From Israel #1: The Bitter and the Sweet


Dear Friends,

There is a moving Israeli song about "hamar v'hamatok" — "the bitter and the sweet " in this country. This past two weeks, I have experienced four different aspects of sweetness and bitterness in Jerusalem:

Sweet Torah learning with great teachers and impassioned students;

The sweet celebration of a radical rebbe long forgotten in her grave, whose memory we joyfully resurrected while mourning the bitter rejection she faced in her lifetime;

The bitter experience of hearing one more triumphal celebration of the agonies facing Israel and her Palestinian neighbors as if they were brilliant successes of Israeli policy;

Most bitter of all, yet with a faint taste of hope, actually seeing the Fence/Wall in all its huge forbidding frown, separating people from their farms and orchards, separating peoples from each other in a tragedy of lost possibilities of peace.

The sweet processes I will explore in this letter; the more bitter ones, in another. I hope we can all keep them both in mind. Together they remind us to see all the faces of Israel not only the bitter ones that some demonize, nor only the sweet ones that some sanctify.

It is not just the country as a whole that tastes so bitter-sweet. In the most bitter-sweet of ironies, it was the same arena — the Shalom Hartman Institute — that housed both some of the best Torah study and some of the most troubling policy commentary I have heard not only troubling in itself, but far worse in its one-sidedness.

So let us look first at what was sweet for us:

At the Hartman Institute, Phyllis and I found mind-expanding and soul-stirring study of Bible, Talmud, Maimonides, with extraordinary teachers:

Aviva Zornberg, who wove poetry, psychoanalysis, art, and many different strands of Torah commentary into a brilliant reexamination of Eden, Isaac, and the journey in the wilderness;

Art Green and Menachem Lorberbaum, who taught on how Kabbalah and Rambam (respectively) imagined the ideal Jew, opening up the deepest and the broadest journeys of the Jewish spirit in the past. Sparking a special delight for me, as I saw how Rambam had woven into Torah the Politics of Aristotle that I studied line by line, page by page, in graduate school almost fifty years ago.

Daniel Gordis, teaching on how the debate over "Who Is a Jew?" masks the deeper and far more important question, "What is a Jew, what should the Jewish people become?"

Rabbis from America, thirsty for time to stretch their minds and spirits past their exhausting sacred congregational work, learning together in twos and threes of excited conversation.

All this in a sumptuous building, which provides office space as well for scholars to read and write.

This comes of course at a cost, financial and it seems to me — religious and intellectual and political.

The Hartman leaders report that the financial cost is six million dollars a year, mostly paid for by raising money from large donors in America. Tuition, paid for by the participating rabbis and well-heeled lay folks, covers one million dollars a year of the costs. These learners (or their congregations) also pay for their own travel, rent, and living expenses for their stay in Jerusalem.

The Hartman leadership asserts that this program would cost fifty million dollars in America.

Perhaps so, if the yardstick is a sumptuous building in a major city; yet the Elat Chayyim retreat center in the Catskills is able to provide a six-week-long summer study program of one-week-long multiple-choice courses, plus many festival and weekend and week-long courses throughout the year, with extraordinary teachers, amazing food, pleasant country fields and woods, with all room and board included, at similar tuition charges and an over-all cost of less than a million dollars a year.

Perhaps a deeper cost is that Hartman provides a limited vision of what both Torah-study and social policy should be. The deeply troubling public-policy choices I will address in a separate letter. In regard to Torah-study, though it is excellent within the forms Hartman understands, it is also not living on the creative edge of new forms of Torah-study that have emerged in America. For example, there is no equivalent of the Bibliodrama reinterpretation of Torah through improvisational midrashic drama created by the learners — that Peter Pitzele has taught at Elat Chayyim.

And for this program, Hartman does not use such simple and fruitful approaches as asking groups of seven or ten to share their moments of Jewish or spiritual growth, so as to become a community. (They do use this practice in other study groups.)

Similarly, though Hartman leaders praise their own work as sparking the rebirth of Judaism, neither feminist Judaism nor eco-Judaism nor neo-Hassidic prayer nor the new forms of Jewish chant and meditation nor the fusion of ritual and political action in Passover Freedom Seders and Tu BShvat and Sukkot actions to heal the earth, were born there. Even worse, only shreds of these new approaches to Judaism have been incorporated into Hartmans work.

What Hartman provides is traditional Torah-study through the lens of Modernity. And that it does superbly.

Beyond the Hartman experience, last Sunday Phyllis and I joined about 50 other people in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives above Jerusalem to rededicate a grave an old one. More than a century old.

It was the grave of Chana Rochel of Ludomir in the Ukraine. She was the learned and charismatic woman who, during the mid-19th century, taught and healed as a Hassidic rebbe. She was the only woman who ever did, and a single woman at that. — Then a group of male rabbis in her region forced her to marry against her will, expecting her to become a normal wife and lose her independence.

But instead she annulled her own marriage for having been made by coercion, and escaped their excommunication by moving to Jerusalem. In those days, that was the margin of the Jewish world, not controlled or organized enough that anyone could treat her like an outcast. So there she was able to carry on her work especially with Jewish and Arab women until she died in the late 1880s.

The site of her grave was lost till recently. Even now, as Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan who organized the rededication explained, some uncertainty remains about whether the grave is surely hers. But, Ruth added, a sense of mystery perva des the lives of all the great rebbes and the deaths of many.

As we chanted Psalms and recited Biblical verses that begin with the letters of her name, we added our own blessings and stories to her memory.

Most of these celebrated the changes in the Jewish world that had made it possible to honor this pariah from the past.

I added the blessing that the visionaries of the present, whether women or men or of other gender categories not exhausted by those two choices, whether Jewish or from other communities and traditions — those voices crying out in the wilderness today as Chana Rochel had cried out in her own generation — have our support in growing fruitful lives, not uprooted from their own deepest understandings of Gods will.

These sweet experiences all happened in the context of a people busily at work, happily at play: children jabbering in Hebrew, falafel stands serving hungry passersby, streets named for ancient rabbis great and small, floods of automobiles on Friday afternoon shrinking to a very few on Shabbat.

And another truth— a far more bitter truth—also woven in the fabric of the nation.

For that, another letter.

Shalom, Arthur