Ethical Demands Are Essential for Israel's Success
God has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God…
- Micah 6:8
In a recent discussion at the “tradition” committee of Shorashim's strategic planning process, detailed in this blog post, the topic was if and how to articulate norms of behavior that would express the “traditional” (masorti) identity of the community. When people ask, the usual answer has always been that at Shorashim, there is an unwritten tradition of respecting Shabbat in the public sphere: no communal activities that are not in the spirit of Shabbat (e.g., dance party, bus trip) – and the avoidance, by individual families, of activities that would affect their neighbors' Shabbat experience (e.g., barbecue, lawn mowing). Some people find this tradition burdensome or irksome; most are happy with it.
The following interchange took place at the meeting:
M: Why does it seem like the only expression we can find for our traditional identity is the catchphrase “no barbecuing on Shabbat.” Who even cares if the neighbors barbecue on Shabbat?
S: Well, then, what else can you suggest?
M: For example, it seems to me that a community that doesn't have a mutual aid fund, or a tzedakah collection mechanism, can't call itself “traditional.”
S: But those things have nothing to do with tradition: they express universal values!
S.’s view is typical of a wide swath of secular and masorti Israelis, as I have discovered over the years in informal conversations and dozens of workshops in schools, with both teachers and students. Having grown up in North America’s Reform Movement, where moral values and social justice were understood as central to Jewish identity, I am always taken aback to rediscover that for most Israelis, Jewish identity is primarily national, or ethnic, or ceremonial, and ethical values and tikkun olam (repair of the world) are seen as general human obligations, with no particular connection to Judaism and Jewishness. Secular Zionism was, after all, a movement of national self-determination, an expression of Jewish culture; many of its formulators rejected the concept of “Jewish values” as a set of Jewish ethical norms, seeing the goal of the project as the “normalization” of the Jewish people. Normal nations operate out of national self-interest, not mitzvot (commandments).
This value-neutral approach to Jewish identity does have the advantage of avoiding the prickly question of who gets to decide what are Jewish values. For example, for some Jews, settling the West Bank is a prime Jewish value, messianic in weight. For others, settling the West Bank represents a violation of key Jewish values of justice and mercy. In premodern times, such value conflicts were settled in halachic (according to Jewish law) deliberation by rabbis. In our day, no such accepted authority can help us, and we are left with individual autonomy and its corollary, the noisy and messy process of democratic decision-making. This process, as we are reminded daily, can be frustrating and painful.
Despite this frustration, it seems to me that our role as Reform Jews here is to continue to speak up loud and clear for the position that Judaism does indeed make ethical demands upon us, and that the success and the sustainability of the Jewish state are dependent on translating those demands into community and national life. There has to be more to our tradition than refraining from barbecuing on Shabbat.