In our last issue, Herbert Weiner, rabbi of Temple Israel in South Orange, New Jersey, discussed rank and file sentiment in Israel toward liberal Judaism, and toward religion generally. Here, in a second article likewise based on the diary he kept during a recent trip to Israel commissioned by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Weiner records the complex of feelings of some of the spiritual and lay leaders of the state on the same subject—especially those of David Ben Gurion, whom he visited in his Negev retreat.
Jerusalem: Have been speaking with M.K.’s—Members of the Knesset—in the cafeteria of the Knesset building. The atmosphere there, with the legislators struggling for service at the little food counter, is reminiscent of a Second Avenue café. Rachel Zabari has been introducing me to her fellow M.K.’s and has been very helpful in getting discussions going. Our technique is to grab a table, set out some tea, and catch our prospects as they go by. Yesterday Shazar, the Minister of Education, was drawn into the discussion and gave his opinion: “By all means send some people from your liberal Judaism movement here. You can learn much from us and take a great deal back.” But as for any need for liberal religion in Israel—“When I have a yen for religion, I know two or three nice Hasidic shtieblach where I can go and satisfy my soul.”
Rachel pointed out to him that sentimental journeys to the shtiebel could mean nothing to someone like her, a Yemenite, or for that matter to most Israeli youth, and where were they to go to satisfy their religious “yens”? Shazar shrugged his shoulders.
Today I met another M.K., Yizhar Smilenski, a native Israeli and gifted young writer. He looks the perfect sabra, broad shoulders, tousled hair falling over a boyish face, and shirt open at the throat. He listened carefully as I tried to explain the interest of liberal religious groups abroad in the religious problems of Israel. I told him I was not here because American Jewry had solved all its spiritual problems and wished to make Israel a gift of its wisdom, but because despite our “dynamic” communal and institutional expansion we were looking for new sources of spirit, and wondered if perhaps the two Jewries, American and Israeli, could seek them in some sort together.
“Near Tel Aviv,” Smilenski responded, “we dug some wells for water. We tried to draw more water from them than they were capable of giving, and soon found ourselves drawing up brine. The ocean had begun to seep into the wells.”
I tried to qualify his analogy by suggesting that while she pressure of the American environment might sometimes appear to be overwhelming, it could often act in a different way, as a sort of “primer,” starting the pump of religious aspiration to bringing up fresh spiritual water.
Before he left, I asked him about the “something” for which I had heard so many Israelis were yearning. Was it religion? “Did you ever attend a funeral here?” he asked. “A funeral, after all, is one of those moments when one’s heart is most open to religious experience. Well, one contact with the chevra kadisha [ordained burial society] and what was open is sealed—for good!”
There may be some students at the Hebrew University here in Jerusalem interested in discussing religion, but I’m having a hard time finding them. It is strange that there is so little religious ferment in a place favored by so fine a collection of teachers and spirits: Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and the late Judah Magnes, a Reform rabbi and first president of the University. A few years ago a circle of students and teachers used to gather at the home of Joseph Bentwich for discussions, but these meetings no longer take place. I asked Hugo Bergmann, who is a professor of philosophy, why nothing seemed to have come out of them.
“I don’t know,” he replied, reflecting again on a problem that has concerned him for many years; “perhaps it was too abstract.”
We had met in the book-lined study of his home, and I asked him to suggest something concrete that might be done to stimulate religious liberalism in Israel. He leaned back from his desk—a dignified, white-haired man with thoughtful gray eyes—and there was a long pause. Finally he offered: “A magazine, perhaps. A magazine to acquaint Israelis with new trends in religious thought.”
Why have the students been so indifferent to the religious attitudes of men like Bergmann, Simon, Buber, and others at the University—their teachers, after all? Possibly the unpopular political views of these men—who had been mainstays of the pre-war bi-nationalist Ihud movement—have brought on a hostility to their ideas in other realms of the spirit. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the sabra lacks all “thirst” for religion.
* * *
Interlude at Sdeh Boker: For months now there has been speculation about the possibility of Ben Gurion’s returning from the Negev to resume his place in Israeli political life. [Ben Gurion came out of retirement to assume the post of Minister of Defense in February 1955.] I have just returned from a “pilgrimage” to Sdeh Boker, Ben Gurion’s kibbutz, having gone there Friday afternoon and been detained till the next day for reasons of military security. Our chauffeur was irritated at the delay, but for me it turned out to be a marvelous experience.
We traveled out to Sdeh Boker in the black Dodge the government had presented to “B.G.” Chaim, who usually drives the car, met me in the lobby of my hotel and told me that Mrs. Ben Gurion was in the back seat returning to her kibbutz after a few days in Tel Aviv.
“Shalom,” I said, opening the front door and gingerly pushing aside the tommy gun lying across the seat.
“Shalom,” Paula Ben Gurion replied. “Are you a rabbi? I hate rabbis, they are all hypocrites.”
I had heard that Mrs. Ben Gurion was not famous for her diplomacy, and anyway I knew she was hall joking—but still, it was only half a joke.
“Well,” I said, punning weakly, “I’m a rav m’tukan”—(m’tukan in Hebrew meaning both “reform” and “adjusted”).
“They are just as bad.” But by now I was inside the car, where I could see the broad, good-natured lines of her face, and felt more at ease. We drove a few blocks farther to pick another passenger up, a friend of Ben Gurion’s, which precipitated a momentary social crisis. “I brought a young girl from my kibbutz along,” said the friend to Paula, stooping down to the car window.
“What, you brought a friend?” Paula groaned. “How will we take her—where is the room? You should have asked if we had room. The car is filled with luggage.”
“Well, if there’s no room it’s all right,” the man said in embarrassment, for the girl was standing near him. “I told her that there might not be room.”
Paula uttered a few more loud sighs and finally said, “Nu—let’s move over.” But by this time the young girl, who had overheard the conversation—it was not hard to overhear Paula—was gone. The friend wanted to leave without her, assuring us that she had other places to go, but Paula would not have it. “Go find her,” she told Chaim imperiously. He spent the next few minutes searching for the girl, and finally found her.
Once we had all settled back and were well on our way, Paula began to regale us with her recent adventures in Tel Aviv. She had been to see the American production of Porgy and Bess that week. “The American ambassador invited me as his personal guest. So much fuss. I even dressed up and wore my ermine wrap. This is the second time I have ever worn it. A rich American gave it to me several years ago, but when do I have a chance to wear such things?” She continued to tell us about Porgy and Bess as the car sped along a highway flanked by eucalyptus trees. These trees had been Ben Gurion’s idea; they grew fast and could shield troop movements from enemy observation as well as afford a pleasant shade to the road.
When we came to Beer Sheba, the streets were already empty in anticipation of the Sabbath. Only one restaurant was still open, and we ordered some tea while Chaim made arrangements at the police station for the military escort which was to accompany us in the next lap of the journey through the Negev to Sdeh Boker.
Paula lost no time in asking the waiter why the cups weren’t clean, but he evidently knew who she was and took it all good-naturedly.
The road from Beer Sheba runs through barren land, and we passed one of the oil derricks now under construction whose progress the whole country was eagerly watching. Paula kept assuring me that “it is not too late—we may still run into some shooting.” After an hour of traveling, we saw the thirty-odd wooden shacks, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, which has been the home of the former prime minister and his wife for over eighteen months now. At the gate, our military escort turned around and we drove into the settlement alone. The guard, who was standing some yards away, waved us by. Paula was incensed. “What idiocy not to look and see who is in the car.” Chaim protested that the guard recognized our car, but Paula was still angry. “How can they know from a distance? They have to realize that Ben Gurion is here and not be so sloppy.—Well, how do you like my garden?” she said, interrupting the outburst and waving to the empty expanse all around.
We drove up to one of the wooden cottages and Ben Gurion came out to greet us. He was wearing khaki pants and a heavy white sweater which he later told us was made from the wool of the settlement’s sheep. “The Old Man,” as the young people like to call him, appeared to be in good health, and after greeting us briefly, went with his wife into their cottage. My two companions on the trip and I strolled over to some wooden stalls and watched two boys and a girl feeding the few hundred sheep and goats that are Sdeh Boker’s chief occupation.
The man who was visiting Ben Gurion with me had once been a shepherd on a kibbutz, and he watched the evening feeding of the animals with interest. When one of the boys called out, “Bakbuki—here, bottle-baby,” and placed a nursing bottle into an eagerly upturned mouth, I asked him why. He explained that in cases where the mother had no milk to give its offspring, bottle-feeding was necessary. I decided not to ask whether it was a lamb or kid that was being fed—I was too ashamed to confess I couldn’t tell the difference. We watched quietly while the three young kibbutzniks went efficiently about their work.
Darkness had fallen. It was Sabbath now, and some stars began to twinkle in the night sky. They were the stars, I couldn’t help thinking, that Abraham must have seen in the Negev when he heard a voice saying, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them. . . .” It is hard not to slip back and forth in time like this in Israel. The “baas” of the lambs and goats, the barbed wire fence about, the guns and ammunition hung along the inside of the sheep stall—it all seemed almost too much like what it was supposed to be.
A bell rang and we walked towards the dining room. As we approached we could hear singing, and I was surprised to recognize a traditional Sabbath hymn. But this seemed to be all there was of tradition. There were no candles in the room. The young people sitting at the rows of wooden tables were dressed in clean khaki clothes, some wearing white woolen sweaters. Most of them were members of “Nachal”—boys and girls in army units who worked on the land as part of their military training. They ranged in age from seventeen to the early twenties. I sat between Mrs. Ben Gurion and her husband, who, apart from a few sharp comments on people who insisted on calling themselves Zionists and were yet unwilling to come to Israel, did not say much during the meal. He seemed to enjoy the few potatoes, vegetables, and the small piece of meat served in honor of the Sabbath. I found the meat almost impossible to chew. But one of the boys pointed out that in this kibbutz they at least enjoyed hot meals on the Sabbath—a luxury not permitted in the army, whose messes were operated under strictly Orthodox supervision.
After we finished the meal, B.G. invited me to his house and we walked over to his small cottage. Paula insisted on showing me through each of the three rooms and appealed to me to admire her chintz curtains and colorful rugs. Ben Gurion’s study was filled with books in Hebrew, English, Spanish, Greek, and other languages. He sat behind a modern blond wood desk on which piles of books, magazines, and papers were neatly arranged. He was not at all officious, but I had the feeling that he had neither the talent nor the inclination for chit-chat, and so I came directly to the point of my visit. He began to talk quickly, almost irritably, as if he were weary of being asked the same old questions over and over. Quite a number of other rabbis, he told me, had come to him with this same question. “I told them, and I tell you,” his voice rose oratorically, “we need to have liberal Judaism in Israel. The state needs it for the sake of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. Come and set up a liberal synagogue. Let the youth here see something else besides them. Ach,” his voice dropped, “I tell you, I know them. Most of them don’t have God in their hearts.” His wife came into the room carrying a broken flour sifter and asked if we could fix it. I reached for it, but B.G. was ahead of me; he seized the sifter and started to bang it against the desk, declining any assistance from me. “Not with strength and not with might,” he said, as his face grew red with exertion, “but with common sense.” After a few minutes of effort there was a click, and with a grunt of satisfaction he returned the utensil to his wife. We resumed our conversation.
I asked him if he would be willing to associate himself officially with a liberal religious movement. He shook his head. “No, my way has always been to ask of anyone else only that which I am prepared to do myself. And I am not a synagogue Jew. During the last High Holy Days I did go to services, to be together with the soldiers here, and I read the prayers carefully—some of them are magnificent but some absolutely horrible. But I can understand,” he went on, “how other people might need religion. I have a daughter-in-law, an English girl who was originally Christian. Now she lights candles every Friday night. She feels the need to express her Judaism this way. But as for me and my son, her husband—to live here and to fight and work for the land is enough for us.” He mused for a moment, then added, “I am sure Moses believed God spoke to him, and perhaps there is a God, but I just can’t believe God really spoke to him. However, these views of mine have nothing to do with the principle of freedom of religion here. You know, we faced this question at the beginning of the state. There was a problem of phraseology in the Declaration of Independence. Rabbi Maimon had insisted that the first proclamation of the Jewish state must mention God; he wanted to include the phrase ‘Rock and Redeemer of Israel.’ Sisling, a Mapamnik, who happens to be the son of a rabbi, insisted that God was not responsible for the coming into being of the state and wanted no credit given him. I finally suggested that they compromise and use only the words ‘Rock of Israel’ which each group might interpret according to its own philosophy. So it was.”
We talked a while longer and I asked him what there would be left to link the Jewries of America and Israel together if in the end the Yishuv could offer only the alternatives of Ben Gurion’s nationalism or a rigid Orthodoxy. He frowned. “It is the problem.” Then, hesitating a moment, he continued, “Hebrew—Hebrew must (be our connection.” It was an answer I had heard before, from Shazar, for instance, but I had the feeling that B.G. was not really convinced by it. Perhaps somewhere in his mind he had already settled for there being no connection—and no Jewry outside of Israel with which to connect.
We talked a bit more about the ways and means of introducing liberal Judaism into the country. Ben Gurion was not enthusiastic about setting up experimental study groups or youth centers. “A synagogue must be built, a liberal synagogue, plain and unvarnished.” And then somehow we got on to Maimonides. Israel had just begun celebrating the 750th anniversary of his death. B.G. said of him: “Oh, a great mind. You know, the Rambam could easily, as he said, have proven that the world was created ex nihilo according to the Bible.” He was referring to the medieval dispute over the Aristotelian and Jewish concepts of creation. He reached over to the little Bible on the corner of his desk. “There is actually one element, you know, which is not created, according to the Bible.” He started reading from the first chapter of Genesis. “Water,” he pointed out, “is not mentioned as having been created; this passage could be interpreted as saying that it existed before the creation.”
Suddenly he looked at his watch. “Oh, oh, I almost forgot. You will have to excuse me, but I must make my readings.” We said “Shalom.” He reached into his desk for a flashlight and hurried outside—to measure the dewfall and temperature, which was one of his duties in the kibbutz.
“I don’t ask anybody else to do what I won’t do myself.” This is a big statement, but perhaps B.G. has earned the right to make it. Recently he had concluded an appeal for the revival of the pioneering spirit with one of his favorite quotations: “A righteous man shall live by his faith.” And be had given the phrase a twist which made many a listener uncomfortable. It is not a man’s ideology, his “faith,” that is the test, but his willingness to “live by his faith”: to come to Israel if he preaches Zionism, and to live in the Negev if he thinks the Negev should be settled.
I left the little house and walked across the field to the room where I was to spend the night. One of the members of the kibbutz had gone to the city for a few days; I was to sleep in his bed. There were two young boys sitting on the other bed when I came in. They greeted me and watched me unpack my bag. There was a knock on the door, and two other boys sauntered in. I reached into my bag for some cognac, which may or may not have been helping my week-old cold, and asked the boys if they would join me. They hesitated. Then one of them rather bashfully accepted, poured a little into a cup, and, to my surprise, put his hand upon his head and offered a blessing. He drank, and passed the cup along to the lad standing near him who awkwardly went through the same ritual. It suddenly dawned on me that they must have heard I was a rabbi and had taken my invitation as a suggestion that we make Kiddush together on the Sabbath. The cup went the rounds, and everyone blessed it. I asked one of the boys, a tall serious-faced lad from Tel Aviv, if he preferred the kibbutz to the city. He shrugged his shoulders. “It’s all right.” I asked him whether he had come because he felt it was his duty, and he shrugged his shoulders again. The boy sitting near him spoke for him. “Of course, that’s why he came. He just doesn’t want to say. Somebody has to come here.”
Outside a bell rang and the boys told me that a special Sabbath program had been prepared for the evening. We went outside and walked toward the darkened dining room. Inside I saw that the electric lights had been switched off, and in their place three candles were burning on a table in the far corner of the room. Behind this table sat two girls and three boys with some books open before them. As my eyes became accustomed to the candlelight, I could see the others sitting on benches along the walls. They were singing a mournful song about the Negev, about the dew and blood with which it had been sprinkled. They finished and there was a moment of silence. Then one of the girls whose blond hair and spectacles glinted softly in the candlelight announced in a low husky Hebrew that this Sabbath eve was dedicated to the memory of the “thirty-five.” She was referring to the thirty-five Hebrew University students who had been killed by Arabs at the beginning of the war when they tried to bring help to a kibbutz near Hebron. There was another pause after this, and from the other end of the table a boy with Yemenite features, large dark eyes, and curly black hair, began to read “L’Dovid,” a Psalm of David. “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, Who skills my hands for battle, my fingers for war. . . . Deliver me out of many waters, from the hands of strangers. . . .” “Then a shot was heard outside. Coming at that moment it seemed almost appropriate. Several of the young soldiers left the room immediately. Everyone waited and listened, but there was silence. The young soldier finished his reading. Then a girl read a poem about the “thirty-five.”
Again there was a pause, and then another song. Somebody called out that they ought to have some dancing and everybody laughed—the proportion of boys to girls was about five to one—and they went on singing. There was a final song, evidently their favorite—they sang it over at least a dozen times: “When Ben Gurion puts on tefillin, and Sdeh Boker keeps the Sabbath, and Moshe Sharett takes up ballet, then will the Messiah come.”
A sturdy blond boy stood up and offered to organize some games. They played blind-man’s buff and the room rang with laughter. The games were still going on when I left the room and walked out into the night. It was impossible to turn in and I walked over toward the barbed wire fence. My thoughts spun round—so young, these boys and girls, yet exposed at any moment to the very tragedies of which they sang.
I walked back to the little room in which I was to spend the night. My young roommate had thoughtfully left a light burning for me. I noticed copies of Moby Dick and War and Peace, in English, among his things, along with some agricultural manuals and a few Hebrew books. And on top of the bookcase stood two hand grenades, apparently for decoration. The evening’s events kept me awake. There was something in them deeply relevant, I felt, to the questions whose answers I was seeking in Israel—but what?
I remembered how when I came to Israel, the papers had been filled with accounts of the fighting around the clubhouse built by the Histadrut near the Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem. The Orthodox claimed the building was a deliberate provocation, an attempt to demoralize their youth, while the Histadrut stood on its rights. A commission, appointed to find a way of ending the ugly fights that occurred almost daily, proposed building a wall around the clubhouse to shut the two groups out of each other’s sight. But a wall already existed, not only between the extremist Neturei Karta and the Histadrut, but between all that was associated with religion—rabbis, synagogues, and prayer books—and the rest of Israel, in which latter category was that very Yemenite boy who had read a Psalm of David in the Negev. For were you to suggest that there was something of religion in the life of this boy working in the Negev and reading from the Psalms, the Orthodox would protest, “But he carries a gun on the Sabbath and eats no kosher food”; and what is more, the boy would agree with them. What have the daily problems of a soldier in the Negev to do with prayer and God and religion? No, the religious problem was not the ugly fracas around the clubhouse, nor adjustments in ritual, nor even the laws establishing religious control over marriage and divorce. The problem was this towering wall, accepted by both the religious and the secular camps in Israel, between the ideals and values of the average Israeli and the spiritual and religious matrix from which they had once sprung. And joined with this was what Ben Gurion called the problem of Jewish history: the growing split between an Israeli community which feels no need for religion and the Jewish community in the West which seems destined to conceive of its Jewish identification more and more in exclusively religious terms. What would be the effect on Jewish life in America of an Israel that would proclaim to Jews and all the world that the Jewish religion was irrelevant and outmoded? For wasn’t this the meaning of what was going on in Israel? How long could the bustle of organization and the large membership lists of synagogues in America disguise the knowledge that at the center of it all was a religion that was not meeting one of its greatest tests?
There was no bell the next morning, for it was Sabbath, but the Negev sun awakened me early enough to see B.G. again out measuring the dewfall. After breakfast, B.G. and I, with Chaim at the wheel, rode out to a nearby canyon. We stood for a while following the play of color that faded away into the far blue hills of Trans-Jordan. On the way back we paused at a little mound of stones marking the spot where five boys had been killed last year. B.G. noticed me staring about at the barren hills. “Depressing, eh?” he asked with a smile.
It was terribly bleak, and I wondered if Ben Gurion himself wasn’t also depressed. Only a few months ago, when it became obvious that few Israelis were inspired by his example to come to the Negev, he had gone to them making a tour of the villages and settlements to enlist volunteers. But less than two hundred had come forward, some of them old-time Zionists who left their families to serve temporarily in the new settlement. I looked at the ruddy face of the “Old Man,” the famous chin so determinedly set. He had seen more fantastic dreams than the settlement in the Negev come true, and in any case “a good man lives by his faith.”
Back at the settlement I prepared to leave. Paula came out in her red bathrobe to say goodbye, and agreed to be photographed with her husband if someone would lend her a comb. We took some pictures and said “Shalom.” Driving out, we passed the two boys who had made a blessing over the cognac the night before. They looked bored, walking around the small barbed wire enclosure. I could not help wondering whether a prayer service or some readings from Isaiah that Sabbath morning might not have added a dimension of meaning to the bleakness of life in Sdeh Boker.
* * *
Haifa: I have been saving Haifa for the last stage of my “survey” because I was told that I might find some practical suggestions here for introducing liberal Judaism into Israel.
My first meeting was with Dr. Elk, a former liberal rabbi in Germany who now directs a school. I attended some classes and they were excellent. The school is the hard-won result of Elk’s lonely battle to build an educational institution outside the politics and ideologies that dominate most of Israel’s schools. A vigorous, clean-shaven man in his fifties, Elk lost no time in assuring me that a liberal synagogue in Haifa was both desirable and possible. But his own experience had made him realistic. “We need the help of someone who is not dependent upon Israelis for his income,” he advised. He was frank about his own financial troubles with the representatives of liberal religion in America who sometimes supply funds for his school. One American businessman, when asked to help, had said, “I don’t know if we’re backing the right horse.” Dr. Elk couldn’t get over the Americanese. “He didn’t know if he had the right horse.”
The next two evenings saw meetings at the home of Carl Alpert, who is public relations director of the Haifa Technion. Joseph Bentwich was there and had a suggestion: “If American Jewry wants to help, they should send sixty liberal religious young people here to form a settlement on the land.”
A tall, bearded man with large sad eyes, who had been a chaplain in the Israeli army, said: “There is no institution in Israel to which a person can turn for help in his personal problems. The emphasis is always on community and group needs. There is ‘no comforter’ in sadness, and no sharing of happiness.” There was an immediate “Amen” to this from everybody.
The taxi driver who took me to the top of the Carmel had a difficult time finding David Pinsky Street. He kept muttering the name “Pinsky . . . Pinsky” as we circled around. Finally he stopped his car to inquire and came back, face glowing in triumph, to announce that he had been “right all along—they had just renamed the street a few days ago.”
General Yaakov Dori, former commander-in-chief of the Haganah and now president of the Haifa Technion, has a handsome home on Carmel, tastefully decorated in modern style with furniture, his wife told me, all made in Israel. Dori has the air of a vigorous American businessman about him, someone who likes to get straight to the point. I asked him if he was just being kind by entertaining Reform rabbis from America, or whether it was true, as I had heard, that he was interested in liberal Judaism.
“I will try to explain to you exactly how I feel,” he said, speaking swiftly. “I came to Israel as a very young boy and like the others received a good education in the Bible, but no religion. Nor was I ever interested in religion. Nor am I fanatically interested now. But with the coming of the state, certain things have happened. Until then we had our work to do, and it completely occupied us. The task of each moment was meaningful enough to fulfill our lives. We established our state. There is much yet to be built, but everybody knows now that this is it, this is life in the Jewish state, and lo and behold it leaves something unfulfilled and unsatisfied. It is evident there are problems in life that cannot be solved by great events or by politics. I don’t say that religion can solve them either, but they are problems that religion at least deals with. And if there were here on Mount Carmel a synagogue with prayer services arranged aesthetically, and with religious ideas interpreted in a way that could be meaningful to my life and times, I would certainly be interested in going. The world of the Orthodox synagogue—it’s just a foreign world to me. We have nothing in common.” Before leaving, I asked General Dori if he would associate himself officially with a group searching for a modern expression of religion in Israel. “Definitely,” was his answer.
There is no question but that Haifa is the place in Israel to launch an experimental program of activities, including a liberal synagogue. It can draw upon the youth of Dr. Elk’s school and upon a number of intellectual leaders. Certainly it is only through such indigenous leadership that anything might be done here. Haifa is the natural center, not only because the opposition of Orthodoxy would be weakest here, but because the city in general sees itself as Herzl saw it, “the city of the future.”
* * *
Jerusalem: On the way to visit Zvi Yehuda Kuk, I stopped at a store to buy some gifts and came across a beautifully preserved hand-written Yemenite prayer book. On the inside leaf was written: “Cast me not off in my old age. Oh my strength, do not forsake me.” I took the book along with me to show Zvi Yehuda.
Everything looked much the same in the yeshiva of Rav Kuk, where I had spent so many pleasant days two years ago with the son of the late Chief Rabbi.1 I passed a few students in the main room bent over their books, and went down the dimly lit hall to the rooms where Zvi Yehuda Kuk’s sister and her husband, the present head of the yeshiva, live. Zvi Yehuda was there eating his supper. He looked much thinner and older. Although almost two years had gone by, he recognized me and jumped up from his supper to clasp my hand. His sister, who resembles their famous father more than her brother, brought out some oranges and we sat around the dining room table. I asked him if he had not been disturbed by the article I had written in COMMENTARY about his father. He placed his hand on mine and smiled. “Chevraman. What a chevraman,” he smiled. “No, it was all right. A few words of his letters might have been differently translated, but it was all right.”
I had been thinking of telling Zvi Yehuda why I came to Israel this time. I wondered how he would respond. Like his father he tries to see sparks of holiness in the activities of almost any Jewish group, but I suppose it would be too much to expect him to embrace liberal Judaism in Israel within his range of tolerance. But I did know that Orthodox Jews like Zvi Yehuda were heartbroken at the wall that seems to be mounting ever higher between their religious world and the bulk of Israel’s population.
“I know your father believed that the light would eventually come,” I said, “but do you think it really is inevitable that it will come? Isn’t there the possibility that we may destroy for good the possibility of its coming?”
He smiled and placed his hand on mine as in the days when we were studying his father’s writings together. “My father,” he replied softly, “used to interpret the First Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not worship other Gods—elohim acherim,’ by translating the word ‘acherim’ as ‘m’acherim,’ which means ‘delaying.’ By worshipping other Gods we may delay the coming of the light, but not prevent its ultimate coming.”
I showed him the Yemenite prayer book I had just bought. He and his brother-in-law looked at it with interest. I was going to show him the inscription on the front cover, but again something held me back. We spoke a while longer. When I rose to leave, he took my arm and accompanied me to the door outside. He stood on the steps waving his hand and murmuring, “A successful journey, a good and successful journey.”
* * *
Enroute home: The last few hours on the plane have been spent alternating between thoughts about the “survey” and turning the pages of the Yemenite prayer book I bought in Jerusalem. The copyist, working only with black and red ink, had illuminated the letters with infinite care. It is remarkable how little difference there is between this prayer book written in Yemen, and the standard Siddur used by the Jew in Warsaw or Minsk. Can it be that this book holds most of the secret of Jewish unity throughout the centuries?
One hymn in the Yemenite prayer book, not included in the Ashkenazic version, caught my eye with its simple refrain: “Thou art the Flame, I the straw—and who should have mercy upon the straw if not the Flame. Thou art Pure, I sinful—and who should have mercy upon the sinful if not the Pure. Thou art the Supporter, I the falling one—and who should have mercy upon the falling one if not the Supporter. Thou art the Shepherd, I the flock. . . .” I wonder what the author of this hymn would think of religious “surveys” and projects to stimulate liberal Judaism in Israel?
London: Yesterday I talked with Yigal Yadin, the former commander-in-chief of the Israeli army. I found him locked in his bathroom developing some archaeological photographs he had taken that day in the Oxford Museum. I found it difficult to use his military title when I spoke to him, for, despite a receding hairline, he looks no older than thirty. His wife, a pretty girl in gray slacks, dangled her legs over the side of her chair and listened to our discussion. Yadin said that since living in England he has become keenly conscious of the need for a spiritual relation between Israel and the other Jewish communities, especially now chat the financial and political ties are beginning to weaken. But as to the contribution religion could make to this problem, he simply hadn’t thought too much about it. “Whatever the objective, however,” he said in good military form, “the proper tactic to use is the Bible. The Bible is the key to the sabra.”
I thought then of the Yemenite soldier reading from the Psalm of David in the Negev, “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, Who skills my fingers for war.” Now that I think of it, the boy had not read the whole psalm, but only certain verses. Other verses, referring to God, like “My lovingkindness and my fortress, my high tower and my deliverance,” had been left out. Ben Gurion, too, when he quoted from the Bible, usually had an eye only for the historic parallel. As General Yadin had said, the Bible was tremendously vivid to the Israeli—but not all of it, not passages telling of the “flesh melting in longing for the living God.” Zvi Yehuda Kuk had also quoted the Bible, to explain his father’s interpretation of the First Commandment—but present in the Bible of Kuk was something quite unreal to Ben Gurion and to most of us, whether in Israel or anywhere else. Present in the Bible of Zvi Yehuda was that God who somehow did what Ben Gurion claimed he could not do—“talk to man.”
* * *
It is still hard to evaluate the implications for Jewish life and history of people who, while living in the Holy Land, speaking Hebrew, and reading the Bible, proclaim that religion is irrelevant. Organizations, a magazine, discussion groups, and changes in ritual might offer the Israeli a kind of religious activity that does not outrage his sense of truth. But behind all the “projects” and “revision” and disputing over terms like Orthodox and Liberal lies the ultimate question: Is it possible for modern man to find something which enables him to argue, as could his forefathers: “Thou art the Supporter, I the falling one, and who should have mercy upon the falling one if not the Supporter”?
But surely that is no less a question for Judaism in America. The daily “realities” of the situation of struggling Israelis and prosperous American Jews are indeed different; but how can we say that the ultimate situation and the ultimate reality that both must face in the end as human beings in the universe are not the same? Perhaps what we are destined to see is a “gathering up of the sparks” in each land, and their sharing together.
1 See my article, “Rav Kuk’s Path to Peace Within Israel” in COMMENTARY of March 1954.