Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist, writer and senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, spent a morning recently with 200 Reform Rabbis teaching that two passages in the Hebrew Bible embrace two different ways of engaging the world for Jews. Each begins with the admonition Zachor-Remember.
The first is in Exodus 22:21: “Remember, you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” The second is in Deuteronomy 25:17 – “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt.”
The first reminds us to avoid cruelty because we Jews have ourselves been the object of cruelty from Egyptian enslavement and throughout history. The second reminds us not to be naïve because when Amalek attacked our people from behind his intent was to destroy us.
Yossi noted that Pesach is the holiday when we’re called upon to avoid becoming cruel even in victory and especially towards our enemies, and Purim is the holiday when we’re reminded not to be naïve, and that security is of primary concern lest our enemies succeed in their goals to destroy us.
This past Shabbat we were betwixt Purim (which begins on Wednesday evening) and Pesach. Indeed, we live between these two holidays throughout the year.
Today’s Israel and the American Jewish community embrace both traditional Jewish streams. Both are authentic Jewish responses to our position in the world, and civility within our community is necessary to maintain our common purpose as a people and a nation.
Thankfully, many Israelis take seriously the tension between Israel’s humanitarian concerns and its security demands. There are no easy answers in navigating through these conflicting concerns, and we sitting here in America need to understand this and not presume that we know best and that somehow that Israel has sacrificed its morality. It’s not true.
If the conversation shifted from the crisis mode that’s motivated large portions of the Jewish people since the Holocaust, to a values mode, a new Zionist paradigm would emerge. We have had Herzl’s political Zionism, Ahad Ha-am’s cultural Zionism, Rav Kook’s religious Zionism, Zev Jabotinsky’s and Menachem Begin’s revisionist Zionism, and Avigdor Lieberman’s proto-fascist nationalist Zionism. Dr. Tal Becker, also of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, suggests a new kind of Zionism – “Aspirational Zionism.”
Aspirational Zionism asks these questions:
• How do Jewish values augment Israel’s democratic and pluralistic society?
• How do the moral aspirations of the Biblical prophet and the compassionate impulse of the rabbinic sages interface with contemporary ethical challenges?
• How do we Jews here, in Israel and around the world, fight the sinister intentions of our enemies bent on our destruction without sacrificing our moral sensibilities?
• How do we as a people genuinely pursue peace as a moral and quintessentially Jewish obligation in spite of the threat of war?
• And how do we support our Israeli brothers and sisters while also advocating on behalf of the equal rights and dignity of Israel’s minorities?
It’s distressing that inside Israel many pressing moral issues have been set aside by successive governments operating in the crisis mode. When pressed about the urgency of these other issues, they argue that the current crisis necessarily dictates the choices the government and security forces make.
Ironically, it seems that the Jewish world’s obsession with a crisis-based approach is creating its own crisis. The lack of sufficient attention to values is alienating too many Jews and is harming Israel’s image and legitimacy on the world stage. So often Israel’s supporters say, if only people knew the truth about Israel’s human rights record, its vibrant democracy and its commitment to the developing nations, people would understand, become less critical and more supportive and proud.
Purim is this week followed by Pesach next month. Each holiday speaks to us about fundamental values and life-lessons – not to be naïve on the one-hand, nor cruel on the other. That’s the tension in which the Jewish people lives and through which we Jews must navigate to both survive as a people and to maintain our tradition’s values.