The Knesset's New Conversation: Balancing Jewish Tradition and Democracy

The unprecedented number of Jewishly-engaged Knesset members is an opportunity to demonstrate that Israel's politics can be Jewish, religious and democratic, too. The new Knesset must also strengthen its dialogue with Diaspora Jews on critical, shared religious and women's issues such as agunot.

Aliza Lavie
Aliza Lavie
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Aliza Lavie
Aliza Lavie

The recent elections in Israel brought with them a spirit of change in the way Jewishness and Israeliness interact. Forty-eight new Knesset members were elected to the 19th Knesset. In other words, almost half of the Knesset’s members were replaced, changing the Knesset’s makeup overnight.

The speeches by Knesset members for the opening session provided a fascinating opportunity to see one form this major change has taken.

Over the past few weeks, most of the country’s attention has focused specifically on the maiden speeches made by new Knesset members. Every new MK came to the Knesset with his or her own stories. They grew up in different environments, were employed in various fields and lived life according to their own beliefs.

Their maiden speeches expressed this individual aspect as well. It was fascinating to see how almost every new MK spoke about 'the Jewish experience' from a personal angle. Some chose to quote from the Bible, while others chose to offer a prayer. Still others told about the Jewish thinkers and leaders who inspired them. One even devoted her speech to the study of an issue in the Talmud.

This occurrence is the direct outcome of a trend that has become prevalent in Israeli society in recent years: interest in Judaism and an individual's search for their roots within it. This interest is not imposed from above. It does not come from teaching or preaching, but from a genuine thirst at the grassroots level. More and more young people want to take the long-neglected Jewish toolbox out of the attic and start using it.

They seek an authentic answer in the form of renewal of past traditions and patterns that once existed, but have now vanished. They are taking a new look at Jewish practice, which played such a major role in the past. They are trying to understand the Jewish story and connect it to a contemporary Israeli identity.

This is the great message that the new Knesset brings with it: The ability to include opposing points of view, and not (only) the rift between them, in the conversation.

This is an opportunity to replace the idea of “either/or” with “this and that at the same time” – Jewish, religious and democratic, too. The religious person within me is the connection to the past and its traditions. The democratic person within me is the bridge to all the people who are different from me, but with whom I still have a great deal in common.

Another message that the new Knesset brings is the impressive presence of women in Israel’s parliament. Twenty-seven women were elected to the current Knesset, more than to any other Knesset in history, and three faction heads are women. The results meant that of the 19 elected members of Yair Lapid's party that were elected, eight of them were women, making history for my female colleagues in Yesh Atid and I in terms of the proportion of women in our faction.

While there is still much room for improvement, we should not ignore the significant progress in the area of women’s representation. This aspect, too, can and should be connected to issues relating to Judaism. One of the first things I did in the Knesset was to organize a conference on International Agunah Day [which takes place every year on the Fast of Esther to call attention to the plight of agunot/mesuravot get: Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce, preventing them from remarrying], which many Knesset members from several factions attended.

In the past, I attended quite a few Knesset hearings on the problem of agunot, but this conference had the largest number of Knesset members in attendance that I can remember. There’s hope that together with its message, the 19th Knesset brings with it a responsibility and a commitment to solve, during this term, the problem of women whose husbands refuse to give them a religious divorce in particular, and to strengthen the status of women in general.

World Jewry is undergoing a similar process. Visits to various communities in the Diaspora leave me with the impression that more and more women and men wishing to strengthen their connection with Jewish tradition are creating projects for developing Jewish identity.

Organizations such as Limmud, Taglit and Hillel, together with projects that focus on tikkun olam (“repairing the world,” usually social action) – show that the community has taken up the reins in its understanding that responsibility for Jewish identity is no longer in the establishment’s hands. One of my strongest memories from my lectures in the United States is the adult education program at Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a Congregation that chose not to align themselves with a particular post-denominational community. Its members come to study Jewish texts, become acquainted with them, touch them and expand their minds.

The key to the renewal of Jewish practice is in learning communities like Eitz Chayim’s, where a future generation of Jews is growing up. There is a reason why many young people in America choose to define themselves as “simply Jewish.”

The many solutions that the Israeli Knesset will find for issues such as women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce and other problems in Jewish life will affect Jewish communities abroad as well. Cooperation and joint study are critical, shared interests for Jews in Israel and around the world – interests that we must do all we can to strengthen and nurture.

Dr Aliza Lavie is a member of Knesset for the Yesh Atid party.

An auspicious path to the Knesset. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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