The State of Israel appropriately takes pride in its many achievements. In technology, science, research as well as militarily, Israel’s success seems unprecedented, especially considering its small population. Advanced Jewish studies and many varied forms of Jewish culture thrive. Historians say that never before in history has such a high percentage of Jews had expert-level knowledge of Jewish texts.
On the social level, however, the picture in Israel is far from rosy. While Israel’s raison d’être is the ingathering of exiles to build a new society together, serious tensions abound between Jews who are Ashkenazi and Sephardi, religious and secular, and haredi (ultra- or fervently Orthodox) and non-haredi. Women’s rights are more fraught than in most western democracies, because of the religious-secular divide and the lack of separation of religion and state. Israeli supporters and opponents of the settlements often do not even talk about their differences – it’s just too painful. Tensions between the 80 per cent of the population who are Jewish and the 20 per cent who are Muslim or Christian are part of everyday existence.
It’s inspiring, then, to learn about someone who is trying to improve the situation. Debbie Weissman, a firm believer in the power of dialogue, has just published Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist: A Life of Activism through Dialogue.
Born and educated in the United States, Weissman made aliyah in the 1970s and is a quiet force for change in Israel. She calls herself “a religious Zionist who believes that the best fulfilment of Zionism will come when there is a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.” Her work as an educator and her commitment to dialogue have not, for the most part, brought her into politics. She knows that many people think that “dialogue and education are not enough; we need activism.” She disagrees: “I think that dialogue and education are forms of activism.”
Much of her work has been dedicated to Jewish-Christian dialogue. She served as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews from 2006 to 2014. True, tensions between Jews and Christians may not be the biggest challenge that Israel faces. Some question the value of this form of dialogue: an old cynical joke says that Jewish-Christian dialogue consists of Jews who don’t believe too strongly in Judaism talking with Christians who don’t believe too strongly in Christianity, and finding to their surprise just how much they have in common. This is definitely not the case with Weissman, who has deep knowledge of Jewish texts and profound religious commitment. The Christians with whom she dialogues also often have deep knowledge and commitment, as we see from the picture on the cover of the book, which shows Weissman meeting with Pope Francis. People in the know understand that strengthening relations between Christians and the Jews of Israel is crucial. The embattled state needs friends in high places.
Weissman has also been a force for change in women’s participation in Orthodox Jewish religious life. She was one of the founders of Kehillat Yedidya in south Jerusalem, where she continues to be actively involved. (Full disclosure: Weissman and I attend Yedidya together and are friends and neighbours.) As she puts it, “the founders of Yedidya built a community in which women could be first-class citizens, non-Jews could be welcome guests, issues of democracy and human rights could be taken seriously, and the pursuit of peace could be recognized as a religious imperative… Halachah and ethics could be seen as not mutually exclusive categories. And… the religiosity of the community would be measured not by the length of our sleeves, but by the way we treat people with disabilities.” The beautiful building that houses Yedidya is one of the few fully accessible Orthodox synagogues in Jerusalem.
Ever since the founding of Shirah Hadashah 14 years ago, Yedidya is no longer in the vanguard in Jerusalem on women’s issues in the Orthodox community. Yedidya’s approach, and Weissman’s, is gradual change accomplished through strategic thinking. Referring, for example, to the more radical Women of the Wall, she writes, “I certainly support the right of women to pray at the Wall, [but] I don’t think it’s always wise or judicious to exercise all of one’s rights. There are other factors to be taken into consideration. I would apply that same reasoning, for example, to the right of Jews to live anywhere in the Land of Israel or to pray on the Temple Mount.”
Weissman understands the problems of Israeli society yet she exudes hope. “I made aliyah to a largely secular, left-leaning country where the kibbutz movement was disproportionately influential. I now live in a right-wing, religious and traditional society, where… racism is on the rise. But… in some ways it’s better now. We have much more religious pluralism, feminist values that are anchored in progressive legislation, something that’s been called a Jewish cultural renaissance and more room for all kinds of people who previously were confined to the periphery.”
Memoirs is not a step-by-step argument in favour of Weissman’s worldview. It’s a collection of light-hearted autobiographical stories that reflect Weissman’s humility and her talents. It provides a window into Jewish life in contemporary Israel, but will be especially appreciated by the large number of people whose lives she has touched.
Not many American or Canadian Jews have made aliyah, but Weissman can serve as a role model for the daring few. She has successfully imported some of North America’s best values into the State of Israel