Villages and Nations

It was brilliant – it was complicated – it was messy. It was also notoriously unsuccessful – and, thank Gd, it was a glorious success.

In the years before the founding of the Third Jewish Commonwealth (aka, Israel), the divide between Haredim (what some call “Ultra-Orthodox” today) and secular Zionists was becoming more pronounced. The religious communities wanted to promote the religious character of the state-to-be, and those who self-identified as secular wanted – you guessed it – to minimize the religious element of the country that would be proclaimed on May 14, 1948.

On June 19, 1947, David Ben Gurion sent a letter to Agudat Israel, which became the basis for the Status Quo Agreement. In it, Israel’s first Prime Minister addressed Haredi concerns that the state would be (too) secular, pledging that the new state would allow Jewish religious law to frame Shabbatkashrut, and family law (in matters of marriage and divorce).

The backdrop to the agreement was that each “side” (using “side” is far too binary, but it’s still convenient shorthand) thought the other would soon go the way of a Jewish dodo. The Haredim – the remnant of their towns and shtetls, whose communities were decimated by the Nazis – were completely convinced that their way of life would be the template for the new state, and that Ben Gurion’s secular Zionists would never last beyond a generation. Of course, the kibbutzniks and other secularists couldn’t imagine an Israel populated by their outmoded (in their eyes) bearded and learned co-religionists.

So – for the wrong reason – each party thought the Status Quo Agreement irrelevant; sooner rather than later, the “other” (a terrible way to think of someone in one’s own tribe) would fade away, and Israel’s future as a [religious or secular] state would be secured.

Except this: thankfully, each party was magnificently wrong. The Haredi communities exploded, not only in number, but in the reach and vibrancy of their synagogues and yeshivot. At the same time, the secularists – resuscitating a language once proclaimed dead into a powerhouse of modern literature and poetry and research, creating the first new Jewish cities on Jewish land in millennia – thrived as well.

While the seeds planted in the Status Quo Agreement created challenges and paved the path to political and social arguments that continue to plague Israel today, Ben Gurion’s compromise was an unbelievably clever (or unbelievably lucky) ploy. As a secularist himself, he also may have harbored the-Haredi-won’t-continue presumption, but the ironic and unplanned lesson of the Status Quo Agreement was that the modern state of Israel needed… both. The ancient, mystical sanctity of Jerusalem and the dynamic modernity of Tel Aviv.

As a metaphor for today’s Jewish world – in and outside of Israel – there couldn’t be a more profound message. One without the other would simply not have evolved into the miracle of the modern State of Israel. Even the most hard-core secularists will admit (at least in private) that the Jewish character of the state, the unique status of being the only country framed by a Jewish calendar and a Jewish clock – by an innately Jewish language – owes much to those who have kept the flames of Jewish learning alive. And even those who self-identify as “Haredi” will (again, alas, in private) acknowledge that there would be no state – and no protection for its Jews – without those who see themselves as “secular.”

Caveats, and what’s with all those quotation marks: Even using “secular” and “Haredi” is falling into a trap of narrow thinking. Does someone who lights Shabbat candles and a chanukkiah and sits at a Seder table a card-carrying “secularist?” Is someone who respects and accepts the dignity found in different “hashkafot” – different Jewish perspectives – not entitled to call her/himself “religious?”

A few years ago, a certain African aphorism – “It takes a village to raise a child” – made the rounds. Most people more or less intuitively accepted its truth, even if they didn’t dig deeper into the mechanics behind it. Throughout our history – our very particular history, which also offers quite universal truths – we’ve learned the power of that lesson, though too often in its negative formulation. What happens when we don’t have a “village” – when we don’t come together? Our rabbis taught us that the Second Temple fell, at least in part, due to sinat chinam – “baseless hatred” – otherwise known as Jews really, really not getting along with each other. What happened when we didn’t have a village – when we didn’t cherish our village? The destruction of our Second Commonwealth and millennia of exile.

Painfully simple: no village – no acceptance that it is always all hands on deck – and there’s no People, no state, no future. Of course there is room for perspectives and interpretations and traditions. It’s not about conformity – it’s about unity.

שבת שלום – Shabbat Shalom,


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