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The Social Challenges Confronting the State of Israel

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

The Social Challenges Confronting the State of Israel


By Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l


Translated by Kaeren Fish and Gila Weinberg




            In view of what is going on in Israel today, it seems that the social challenges facing us are more or less clear: lessening polarization and increasing a sense of unity between the various sectors of society; closing the economic, social and cultural gaps within society; raising the standard of living of those in financial straits while ensuring employment for all; social and cultural absorption of new immigrants; cultivation of moral sensitivity towards all people – in short, building a more ethical, more Jewish, more responsible and more caring society.


            However, as an educator I feel that we cannot speak of these challenges while simultaneously resigning ourselves to the existence of phenomena which block significant advancement in these areas. Therefore I would like to speak about a number of negative phenomena which have, of late, become more widespread in Israeli society. These phenomena are not unique to our society. They exist in other places as well, particularly in Western countries. However, in our compact society, replete as it is with political, religious, ethnic and social tensions, their effect is destructive in the extreme.


            The first phenomenon which I would like to discuss is the sense of freedom from commitment. Here I am speaking of a feeling and a prevailing mood, not of an ideology – although on the fringes it involves an ideology as well.


            The placement of liberal individualism as a central pillar of our culture, coupled with the ranking of the rights of the individual at the top of our scale of values, has led to the prevalent sense of freedom from commitment. The very commitment to a cause or an object runs contrary to the concept of freedom. Therefore any commitment – whether to the nation, the state, society, or to one’s spouse and family – has no place in an era of freedom of the individual. This does not mean that people have stopped working to improve society. Nor does this mean that positive and constructive action has dwindled. These continue to exist, but they stem not from a sense of commitment but rather from free choice, and the emphasis is placed upon free choice. It is as though the individual has announced: I have no commitments, and what I do – I do out of free choice. I do not act because I must; I act because I so choose. Commitment contains an element of coercion, which we find galling. And we must admit that action stemming from liberty and free choice contains something beautiful and alluring. The problem arises when the desire to act gradually diminishes. Indeed, when a sense of commitment is lacking, this is a common occurrence.


            This prevailing mood has its effect upon many and varied areas. It finds expression inter alia in the recent drop in the number of marriages performed in Israel. This drop does not stem only from an objection to religious marriage ceremonies, since a person who is looking for a secular wedding can find such alternatives (in Cyprus, for example). Marriage means commitment. Marriage constitutes a covenantal relationship, and many people today prefer intimacy without commitment. There is a significant difference between a person whose commitments are integral to his personality and someone who feels that he is absolved of responsibilities. There is a tremendous gulf between a person who debates with himself whether to promote his own interests or to fulfill his obligations, and a person who instead considers merely which decision will bring him closer to self-actualization.


            To my mind, this sense of freedom from commitment constitutes a significant factor in the decrease of motivation in the army, a recent topic of concern among caring and involved citizens. In this context I would like to add a comment. When people speak of the decrease in motivation in the army, they usually point out that religious soldiers’ motivation remains intact. In my opinion, the pervading lack of commitment is slowly seeping into the religious community as well. I fear that in a few years the differences in motivation between religious and non-religious soldiers will have vanished, with the ensuing unity being based on a completely negative foundation.


            I recently visited a large Modern Orthodox synagogue in New York. I was astonished to find that approximately half of the congregants were single. I could find no other explanation for this phenomenon other than the flight from commitment which characterizes the intellectual community there.


As we all know, the Torah was given in two ways. One is the manner characterized by “na’aseh ve-nishma,” in which the nation received the Torah of its own free will. The second way is characterized by the midrashic phrase, “Kafa aleyhem har ke-gigit” (“He held the mountain over them like a cask”). God forced the Jews, as it were, to accept the Torah. When I examine what is going on today in parts of the religious community, I conclude that many observant Jews keep the commandments not out of commitment, echoing the second way of receiving the Torah, but rather because they have chosen to keep the commandments and are happy that way.


            Until now I have spoken about a feeling and mood, but we cannot deny that there is also an ideological school influenced by postmodern trends – trends which negate the placement of values at the heart of culture, literature and art. And it is from here that post-Zionist expressions arise in Israel, speaking of a “state of its citizens” rather than a Jewish state for the Jewish nation. This may be a marginal group, but the place it occupies in the media belies its modest proportions.


            This group, as noted, is marginal, but according to the laws of social dynamics an ideology of freedom from commitment at one extreme promotes and strengthens the ideology of fundamentalist commitment at the other extreme, whether in the religious or national sphere.


            This phenomenon of freedom from commitment also means freedom from social justice. I am aware that many of the statements we have heard concerning social gaps and social justice since the establishment of the state have been pure lip-service, but I believe nevertheless that even lip-service has its own positive dynamic. I do not believe that one can address the problems arising from social gaps purely out of election campaign concerns, without emphasizing the importance of social justice as a moral and national value. When there is no commitment to the social aspect, the sense of caring about what goes on in society also disappears.


            I also think that one cannot speak about hedonistic inclinations and the clear trend towards materialism to which we are witness without mentioning the destructive atmosphere of the feeling of freedom from commitment. I suspect that there is also some connection between the feeling of freedom from commitment and the sense of permissiveness which we regularly encounter.


            Allow me to add the following: The first message Judaism came to convey was that of commitment to justice and righteousness. It is said of Avraham Avinu, “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and righteousness.” It does not say “to observe the Lord’s commandments,” because the mitzvot hadn’t yet been given. There is here, therefore, an ethical commitment to justice and righteousness. The pagan world did not recognize any form of commitment. The relationship with the various idols and gods was one of give-and-take. Pagan society feared the gods and was continually looking for ways to appease them and seek their favor by offering them gifts.


            Hence, from a Jewish point of view, too, I see the spreading mood of freedom from commitment as something extremely negative and destructive. In my opinion, one of the most important challenges today is to educate towards commitment: commitment to the nation, to the family, to society, to the state, and to Judaism’s world of values.





            The second phenomenon I wish to discuss is the influence of the media on people’s thought-processes. In every society, a considerable portion of the population is characterized by a simplistic mentality – these people simply are not accustomed to complex thought. In general, this sector also entertains no pretensions as to the importance of its own independent thought; it is satisfied to accept and echo statements by those whom it considers leading personalities. Recently it has begun to look as though this type of simplistic thought is becoming widespread among those in society who pride themselves on individual and independent thought.


This can be traced back to the influence of the media, principally the electronic media. Simplistic thought – seeing issues as black-and-white, and an inability to perceive a whole and complex picture – has become a national epidemic. The media continually broadcast simple and uncomplicated messages. There is no time for involved explanations which require more air-time. The media prefer to emphasize the extremes, the black and white, the unequivocal, almost ruling out anything in-between, anything gray or complex. There are no doubts. The expression “doubtless” is repeated over and over by those interviewed. A situation has been created whereby simplistic thought has not only gained legitimacy but has become the accepted language even among circles which have pretensions as to the importance of their own opinions.


            In a situation where everything is seen in black and white, there is no room for genuine tolerance. If I think white while someone else thinks black, then at the very most we can hope for polite behavior and an avoidance of voicing our true opinions – because if I think it’s completely white and he thinks it’s completely black then he’s either an idiot or simply despicable. If he really believes it’s black, then sensible and honest people obviously have no business listening to him. True tolerance exists only when a person sees the full picture in all its complexity and sees the various possibilities, the different opinions which could arise from that same picture, and thus recognizes the legitimacy of someone else’s opinion. This type of tolerance is the soul of true democracy.


            The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) recounts: For three years there was a difference in opinion between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. The one side claimed, “The halakha is in accordance with our teachings,” while the other side insisted, “The halakha is in accordance with our teachings.” A heavenly voice issued forth and declared, “Both these and those are the words of the living God, but the halakha is according to Beit Hillel.” The Talmud goes on to ask: If both represent a true picture of God’s intention, then by what merit did Beit Hillel deserve that the halakha be determined according to their teachings? The answer is that they were more tolerant, and used to study both their own teachings and those of Beit Shammai; they even used to mention the opinions of Beit Shammai before mentioning their own. This is the absolute antithesis of a black-and-white worldview. Both are the words of the living God – in other words, both are legitimate. But Beit Hillel even went so far as to mention first the opinions of Beit Shammai, which were opposed to their own. This is true tolerance. The simplistic approach increases polarization because there is no place for black and white to co-exist. It’s one or the other.


            Using complex thought, the religious person is able to understand the point of view of the secular person, and vice versa. In such a situation the demands of each side towards the other side decrease. Each side understands that things obvious to them are not necessarily obvious to the other; sometimes they are even completely unintelligible. In the absence of such an approach, statements about openness are simply meaningless. The same can be said of the relationship between the political left and right. When one appreciates the complexity of Israel’s situation, then one is able to recognize the legitimacy of each political opinion. We have reached a situation where simplistic thought is increasing the polarization of society and leading to an inability to listen to others – to the extent of delegitimization of other opinions. The distance between delegitimization and demonization is not all that great. And we have unfortunately been witness to the dangers of demonization of the other opinion in the tragic assassination of a Prime Minister.


            I must admit in all honesty that I don’t have any quick solutions for dealing with simplistic thinking, especially considering that fact that – as I see it – the political system isn’t particularly keen on changing the situation, and sometimes by its actions even leads to a strengthening of this phenomenon. In any event, I believe that merely pointing out and defining the problem has educational value.




            The third phenomenon I’d like to discuss briefly is that of mysticism. The attraction of non-rational thought and primitive forms of mysticism is a problem that has taken on national proportions. It seems that a person doesn’t need to be religious in order to believe in superstition. Horoscopes have become the rage. Look how many pages they occupy in the Friday newspapers. In certain circles within the religious community there are a growing number of personalities who supposedly have unlimited wisdom about both heavenly and earthly matters, and who are turning the Torah into a modern-day oracle.


            Allow me, on this point, to add a personal note. We are living in a generation where the elderly among us witnessed the Holocaust with their own eyes. I personally was in Europe at that time. I wasn’t in the death camps, but I wasn’t far away. God-fearing, religious Jewry was struck dumb for lack of an explanation for what was happening and why. They dazedly repeated the words of the prophet Chabbakuk, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil and You cannot look upon sin; why do You look upon the treacherous, remaining silent while the wicked devours one more righteous than he?” Today I am simply amazed when from time to time people who call themselves “rabbis” presume to explain every tragedy and every road accident – why this happened and what caused it. Where do these people get the audacity to think that they know something that every other mortal in our generation doesn’t know? It makes me very angry. The appearance of this phenomenon in the religious community is a sign of shallowness in Torah learning, and amongst society in general it is a sign of cultural shallowness. Where logic ceases to be the criterion – Torah cannot exist, and where use of logic is made redundant, there cannot be any culture. Only in a place of cultural and spiritual hollowness can a world of fears and imaginary desires take the place of reality and clear judgment. The popularity of mysticism both arises from primitivity and leads back to primitivity.


            In order to lessen the polarization of society, all agree that we need dialogue – particularly genuine dialogue, in which one actually listens to the other party. For this purpose a certain cultural standard is needed – I am speaking here of human culture, not computer technology. In a situation of cultural shallowness, the chances of real dialogue taking place are small. There is a good chance that instead of ongoing dialogue, which is a precondition for mutual understanding and engagement, dialogue will remain a one-time event that increases polarization rather than decreasing it.


            We have neglected the study of the humanities in the educational system – instead of focusing on the human spirit, we have placed the emphasis on technology and practical concerns. This mood of pragmatism has penetrated religious life too, to our sorrow, in parts of the religious community. In the words of one of our classical authorities from the Middle Ages, Rabbeinu Bachya, the duties of the limbs have taken priority over the duties of the heart. Belief in mysticism and magical forces causes people to believe in immediate solutions; every problem must be solved right away, and if it isn’t then someone is to blame, and the guilty party must be condemned. And if one senses that some problems cannot be solved immediately, that means that they have no solution. The concept of “process” has fallen into disuse among the general public. Every problem must be solved immediately, and if it cannot be solved by regular means then pressure must be applied. After all, nothing stands in the way of force. In this way, the use of and reliance on force penetrate and control a wide sector of society.


            We know that mysticism is flourishing in the United States, too. According to the latest surveys, every fifth person there believes that at some stage he has experienced a revelation by one of the angels or saints. But in the United States this phenomenon is bearable. Among ourselves it is terribly destructive.


            Take note of the way in which we relate to the Knesset as opposed to the way in which the Senate and House of Representatives are perceived in the States. While no one in America would imagine for a single moment that the Senate can solve all of society’s problems, here there is a naive belief that the Knesset can solve anything, be the problem social, cultural, religious or economic – even problems within the family, like family violence. This belief can be attributed to the relative youth of our state. For many years we dreamed that when we finally became masters of our own fate and we had a parliament and government of our own, we would be able to solve all problems in the best possible way.


            I believe that there is another factor at play here, and that is the wish to solve all problems as quickly as possible – now and immediately, along the lines of “Peace Now” and “Mashiach Now.” Dealing with social problems by means of education and public awareness is a long and arduous process. The presentation of the problem in the Knesset and subsequent appropriate legislation – or at least the transfer of the issue to one of the Knesset’s subcommittees – gives the appearance that the problem is being solved quickly and efficiently.


            A few months ago in New York I met with the leadership of Reform Jewry. During our conversation, I said, “You, with your way of thinking, remind me of the way that some of the religious parties in the Knesset think.”


            “What do you mean?” they asked.


            I answered: “If I wish to involve Jews in Torah and Judaism – well, I have no quick way of doing this, but I do know one thing. If there is anything that can be done, it’s not going to be done in the Knesset or via the Knesset. On the other hand, I see religious Knesset members who, when they wish to prevent Jews from eating chametz on Pesach, believe that they can achieve this end by means of legislation, with the assistance of the coalition of which they are members. Your main concern is that the Knesset should recognize Reform marriages and conversions. I believe that the main problem which should be occupying you is how to get your message across to Israeli society in the religious, ethical and social spheres. If you believe that you have relevant messages which will bring secular, non-believing Jews to faith in God, and which will raise their ethical and cultural level, then come to Israel and do it the difficult and slow way – by means of personal influence and by building cultural and educational institutions. Then you’ll realize that Knesset recognition is a side issue. I don’t know how successful you’ll be, but there’s one thing I can promise you: Not only your children but your grandchildren, too, will remain Jewish.”


            It was interesting, by the way, to hear their reactions to what I had said. One reaction was, “You’re right; educational influence is the principal issue, but the Knesset is the key to achieving that.” Another reaction, by one of the leading women Rabbis in the movement, was, “I must admit – we don’t yet have any relevant messages for the Israeli public.” And someone near me murmured, “Unfortunately, even in the States we have a problem when it comes to conveying our messages.”


            I’m telling you this because I really believe that one of the most important challenges facing Israel in the future will be the question of how to help the Diaspora in its desperate battle for survival. The time has come to change our agenda. Instead of looking for ways in which Israel can benefit from the assistance of the Diaspora, we have to look for ways in which Israel can help Diaspora Jewry.


            If this issue takes its rightful place on Israel’s agenda, it will make an important educational contribution to our own youth here in Israel. One of the central questions we should be asking ourselves is how to give our youth the feeling that we are indeed Israelis, but first and foremost we are Jews. If we wish to maintain the historical continuity of the Jewish nation, something I am certain that the vast majority of the nation does indeed want, then we have to emphasize the fact of our Jewishness. The best way of doing this is to express our commitment and responsibility towards the Jewish nation, wherever they may be scattered. Only in this way will we find the gates of our rich Jewish heritage opened before us.


[This lecture was delivered at a conference in memory of General Aharon Yariv, at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies on 20 Shevat 5757 (January 28, 1997).]