Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, May 6, 2021
In This Moment, May 7: Everything's Coming Up Kosher
In This Moment
The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Marni and Michael Handel in honor of their daughter, Sasha, becoming a Bat Mitzvah on Shabbat morning. Mazal tov to the Handels!
The Hebrew word hechscher, which comes from the three letter rootכשר (kosher) means several things. One of them, "kosher slaughter," does not bode well for Cinnabon, the goat in the photo above, born last week at Stamford Nature Center's Heckscher Farms.The farm gets is name from theHeckscher Foundation for Children,whichprovided the grant moneyfor the farm's opening in 1955.
But another meaning of hechsher is "to deem fit and proper," and it would definitely not be proper to slaughter a kid born on a farm built for kids. So unless it's Passover seder and father is about to shell out two zuzim, Cinnabon is safe at Heckscher Farms.
But this week, hechsher was used in a completely different context, not to end a life in order to put food on the table, but to set the table for a political change that could be potentially revolutionary.
When Benjamin Netanyahu's mandate to form a government expired, a dozen years of his leadership may have ended. That in itself is revolutionary. That he may be replaced by a unity government including at least seven parties from across the ideological and demographic spectrum is another dramatic turn that, if it works, could change how Israelis relate to one another and how we relate to Israel.
But the most dramatic move occurred before Bibi's bye-bye, when he was straining to find any combination of parties to reach the sacred majority of 61 Knesset members, and for the first time in Israel's history, he entertained the possibility of bringing an Arab party into his government. The Ra'am party, also known as the United Arab List, expressed a willingness to eschew hard core ideological goals in order to achieve a better quality of life for Arab Israelis, but even with that current moderating tack, the fact that Netanyahu was willing to cross that red line was remarkable. It was a "Nixon in China" moment - if China had been in a 100-year war with America, with bus bombings.
Bibi went as far as to pressure far-right rabbis to approve the "shidduch," but his most extreme partners weren't buying. And to the end, the Religious Zionist party, which Netanyahu nurtured in order to broaden his right wing base, took their homophobic, racist and anti-Arab toys and went home rather than going into a government with Ra'am, thus denying the Prime Minister his majority. You can't make this stuff up.
For the past few weeks, far right rabbisand politicians have been bemoaning that Netanyahu gave his hechsher to bringing Arab parties into the government. This was the same guy who had famously pleaded to his supporters on one Election Day that the Arabs were "voting in droves," who had demonized Arabs from his revisionist cradle (though one could argue that he was even more anti-Arab than his movement's mentor Jabotinsky) .
Now, when Yair Lapid needs a few more pledges to put together a government, he will be able to do what no other Israeli leader has done before - bring in the Arabs, and create what will truly be a unity government, unlike anything Israel has seen. it won't by itself forge a two states or end discrimination against ethnic minorities (or non-Orthodox Jews), but it will make Israel a more functional democracy. Once this government is formed, if it is, it's likely that Ultra-Orthodox parties will also find their way in, but they won't be able to dictate the terms. A new paradigm for a multi-tribal, shared Israel will have been forged, the fulfillment of President Rivlin's "Four Tribes" vision.
Am I being unduly optimistic? Probably. But don't wake me, i'm just getting started. The implications of a more moderate, unified Israeli body politic would have international reverberations, including here in America, where the sight of an Israeli government that truly reaches across the aisle (more of a chasm, really) will show us that anything is possible.
If an Arab presence in the Israeli government can gain a hechscher from a right wing Prime Minister, maybe systemic taboos can be ripped away here as well. Vice President Kamala Harris broke a few of them all by herself last November. With the logjam broken on Balfour Street, who knows, maybe next Mitch McConnell will stop sounding like the Khartoum Resolution of 1967. Accommodation can be catching.
The Australian Jewish e-zine J-Wire suggests that lots of hechshers have been handed out lately in Israeli politics. Naftali Bennett, who will likely be the first Prime Minister in the rotation, was anathema to many for his far right views on annexation and settlements. Same with his compatriots Gideon Sa'ar and Ayelet Shaked. No longer. He's been sent to the same whitewash factory as Liz Cheney. And the right wingers, including Bennett. Sa'ar and Avigdor Liberman, are willing to go into a government with the leftists from Labor and Meretz, whom they've demonized, whom extreme rabbis consider "worse than Arabs." The lion is truly cohabitating with the lamb, the hawk with the dove, and everybody's suddenly kosher.
This week's portion of Behar-Bechukotai describes the idyllic laws of Shmita, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, when the land will rest, servants go free and debts released - a return to status quo antebellum, in a sense. The Jubilee year begins with the sounding of the shofar on Yom Kippur and the proclamation made famous by its appearance on the Liberty Bell: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
The year of Covid, the futility of four Israeli elections and one American Big Lie-inspired insurrection, seems have primed us for a reset. New leaders, new alignments, and a whole new set of hechschers.
It's that simple. Build trust. Replace the Big Lie with Big Truths. Yair Lapid said it all in his first news conference after getting the mandate from the president, speaking about the need to build trust. “Israel is tired of fighting," he said. Israeli society is looking to its politicians and asking when they will stop arguing and start working? Our answer is now.”
Like Cinnabon the kid, we all live on the knife's edge. Here's hoping that the knife will be used to cut through the cynicism that has infected our politics for too long. And may all our hechshers - and Cinnabon's - be for life and for good.
Below - see the spontaneous reaction when Cantor Katie and I interrupted our Zoom meeting this morning to receive the great news of the birth of Talia Evelyn Fener, daughter of TBE Engagement Coordinator Jami Fener and her husband Scott.