‘His Real Heroes Were Jews’


About three and a half years ago, Micah Goodman, a popular Israeli philosopher, educator and author in his 40s, received a phone call from Shimon Peres out of the blue. The then-president of Israel said he had read Goodman’s best-selling book, “Maimonides and the Book That Changed Judaism: Secrets of ‘The Guide for the Perplexed,’” and wanted to discuss it with him.

“A few hours later, there I was in his office,” Goodman said in a 45-minute phone interview Sunday morning, speaking publicly for the first time in an in-depth way about four “long, intense, one-on-one conversations” he had with Peres, the last of which was on the eve of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, this spring.

Those talks, Goodman said, gave him a new understanding and appreciation of the venerable Israeli leader, one that he feels encompassed and helped explain some of the seeming contrasts in Peres as security-minded defense minister and peace-seeking futurist as well as science-enthralled secularist and deeply committed Jew.

“In our first meeting, Peres told me he thought great Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Marx and Freud changed the world,” Goodman said, “and he asked me to write a book with him about these major Jewish personalities.”

Goodman, a serious thinker with an ebullient personality, recalled that he was flattered by the offer, but told Peres such books already have been written. He suggested that a better book could be written about how Jewish ideas — specifically about a new understanding of God, time and power — changed the world through the Bible, the Talmud and great Jewish thinkers.
At first, Goodman said, Peres seemed persuaded. But on a subsequent visit, Peres came back to his original idea, asserting that “people are interested in reading about people,” and that was the best way to engage them.

Goodman demurred.

“I told him, ‘I’m a philosopher, I deal with ideas.’”

In the end, the two men could not agree on the book, but agreed to continue meeting.
The conversations were deep, Goodman said, and he was deeply impressed with Peres’ intellect and endless quest for knowledge.

“Peres was very interested in Jewish brilliance. He spoke of Moses, Einstein, Spinoza, Maimonides, Freud and Mark Zuckerberg often. I think Peres felt that being a Jew means not being satisfied with the world as it is, and saying ‘I will make a difference.’ He said that was the secret of Moses, and all of these great thinkers — that they were rebels with a shared vision of changing the world.

“His real heroes were Jews, not God.”

Goodman believes the Peres vision for Israel, Jews and the world moved through three stages in his life. His early commitment to socialism, highlighted by his devotion to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was combined with a commitment to Israel’s security, including serving as defense minister and ensuring that Israel became a nuclear power.

“I don’t see that as contradictory to Peres,” Goodman said. “He felt that the world will march to a better place through socialism and that Israel will join and be on the right side of history by being secure at home. Zionism enabled Jews to make Judaism a relevant movement, and to shape history.”

The next stage for Peres, in the 1970s and ’80s, was seeking peace. Goodman noted that Peres, who had been enamored with the poetry of Natan Alterman, a strong nationalist, became increasingly influenced by the writings of novelist Amos Oz, a peace advocate. And as socialism weakened in Israel and around the world, the former hawk replaced it with peace as his primary pursuit.

“The New Middle East,” written by Peres in the mid-1990s, is the full expression of that utopian vision. But the second intifada, which resulted in the violent death of more than 1,000 Israelis, shook Peres along with his countrymen, especially because the outbreak began shortly after Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered to cede most of the West Bank and compromise on the Temple Mount. “But I don’t think Peres ever gave up hope,” Goodman said.

“The whole vision of the left suffered a great blow,” he added, “and most Israelis came to think this bloodshed was not about settlements,” but rather about a Jewish state in the region.

“The Peres I met was in his third stage,” Goodman said, “and it was about a renewal of Judaism — not as a religion but as an ethical culture, a kind of humanistic Judaism. In a sense this marked a closing of the circle because it was the vision of Ben-Gurion,” Peres’ first mentor.

“I expected him to be bitter and cynical” after his long history of political infighting, Goodman said. “But he was very warm to me, even tender, and I was taken with how youthful he was in his outlook.” According to Peres, age is not chronological; it is how one experiences time. If you live more with memory than with dreams, you are old; if you look to the future more than look back, you are young. “He was against nostalgia and yearning for what was,” Goodman said. “If you still feel the best lies ahead, you are youthful. And here he was at 93, interested in Maimonides, trying to better understand science. He seemed very young.”

In their last meeting, on the eve of Israeli Independence Day this past spring, Goodman took out his smartphone on the spur of the moment and asked Peres to give a blessing to the 2,000 students of Ein Prat, a popular, pluralistic Jewish learning program for young adult Israelis that Goodman helped found and leads.

Looking into the camera, Peres said the holiday was not just about achieving political independence. “I fear that we have returned to national independence without returning to spiritual independence,” he said, calling on young people to “serve the power that enables the world to exist, and that is the power of justice.”

Though it was May, Peres closed by saying “Shanah tovah,” a poignant note in that he died less than a week before the new Jewish year.