Education Minister Naftali Bennett is getting something of a bad rap right now about the place of Jewish studies in Israel’s schools.
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“Studying Judaism and excelling in it is more important to me than studying math and sciences,” he told a conference of Jewish educators on Monday night. His adding , “For me, that’s hard to say” got somewhat less coverage.
Waffling aside, Bennett is asking an interesting question about the place of Judaism in an officially Jewish state where even most of its Jewish citizens don’t observe Jewish law and would probably fail a spot quiz on basic religious knowledge.
Should these Israelis be force-fed a Jewish education? Should the country’s buses and trains should observe the Sabbath even if the great majority of their passengers don’t? Should the army serve only kosher food? Should female singers be banned from official ceremonies, as many ultra-orthodox demand? If not, what makes Israel Jewish at all?
If we’re going to be an “Israeli state” – one that serves all its citizens, including the 20% who aren’t Jewish – what exactly will tie us together? Speaking Hebrew, eating hummus, bad manners and wearing black t-shirts to the office is pretty thin gruel for a nation to live on. Democracy, human rights, equality and the like are of a higher order, but the fact is you can get those anywhere in the West. They aren’t values that distinguish Israel from the rest or that Israelis can share as their own.
Far be it from me to try to solve these dilemmas in 700 words, but Bennett’s remarks about the role of Judaism as a source of spiritual strength, as valuable a commodity as a computer chip or a navigation app, is an easy one to address.
A light unto the nations
“Even as a high-tech power that exports knowledge and innovations to the world, we must be a spiritual power and export spiritual knowledge to the world,” he said at the conference. “This is the next chapter in our Zionist vision. That’s how we’ll return to being a light unto the nations. From Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of God from Jerusalem.”
In the vast corpus of Jewish religious writings, there are values spiritual and otherwise relating to our shared humanity, the place of God in the world, ethical values as pertains to economics, medicine and community life, and the value of free inquiry, just to name a few.
Because Jewish writings are part of a 3,000-year-old tradition, the fruit of vast times, places and people, these values are often expressed in ways that we find inaccessible these days. At best, it can be pleasure to ready and learn from. Ivanka Trump could and should have been citing the sage Hillel (“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”) rather than misattributing it to the movie actress and model Emma Watson.
But these are exactly the facets of traditional Judaism that the religious-right and Haredi world shy from. They do their best to ignore Judaism’s universalism in favor of a tribalist narrative that emphasizes our suffering at the hands of various oppressors, our absolute right to the entire Land of Israel and the punctilious observance of halakha . It is that tribalist narrative that is taught in the schools and declared in public forums. It has little to offer secular Israelis, it turns off a lot of religious Jews as well and it is certainly not the kind of stuff that can go forth out of Zion.
The real challenge for the schools and for Israeli society is not to push more Jewish content into day-to-day life, but to wrench it away from this narrative and restore its humanity. The raw material is there in the Bible, Talmud, the Rambam and Franz Rosenzweig. We just need someone to extract it and bring it to the public.