Talmudist Says Major Threat Facing Israel is One of Self-identity

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a world famous Israeli Talmudist, Jewish writer-philosopher and spiritual guide, declared here that despite the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, true peace with the Arabs is farther than ever and that the “major threat facing Israel today” is one of self-identity and the need for inner examination. “If we don’t build an inner core of identity in Israel, then we will have to rely on outside pressures. And it is better to be a Jew because I like it rather because others dislike it, “he said.

Steinsaltz, who is known throughout the world for his exhaustive Talmudic commentary, his writings on Jewish mysticism and his work of religious renewal, particularly in bridging the secular and religious worlds, spoke Monday night before some 2000 people at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun.

Answering questions from Dr. William Berkowitz, rabbi of the congregation, at its Dialogue ’79 forum series, Steinsaltz, referring to the controversy over Jewish settlements, asserted that the main issue should not be whether the settlements are for defense purposes which “is secondary” but rather if “Jews can live anywhere in Eretz Yisrael.”

The main issue in the controversy, he said, should be over whether the territories will be “judenrein” or not. “Jews should remain in the areas whether they are under Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian or PLO rule. The city of Hebron has as much holiness as the city of Tel Aviv and is as important as Jews living in New York,” he said.

Asked by Berkowitz about the current Iranian situation and Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini as a religious-political leader, Steinsaltz asserted that while he prefers religious fanatics to nationalistic fanatics because the religious fanatic has some form of inner controls, nevertheless, Khomeini is ” the nasty combination of religion and nationalism and when they come together it’s worse because someone like Khomeini believes he is a prophet of the Lord–and so he has all the arrogance of religion without any of the limits of it.”

JUDAISM IN AMERICA

In his broad discussion of the issues facing American Jewry, the noted religious thinker said that a major problem of Judaism in America is that “too many people are passive participants, ” Steinsaltz urged American Jews to become more deeply involved in their Jewish participation: ” And to participate does not mean those groups which have brunches on Sunday but it means to engage in the adventure of study, prayer, and mitzvot (Jewish living).”

As for American rabbis, Steinsaltz said they must challenge their congregants and ask them continually: “What new thing did you find out today about being Jewish?” At the same time the religious thinker decried segments of American Jewry for “suffering too much from kosher-centered Judaism in which small parts of Judaism are made greater than they are.” Asserting that this kind of Judaism cannot survive and exist for long, Steinsaltz said that religious life preoccupied with levels of kosher certification becomes a “boring shell and a plaything” which would disappear. “Too many Jews only want to deal with the kitchen but there are other rooms in the house as well, he added.

WOMEN AND JUDAISM

In his comments on the controversial theme of women’s role in Judaism, Steinsaltz, who said he first “wrote on the issue 22 years ago–long before it became a fad; “spoke of his desire to see women involved in Jewish areas “beyond the kitchen.” Nevertheless, he asserted that too many in the Jewish feminist movement were overly concerned with “external forms and are forgetting the important parts.”

A person, he said, participates in Judaism “not in the number of things they do but in the depth of how they do them.” If women will take a greater role in the Jewish community, he continued, they will be leaders in Jewish life, whether they are-called rabbis or not. Jewish women will assume a greater role “not by fighting for it but by creating it. “As for the feminist calls for added religious obligations, Steinsaltz said that the Jewish women’s task should be “not getting new rights or commandments but fulfilling what they can already. Are the old commandments so ardently kept that women need new ones?” he asked.

On current calls for a Jewish mission to non-Jews, Steinsaltz said his “dream is to have a mission to the Jews. If somebody needs conversions, it is the Jews. It is the mission among our own people that is needed very urgently. “Declaring that ” Jews are a family” and not a formal religion, Steinsaltz said that a mission to the outside world is inappropriate. “You don’t grab people in the street and say–I want you to join my family.”

Continuing, he added that “the mission of the Jew to the world is to be themselves and exist as Jews. If you light a candle that burns, it sheds light and makes other places bright. Our mission is to burn brighter and that will light the world as it did in the past.”

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