American Orthodoxy

Feeling “Off” on Yom Haatzmaut

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Ariel Rackovsky

The atmosphere in the room was somewhat tense. Present that morning were nine of us local rabbis and five members of Knesset, representing a wide array of political affiliations and viewpoints. The MKs were on a whirlwind tour of North American Jewish Communities, and we were the only group of rabbis they would meet with during their entire trip. Each of my colleagues spoke, respectfully but forcefully, about the challenges they faced as American rabbis and what they wanted to see in a relationship between the American rabbis and Israel. It was no surprise that denominational acceptance and pluralism were special areas of concern, though some ventured into much more controversial political territory. I was the only rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue in attendance, and I had not yet spoken my turn.

The moderator took great care that an Orthodox voice should be heard, and when I was called upon, I could feel all eyes on me. What did a religious Zionist Orthodox Rabbi who doesn’t live in Israel have to say about the Diaspora/Israel relationship? What did I think about the concerns of my colleagues? The following is what I told Michal Rozin of Meretz, Deputy speaker of the Knesset, Dr. Nachman Shai of the Labor Party, Majority Leader of the Knesset, Tzachi Hanegbi of the Likud, Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid and Revital Swid of the Zionist Union about what I think are the real challenges in the relationship between American and Israeli Jewish communities. The following are my thoughts on why I disagree with my colleagues and why this time of year makes me feel somewhat uneasy.

The Torah records the prohibition against consuming hadash, grain that took root after the sixteenth of Nissan of one year and is harvested before the same date of the following year:

Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements (Vayikra 23:14).

It is this last clause that leads to a widespread discussion among halakhic authorities in the Diaspora. Most Rishonim rule that hadash is prohibited everywhere, both within and outside the Land of Israel, on a biblical level, though several medieval halakhists maintain that outside of Israel, this prohibition is only Rabbinic in nature. Several early modern Ashkenazic commentators note that the climate and agricultural cycle of Poland, their country of residence, made it exceedingly difficult to properly observe the laws of hadash. They therefore combine several leniencies into a permit to consume “new” grain products throughout the year. Interestingly, though, there is no analogous discussion in the Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, which were traditionally meticulous about hadash.

The laws of hadash demonstrate, as do so many other laws, that the Torah’s optimal observance is in the Land of Israel. Although we remain obligated in all commandments outside the land, our performance of themespecially of those that are seasonalis, by definition, “off.” Starting with the second day of Pesach, there is a several-month reprieve during which all Jews everywhere may eat any kosher grain product. Soon this period will end, and we will be reminded once again that we are misaligned—“off”from the land of Israel.

I think it that this is a critical lesson to consider around the time of Yom Haatzmaut. Attitudes toward the State of Israel divide different Jewish communities even on the liturgical level: Does a particular synagogue recite the prayer for the government of Israel or not? With or without reference to “the first flowering of our redemption”? Does it at least recite the prayer for the welfare of IDF soldiers? These year-round questions are made more acute at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Iyar: Do we recite Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut, do we recite Tahanun, or (like Ben-Gurion, according to a legendary quip) neither? If Hallel, full or half? With or without a berakha? On the fifth of Iyar, or on the day determined by the Israeli government?

These liturgical issues, which may affect no more than five minutes annually, are often definitive of how one chooses to affiliate and even identify, even for people who rarely or never attend the synagogue during the week. Thus, these finer points of observance have become ideological litmus tests (or “tzitzis-checks”), but they obfuscate a more serious, foundational issue: the ways in which we Diaspora Jews are “off” from our Israeli counterparts.

Thus I told the visiting MKs that beyond the political and religious issues (and in Israel, those are often interchangeable) that my colleagues were so passionate about, the more serious reality is that American Jews (even Orthodox Jews) are misaligned from Israel in several important ways.

The first major way in which we are unaligned is that American Orthodox Jews are often unaware of the cultural and religious lives of our Israeli brethren. We inhabit a different cultural space with disparate influences; we read different books, listen to different music, and have different public intellectuals, authors, and poets. Moreover and more importantly, American Jews are often unaware of the impressive variety and creativity of Israel’s religious leaders and thinkers. We tend to hear about the religio-political controversiesthe Temple Mount, women’s services and mixed services at the Kotel, questions of “Who is a Jew?” and other areas of intersection and overlap between religion and politics.

But some of the most exciting developments in Jewish thought, law, and scholarship are taking place in Israel, and we have no idea what they are and who is driving them. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is the father of an exciting stream of text-based Tanakh study, whose popularity is widespread in Israel, but is not particularly well known outside of Israel; Profs. Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, the leading “secular” Tanakh commentators, are even more obscure outside of Israel.

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (“Rav Shagar”) is virtually unknown in America outside the readership of Lehrhaus, Prof. Alan Brill’s blog, and another rarefied corner or two. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes is a pioneering figure in the realm of Talmud study and teaching: his work is premised on the idea that the division of the Talmud into legal and nonlegal elements is an artificial one, he integrates academic methods into his close Talmudic readings, and his highly-developed pedagogical method is now being used to train a generation of Talmud teachers at the Herzog College, where he serves as the academic head. And yet, most Diaspora Jews have never heard of him or read any of his writings.

Rabbi Chaim Navon and Dr. Tomer Persico draw thousands of readers to their thoughtful, learned Facebook posts (where they often respond to one another) on religion, economics, politics, and everything in between, but they are inaccessible to those who are not fluent in Hebrew. Sivan Rahav-Meir, a haredi woman and media personality, draws huge crowds from across Israel’s political and religious spectrum for her lecture on the weekly Torah portion. Former MK Dr. Ruth Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech went viral, but it was a flash in the pan, and her readings of Talmudic narratives remain under-explored.

In the realm of Jewish law and religious scholarship, only recently have Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva in Har Bracha, who is revolutionizing the religious Zionist halakhic world with his eminently reasonable and balanced halakhic approach, and the brilliantly creative Rabbi Osher Weiss, gained currency outside Israel.

In the academy, one need only peruse the table of contents of the recently-published Hagedolim to get a sense of some of the new directions in Jewish scholarship. Each chapter profiles a different rabbi who influenced the formation of Israel’s haredi community, but the chapters themselves are distillations of master’s and doctoral theses on these seminal figures. The fascinating thing is not only that the scholarship is being produced, but also that it is being read by laypersons and sold in popular bookstores. It is not uncommon to see someone reading Prof. Benny Brown’s monumental work on Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the “Hazon Ish”) or Dr. Maoz Kahana’s dazzling study of the way Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (“Noda BiYehuda”) and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (“Hatam Sofer”) each responded to the currents of their times.

While American Orthodox Jews debate the roles, function, and titles of women in communal leadership, Rabbaniyot Michal Tikochinsky, Esti Rosenberg, Tova Ganzel, and Malka Puterkovsky, to name some of the most prominent, have created institutes for advanced Torah study for women, integrating their graduates into communal frameworks with minimal comment and controversy. Prof. Vered Noam, in addition to being a Talmudist and talmidat hakhamim of the first rank, has penned several searing articles on women and Orthodoxy in mainstream, widely-read publications. Yet many of us have never heard of any of these women. The late Chana Safrai, in addition to being a pioneer of Jewish women’s study, began a project with her father and brother to produce a commentary on the entire Mishnah that would bring history, botany, archaeology, and other academic disciplines to bear on the text. The result is over a dozen full-color volumes of the Safrai Mishnah have been published, but rare is the American Jew who has heard of them.

The truth is that even if we did know who Israel’s most exciting thought leaders are, their writings would be all but inaccessible to too many American Jews, as only a small fraction of this output has been translated into English. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us (2:1), “Be as scrupulous about a light mitzvah as about a severe one.” What is a “light mitzvah?” Rambam explains that this refers to mitzvot like making a festival pilgrimage to Jerusalem or teaching Hebrew. Rambam listed this as a prime example of a mitzvah that really ought to be taken far more seriously than it is.

The great American intellectual Leon Wieseltier recently published a magisterial working paper titled “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” in which he bemoaned this lack of Hebrew proficiency of American Jewry:

The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered.

The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.

What this means is that American Jewseven those who have benefitted from extensive Jewish educationsare often at a loss when encountering foundational Jewish texts, such that, as Wieseltier put it, “We are a community whose books and whose treasures–our books are our treasures–are accessible almost entirely in translation.” And we know that something is lost in every translation (if you don’t believe me, try reading Harry Potter in Hebrew). Regardless of one’s political affiliations, Americans who are limited in their Hebrew knowledge aren’t exposed to the nuanced political writing that appears in Israeli papers, only to the juiciest (and often mistranslated) bits that filter into the English media. As a result, we are woefully ignorant of what Israelis are really thinking, saying, and doing.

This is what I told the MKs, and this remains our challenge. When we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, we should feel a degree of cognitive dissonance that attends the celebration of the independence of a country we don’t live in. This dissonance can be productive. It can inspire eventual aliyah, though that is not for everyone, and certainly not right now. It can also spur some introspection and evaluation, even amidst a joyous celebration. To what degree do we, in our lives, truly manifest a connection and an alignment with Israel in any deep way? If we keep asking ourselves this question, perhaps we will conclude that the lip service of a few prayers and perhaps a check to an Israeli charity or political action group is not sufficient. Perhaps then we will begin to explore and attempt to understand Israel’s incredibly rich musical, intellectual, spiritual, material, artistic, religious, and, last but not least, deeply and authentically Jewish culture.

Ariel Rackovsky is rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla in Dallas, Texas.