Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shabbat and the Politics of Hope

Last night, Donniel Hartman delivered a lecture on the politics of hope in Israel —or as he put it, in Jewish terms, the Israeli politics of teshuvah. He offered some specifics, some concrete actions, that we can take to restore hope to our difficult discussions around peace and democracy in the Jewish state. More importantly, though, he spoke to the big picture, reminding us, in his words, that “is” should not blind us to the power of “ought.” In other words, realism about the current state of affairs must not make us so cynical that we lose a vision for the future.

It is, I think, very easy for us to use the bad behavior of others to justify our own inaction, pessimism, and despair. It is true: at the moment, we have a dearth of negotiating partners on the Palestinian side. The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Moderates cower, terrorist zealots rule the day. As Yeats put it, the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate conviction. Given this reality, it is no wonder that many Israelis—and diaspora Jews—have essentially abandoned the possibility of peace. But when we give up, we essentially give our enemies the power to corrupt our own souls. Without hope, without vision, we lose our raison d’etre as a state. We should be preparing for peace—and working for it—even (or especially) when we do not see it on the near horizon. This is at the core of what it is to be a Jew—to define ourselves by hope rather than to let others define us.


This morning, we were privileged to hear from Professor Avishai Braverman, a Labor party member of the Knesset. Dr. Braverman has a PhD in economics from Stanford, and a long, distinguished career, including a term as president of Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva and chief economic for the World Bank. He is the rare Israeli politician who exemplifies courage, wisdom and vision.

He focused on what he sees as the four major strategic issues facing Israel today, beginning with the principle of “two states for two peoples.” He suggested that the call for a one state solution—which would be the end of the Jewish nation—grows louder every day we fail to divide the land between us and the Palestinians. It is, in other words, in our self-interest to act quickly and boldly, even though the opposition remains recalcitrant.

Turning to the status of Israel’s Arab citizens, who live in the state itself rather than in the territories, he reiterated the urgency of action. For sixty years, Israeli Arabs have not been treated as equal citizens. The reasons for this are complicated, and can even be justified—but the discrimination remains both immoral and, from a policy perspective, unwise. Braverman suggested that we put a major infusion of money into education and social welfare for Israeli Arabs, who could potentially become an important bridge to peace. As the current government’s Minister of Minority Affairs, Braverman has the ability to make a significant difference here. He noted: “When I was president of Ben Gurion University, we launched a massive effort to educate the Bedouin population, which is growing larger and poorer. If we have learned anything, it is that the key to integrating the community lies with educating girls and women, and raising family income. He is also pushing to bring Israeli Arabs and Bedouins into high-ranking government and corporate positions.”

On the economic front, Braverman spoke against corruption and bureaucracy, and issued a clarion call for justice. He earned a loud round of applause from his audience when he declared, “We must denounce the great lie of economic history—the notion that cutting taxes for the super-rich will lift the middle class and the poor. This has never happened and it never will.” He called for political reform, proclaiming that good people do not want to go into politics in this nation because the government is so frequently a morass of corrupt bureaucrats. And he is working to raise the wages of teachers, recognizing that Israel’s future rests on the success of its beleaguered educational system.

Last but not least, MK Braverman called for a more pluralistic vision of Judaism, which speaks to the spiritual longing of young Israelis—who all too often go to India and Nepal in search of enlightenment rather than finding it at home.


Finally, the Hartman Institute’s founder, Rabbi David Hartman, spoke to our theme for the session in his shiur, “Shabbat as Response to Crisis.” In his trademark wise, heimish, and blunt manner, he reminded us that one way to deal with crisis is to create and enter an alternative reality. This is how Hartman defines Shabbat: a weekly leap into a different world, which we then try to bring back with us into our regular routine.

Rabbi Hartman pointed to the two understandings of Shabbat, both from Torah, and both mentioned in the Friday night Kiddush. Shabbat is zicharon l’ma’aseh b’reishit—a reminder of God’s creation—and zecher y’tziat mitzrayim—a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt. When we lift ourselves into the alternative reality of Shabbat, we take both of these understandings into account.

When we proclaim “zicharon l’ma’aseh b’reishit” we celebrate God’s creation, the gift of life. For six days, we use transform the raw materials of nature; on Shabbat, we celebrate the world as it is. The actions which are traditionally forbidden on Shabbat--m’lachah—are not about work, but using our human will to alter nature. Once a week, we shift our reality and surrender control.

And when we focus on zecher y’tziat mitzrayim, we remind ourselves that we must not treat human beings as avadim, as slaves. The Shabbat reality insists that we refrain from seeing human beings as instruments, which is to dehumanize them.


Rabbi Hartman finished with an important charge, which I have been thinking about a great deal as this two week seminar draws to an end. The question, of course, is: how do we take the heightened reality we enter on Shabbat—or during this sacred study time—and bring it with us into our daily lives? This is a real challenge. Moments of enlightenment are not so difficult to achieve; it is much harder and far less romantic to keep them alive day after day. Rabbi Hartman said: the alternative that lifts us out of crisis cannot be an escape. It must translate into the structure of the every day. We must bring kodesh—the holy—into chol, the ordinary. I hope that I am able to do this upon my imminent return to America.

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