Repairing A House Divided
Called too pluralistic by the right and too Jewish by the left, Rabbi Mordechai Gafni carries on his crusade to get the secular and religious talking to one another.
Jerusalem — Two American-born rabbis who live here, in Israel’s religious capital, drove one recent night to tzafon Tel Aviv, the northern part of the country’s secular center. For a few hours they sat among a yuppie crowd in a luxurious living room, next to windows overlooking the owner’s stables and swimming pool, studying the text of an 18th century chasidic rabbi.
Rabbi Daniel Landes came as a guest.
Rabbi Mordechai Gafni was the teacher, leading some 30 members of Israel’s business and intellectual Sabra aristocracy through a discussion about finding one’s place in the world.
At first the participants, “very, very secular — totally secular,” voiced “a deep skepticism” toward the evening’s spiritual orientation, says Rabbi Landes, director of the Jerusalem-based Pardes Institute. Slowly, spurred by Rabbi Gafni’s questions, they warmed to the topic. At the end, one participant asked Rabbi Gafni, “Will we see you again?”
“The group was extremely interested in proceeding with it again,” says Rabbi Landes. “I was pretty impressed.”
The meeting with young Israeli leaders was part of an ongoing series led by the thirtyish Rabbi Gafni, then-director of Milah-The Jerusalem Institute for Jewish Culture, which he founded two years ago.
Rabbi Gafni this winter left Milah to start Minad (Hebrew for “musical range,” which he describes — as he did his earlier organization — as a “living bridge” between Israel’s secular majority and Orthodox minority. “We’re just basically changing the name tag.”
The rabbi’s leadership discussion groups, popular weekly lectures and op-ed pieces in The Jerusalem Post showcase his wide-ranging secular knowledge and his command of traditional texts. Future plans include a television show and an Israeli-diaspora joint study group, “an open beit midrash [study hall] for secular Israelis.”
“Everything is based on classical sources,” says the rabbi, who has earned the reputation as a “young David Hartman.”
The reference is to the American-born rabbi-philosopher who leads a successful interdenominational teaching institute here where Rabbi Gafni has served as scholar-in-residence. Rabbi Gafni’s work has also been compared to that of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, founded in New York City by Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
Rabbi Gafni dismisses the comparisons, expressing his respect for both rabbis. “It’s basically a time for new voices,” he says, calling himself “a maverick who works with the establishment.”
Like Pardes Institute, which teaches advanced Jewish subjects to mixed classes of men and women, Milah draws criticism from both sides of Israel’s ideological divide, Rabbi Gafni says. “Too pluralistic,” say the haredim, the rigorously Orthodox. “Too Jewish,” say the hilonim, or secularists.
Criticism of a more personal nature has also followed the rabbi from the United States. “I have not escaped personal attacks, like many public figures,” he says. “My response is to ignore it.”
“I support his integrity completely,” says Rabbi Landes, who has taught with Rabbi Gafni.
Rabbi Gafni, who changed his family name from Winiarz when he moved to Israel a decade ago, favors the rolled-up-sleeves, white-shirt Mizrachi look and a black suede kipa. Raised in a Modern Orthodox home in Pittsfield, Mass., his rabbinic ordination — three, in fact — is Orthodox, but he declines to call himself Orthodox.
“Post-denominational,” he says. “I am personally halachic; I am personally bound by halacha.
“There are areas,” the rabbi says, “where I identify strongly with the Reform movement. There are areas where I identify strongly with the Conservative movement.”
Minad is based in an apartment in the Old Katamon neighborhood. The religiously and politically independent organization, supported by private foundations, draws “a couple thousand people” — half religious, half secular — to its programs, Rabbi Gafni says.
“This is not kiruv,” an activity to bring the non-observant back to observance,” the Rabbi Gafni says. “The purpose of this is not to tell people that this or that idea is right or wrong.”
Ilan Rubin, acting secretary general of the Jewish Agency and a member of a Conservative congregation in Jerusalem, says Rabbi Gafni “speaks to Jews who want to get an enriched knowledge of Judaism. There is a great thirst among non-Orthodox people in Israel to take back their heritage without having to become shomer Shabbat — a new generation of people who are sophisticated, who need to have messages delivered in a sophisticated way, who are well versed in Nietzche and Buber, not only in Rambam [Maimonides].”
Rubin says he regularly attends the rabbi’s lectures on the weekly Torah portion. “I find them very inspiring. You come away with a feeling that you have a direction. He bases himself on a very eclectic range of sources — he does not hold the lectures together just with charisma.”
Rabbi Landes calls Rabbi Gafni’s activities “very valuable.”
“At the present time,” he says, “the [religious-secular] split goes further than most people recognize. They inhabit a totally separate realm. They’re not doing anything together.
“Rabbi Gafni gets people in a shared experience of values,” Rabbi Landes says. “He’s having people learning Torah together.”
He points to the yuppies in northern Tel Aviv. “These people are not going to become Orthodox. We’re not looking for classic baal teshuvah patterns.”
Rabbi Gafni “presents Torah in such a way that hilonim are interested in reclaiming Torah and a Torah experience,” Rabbi Landes says. “That Jewish texts can speak to them is mind shattering.”
By The People, For The People
The ‘Constitution Group’ is trying
to draft laws to guarantee a kinder, more democratic Israel.
There is no such thing as an unconstitutional law in Israel because there is no constitution here. A decade-old group that drafted a bill of rights is working to change that. The Committee for a Constitution for the State of Israel, better known as the “Constitution Group,” supports a series of “basic laws” they consider vital to strengthening the democratic character of the country — a de facto constitution.
“Israel is a very Western, advanced country, a financially and technologically successful country, but even after five decades it doesn’t guarantee its citizens freedom of religion, among other things,” says Isaac “Eeki” Elner, the organization’s director.
Israel’s 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture,” but does not ensure the legal rights of non-Orthodox Israelis, he says.
Hoping to capitalize on these concerns, the Constitution Group and other organizations, including the Association for Freedom of Science, Religion and Culture, an umbrella group, recently formed a coalition to fight for the passage of a basic law ensuring freedom of religion.
“When it comes to marriage and divorce, there is an Orthodox monopoly and no civil alternative, so if an Israeli couple wants to be married by a Reform or Conservative rabbi, or wants to be married in civil ceremony, they’re out of luck,” Elner notes.
“As things stand now, the danger of religious coercion is growing all the time,” he asserts. “The ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset are trying to close down stores and places of entertainment on Shabbat, trying to prevent non-Orthodox rabbis from performing marriages, divorces and conversions. What about the rights of the non-Orthodox majority? If something isn’t done now, in 50 years Israel could be ruled by religious, not civil law.”
While many Israelis consider these predictions overly dire, there is no doubt that non-Orthodox Israelis, who constitute about 80 percent of the Jewish population, are concerned by what they view as religious coercion. They are upset, too, by the fact that some 20,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students receive government exemptions from army service.
The Tel Aviv University law professors and other intellectuals who founded the committee hoped that an Israeli constitution would be adopted on the country’s 40th anniversary, in 1988. While their proposal received enthusiastic grassroots support, the bill of rights failed to win favor in the Knesset.
Instead of abandoning its fight entirely, the group shifted gears and formed a movement. Relinquishing its plan to push through an entire constitution, it streamlined its agenda to actively promote three issues: direct elections for prime minister; direct elections for 50 percent of the country’s Knesset members; and the separation between religion and state. It also supports other legislation aimed at improving civil liberties.
Its lobbying skills are credited with three basic laws the Knesset adopted in 1992: Human Dignity and Liberty, which guarantees judicial review of laws passed in the Knesset; Freedom of Occupation, which calls for individual economic freedom and free enterprise; and the Government (CK?), which calls for the direct election of the prime minister.
Rabbi Ehud Bandel, president of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel, calls the work of the Constitution Group “brave and innovative.”
The proposed basic law on religious freedom is “the most important and missing element of the constitution we don’t have,” says Rabbi Bandel, who has been active in the fight for recognition for the non-Orthodox streams in Israel. Without such a law, he says, “The Orthodox establishment will maintain its monopoly on religious institutions here at the expense of everyone else.”
Stressing that the Masorti movement and other organizations have joined the new coalition, Rabbi Bandel says, “Together I hope we can finish the job they started.”
While acknowledging Israel’s many achievements, the group’s leaders insist that Israeli law still does not ensure some basic human rights.
Two recent incidents focused public attention on the issue — the firebombing of an apartment rented by three Arab women in Jewish West Jerusalem, and a pending Supreme Court case involving the Jewish Agency’s refusal to lease land in a Jewish cooperative to an Arab couple.
The constitution coalition, once it’s up and running, plans an educational campaign to convince Israelis that such a human rights law is needed. The drive will be geared not only toward secular people but the religious sector.
“We want to reach everyone who believes in democratic principles regardless of his or her religious beliefs,” says Elner, the coalition director. “Public outrage at injustice is universal.”
Facing The Enemy
Growing spiritual peace movement encourages Israelis, Palestinians to see that ‘suffering is mutual.’
Nablus, West Bank — In this Palestinian town, known in Hebrew as Shechem, a group of Arabs and Israelis from all walks of life share their pain, their hopes and their dreams in a two-day workshop titled “The Transformation of Suffering.” They have committed to live and cry together for 48 hours in the quest for regional peace.
Organized by Face-to-Face, a movement that promotes Israeli-Palestinian dialogue through spiritual healing, the workshop asks participants to acknowledge not only their own pain but that felt by others.
The movement was founded in 1993 by Marcia Kreisel, an American-Israeli psychotherapist, and Rawda Basir, a Palestinian who spent eight years in an Israeli prison for nonviolent security offenses.
From its inception they concentrated on bringing together Israelis and Palestinians with an interest in complementary medicine. In 1995 they also began to offer dialogue workshops with assistance from the Rapprochement Center, a coexistence organization in Jerusalem.
The specialty of Face-to-Face, among scores of Israeli groups designed to foster Arab-Jewish dialogue, is its emphasis on one side seeing life through the other’s eyes.
“We wanted people to understand that suffering is mutual,” Kreisel says, explaining why the two activists took on such a difficult project. “Once you understand someone else’s suffering, especially if it is someone you have come to know and trust, you want to put an end to that suffering.”
Basir, a Catholic married to a Muslim, says her own transformation began during her stint in prison, when she and other inmates on a hunger strike were championed by a group of Israeli women.
“I saw the Israeli women demonstrating on our behalf. I saw them supporting our struggle. From then on, I began to think that maybe we can accomplish something by working together,” she says.
“I think it’s a very special program,” says Hillel Bardin, an Israeli involved in dialogue work, “[because] it is quite rare to see Israelis going to Palestinian towns to participate in workshops.
“These workshops require the Israelis to stay overnight in Nablus, and it’s hard to find Israelis who are not frightened to do so. The Palestinian hosts do a beautiful job in creating an atmosphere in which the Israelis feel safe and secure, and where they feel comfortable to open up and express their experiences.”
Getting Israelis and Palestinians to acknowledge that the other side is hurting is no easy matter. Face-to-Face begins gradually.
In today’s workshop the participants, divided into mixed groups of twos and threes, are asked to recount one pleasant experience and one unpleasant one. The anecdotes, they are told, “may refer to anything except the conflict.”
While many are able to recall meaningful events related to their everyday lives, a significant number can’t seem to divorce their memory from the words “bombing,” “terrorist,” “soldier” or “war.” They recount incidents of harassment at checkpoints and describe how they or people they knew had been injured in shootouts or murdered by extremists.
The facilitators, Palestinians and Israelis who believe that dialogue is a key tool in the quest for peaceful Middle East, sigh deeply and then offer encouragement and guidance. Despite deep wounds and painful memories, neither the workshop leaders nor the young participants appear discouraged.
“This is all part of the process,” Kreisel tells the group in a reassuring tone. “It takes time to build communication and trust.”
After a hearty lunch, the facilitators ask the participants to switch roles: “Now repeat each other’s anecdotes, this time imagining that it is your story.” When they inadvertently say “he” or “she,” the leaders gently correct them.
The real breakthrough occurs during a walking tour, led by the Palestinian participants, of the Old City of Nablus. For the Palestinians, it is an opportunity to show off the rich heritage and beauty of their ancient town; for the Israelis, it is a chance to sightsee in a town that witnessed an ongoing stream of bloodshed during the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
More comfortable with each other in this relaxed open-air setting, the Israelis and Palestinians begin to form real bonds.
“I feel so safe,” says Sharon Peleg, 26. “We’re walking around just like people anywhere in the world would walk with friends.”
The next day, the participants are asked to recall an unpleasant experience related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and again the words “soldier” and “terrorist” come to the fore. When the time comes for the Israelis to tell the Palestinians’ stories and vice versa, they are able to do so in the first person.
A young Palestinian begins to cry as he embraces his Israeli partner’s brush with terrorism as if it had really happened to him.
“For the first time I understand what it must be like to be an Israeli,” he says, brushing away a tear. “The Israelis are afraid all the time. Just like we are.”
The New Healers
At the vanguard of the alternative medicine movement in Israel, researchers are studying ancient plant-based folk remedies in the fight against disease.
Anew generation of Israeli scientists is going back to the future, literally planting the seeds of a medical revolution. Researchers, who have revolutionized medical care in the region with a high-tech approach to battling illness, are combing through the Bible and the Talmud in a search for cures to cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases.
At the forefront of this move to so-called alternative medicine is the Middle East Medicinal Plant Project at Hadassah Hospital’s Natural Medicine Research Unit, which along with the National Herbarium at Hebrew University is studying the medicinal value of a wide variety of plants indigenous to Israel and neighboring countries.
Relying on testimony from traditional folk healers and historical sources, they are compiling a computerized database to document and preserve plant-based folk remedies.
Dr. Sarah Sallon, the pediatrician who heads the Natural Medicine Unit, notes that Israel boasts more than 3,000 natural species of plants — “a large number for such a little country.” A high percentage of the plants, she says, “are known to have medical uses since biblical times and are widely used today in the medicine of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, and by local Arabs, particularly the Bedouin and Druze.”
Sallon, also an expert in Tibetan medicine, views the growing interest in alternative medicine here as “a sign of maturity. As we approach the nation’s 50th anniversary, I see a revolution taking place in medicine. There’s the desire to incorporate the best of conventional medicine with the best of natural medicine. There’s a trend toward this in other parts of the world, and Israel is now a part of that.”
Instead of testing every plant in the region — a lengthy and costly process — the researchers have focused much of their attention on plants mentioned in ancient sources and/or those used by folk healers.
“The Bible and Talmud are among our best guidebooks,” Sallon says.
She points to the milk thistle, a prickly plant that grows all over Israel. “It’s been known since the time of the Talmud that milk thistle has been used to treat liver diseases. The Romans used it against hepatitis.”
Thumbing through the Bible, Sallon notes that mandrake, an herb, “was used by Rachel to boost fertility. Then there is hyssop, which the Samaritans still use in their ceremonies. It’s known to be a very strong antiseptic, and many in the area use it.”
The references, she says, “are there for the offing. Our job is to examine, through scientific means, what if any medical value these plants have by themselves or in combination with other plants.”
In addition to mining the memories of local healers, the Hadassah team is in the process of translating and cataloguing a unique collection of preserved dried plants discovered in a Hebrew University annex. The collection, the life’s work of the late ethno-botanist Ephraim Zaitchek, contains thousands of handwritten explanations of how various indigenous plants have been used in traditional healing.
“It is a treasure trove of ethno-botanic information,” Sallon says. “Zaitchek interviewed the Druze and others to see how treatments were prepared, how the plants were harvested and mixed together. This is an exciting collection.”
Sometimes the researchers look farther afield, to the medical traditions of China or Tibet, which use the same or similar plants in their own healing. The unit recently completed a controlled study that proved the efficacy of an ancient Tibetan plant recipe in unclogging painful arteries in the legs.
Even with the help of healers, cataloguing plants requires detective work. “Sometimes the way plants work is obvious, but at other times it’s more subtle,” Sallon says. “We may know that a plant was used to drive out ‘bad spirits,’ but what does that mean? Could the problem be depression or something entirely different?”
Although the healers provide invaluable information, they will not be around forever, Sallon warns. “The Jewish and Arab healers are old and dying out, and many specials are disappearing as Israel becomes more urbanized. Time isn’t on our side.”
Dr. Boaz Lev, associate director-general of the Ministry of Health, believes that the Natural Medical Unit and its plant project are setting a healthy precedent. “I would like to see more physicians studying the scientific effects of alternative medicine. How else will we know whether the results are real or bogus?” he asks. “In our conventional world, anything that smacks of alternative medicine can be problematic. We hope to learn something from the studies.”
Finding Common Language
Gesher, founded by a American-born rabbi, brings its message of tolerance into secular and religious schools.
In the months after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, by a kipa-wearing law student identified with Israel’s right-wing nationalist camp, one Jerusalem organization found itself inundated with phone calls. Gesher, an independent group that promotes understanding among diverse Israelis — especially the religious and secular — was called into action as the murder threatened to exacerbate the already existing religious and political schisms.
“The gap that had always existed in society suddenly widened dramatically,” says American-born Rabbi Danny Tropper, who founded Gesher [Hebrew for “bridge”] in 1970. “[After the assassination] there was a great deal of stereotyping, with the religious being viewed as fanatical and right wing, supporting the assassination either covertly or overtly. There was a tremendous amount of anger on both sides.”
Just when the recriminations appeared to be tearing the country apart, “a funny thing happened,” says the rabbi, who is Orthodox. “The angrier people became, the more anxious they became to get together. It was almost like a couple that loves each other but has a fight. Both sides felt tremendous pain because of their love. We wanted to help bring them back together.”
During a 1997 Day of Dialogue coordinated by Gesher and other tolerance-oriented organizations on the second anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, some 1,000 religious and secular Israelis sat — literally and figuratively — under one huge tent. Small groups of religious and secular students and adults, including well-known Israeli personalities, discussed their differences and common goals, sometimes at a fever pitch.
Rather than go home angry, however, the participants were encouraged to wrestle with the issues through continued communication.
Both sides found the program so satisfying that a similar commemoration is planned this year, reinforcing Gesher’s reputation as among the most successful of Israel’s dialogue organizations.
“The yahrzeit [memorial] week brings up memories and anguish, and there is a tremendous need for reconciliation,” Rabbi Tropper says. “Having a day of dialogue becomes a symbol. People want to put dialogue on their agenda, not only once a year but on an ongoing basis. Some schools and institutions have already formed permanent dialogue groups.”
Gesher throughout the year runs a range of reconciliation programs, with a growing number of participants. Its Encounter Seminars, geared to small groups, bring together secular and religious high school students for intensive exploration of their Jewish identity. In an acclaimed Study Day program, Gesher staffers take over a public religious or secular junior high or high school for a day of spirited dialogue.
Gesher also runs seminars to help teachers, whatever their religious beliefs, develop a more creative and value-oriented approach to Bible studies in the classroom, as well as programs that introduce secular Russian immigrants of all ages to Jewish traditions. The organization has published five textbooks and a host of teaching materials that emphasize tolerance and coexistence.
Yehuda Pinsky, deputy director of Values Education at the Ministry of Education, credits Gesher for “breaking down the stereotypes and enabling dialogue to take place.”
“Religious and secular students usually attend different schools,” Pinsky says, “making it difficult for them to interact. These workshops are often the first time they get together in any meaningful way.”
Pinsky says Gesher is closing the religious-secular gap, which if it continues to widen “could prove untenable.”
“Gesher can’t solve the problem” by itself, he says, “but it’s laying the groundwork.”
Rabbi Tropper attributes the high demand for Gesher’s services to its grassroots philosophy: “The way we do things, people have to start talking to one another.”
Israel’s Jewish character, or lack thereof, will be “the defining, central, most explosive issue in the next 50 years,” the rabbi says. “People will grapple with the question of what it means to be a Jewish state. Does it infringe on personal rights and behavior, whether those rights be religious or secular?
“All [Jewish] Israelis believe that Shabbat should be the day of rest, but they disagree on how to define rest. Should places of entertainment be open, or should they remain closed? What about amusement parks and orchestras? These things will have to be dealt with on a grassroots level.”