For the past few days, Perth Jewry has been privileged to enjoy a visit from Rabbi Dov Hazdan, Dean of the Torah Academy School in Johannesburg, South Africa. The visit was sponsored generously by two families to commemorate family yartzeits, a tremendous gesture and uplifting contribution to our community.
Rabbi Hazdan endeared himself to the Perth Jewish community and provided some wonderful insights into topics such as the mazalot, and parashat hashavua. Last night the Rabbi delivered a shuir, Lezecher Nishmat Gershon ben Avraham, dealing with the dichotomy of Jewish identity from an individual and communal perspective.
It was refreshing and gratifying to hear from such a talented educator about this topic, particularly to consider his insights into generational capacity and purpose. While it was no surprise to hear the message that the collective power of the Jewish people represents far more than the capability of the individual, it was worthwhile to consider the impact that the collective mindset has on our ability to frame Jewish unity. Rabbi Hazdan drew some sources and anecdotes to address what could be perceived by some to be a paradox between individual certainty and collective uncertainty when it comes to articulating and implementing the Abrahamic mission of the Jewish people.
There was one small element missing from the address. It concerned the function and role of the modern State of Israel, as a mechanism to shift the modus operandi of the Jewish people from the individual to the collective. The Jewish people, as a light to the nations, have not had the means in place to function as a Nation, in the physical sense, until very recently. Many academic matters become practical matters when they become a matter of civil Governance, a function of the State. Moreover, without the nation State of Israel, the mission of the Jewish people has not been centralised or focussed into the collective realm throughout our days of exile. It is this manifestation of modern Jewish identity that is the enabler. It is the modern State of Israel that becomes the means for the Jewish people to accomplish its universal goals.
Zionism, and particularly the contemporary development of the movement of religious Zionism, relates back to the topic we addressed last night as a matter of tremendous importance. It is an influence that bridges Jewish identity, assisting in part to reconcile the differences between the individual viewpoint and the collective responsibility. A practical demonstration of where individually asserted rights versus the national and collective Jewish aspirations come into conflict was demonstrated today in no small part by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Addressing the General Assembly of Jewish communities of North America, Bibi spoke as follows:
Now, what do I mean by a Jewish state? It is a state in which all individuals and all minorities have equal individual rights. Yet our national symbols, language and culture spring from the heritage of the Jewish people. And most important, any Jew from anywhere in the world has a right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.
I want to make it clear: Any Jew, of any denomination, will always have the right to come home to the Jewish state. Religious pluralism and tolerance will always guide my policy.
This is a virtuous and noble statement by the Prime Minister of the world’s only Jewish State. It was also politically expedient for his audience. However when you further analyse the statement, the issue of the definition of “any Jew” becomes a matter of interpretation and a potential source of religious conflict. Does Mr Netanyahu mean “any Jew” by the definition of halacha? Or does he mean “any Jew” by the definition of the so called denominations that he cites? As has been the case in the past, can he mean one thing, and can his audience interpret this to mean another?
Sadly, even the definition of Jewish unity is not a clear cut matter in today’s Jewish world, still partly dispersed from its homeland. There is little doubt that the collective power of Jewish nationhood is starting to again truely emerge in its authentic form for the world to see, but it is still stifled by individual intransience. Make no mistake, Jewish unity in Israel is not just about the ethnic blending of a former exile (in this respect, many Jews choose to see Israel as having a mono-dimensional role). Jewish unity actually has the ultimate purpose of avodat Hashem, being a light to the nations through the service of G-d. This is an unachievable goal without Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel, and the collective building of a Jewish society as intended by our founding forefathers.
Rabbi Hazdan provided a wonderful vision of religious unity to his Perth audience last night. He stopped short of linking this vision to the current connection we hold with Eretz Yisrael. However if the vision and goal of collective Jewish purpose as Rabbi Hazdan described was instantly transferable and realisable within the nation State of modern Israel our exile would surely immediately end.