July 28, 2013

A Nation Like None Other

Rabbi Haber

The fundamental principle of the Am Levadad Yishkon philosophy is that, simply put, we Jews are just different.

We share in the human experiences of the rest of mankind, struggle with many of the same questions, celebrate similar triumphs and suffer similar anguish, and we can even cooperate with other nations to find solutions to our common problems. But still, we're just different. We're different because we are God's Chosen People, and whether we like it or not, we represent Him to the rest of the world. For thousands of years when we lived in exile, this point was perhaps easier to see. Today in Israel we once again have a country of our own, and in the public discourse here there is much talk about how we're always trying to be "a normal country".

But the thing is, we will never be normal. Even when we deal with seemingly normal things, the unique aspects of the Jewish State always come through – for better or for worse.

Looking at the news from this past week (a fairly ordinary week here in Israel) four items jumped out at me, each of which illustrates how completely unusual it is to live in the Jewish State:

1. This past Wednesday, a once-in-a-decade event took place. Israel chose two new Chief Rabbis. Of course, that itself makes us pretty unique – there aren't all that many countries that have Chief Rabbis. But there are others as well (like the United Kingdom, which has also recently inaugurated a new rabbi of its own). As the world's only Jewish country, though, Israel is the only one to have chief rabbis in quasi-governmental positions.

The Chief Rabbinate was Rav Kook's brainchild. He wanted to create an institution that could serve as the spiritual leadership of a Jewish State. In the century-plus since Rav Kook's time, the Rabbinate has accomplished much in the realms of kosher supervision, standards of Jewish law in marriage, divorce and conversion and other matters. But its governmental nature, powers of coercion in certain fields and control of significant budgets have also led it to become a highly divisive force that many people blame for alienating masses of Israeli Jews from Judaism.

In fact, the very process of electing a chief rabbi (by a 150-member panel that nobody seems to understand and that seems to have made its decisions on the basis of political backroom deals in proverbial smoke-filled rooms) is extremely distasteful. Some rabbis have increasingly suggested abolishing the rabbinate or removing many of its powers to achieve a separation of "synagogue and state" that they feel will address this situation. I am increasingly understanding the benefits of such a suggestion, but am still very concerned about the negative repercussions it could have: it risks undoing many of the rabbinate's accomplishments. At the same time, though, the Rabbinate needs to be changed, as soon as possible.

In a previous post, I expressed my support for Rabbi David Stav, who wanted to implement some very important reforms in the rabbinate. Rabbi Stav did not win the election. I hope the new Chief Rabbis, who have pledged support for at least some of the issues Rabbi Stav raised, will move to save the Rabbinate from itself and build confidence and support among a public that desperately needs genuine religious leadership.

2. Last Monday, the Knesset approved a preliminary reading of the bill to remove the blanket draft exemption granted to yeshiva students. I've blogged about this before also, and won't go over the points here – but will just mention that the bill's provisions for criminal sanctions against draft dodging yeshiva students is probably a big mistake. The prospect of mass arrests and prison sentences for entire communities full of haredim who would refuse to serve is a frightening prospect and one that is almost certainly unenforceable. On the other hand, as I wrote there, simple financial incentives in the form of conditioning government benefits to individuals and institutions on complying with the draft rules are easily defensible and likely to be highly effective (the bill contains those provisions as well – I would leave them in but remove the criminal penalties).

In any case, though, the difficulty of this issue is another unique feature of life in our country. Many countries still have compulsory military service and some even offer exemptions for those engaged in religious study – but nowhere that I'm aware of is this such a divisive issue affecting such a large percentage of the country. Of course the centrality of this issue is due to two very unique aspects of the Israeli experience: the very severe and ubiquitous threats to our existence on the one hand, and on the other, the desire of such a large portion of the population to engage in the study of Torah and the willingness of the country and government to support that even as we argue about the details– this is Am Levadad Yishkon at its finest.

3. Turning to other matters, this morning the Cabinet will vote on Prime Minister Netanyahu's plan to release 104 Arab murders from prison, as a "good will gesture" to the Palestinians in order to encourage them to return to the table for another round of peace negotiations. Personally, I pray for peace every day and would love to make genuine peace with the Palestinians. I would even be willing to make some types of "painful concessions" under the correct theoretical conditions – but I am extremely against this prisoner release. Why should we have to violate principles of universal justice by releasing terrorists from jail? And why should we have to bribe the Palestinians for the privilege of talking to us? Is there any chance that negotiations started under such circumstances could actually lead to real peace?

It seems I'm not the only one who feels this way. A poll published in Friday's Israel Hayom newspaper reported that an incredible 84.9 percent of Israelis are opposed to the prisoner release! Last night, however, the Prime Minister announced that he intends to go through with it anyway. In a letter to the public, Netanyahu said, "From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion – when the matter is important for the country." I'm not convinced. But it doesn't look like I will get a say in this matter, although Netanyahu does intend to promote a law giving me and the rest of the citizens the chance to vote in a referendum before any eventual agreement is carried out. That's a law that I support completely in principle, though I would like to change certain details.

Regardless of what you think about all of this, though, this entire issue highlights just how unusual our nation is. Peace negotiations are not unique in today's world, but Israel's are unlike any other. Nowhere else is the entire world obsessed with the negotiations, and only in Israel does the entire world seem determined to force us into agreements with no chance of success. I'm convinced that this obsession with the Jewish People, including the often very negative bias so unfairly employed against us, are because the entire world recognizes something that we often wish to deny – that we are just different. We represent God and His Torah, and the world therefore expects different things of us. And sometimes they oppose us because they are opposed to what we represent. This is Am Levadad Yishkon.

4. And finally, a more upbeat news item: The Maccabiah games are currently underway here in Israel. Often known as the "Jewish Olympics", this remarkable event is bringing together 9000 athletes from over 70 countries – all of them Jewish. I can tell you that my family has been enjoying these games and the festive spirit they create (it's great that admission to all of the games is free. Particularly, my three sons were very excited to see New York Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire who is here coaching the Canadian team – we watched the Israeli team beat them on Friday, and managed to get Amar'e's autograph on a basketball.) So perhaps at least this is something normal after all? No religious debates, no politics, no security issues – just a great set of competitions in the universal spirit of fun and sportsmanship.

But actually, these games also highlight very clearly the absolutely unique nature of the Jewish People. Think about what it is – a gathering of athletes from diverse countries with different cultures and languages, very much like the Olympic Games. But there is one difference. All of these athletes know that all of their opponents as well as their teammates are their brothers and sisters.

And unlike the Olympics, this international event doesn't move from country to country, but always takes place in the one place that unites all of the competitors: their ancient and future homeland. And the competition is named not for ancient pagan gods but for a band of heroes who fought to ensure our great nation's spiritual survival (the choice to name an Olympic-style competition after the Maccabees is actually very ironic – but we'll leave that discussion for another time). I'm not a big sports fan, but sitting in the stands watching these games, and talking to a few of the athletes afterwards was quite inspiring to me.

So there it is, four news items from a fairly ordinary week, each one of which reminds us that whether we like it or not, we are different from the rest of the world. Life in Israel can be quite challenging and quite inspiring, but the one thing it will never be is normal.

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