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Rabbi Laments Divisions within Judaism

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Rabbi Laments Divisions within Judaism


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


TENAFLY, N.J. -- Rabbi David Hartman pounds his chest. With guilt and passion he declares, "I myself contain the struggle that's in today's Israel."

It would be reasonable to presume that Hartman was talking about the historic animosity between Jews and Palestinians. But the struggle he was talking about is the little-known but increasingly bitter division between modernity and tradition. The battle between Orthodox and secular Jews, he said, is tearing apart the Jews of his adopted home. So fierce is the polarization and name-calling between the two sides that Hartman fears that a civil war may result.

Unless Israelis can live alongside one another, respecting the other's dignity, "there will be a civil war ... that will make the Palestinian intifada [uprising of the 1980s] look mild by comparison," Hartman predicted.

The Jesuit-educated, Brooklyn-born rabbi, who moved with his family to Israel in 1971, directs the Shalom Hartman Institute and is a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Hartman is hopeful about peace between Israelis and Palestinians: "We are destined to live together. I deeply believe peace will come," he told NCR. Israelis are "so tired of war, tired of being in Lebanon, tired of the aggression that kills their sons."

While U.S. Jews and others are aware of the Palestinian conflict, few are aware just how the friction among Jews in Israel threatens to disrupt the Jewish state, he said. Addressing some 200 persons at the Jewish Community Center here in mid-September, Hartman entreated his audience to come to Israel, to stay for more than two weeks and to listen to and smell the hatred in the streets.

The hatred and enmity that he finds daily between religious Jews and their Zionist non-religious brothers and sisters fills his eyes with tears. "I fear for the future of my country and for the future of my people," he said. He warned the largely Jewish audience that the future of world Jewry depends upon how the drama in Israel plays itself out.

Hartman described a theological and philosophical divide among the communities as wide as the Nile and said it had largely arisen since the 1977 election of Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the subsequent need for coalition governments. He blamed the war of words between the two communities and the practice of "demonizing your enemy" for the 1995 assassination of Premier Yitzhak Rabin.

Why this deep-seated "hatred between the `black hats'" who see Zionists as "heretics" and the non-religious Israelis who view the Orthodox as "monsters ... who will eat me up and invade my bedroom?" the rabbi asked. The answer dates to Biblical times when brothers hated and feared each other more than the stranger, he said.

It also stems from a lack of understanding, said Hartman, 66, who founded his institute to build bridges among and within the faiths and to correct negative stereotypes and prejudicial teachings in the creeds of Israel -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

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