Judaism Asks More of Us

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Judaism Asks More of Us

Transforming this vision from the theoretical to the practical is certainly not simple and will not be without opposition.

Oped by Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander   | November 5, 2020 

When I immigrated to Israel just over two years ago, I carried along with me a small suitcase. It was given to my father and his family by the US Army in 1950 in a displaced-persons camp before they moved to America to begin their lives anew. Sixty-eight years later, as I made my way from America to Israel with my wife and our youngest son, we brought the suitcase on its final trek, to its final resting place in the sovereign state of the Jewish people.

The suitcase is a microcosm of the experience of Jews in the Diaspora. For centuries we have lived under the dominion of other nations, at best tolerated, and often disenfranchised and persecuted. Our interactions with our non-Jewish neighbors were thus always colored by fear and animosity as we attempted to maintain a strong Jewish identity and fend off the ever-present threat of persecution. In the face of this uncertainty, our figurative suitcases remained constantly by our front doors. It is only when we arrive home that we can truly unpack.

Yet even today, more than 70 years since the birth of the state, we still carry this diasporic baggage with us. The “suitcase” mindset of fear and suspicion vis-à-vis non-Jews has yet to be fully resolved. In fact, many Jews who have made their way to Israel still cling to the illusion that living in our own state can finally free us from interactions with other peoples and other faiths altogether. After all, this is our state. Can’t we finally be left alone?

I believe Judaism asks more of us.

Living in our own land demands answers to more than simply how to tithe produce en masse and maintain a power grid on Shabbat. If we believe, as the prophets and the rabbis share with us, that the redemption of the Jewish people is part and parcel of the final redemption of the whole world, then we are charged to reexamine and reshape our relationship with the other peoples of the Earth. Doing so will require thinking anew, creating halachic (Jewish legal) and philosophical literature on how we, as an independent member of the family of nations, face the “other,” not subserviently, but as equals and even from positions of power and strength. And as Israel and its Middle East neighbors are forging pathways toward peace – even utilizing religious language in the process – these issues are becoming critically important for our religious community.

Transforming this vision from the theoretical to the practical is certainly not simple and will not be without opposition.

HOWEVER, IF we are to develop a halachic and Jewish philosophic approach that defines the relations between the Jewish people and non-Jews, with the goal of producing new thinking that will inform our educational teachings, communal norms and national policy, then we must adopt an all-new mindset rooted in the teachings of the Talmud, Maimonides, Rav Kook and Rav Herzog.

We must finally prioritize interfaith education amongst our rabbis and rabbaniyot, develop new curricula for our educators and students, and create a framework to train our leaders and public intellectuals. While the concept might sound dramatic to the ears of some, we, as Orthodox Jewish leaders, must act as catalysts for promoting meaningful interfaith understanding that is deeply rooted in our commitment to Torah and Jewish peoplehood.

We need to explore the meaning and contemporary applications of halachic concepts such as ger toshav (“resident alien”), lo techanem (prohibitions relating to idolaters in the Land of Israel), ahavat hager (“love of the stranger”), Israel’s responsibility to respect its non-Jewish minorities while maintaining its Jewish identity, and the Jewish state’s relations with the nations of the world.

I am all too aware of those who remain ambivalent regarding interfaith relations in Israel, particularly with Muslim communities, claiming it is merely a cover for extreme pacifism. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Engaging with other peoples and faiths need not, and must not, mean compromising on our loyalty to the safety of the State of Israel and the men and women of its armed forces, including the more than 550 students from Ohr Torah Stone institutions currently serving in intelligence and combat units. On the contrary, the unfolding redemption requires that we rise to the challenge of navigating the complex dynamics of understanding and engaging with our Arab Christian and Muslim neighbors, even as we ensure our national security.

Amid the sweeping winds of normalization that define our region today, we have a national responsibility to turn over a new leaf in our relationship with Israeli minorities and the peoples and faiths around us.

As I look upon my father’s suitcase, I am all the more motivated to ensure that this final voyage it has taken is defined by meaning and purpose.

Our goal is, simply put, to help bring the final redemption – not merely to build for ourselves a passing peace, but to embark on a journey toward wholeness and solidarity with the entire human family. Through dialogue, cooperation and mutual understanding, we will, with God’s help, see with our own eyes the fulfillment of the prophecy, “For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name and serve Him with one accord.” (Zephaniah 3:9)

The writer is president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. His edited comments are from the opening of its Blickle Institute for Interfaith Dialogue. For more information: www.ots.org.il/blickleinstitute

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