Saturday, March 28, 2009

Israel needs a constitution

With cracks in Israeli unity widening, it is time to unify around voluntarily accepted common purposes and values
Rabbi Levi Brackman

There are worrying signs that Israeli society may be tilting towards a damaging inner fight between the religious and secular segments of society. This is occurring not only on the level of national politics where there has been contentious discussion about secular civil marriage and conversion reform, but perhaps more disturbingly, this is also happening in the army. Earlier this month about 100 soldiers walked out of a Paratroop Brigade meeting because a female performer began to sing. Anyone familiar with the Jewish religion knows that Jewish law prohibits men from listening to a woman singing a live solo. Clearly a secular person will not agree with the reasons for this law. But the rationale of the law is irrelevant. What is important here is that the soldiers sensibilities, religious or cultural, be respected.

But this did not occur. Instead, according to Ynet, the army's chief education officer, Brigadier General Eli Shermeister, described the exit of the religious soldiers as a "worrisome phenomenon that should not be accorded continued legitimacy." He explained that these events are designed to foster group cohesion and allowing some participants to leave defeats that purpose.

IDF offensive to religious troops
It is frankly unbelievable that the IDF’s top officer for education does not realize that it is the organizers responsibility to ensure that the program will not cause offense to the participants. His suggestion is akin to me calling you a derogatory name and then blaming you for being offended. If this would be the first time this happened the army could be forgiven, but they have been offensive to religious soldiers numerous times before and with a similar result.

Clearly in the mind of Brig.-Gen. Shermeister having a woman sing a solo at an event that the army has mandated religious men to attend does not contradict his idea of unity. The reason is obvious. He represents and erroneous point of view that sees unity solely as represented by the externalities. If everyone sat and listened to the assembly, wore the same uniform and clapped in the same manner there would have been unity in his opinion. The fact that there was no common purpose or unity of values does not affect his idea of harmony.

The Torah, and therefore religious Jews, has a completely different take on the concept of unity. For the first twelve days of the month of Nissan (that began this week on Thursday) we read the part of the Torah that describes the sacrifices brought by Jewish tribal leaders during the dedication of the tabernacle in the desert. Each tribal leader brought exactly the same package of sacrifices albeit on a different day.

Common purposes and values

This underlines the Torah’s view of unity. Externally the tribes could not have been more different. They were all given different blessings by the patriarch Jacob. Each tribe had a different flag and performed different tasks and made a living in different ways. However, they all had the same inner core of values. This was represented by the fact that when it came to the service of G-d they all as individuals brought exactly the same package of sacrifices.

A perceived cohesiveness represented by an exterior show of unity counts for very little. Real unity and interconnectedness is characterized by a common purpose and values. In Israel the common purpose has always been fighting for the survival of the country, a unity that has been thrust upon Israelis against their will. Tragically the cracks are visible all over the place.

Now with a new unity government about to be installed, that includes religious parties as well as Right and Left-wing politicians, it is an opportune time to give up on the shallow idea of unity that we have become used to and work together to unify around voluntarily accepted common purposes and values. Maybe it is finally time to bite the bullet and form a formal constitution that all Israelis can unify and rally around. If Iraq can do it why can’t Israel?

Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts

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