In Israel One Can Cease Being a Jew
My father was a Jew of great depth, and an atheist. He dedicated his life to the Jewish People, and insisted on speaking Hebrew to me. One morning he bid me farewell: "Shalom." I asked, "Abba, where are you going?" He answered, "I am not leaving. You are leaving." When I asked, "Where am I going," he replied, "You are a young Jew, and we have a Jewish state. Shalom."
My father never discussed God's commandments with me, nor sins, nor punishment. He spoke to me proudly of being a member of the Jewish people, of a shared language and of a connection to a certain land. When I came to Israel I knew that being a Jew meant being a member of a nation with a land, a language and an inheritance. I made aliyah because my father said to me: "You are a Jew." In Israel, on the other hand, everyone would tell me: "Now that you are here, you don't have to be a Jew anymore." So disoriented was I, that I began to ask myself what it meant to be a Jew.
A Jewish Paradox
Imagine the following discussion between "Bob" and I, an activist in an American Jewish organization.
"Bob, are you religious?" - "God forbid." - "Do you eat kosher?" - "Only if there is nothing else to eat." - Do you observe Shabbat?" - "No." - "Do you pray?" - "No." - "Do you go to synagogue?" - "Once a year, to meet friends." - "Are you religious?' - "No." - "What is Judaism?" - "A religion." - "Who are you?" - "I am a Jew."
He could have asked me similar questions.
"Avraham - do you observe Shabbat?" - "At least once a week." - Do you pray?" - "Three times a day." - Do you eat kosher?" - "All the time." - "Is Judaism religion?" - "Absolutely not." - "Who are you?" - "I am a Jew."
The Five Pillars of Jewish Identity
I speak of five pillars, or central concerns of contemporary Jewish identity. I meet many Jews all over the world and speak to them of these five pillars, encouraging them to choose at least three as central parts of their own lives.
Why three? In that way, all those who so choose will share one central commitment with all other such Jews. I challenge my listeners to create some degree of Jewish unity, without uniformity.
1. Jewish Memory
When I began advanced studies in Israel, I wrote my father that I wanted to teach Jewish history. His reaction: What - they teach Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem?! There is no such thing as Jewish history. Non-Jews have history. Jews have memory. - If I had to describe in one sentence what it means to be a Jew, I would say that a Jew is a person who must never suffer amnesia.
You cannot create a Jewish family, a new Jewish home or any aspect of a new Jewish culture without reference to Jewish memory.
What is the difference between history and memory?
History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that "every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt."
The challenge of the Jew is to carry the Jewish collective memory and make it part of one's own life.
Shavuot was a central holiday of my youth. I got to walk around the table with a basket of fruit singing "our baskets are on our shoulders." It was silly. It was the wrong season (in South Africa). I was in the wrong half of the globe. You end up praying for rain at the wrong time- why?
Because as a Jew you do not pray for yourself - you pray as part of the collective memory of the Jewish people.
2. Family Ties
Who are we? Are we members of one religion?
Were we to be holding a theological inquiry, I could prove that we do not share the same religion.
In New York, the Chase Manhattan Bank advertised: "You have a friend at Chase Manhattan." When the Israeli Discount Bank opened its first branch there, it had a wonderful slogan, heard every hour on local radio, every four hours on television: "You may have a friend at Chase Manhattan, but we are mishpacha (family)."
The essence of our Jewishness is being a family. For that reason the Torah does not call us Jews or Hebrews, but the "Children of Israel." When we help absorb into Israel hundreds of thousands of immigrants form Russia and Ethiopia, we are helping our family members.
3. Mt. Sinai and Halacha (Jewish law)
The Jews did not leave Egypt and make it directly to Tel Aviv. On the way, they stopped at a place called Sinai. One cannot ignore the revelation at Sinai, and it matters not if one is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular.
At Sinai our family bequeathed to all of us special glasses, through which we view the world. We made a covenant with God, committing ourselves to live according to certain principles:
a. To testify to God's existence. This is a particularly noble task in a secular world. The worst fate awaiting humans is that they believe that they are god, not seeing their own limitations. We are here to tell them that the job is taken.
b. To better this world.
c. To live life so that we deepen and empower our memory. Without memory there is no future.
4. The Land of Israel and the State of Israel
The entire land of Israel is a storehouse of Jewish memory. Even if we control all or most of it, it remains central and ultimately important to us as Jews.
I attach the greatest importance to Jews visiting Israel. Not only because I wish to encourage aliyah, but also because one cannot be a Jew today without a connection to Israel. This Land is the home of Jewish memory. The State of Israel is important to us for many reasons. One is the fact that until sixty years ago the most common description of the Jew was a refugee - a wanderer, the wandering Jew. The State of Israel erased that phrase from the slate, a change of import to every Jew. You do not arrive in Israel as a tourist. You come to Israel to explore your soul, and to meet the place that converted your family from refugees to those who will never again lack a homeland. We cannot survive as a people without a sovereign home.
5. The Hebrew Language
One Sunday in Omaha Nebraska my hosts suggested I visit the Sunday school. Twenty-five ten year olds sat there, as a teacher tried to get them to learn a foreign tongue.
I looked at their faces, and saw there the suffering of my people. I asked them: "Why do you pray in Hebrew?" I was told: "Because God does not understand English."
Jews pray in Hebrew because for all time they have done important things in their own cultural language.
Hebrew is essential to the Jewish People because language carries a culture from one generation to the next.
We were wrong. We misled ourselves and others when we stated that Hebrew was dead language, revived over 100 years ago. That is not true. We inherited a living language, and made it into a spoken language. Every law responsum across two thousand years was written in Hebrew. Other Jewish languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Mugrabi, etc.) are living proof that some things can be expressed only in Hebrew.
The Hebrew language is filled with concepts central to our lives today. Jews around the world must speak to each other with a language with deep ties to Jewish memory, recalling that our connection is familial.
If we relate to Hebrew not as a simple means of communication, but also as a way to meet our forebears and to speak to them, we can build a meaningful, thriving future for the Jewish People.
The author was the founder of Melitz, its President for thirty years and is now President Emeritus. The following excerpts appeared in a Hebrew volume published in his honor by Melitz, November, 2001.