Not Rhetoric, but Reality

Va'era By :  Marc Wolf Posted On Jan 8, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary | Israel

One of the more disheartening reports about Israeli society these days is that our brothers and sisters in Israel are simply not as concerned with the struggle for religious pluralism to the degree that we are in North America. Reporting this past week from the JTA, Ben Sales added his voice to the chorus of journalists writing about what many in the Diaspora consider to be of preeminent importance, but what many in the Israeli population are, at best, disinterested in. The last few months have seen a number of media-covered incidents during which activists for religious  equality at the Kotel have been publicly detained for violating the religious strictures defined by the ultra-Orthodox controlling interests of the Western Wall Plaza. A Facebook comment posted after the most recent arrest at the Western Wall stated the issue clearly: “If a Jew were arrested for expressing their Jewish identity in any other country, the world Jewish community would declare it anti-Semitic.” The North American Jewish community has been fighting this Orthodox control in the public and private spheres, but, as Sales writes, “Among the Israeli secular majority, such restrictions rank near the bottom of a long list of church-state issues they would like to address.”

Related to the broader issue of the strangle hold ultra-Orthodoxy has on religion in Israel, writer Yair Rosenberg, in a piece in Tablet magazine, wrote about the recent surge of the popularity of Tzohar, a more moderate Orthodox group maneuvering to gain control of the Chief Rabbinate. Its outreach to the ever-growing secular majority of Israelis has made it a popular alternative to the Haredim currently in control. Nonetheless, even though it is more moderate, Tzohar is still Orthodox, thus, Masorti and Reform marriages and conversions would not be recognized if the group was to assume control. Quoted in the Tablet piece, Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, argued against what many in the secular camp are regarding as progress: “I don’t want to have a moderate Orthodox service. Each [movement] has its own identity. That’s how it should be.”

Rosenberg contends that there is a fundamental disconnect between Israelis and American Jews with regard to this question. Citing an article written by Professor Yehuda Mirsky of Brandeis University, Rosenberg states that “Israelis and Americans are speaking two very different languages when it comes to Jewish life and practice, which stem from two distinct historical experiences.” Our denominational structure with its roots in Western Europe that we embrace and rebel against in North America is foreign to the Eastern European ancestry of much of Israeli ideology. As such, Rosenberg continues, “Secular Israeli Jews might not believe in Orthodox doctrine, but many respect it as the authentic representative of the tradition.” The result is the rampant disinterest that Israelis have for the flag of religious pluralism that we so fervently wave in the Diaspora. Is religious pluralism doomed in Israel? Do we have a hope of stirring the hearts of Israelis?

How do you liberate a people who don’t want to or can’t see the chains that bind them?

I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord. But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed [kotzer ru-ah] by cruel bondage. (Exod. 6:8–9)

At this poignant moment, when Moses has emerged as the liberator of the enslaved Israelites, they cannot escape from their bondage. Their situation has worsened since his arrival, and his rousing speech does not inspire them to dream or imagine the taste of freedom in their own land.

This passage from Parashat Va-era begs comment. There is an interesting Hebrew phrase that has intrigued commentators for ages, and describes what the Israelites were sufferingLiterally translated, and following Rashi’s comment on the verse, kotzer ru-ah is “shortness of breath” from the severity of the workload. Samson Raphael Hirsch sees the kotzer ru-ah more as a response to Moses than to the Israelite’s labor, and comments that they were drained from their current pressures and were impatient with his promise of the future. There was distance between Moses’s prophetic vision and their reality. It is a tragic scene: a liberator without a people willing or able to be liberated. Sent by God, poised and ready to fulfill a divine promise, Moses stands staring at the edge of an abyss of apathy. The Etz Hayim humash picks up on this theme:

The gap between Moses and his people was great. They were slaves, whereas he had grown up in the palace and had lived in the freedom of Midian. It may be that only one whose spirit had not been crushed by slavery could be capable of leading the people to freedom. (353)

Was it Moses’s personal story that did not move the people? Did they only see the privileged son of the palace and not the reluctant leader, embracing his Israelite birthright, who was inspired by the depths of their despair?

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, in his commentary on Parashat Va-era in Ha’emek Davar, wrote that it was the mindset of the Israelites that prevented them from responding to Moses’s call. The kotzer ru-ah—shortness of spirit—was theirs, and this interpretation is consistent with a number of other commentators. However, the Netziv writes that the avodah kashah—the cruel bondage, as the JPS Torah Commentary translates it—was not referring to the work they did in Egypt, but rather to the work they would need to do in the wilderness to become a free people serving God. Moses was suggesting a frightening paradigm shift. What was known and albeit cruel bondage in Egypt would be replaced by service to God. In the case of the Israelites, the unknown was truly more debilitating than the known. To move the slaves to embrace the freedom that Moses takes for granted requires not only rhetoric, but a tangible vision of reality.

The Netziv recognizes a distinction between Moses’s first call to the Israelite leaders earlier in the Exodus narrative and the one in this week’s parashah. When he first speaks to the elders of Israel, Aaron relates the vision that Moses conveys from God.

He performed the signs in the sight of the people and the people were convinced. When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage. (Exod. 4:30–32)

Not rhetoric, but reality. Aaron knows what would speak to the Israelites and shows them the signs and wonders. When Moses comes to speak to the people, he does not inspire them. Moses does not reach the people where they are, but rather attempts to stir them with the service of a God they do not know. How can he imagine he will move them to action? What they need is not Moses’s prophecy, but Aaron’s reality. Our God—their God—envisions a world that is radically different from service without purpose. Service to our God impacts how we live our lives, not just where we live them.

This is the essence of the struggle for the soul of Israel during its January election season. Religious pluralism will not gain traction by speaking in platitudes of religious freedom and democracy. Israelis must be moved to look beyond their current reality so that they may embrace a Judaism that is the expression of the entire People of Israel, not just the Chief Rabbinate. It takes leadership like Aaron’s—through reality as well as rhetoric—to show them that they can be not only Jews, but Jewish.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.