how they live. They know about Israel, but that is somewhere else not here.
Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem. Photo (c) Tuvia Book, 2018
Meanwhile, here in Israel, on the eve of Tisha B’Av, a rabbi was detained by police for performing a wedding ceremony without the sanction of the official ultra-Orthodox rabbinate of the state. My doctoral dissertation is on the effect of the Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli soldier participants involved. Among other enquiries, I quizzed the largely secular Israeli soldiers about their Israeli and Jewish identities. Time and time again in the interviews and surveys I conducted, the Israeli subjects placed an emphasis on serving the State of Israel over Jewish religious practice. Serving the State included the elements of living in Israel, speaking Hebrew and serving in the IDF.
One of the possible reasons for this phenomenon of disinterestedness and disconnectedness from religious ritual practice could be what amounts to a de facto detachment between the majority of the State of Israel’s Jewish population to its religious Jewish establishment. According to the soldiers I surveyed there was a tremendous antipathy (reflected in the wider population) as secular Zionist Israelis toward the State’s rabbinate. They view the rabbinate as a bastion of ultra-Orthodox, non-Zionist, non-IDF serving “men in black,” who alienate the majority of their potential constituents by being both incredibly out of touch and openly antagonistic toward any lifestyle that does not respond to their own. As Daniel Gordis observed:
Israel’s rabbinate lives as if the rabbinic hegemony over Jewish communities continues unchanged from the Middle Ages, as if the Enlightenment and Emancipation had not yet arrived.
There is hope against the creeping trend towards wholesale Jewish illiteracy in Israeli society. There are many alternatives to the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate. These streams need to be recognised as legitimate, legal and acceptable. The Jewish state needs to be the state of all Jews.
One of the important alternatives is the Tzohar rabbinical organisation. Tzohar is a movement founded by religious-Zionist IDF-serving rabbis who are more open to the needs of the general public, not just the religiously observant sectors. They call for new guidelines for managing the marriage, divorce and conversion processes in Israel. The rabbis who volunteer for Tzohar are inspired by the inclusivist philosophy of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
To paraphrase Rabbi Kook, only when we learn what we Jews have in common, and not what divides us, and share an unconditional love towards our fellow Jews, then we will be worthy of complete redemption. What we need this Tisha B’Av is a positive step to making the land of the Jewish people a place of tolerance, peace and harmony for all Jews.
Tuvia is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Israel education curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Studies” (Fifth edition, Koren 2017)