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Last week's 10th annual Herzliya Conference on policy and strategy devoted one of its panel discussions to "Teaching Jewish Identity and Heritage."

Two of the speakers - MK Yuli Tamir, a former minister of education, and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Stern, a former chief education officer in the army - have proven track records in the field in question. The third panelist was Rabbi Aryeh Deri, the former Shas party leader, who spent two years in jail after being convicted of accepting bribes, and of fraud and breach of trust. Because they are considered crimes of "moral turpitude," Deri was subject to a seven-year period, only recently ended, during which he was forbidden from again holding public office. While hardly an authority on education, culture, heritage and the like, he may well have some opinions on Jewish identity.

As was expected, Deri bemoaned the fact that for the last 200 or so years, Jewish culture and Judaism have not been synonymous. He pooh-poohed the whole concept of "secular Judaism," declaring that it "brought us Haskalah and maybe 'Big Brother,' but Jewish culture that provides a new Jewish language? This it did not bring."

This sounded like another patronizing rebuke by someone who sees himself sitting on a fully loaded wagon (of Jews whose identity is rooted in religion), while expecting passengers in the nearly empty wagon (i.e., secular Jews) on the same road to allow it to pass.

The origin of the image of the two wagons - a metaphor that is meant to describe the relations between the two primary parts of Jewish society, and one that crops up frequently in public discourse - can somehow be traced back to a meeting on October 22, 1952, between then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (1878-1953), a leader of the Haredi community in Israel, popularly known as the Chazon Ish. The context was a discussion of National Service, which was supposed to be a framework for religious women exempt from army service that would allow them to participate in the communal life of the young state. Orthodox leaders were horrified by the very idea, and Ben-Gurion decided to raise the issue - which embodied the problematic nature of coexistence between the religious and non-religious populations - with the person widely accepted as the most authoritative on such matters within the ultra-Orthodox community.

After visiting the rabbi's house the day before the meeting with the prime minister to finalize the arrangements, Ben-Gurion's military secretary, Nechemia Argov, who sensed that his boss was going to be snubbed, advised him to give up the idea.

Prior to that, ultra-Orthodox writer Moshe Sheinfeld wrote in an editorial in the Agudat Israel newspaper Digleinu (with thanks to the eminent expert on Haredi matters, Prof. Menachem Friedman, for providing the quotes) that the planned encounter was one of "many that took place historically, between the heart of Israel and the ruling fist." In that article, Ben-Gurion is mentioned in the same breath as the wicked King Ahab and the Roman ruler Vespasian, who ordered the destruction of the Second Temple, and the whole meeting is presented as one between the "holy side" and the "other side" (sitra achra in Aramaic, a term used usually to denote the devil). The Haredi press saw the encounter as a test that Ben-Gurion had to pass, something akin to a pilgrimage to Canossa (according to "Pe'er Hador," five volumes of testimonies about the Chazon Ish, collected and edited by his followers).

Ben-Gurion summed up the meeting with the Chazon Ish in his diary, but does not mention wagons, or any halachic ruling. However, his secretary, the future fifth president of Israel, Yitzhak Navon, who was the lone witness and recorded minutes of the meeting, wrote that the premier asked the rabbi how the religious and non-religious communities can coexist in one state, and the rabbi answered by citing a halakhic ruling about two camels on a narrow road, which stated that the one carrying a heavy load has right of way over the unburdened dromedary.

Indeed such a ruling is described in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud: "As it has been taught: Justice, justice shalt thou follow. The first [mention of justice] refers to a decision based on strict law; the second, to a compromise. How so? Where two boats sailing on a river meet - if both attempt to pass simultaneously, both will sink; whereas, if one makes way for the other, both can pass without mishap. Likewise, if two camels met each other while on the ascent to Beth-Horon - if they both ascend at the same time, both may tumble down into the valley. But if they ascend after each other, both can go up safely. How then should they act? If one is laden and the other unladen, the latter should give way to the former. If one is nearer to its destination than the other, the former should give way to the latter. If both are equally near or far, make a compromise between them: the one which is to go forward compensating the other which has to give way."

Sheinfeld is quoted in "Pe'er Hador" as saying that the Chazon Ish, in answering Ben-Gurion, cited the example of the two boats. The emphasis was on the value of the load they ostensibly carried, the implication being that the cargo carried by the religious boat was worthier than that on the secular one.

One thing was clear, however: This was not about wagons at all. In his doctoral thesis on the Chazon Ish, forthcoming in book form, Dr. Benjamin Brown, of the Hebrew University, gives credence to Navon's testimony that camels were mentioned, as opposed to Sheinfeld's assertion that the Chazon Ish discussed boats. This is in particular because the prime minister's secretary recalled the rabbi describing religious people as being, like a camel or other beast of burden, saddled with the yoke of Torah study and observance of mitzvot - which is why their secular brethren, unfettered by similar obligations, should yield to them. Ben-Gurion retorted that the latter carry the onerous burden of building a nation, of fighting for and protecting the state. At that point, the dialogue turned into a sort of "chicken-and-egg" argument, with the Chazon Ish claiming that the Torah studies of the religious make possible the very existence of secular Jews, while the premier pointed out that it was the other way around. Navon summed up that both sides reiterated their views but did not budge.

For his part, Brown believes that the simile of the wagons joined the convoy of interpretations in the Haredi press based on the boat example, and has remained in common use since.

On the way out, Ben-Gurion remarked to Navon that the Chazon Ish was a humble Jew, and mentioned his "beautiful and wise eyes." Little did he know that, according to Sheinfeld, the Chazon Ish, who was short-sighted, had removed his glasses before the meeting - a bow to the sages' admonition "not to look in the villains' face." The manner in which Haredi publications described the meeting should be a lesson to this very day to secular politicians who embark on pilgrimages to the homes of Haredi rabbis prior to elections.

So, anyway, there was Aryeh Deri last week, pontificating about Jewish identity before a predominantly secular audience. "The idea that the world was created as a result of a collision must vanish. We must realize there is a Creator and one power running the world," he declared. "We must all accept the basics, and understand that Abraham first worshiped idols and then came to realize the greatness of the Lord. After we all understand the Torah was given at Sinai, then there is room for discussion, differences of opinion and dialogue."

Hearing that made me realize that 58 years after the meeting between the Chazon Ish and Ben-Gurion, Deri keeps thinking that the camels, or the boats (not the wagons!), are still at loggerheads and that he himself is riding high on the heavily laden one. And he is quite a burden.

One is tempted to whisper into Deri's ear that he is also entitled to believe that the earth is flat and that babies are delivered by storks, and that there is room for discussion on these issues too. Furthermore, one could add that without the Haskalah, which Deri magnanimously accepts as an accomplishment of secular Judaism, it is doubtful whether the State of Israel would have come into being. Or whether, for that matter, Deri would have been able to pursue a career in politics, and Haredim would have been able to complete academic degrees, something Deri is proud of. But why confuse camels, or boatmen, with facts?