Israel Sabbatical Thoughts and a Pressing Need
Having been in Jerusalem for most of the winter, I’ve been thinking a lot about Israel, my love-affair with it, and how that plays out in our lives in the UK, where we actually seem to live. Before sharing these, a little about what I did when not sitting the library staring at a laptop.
Although I usually visit Israel frequently, I hadn’t been there for two consecutive weekends in at least 20 years; this meant that my visits usually follow a pretty conservative schedule. But during my Sabbatical, I made it to a reasonable number of places around the country, mostly near to Jerusalem, although I did tour in the Galil and venture to the wilds of Ma’ale Gilboa. I particularly enjoyed visiting the Neot Kedumim nature reserve and hiking to Sataf, although, for the record, I’ve still never been to either Eilat or Bnai Brak. I’ve had wonderful Shabbatot with friends in Modi’in, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Kfar Sava, Efrat, and in various Jerusalem districts, as well as at Kibbutz Lavi. I’ve generally preferred to ‘sit in the audience’, although I did speak one Shabbat at the Eretz Hemdah community in Katamon; I also delivered a Friday-night shiur in Kfar Sava and I lectured to a post-graduate group at Bar Ilan University about the challenges facing Anglo-Jewry. In Ramat Beit Shemesh I was asked unexpectedly to speak at a Kiddush, although after I’d finished, I discovered that they’d confused me with someone else!
But the abiding memories of my extended stay will be of the pleasure of just being there: the sheer numbers of Jews; the view from the bus window of the incredibly beautiful Harey Yehudah; daily duchaning, the melting pot that is the National Library of Israel, where everyone from Chasidic men to non-religious women share ideas in a tolerant and open environment; the deafening Sephardic music so beloved by taxi-drivers; the small Shul which attracts the weirdest group of people imaginable; the American Christians on a solidarity tour wearing tzitziot tied to their belts; the man who could ‘prove’ to me that my watch didn’t need a new battery (and was right). It cannot be overemphasised that Judaism and Jewish life thrive best in Israel, not elsewhere, and although we do our utmost to create vibrant, meaningful Jewish experiences in the Diaspora, often even succeeding, they will always be a pale reflection of the ‘real thing’.
This thought leads me to more weighty matters. I have watched from afar the recent controversy over remarks about Israel from Mick Davis, a prominent Anglo-Jewish lay-leader. I won’t evaluate the entire saga here; both the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Ambassador offered considered responses at the time, as did pundits from across the political and religious spectrum. The debate will undoubtedly rumble on as to whether it is appropriate to criticise Israeli government policy, and if so, how, by whom, and in what circumstances. There is nothing new about this.
The Chief Rabbi was correct to point out that the debate over Davis’ remarks is a ‘sideshow’ (albeit one worthy of serious debate), given that many of Israel’s enemies base their policies on their principled denial of Israel’s right to exist. Yet this opinion is no longer confined to Arab administrations and would-be governments: while even a few years ago, questioning Israel’s legitimacy only occurred on the fringes of the British media, it is now disturbingly mainstream. And if, with a heavy heart, I admit that not all forms of anti-Zionism are anti-Semitism, denying Jews a right accorded to other peoples - self-determination in our historic homeland - surely is.
We dare not be oblivious to the impact of media delegitimisation, as well as from boycotts and anti-Israel campus activity. It has a ‘drip-drip’ negative impact on every member of the community, especially on those without strong convictions or a good grasp of the facts. It is no longer uncommon to meet Jews, especially young men and women, who have unintentionally internalised the narrative of Israel’s enemies, and at best are embarrassed by Israel and ambivalent about her legitimacy.
More important than debating the rectitude of criticising Israel, and perhaps even more pressing than fighting external threats, the community needs a strong and effective strategy to ensure that Jews of all political and religious affiliations are convinced of the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel and will promote and, when necessary, defend it.
Tenach, ancient and modern Jewish history and political thought are no longer just part of a rounded Jewish education, but are indispensable for meeting the exigent realities of an Israel-hostile environment. Many of our schools and other educational institutions already do this, some admirably. Yet it needs to be pushed higher up the agenda, especially among university and high-school students and in communities where few children attend Jewish schools.
Success in this area also confers other advantages. It transcends denominational and political feuds – a left-leaning liberal and a staunch religious-Zionist rightist may disagree fiercely about almost every aspect of Jewish life and certainly about how Israel should respond to its challenges, but can share a belief in the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to the Land and the synergy between Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. But most importantly, mobilising a corps of informed, Israel-positive activists, who comprehend and unabashedly celebrate the miracle of the Jewish return to the Land should enable us, rather than our detractors, to frame the Israel debate.
What I’ve Been Reading
As well as trying to complete my PhD, I managed to read a selection of books during my Sabbatical. Some I’d been meaning to read for years, others just took my fancy. By author, they are:
Yehuda Avner – The Prime Ministers
Several people recommended this book and I wasn't disappointed. It's an easy, absorbing read, packed with fascinating insights, heavy on adulation of Menachem Begin.
Eliezer Berkovits – Not in Heaven
I am a great fan of Berkovits and his ideas. The first 70% of this book is a sensitive and thoughtful description of the nature of halachah, its origins, function and development. However, I found the last section unnecessarily polemical, and much too radical in its objectives.
J. Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish – The Western Intellectual Tradition
I'd been trying to read this one since I was at university. Delightful and informative, it filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge of the period; it's a little dated, but excellent nonetheless.
Coelho's writings are at once intense and gentle. His conviction of the possibility of personal and world-wide transformation no matter the circumstances is endearing. He clearly has many influences in his understanding of human nature, including the Talmud. Thought-provoking, sometimes offensive, but always gripping.
Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist
I'd seen the film. but never read the book. I really liked it and it's encouraged me to persevere with Dickens.
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Adolescent
The least-known of Dostoevsky's five great novels, it is as insightful and dark as his others, excepting, perhaps, 'Devils'. It's also funny and easy to read.
George Eliot – Daniel Deronda
Christian Zionism in a novel form. I'd always wondered why there's a George Eliot Street in Jerusalem. It's very slow to get going, and a little fragmented, but it offers a fascinating glimpse of a vision for Jews in the Land from the perspective of a non-Jewish supporter.
A detailed academic, yet readable, study of the development of midrashic and other texts, with a lot of emphasis on modern and post-modern developments, including opposition to and defence of traditional readings, all focused on the impact of these changes on the complexion of the modern Jewish world.
Isaac Husik – A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy
A classic of 100 years ago. Not especially readable, but invaluable background for almost any modern Jewish philosophical enquiry. Not enough emphasis on more mystically-inclined mediaevalists, but a worthwhile read.
Kafka-esque, disturbing and thought-provoking. I particularly liked the former, and how it explores the nature of familial allegiances.
John Milton – Paradise lost and Paradise Regained
A bit of a struggle - just as well the Kindle has a built-in dictionary which includes references to Greek mythology. What I understood of them was rewarding, especially Milton's understanding of human character and angst, but I need to reread them with a commentary of some sort.
Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Troubling and, in places, incomprehensible. Nonetheless, his nihilism is overwhelming, as is his constant refrain of the power of humans in a godless (or god-dead) world. It's not hard to see how madmen could and have used his ideas.
Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
I surprised myself with this one, which I rather enjoyed, even though not very much actually happens. Proust's effortless portrayal of human interactions and his representation of memory, and specially the impact of involuntary thoughts, is remarkable. I am hoping to try the other seven volumes some time soon, at least before my next Sabbatical.
Charles Taylor – The Ethics of Authenticity
Challenging and powerful attempt to place individuality into an ethical context, balancing the need for authentic self-expression with responsibility to others and society. In many ways, a very Jewish approach.
Thoughts from a returning rabbi
It’s hard to believe that it’s almost over, but I will be returning to ‘normal’ in a few days, following a wonderful winter Sabbatical. I’ve spent much of the last few months in one of my favourite places in the world, the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where I’ve had the opportunity to study, write and consult world-class scholars in my field of Jewish studies; I have even managed to make good progress on my dissertation.
I’m finishing this period feeling renewed and refreshed in many ways: I have in mind ideas for family activities, exciting new projects for my community, fresh perspectives on Israel and Zionism, and complete courses that I hope to teach over the next year.
But most importantly for me, I’ve had the chance to think, something that is a rare and precious commodity. Away from the concrete commitments, deadlines for sermons, pastoral emergencies, meetings and teaching schedules that characterise my professional week, I’ve actually been able to think for the first time in years, not just about my research, but about every aspect of life. I brought my mp3 player to Israel, convinced that I’d need to fill the frequent lacunae with music; I’ve used it once.
Without space and time, essential issues scarcely surface, let alone get addressed – I cannot overestimate the benefit of having had an extended period of contemplation and self-discovery, with, I hope, some tangible, long-term results. While I appreciate that few are accorded the privilege of a Sabbatical, small snippets of personal time and space for contemplation can be carved from even the busiest of weeks. I know this because my wife has been doing it for years, despite juggling numerous overwhelming personal and professional responsibilities, including managing the rabbi. I know that many people, including me, are nervous of doing this: we wonder what fears, insecurities or unresolved issues will surface and so avoid it all costs, instead filling our spare time with noise and other diversions. Yet we sell ourselves short by not conquering these fears.
And during this period, I’ve come to realise something very important. If we don’t appreciate the need to give ourselves space and time, we are unlikely to recognise and encourage its fulfilment in others. For community leaders, this is a stark message: our ability to understand, guide and nurture growth in others is impaired by our neglect of our own emotional and cerebral needs.
I am truly grateful to Golders Green Synagogue and the United Synagogue, for granting me this period to think, and most of all, to my family, who have been wonderfully supportive, despite my extended absences.