Almost 28 years ago, our youngest child was born. Due to our advanced age, we gave him the name Mattan. The English translation of mattan (מתן) is "gift."
Some time later, when in a US college book store, I happened on a Bible Dictionary, looked up the name, and found a listing in the Book of Jeremiah.
Back in my motel room, I open the Gideons Bible and found that Mattan was a minor character. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I started reading the Book of Jeremiah. I experienced the beginning of an epiphany which heightened eventually as I read elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and eventually through the whole thing.
Christian travelling salesmen in Wisconsin began the Gideons movement at the end of the 19th century, to convert colleagues who when away from home were likely to spend their evenings in small town bars and brothels. My experience is that just about every hotel room in the US has a copy of what Christians call the "Old Testament" along with the New Testament. Outside the US I have generally found a New Testament only, usually in English as well as the local language.
My epiphany was not about God but politics. I found that the Hebrew Bible is a political book, and that a central component of Judaism is an affirmation of politics as central to the survival of the nation. The Bible describes how prominent figures, at least from Joseph onward, and sometimes the Almighty, used political tactics to establish themselves and to do what they could to preserve or enhance the status of the people who began as Hebrews, and went through the stages of being Israelites, Judeans, and eventually Jews.
If you want to see the weakness of God, read the Book of Job. For the challenge of all absolutes, see Ecclesiastes. For the shrill criticism of economic and political elites, there are the Books of Amos, Hosea, and especially Jeremiah.
Those interested in seeing the evolution of my epiphany can look at The Politics of Religion and the Religion of Politics (2000).
Israel is explicitly a Jewish country that offers full legal rights but is somewhat short on their delivery to the non-Jewish minorities. Most of its Jews are secular, but religious issues are usually on the agenda. Currently near the top is the perennial issue of ultra-Orthodox men, especially their exemption from military service and lifetime financial support while they study in religious academies. The Supreme Court ruled that the military exemption violates the equal rights of non-ultra-Orthodox men.
Israelis wanting reform have focused on the day in August when the existing law on exemptions is scheduled to expire, but the chances of legislation by then are minimal. There are too many options on the table and too much maneuvering by various activists who want great reform and ultra-Orthodox politicians who want no action.
Also upsetting the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox are more recent rulings that grant limited recognition to non-Orthodox rabbis. Currently this means that those rabbis may receive salaries from state funds. Activists are hoping to extend the recognition to a capacity of non-Orthodox rabbis to perform marriage and conversions to Judaism in Israel, and to receive greater support for schools administered by their congregations. No surprise that established religious leaders are up in arms, with some of them shocked into momentary silence by the surprising audacity of judicial officials to act against their monopoly. Orthodox Jews may concede that individuals who consider themselves Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist may be Jews according to halacha, but they are likely to say that they are pursuing a religion other than Judaism, and that their leaders have no right to the title of Rabbi.
With the issue of peace with the Palestinians probably dormant until the Palestinians sort out the differences between Fatah, Hamas, and others even more extreme in their animosity to Israel, Israeli politics is concentrating on Iran and these problems among the Jews. The governing coalition seems strong enough to deal with those topics, but no one should expect anything close to an ideal solution to any of them.
In the meantime, the epiphany that began with my reading of a Gideons' Bible has brought forth several Hebrew University dissertations. Most recently we celebrated Rabbi Hadar Lipshitz's "Influences on Budgeting for Religious Education in Israel" at his home in Alon Shvut. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that the ultra-Orthodox have great sway over Israel's budget and other governmental actions, he found that political competition, as well as the powers of the courts and the Finance Ministry are significant counter-weights to the alleged power of the Haredim.
There has also been Michal Neubauer-Shani's "Agenda setting in the Israeli context: religion and state issues," the Reverend Kangkeun Lee's "Religion and Politics in Israel during the Intifada," and Cnerret Rubin-Shostak's "Fundamentalism in Israel: Shas and Social Change in 1990's." Readers can find electronic editions of those dissertations via the Hebrew University Library web site. The Reverend Lee's dissertation is in English. The others are in Hebrew, but with extensive summaries in English.
Religious squabbles among the Jews are not all we argue about in the Promised Land. At times, however, they outshine other problems. As these and other studies have found, Jews' wariness about one another--along with the powers of the courts and the money-guarding Finance Ministry, can be counted on to limit what any one cluster is able to achieve.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at June 01, 2012 06:05 AM