Day Four – A Rabbi and a Rebel

Today, we heard two stories, one, a significant individual from Israel’s past, the other a prominent Orthodox Rabbi very much involved in the current spiritual life in Israel.

Rabbi Ian Pear

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Our morning began with a conversation with Rabbi Ian Pear. From his recent book, Accidental Rabbi, Pear is described as a:

Rabbi, lawyer, and social activist living in Jerusalem.  He is the founder of Shir Hadash, a popular Jerusalem based synagogue, Educational Institute and Community Center, as well as an expert  and activist in Israeli and Jewish environmental law.

In his book, Pear describes the capacity Israel has to be a more transformative force in the world today – an “essential role” – by being true to its historical spiritual and philosophical traditions founded on the Torah.  His book deals with the wisdom and contemporary relevance of the Torah and how that wisdom can – and should! – inform modern Israeli life and through Israel bring “positive change for the word at large.”

We met at Shir Hadash, the synagogue, where Rabbi Pear serves:

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Our conversations centered how the State of Israel, as a state, is essential in this transforming

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In our wide-ranging conversation, Rabbi Pear:

  • Described how a proper understanding of the Torah can inform solutions to problems faced by all societies, not just Israel.
  • Described how modern day Israelis look at the nature of the State of Israel
  • Described how Jews in the state of Israel look at the occupied territories.
  • Proposed a “solution” to the “problem” of the occupied territories.

The Rabbi started by describing how the Torah, properly understood, can assist in developing a more humane, compassionate, and just society.  He referenced the how the Torah dealt with the issue of slavery, as just one example.  He noted that, according to the Torah, slavery was an “abomination” but sometimes a social reality (necessity?), and if an Israelite were to ever “own” a slave, the arrangement was to be short-lived.  In addition, the slave was to be so well-treated (fed, clothed, paid) that, in effect, the slave was to become the “master.”  Rabbi Pear used this as just one example of the Torah’s commitment the poor, to what we now call social justice and just one instance on how rabbinic law, based on the Torah, could inform a more just society.

The State of Israel plays a critical role in God’s command for Jew to become a “light to the nations,” for it is in the application of Torah to the challenges of modern life that the world can see its wisdom and relevance.  This outworking of rabbinic law, requires a “test tube” where these principles can be demonstrated and justified.  It is imperative, then, that Jews have a state that allows the integrity of Judaism to be maintained and this social experiment continued.

According to Rabbi Pear, the problem of the Occupation is one that many Israeli-Jews wish would simply “go away,” and that if an exchange could be made, another “land for peace” swap, most Israeli-Jews would take it “in an instant.”  What prohibits this, according to the rabbi, is that there is no way to ensure the security of Israel in an independent, Palestinian-governed West Bank, Palestinian authorities again-and-again demonstrating their unwillingness to acknowledge a sovereign state of Israel.

A proposal for peace:  A single state with guaranteed that the state be an “Israeli state.” For the reasons listed above, Jewish people need a state in which to continue their theological, even existential, mission to be a light to the nations.  This mission is tied to the land in a way in which it is not so for Palestinians.

This all-too-brief summary of this remarkable rabbis remarks serve as representation of the common (majority?) opinion of the orthodox Israeli.  In short:

  • Jewish-Israel needs the land in a way that Arab-Israelis do not.
  • The abuses of human rights in the Occupied Territories is reprehensible, but over-reported.
  • The two-state solution is impossible (for security reasons) and the best hope for peace would be a single state with guaranteed Jewish-Israeli rights.  A complicated business to-be-sure, but a possibility worth considering, in his opinion.

Thoughts/impressions

As our group processed our time with the rabbi, we expressed an appreciation for the experienced and could not help but be impressed with his thoughtfulness, knowledge of the rabbinic traditions, and sensitivity to the current issues confronting life in Israel today.  He exhibited what appeared to be a genuine commitment to peace, justice, and reconciliation.  He expertly summarized Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Jewish thinking and how each groups views the current political and social issues in the country.

As the rabbi talked, we were well aware that we were receiving a perspective, a decidedly Orthodox Jewish perspective situated in the current state of Israel.  Those in our group who had visited the West Bank, and have viewed the conflict from the perspective of the occupied, thought the rabbi “understated” level of Israeli oppression and that his explanations of the violations – that they were overstated, and often the result of over-zealous, 19-year old IDF soldiers – was not compelling.

His proposed modified one-state solution (a single state with a guarantee of Israeli-right protection) was intriguing.  His solution, much like

That said, the rabbi was a most engaging, knowledgeable speaker.  We left thinking it would be a most intriguing idea to have the rabbi debate a representative from B’Tselem, our host from yesterday.

The Rebel: Menachem Begin

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We next visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.  Israel does not have a presidential library history, as we do in the United States, and not every former Israeli prime minister has a dedicated to his or her accomplishments.  Menachem Begin’s place in modern Israeli life almost required this kind of memorial.  Most certainly, this representation of his life advanced an hagiographical account of his life – highlighting his military and political accomplishments and understating his failures (misdeeds, crimes??) in each area.  As is often said:  One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, which can most certainly be said of the former primer minister.

I wont go into the details of Menachem Begin’s life – that is easy enough to do with a simple read of the Wikipedia entry.  Suffice it to say, his inclusion at this stage of our trip added to the story of Israel from the Israel perspective.  It is a story that is both owned by many in the country who are members of the dominate political and ethnic group, and the lens through which they see modern life.  It is also a story at odds with others in the land who do not enjoy their advantages.

We are beginning to gain a better understanding of the competing narratives in Israel-Palestine.  Our time has been, at once, enlightening, disturbing, enriching, infuriating, and inspiring.

Much more to see – much more to learn!!