Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite

The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.


Southland Responds to Relief Needs

Prominent rabbis have been urging their congregations to give generously to Hurricane Katrina relief funds, the most prominent being one set up by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which had raised more than $500,000 by early this week.

The scope of the disaster is reaching Southland Jews through media reports and other sources. At Rancho Park’s Reform Temple Isaiah, Rabbi Zoe Klein received an Aug. 31 e-mail from a congregant worried about her relatives stuck in a New Orleans hospital.

“There is nine feet of water outside the hospital where they are staying,” the message read. “They have their two children, a friend’s child and my sister-in-law’s two blind parents with them…. The generators have run out of fuel.

“They think they will be evacuated by boat to a dry area and then hope to drive out of town if they can find a car…. Would you mind saying a prayer and exercising whatever pull you have with G-d….”

In Westwood, Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe told a Sept. 3 Shabbat audience of more than 900 that “the best way to insure both the decency and the safety of the human community is, when we are the lucky ones, to give a model of what it means to have open hands and open hearts.”

At Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Reform Rabbi Steve Jacobs said the hurricane’s aftermath is something that “has exposed the great poverty in America.”

Among the many temples collecting donations is the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City. “We’re going to send one check in the next few weeks,” said Rabbi Elazar Mushkin. “You do not read this [hurricane] as a judgment of God. Planets are formed, tectonic plates shift, earthquakes occur and sometime innocent people die.”

Some Sept. 3 bar and bat mitzvahs included hurricane donations, rabbis said.

Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge has collected more than 15,000 articles of clothing for shipping to Congregation B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge, La. B’nai Israel is providing shelter for 200-plus evacuees and requested clothing and baby items for immediate distribution.

Heading into the hurricane’s devastation zone were two leaders of the L.A. chapter of the emergency-response volunteer group, Hatzolah. Rabbis Tzemach Rosenfeld and Chaim Kolodny arrived in Montgomery, Ala., on Labor Day to help out for at least a week, bringing with them a suitcase loaded with kosher food.

“We never know who we’re gonna bump into,” Kolodny said.

By early this week, the situation seemed to have improved for Jewish residents and other hurricane victims who’d survived. Los Angeles Federation President John Fishel sent out an e-mail stating that most Jews appear to have been evacuated.

In addition, he had instructions for families attempting to reunite. “Any New Orleans evacuees can report their whereabouts to,” he wrote. “There may be students from the affected areas studying here in Los Angeles. If so, they are asked to contact Hillel.”

Fishel added that New Orleans’ Jewish leaders are asking Jews elsewhere to avoid contacting either the New Orleans or Houston federation staff directly, but “to do so through the L.A. Federation.”