Gil Troy: We should all turn toward Israel

Canadian Jewish News, 10-30-08

Five times a year, Israelis witness a strange sight. As they return to work after the first and last day of Sukkot, the first and last day of Passover, and the Shavuout holiday, some visiting North American and European Jews still observe the strictures of the “chag,” the holy day.

That these Diaspora Jews stick to their galut – exile – practices in the Jewish homeland when even the most pious Israelis have ended the holiday is absurd. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, should prevail

The bizarre practice of visitors to Israel observing the second days of holidays there highlights two disturbing trends. The Orthodox world suffers from a kind of autism about ritual, an inability to read subtle cues, to distinguish minor from major. More broadly, many Jews exhibit a condescending attitude toward Israel, forgetting Israel’s primacy within Judaism.

For starters, accompanying Orthodoxy’s welcome resurgence over the last few decades has been a disturbing stringency about far too many minutiae. Some – but not all – rabbis have lost their bearings. Some hector their congregants about the most picayune rules of kashrut while ignoring major sex scandals or other ethical lapses among congregants. Some gossips condemn neighbors in harsh, hateful and even violent terms for wearing dresses they might deem immodest by centimetres.

In fairness, the genius of Halachah, the Jewish system of law, lies in its focus on details. The strict attention to seemingly minor rituals has sustained Judaism through the millennia, preserving continuity, maintaining legitimacy and fostering an intensity in Jewish tradition. But focusing on details should enhance, not obscure, the major principles looming behind the minor acts. When ethical guidelines are ignored – or sacrificed – and when bigger principles are violated, ritual is distracting rather than reinforcing.

Rabbis must educate congregants about proportionality and intentionality. Maintaining the purpose behind the ritual is essential, and Jewish law should facilitate the broader quest to achieve a good, meaningful and ethical life. I once asked a rabbi what he thought about Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath obsessively yet acted in business immorally. He answered: “They are not Orthodox.” This rabbi understood that if you can’t pick and choose when it comes to rituals, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to ethics, either.

Of course, visitors observing the second day of holidays in Israel are not obscuring any lapses, ethical or otherwise. Still, maintaining this particular ritual diminishes the Holy Land, thus undermining a major Jewish principle to adhere to a more minor ritual.

Alas, more and more Jews seem to forget Israel’s primacy. Forgetting the blessings that flow from living in Israel, all too frequently, free, comfortable western Jews feel they are better off than their poor Israeli cousins. Too many fundraising appeals that caricature Israel as needy seemingly confirm this perception.

In truth, Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora face a major contradiction that most of them simply ignore. Despite devoting their lives to following every jot and tittle of Jewish law, they overlook the many mitzvot associated with living in the land of Israel. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Jews felt forced to remain in exile. Today, how can someone dedicated to following all of God’s commandments as fully as possible justify choosing to live outside the land of Israel?

I’m well aware of how explosive a charge this is, and how sensitive the aliyah issue is, so allow me to make a more modest proposal that will help restore some proportionality to the relationship. All Jews today should put the study of modern written and conversational Hebrew at the top of both communal and individual agendas. Studying modern Hebrew necessarily reorients people toward Israel, helping all Jews engage with Israel better.

And perhaps even more important for Diaspora Jews, putting Hebrew front and centre can prove humbling. Rather than demanding that our Israeli brothers and sisters speak to us in the particular language of our exile, we should make the effort – however trying – to speak the language of our people.

The great Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am said that just as the Jews preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved the Jewish people. Similarly, let future historians note that just as the Jewish people preserved Hebrew, Hebrew preserved – and redeemed – the Jewish people today.

 

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