Dr. Michael Marmur's Address on "Jewish Identity and National Strength" Presented at the Herzliya Conference January 23, 2007

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Hebrew term translated at this conference and elsewhere as National Security or Strength, khosen, is a Biblical word. Remarkably enough, Rashi translates it to mean 'wealth', although these days it has different connotations. Perhaps this change in terminology illustrates one key usage of the term in the Bible (Proverbs 27.24): Lo Leolam Khosen, or as I choose to read this: security does not last forever. 

Lo Leolam Khosen - security does not last forever: we can repeat slogans about unity and resilience as much as we like, but it's a mistake to think that our children will be motivated by the same concerns and passions as the founding generation of Israel. 

Lo Leolam Khosen - things change. Fifty years ago exactly, Abraham Joshua Heschel visited here in Israel and addressed an Ideological Conference. This is what he said in 1957: 

If we agree that the existence of the people depends on the spiritual existence of the individual, then together with our concern for building and strengthening the State of Israel and Jewish communal institutions everywhere we have the important concern for the individual and his problems. To the individuals we say: "Do not detach yourself from the community," and to the institutions we say: "Do not detach yourselves from the individual."... The attachment of the individual to the people is not of lip-service or financial contribution but a commitment in thought and deeds.

Heschel went on to say: 

The gates of religion are closed. No one departs and no one enters. Those inside are not concerned with those outside. Those on the outside do not understand those who are within. The door has been locked to those who knock, and those who are anxious to enter grow weary looking for an opening. An approach has gained credence according to which either you accept everything or you reject anything. This approach drives away the great majority of our people. It's as if this approach is not willing to give up one iota of Halakha, but it doesn't seem to mind giving up masses of Jews.

Heschel's words were not well received. He told of this visit that he had spoken with soldiers who complained that the Army rabbis wanted to discuss whether the kitchen was kosher, but did not have a language with which to address the more significant question: are the deeds we have to perform kosher? This kind of talk was at odds with the founding narrative of the State, perhaps with justification. We were busy creating and defending a sovereign entity, and spiritual needs seemed to many to be an unaffordable luxury. 

Lo Leolam Khosen - times change, and one generation's sense of existential needs gives way to a new generation. With all the cause for doom and gloom, we should look around at what is happening in Israeli society. One extraordinary phenomenon is the growth of pre-Army Mechinah schemes, in which many of our brightest and best young people volunteer an extra year for the sake of study (across the ideological spectrum), social actionand community building. For these young people, Heschel's old call is no longer irrelevant. 

The question of religion has been raised here today, that great bugbear separating groups and philosophies. We have been asked: why don't we come out and put our religious beliefs on the table? So here I am, putting them on the table. I am a religious Jew, a member of one of the Liberal streams in Judaism. The point is that I think that God and Judaism are bigger than my definitions, and I don't want to waste all my time emphasizing the theological nuances which separate us. 

All over this country coalitions are being built in which Jewish Israelis are moving from alienation to reclamation, taking back their Jewish identities and refusing to stay outside the locked door. Whether they call themselves secular or Reform or Conservative or Modern Orthodox or something ekse is of some interest, but it's not the thing which matters most. 

Lo Leolam Khosen - as our sense of Israel's real security needs expands to include questions of identity, it's time to learn from the examples of many individuals and institutions present here today, and many more our in the field, searching for new Jewish Israeli ways to do Torah, to express sanctity, to work for the betterment of the world. 

It's time to recalibrate our definitions, and allow countless Israelis a way in, beyond the door which has been locked to them, and beyond which they may not have previously wished to venture. 


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