Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Ups and downs

What is the Talmud's message when it relates that the dregs of society ascended from Babylon to Israel?

I am studying the final chapter of Tractate Kiddushin this year with a group of interesting and fairly diverse feminist Jewish women from the Lower Galilee. We are doing this within the framework of a program at Midreshet Oranim called Yotzrot Niggun, which is fascilitated by Dr. Anat Israeli.

I knew about this program since moving to Hannaton in the Galilee. I was even asked to join in the past, but I was reticent. I wasn’t sure it was right for me — a feminist woman rabbi without even a movement. I was afraid I would be too feminist, too liberal-minded, too radical. Too “out there” for these women. It seems I had little to worry about. When we went around the room the first day introducing ourselves, I discovered that while there are women there from Hoshaya, Sde Eliyahu, and Eschar, there are also women from Givat Elah, Kibbutz Bar-Am, and Manof. And while there are women there who are clearly Orthodox, there are also two women rabbis besides me. Each woman—each human being — has her own personal story and struggle, and not one seems conventional once she opens her mouth and shares with the group. A worthy lesson in life.

What I did not anticipate — or even consider — was that I am the only immigrant in the group. Every single one of the twenty other women was born and raised in Israel. There is a mix of Sephardiot and Ashkenaziot, and the ages of the women also vary, but I am the only one who speaks with an accent in her Hebrew. I was not surprised that this was the case, but I noted it and then moved on. Until it came up in the second session when we started to delve into the text of the Gemara.

The Mishna begins:

Ten groups went up from Babylonia: Priests, Levites, Israelites, disqualified priests, converts. freed slaves, those who were circumcised in the time of Joshua and declared Jewish by David, those who are the result of an illicit sexual union, those who do not know the identity of their father, and those who were abandoned in the marketplace by both parents and therefore do not know even their mother’s identity.

Immediately, the Babylonian author of the Gemara (the Stam) asks the following question: Why does it say that they “went up” to the Land of Israel from Babylonia? Why does it not simply say that they traveled or went or walked to Israel?

This, of course, is a loaded question. Why, in fact, do we refer to moving to Israel as going up? The Gemara’s answer is that this is a spiritual rising. The Land of Israel is more holy than any other Land, and that is why we call moving to Israel going upward.

But obviously the Stam of the Gemara, himself a Babylonian not a Jerusalemite, was conflicted about this answer, because he then asks why the Mishnah emphasizes that they went up “from Babylonia”? The answer he gives is that when Ezra left Babylonia for Israel, he took “from Babylonia” all of those of problematic status, so that he could leave Babylonia like “pure, refined flour”. The Gemara then goes on to state: “All other lands are like a dough to Israel, but Israel is like a dough to Babylonia.”

One must remember that the text we are reading here is a Babylonian text. It was created in Exile, in Babylonia — the site of a thriving Jewish scholarly elite. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud were willing to admit that the Land of Israel is holy, but they were not willing to grant the Israeli population a holier, more pure, status than theirs. The ground there may be more holy, but that does not mean that the Jewish community there is more holy, nor that living a Jewish life there is any more meaningful or praiseworthy.

As a woman who chose to “go up” to Israel at age 26, this discussion fascinated me. When I chose to move to Israel, a big part of the reason was the notion that doing so was, indeed, moving up. I had been raised to believe that moving to Israel was a mitzvah, a praiseworthy life move. And I was an idealist, looking for something meaningful and laudable to make of my life.

Although I was raised this way, my parents themselves did not choose to make this move. And neither did any of my siblings. Perhaps that is what the author of the Gemara is getting at in this sugya, I thought. While the Jewish national narrative may imbue the Land of Israel with special sacred meaning, this does not mean that living in Israel is the most pure and ideal of Jewish expressions.

After almost twenty years in Israel, I am learning that the mere fact of living in this country in some ways sullies us, makes us less “pure” than those Jews living outside of the Land. Living in the harsh reality of the Middle East, opening oneself up to playing out the biblical narrative of Yitzhak and Ishmael, getting one’s hands and soul “dirty” with the basic elements of running a country in all of its aspects (especially the military aspects)—these are all inevitabilities of living in Israel that in some ways do make us here more of a mixed dough than a pure flour.

A Zionist-religious upbringing in the U.S. encourages idealists to move to the “Holy Land”, which is in itself an idealization. But that upbringing does not prepare those idealists for the less than ideal reality of living here. Perhaps Ezra had the right idea. He gathered up the dregs of society who had little to lose by this move, much like the early settlers of the colonies in America, or the survivors of the Shoah, or the poor and/or oppressed immigrants who came in various “aliyot” from around the world.

But perhaps that is part of the point in the Gemara. Ezra took not only the “dregs” of society, but he also took the oppressed. It may be that being oppressed not only makes you more resilient, which is an important trait for living in Israel, but one would hope that it would also make you more compassionate, more able to identify with others who are oppressed. If this country is in fact going to be a Holy Land, if this country is actually going to be a Light unto the Nations, this is an important trait to have. Compassion and perhaps even a bit of foolhardy idealism.

A revelation I had while sitting with this group of sabra women, was that perhaps my decision to move to Israel was foolhardy. Mistakenly, I was thinking that I could move to Israel with my liberal Western ideas and make a difference in this place. But often I feel that I simply do not have the stomach for it. Like the Spies, I see insurmountable giants when I ponder the reality of this war-torn place.

Then I think of the lesson in Pirkei Avot: Lo aleich hamlacha ligmor, vilo atah ben chorim lihibatel mimena — You do not have to finish the task, but nor are you at liberty to give up on it. In other words, it is the act itself that is holy, even if the outcome of the work will never bring the results I seek.

It may be that I do not have the stomach for this place. Yet, I am here, and this is where I have made my life. So it is here I stay. At least for now. And by moving here, I may not have been moving up, per se, but movement in general is usually a good thing. Now it will be up to my sabra children to do the never-ending work of creating a truly Holy Land. A pacifist at heart, I myself would not have had the courage to join the Israeli army and learn to shoot a gun, but my son, who is being drafted in March, will. And while I don’t even know if I have the stomach to send him off, about that I also have no choice, I know.

Who is more pure? American/Babylonian Jewry may have the luxury of being more “pure.” I will grant them that. And they may even have the luxury of pointing their fingers at us over here for bringing down what should be up. But for good and for bad, knowingly or unknowingly, I cast my lot in with the oppressed dregs who are struggling with a difficult present reality and a perhaps impossible future. I can’t say I have no regrets. Part of me would rather be over there still, pointing my finger from a more comfortable, secure place. But it feels to me now, at least, like there is no turning back.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two novels, three spiritual journey memoirs, and the first and only children's book on mikveh. Her memoirs include: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual companion (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is available at: Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, is available at: Yonah and the Mikveh Fish is available at: Her new and second novel, To Die in Secret, is available at: Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, is slated for publication in 2024. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.
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