The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv cultural divide became a Tisha B'Av media event this year by a simple juxtaposition of two scenes. In the Jerusalem sketch, people sat and mournfully recited the Book of Lamentations and kinot (lamentations) at the Kotel. In the Tel Aviv vignette, groups of young people cheerfully enjoyed themselves in the sidewalk cafes of "the city that never sleeps."
Tel Aviv's overt indifference to the significance of Tisha B'Av raised an uproar among Israel's religious party leaders. They quickly pledged they would solve this disturbing spiritual laxity by introducing legislation in the Knesset to declare Tisha B'Av a national day of mourning that required the closure of all restaurants and centers of entertainment.
As expected, the Left responded by denouncing the tyranny of a religious establishment that once again wanted to impose its will on all Israeli citizens. Tel Aviv, the symbol of secular life in Israel, would resist the forces of religious coercion, remaining a defiant bastion of freedom of conscience and individual liberty.
Throughout the predictable public display of righteousness and outrage that followed, I was troubled by the fact that no one bothered to ask seriously why so many Israelis ignore Tisha B'Av. What is the meaning and relevance of this commemorative day for so many Israelis who grew up within a living reality of national independence and self-determination? Why should they mourn the destruction of Jerusalem when they could be celebrating the renaissance of Jewish life and national independence?
I seemed to be alone in trying to understand how these Israelis viewed themselves as Jews, how they perceived Jewish history and whether they identified personally with its yearnings and hopes. Do they perceive their connection to Jewish history solely as an empirical fact or do they also sense its normative significance? Does solidarity with Jewish history lead one to confront alternate values and visions of life or is it an accidental, value-neutral fact of one's national origins?
If Jewish history does in fact make normative claims on one's life, then are the representatives of Shas or Agudat Yisrael entitled to mediate the content of that claim? Is the Knesset the proper forum from which to inculcate Jewish values and lifestyles?
Furthermore, what is the significance of mourning for the Temple or for the suffering of past exiles today? What is the meaning of Jewish memory in a functional utilitarian world? Is Tisha B'Av related exclusively to the destruction of the Temple? How was it related to our quest to return to our national homeland?
Unfortunately, these kinds of questions were not raised. Instead, attention was directed toward the political arena where the Haredi and Meretz and Shinui parties competed with one another for the distinction of saving Israel's Jewishness or its freedom and liberty. Rather than focusing on the meaning of being a Jewish country and on the nature of public versus private spaces in a Jewish society, the debate degenerated into an inane shouting match over whether Israel was either a free or a Jewish country.
The lesson of this pathetic spectacle is that we must replace the political rhetoric to which we have become so accustomed with a value discussion involving teachers, rabbis, and philosophers. We need thinking individuals capable of addressing the meaning of living in a free Jewish society without constantly undermining the integrity of rival views and judgments.
It is clear that such a discussion cannot take place within the Knesset with its political pressures and power struggles and it must involve leaders and educators from both secular and religious communities.
The discussion must be carried out among the people themselves, in an atmosphere of patient listening and without hysteria. The warnings issued by the Chief Rabbis and Haredi leaders that if restaurants were permitted to open in Tel Aviv in one instance, Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaShoah and Yom Kippur would next suffer the same fate - are expressions of hysteria, not invitations to reflect on and discuss the issues more seriously.
When arguments are actually aired today, those making them are appealing to nationalism and Jewish unity rather than to the personal meanings of Jewish practices and symbols. Instead of exchanging ideas, insults are hurled back and forth. "You're dividing the people ... destroying our heritage ... supporting Palestinian terrorism ... weakening our youth's connection to Israel."
In addition to the need for a serious discussion on the quality of a Jewish public space in Israel, Israeli citizens should take part in a referendum to decide how to resolve the conflict between the private and public domains in Israel. I recommend using the idea of God's having invited the people of Israel to decide whether to enter into a covenantal relationship at Sinai as a model indicating that free discussion can be understood as a form of imitating the way of the Lord. If using political power to legislate religious laws in the Knesset creates resentment against religious coercion, it should be rejected as an unacceptable expression of the way of Torah.
What will determine whether we choose the paths of legislation or education is our faith in the intelligence and maturity of Israelis to engage these issues openly and in a spirit of mutual respect. If we fail to create an open climate for a patient and extended value discussion, we will destroy the remaining possibilities for spiritual growth in Israeli society today. Instead of becoming a light unto the Jewish world, we will become a closed, parochial Jewish society that prefers obedience through legislation to conviction through argumentation.
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