Alt+SHIFT: A Brief History of Israeliness

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | February 9, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Netanel Ellinson, Kitzur Toldot HaYisraeliyut (Yediot, 2021), 429 pp.

Israel today faces the threat of excessive polarization among rival camps and, according to the fears of the most pessimistic, perhaps even civil war. The divide between right and left or between religious and secular often seems excessively sharp. Netanel Ellinson, the head of Midreshet Arava, has written a book to counter these dangers. I am quite sympathetic to his efforts although we shall see that his desire to generate very broad and sweeping theories sometimes leads to overreach.

Ellinson sees today’s Jewish State as the third unified kingdom in our history, following the reign of Solomon and of the Hasmoneans. In each of the previous examples, the kingdom began to crumble in the third generation, about seventy years after its foundation. After the first generation fights for establishing the kingdom, and the second generation stabilizes matters, the third generation searches for a purpose. Lacking a unifying external enemy, they begin squabbling amongst themselves. Contemporary Israel faces this challenge.

Some have spoken about a culture clash between Yehudim and Yisraelim. The former are more religious and want to remain a part of Jewish tradition. The latter are more secular and embrace the Zionist narrative as their organizing ideology. One is symbolized by Jerusalem and the other by Tel Aviv. In one electoral campaign, a popular slogan was “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.” Shimon Peres, on the other hand, once bemoaned a political loss by saying the Jews defeated the Israelis.

In his overarching presentation, Ellinson argues that this divide was ever thus. Debates between Yehuda and Yosef, the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and even Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel all presage the current divide between left and right. Working off of R. Kook’s famous eulogy for Herzl, Yosef and Malkhut Yisael represent the material whereas Yehuda and Malkhut Yehuda reflect the spiritual. The Jewish people need both groups in order to flourish.

Ellinson traces many differences between right and left to one fundamental split: how much we trust the goodness of humanity. The left has a more positive outlook on the outside world and is therefore more universal-minded, feeling that humanity itself can bring us to a better place. The right has a more jaundiced view of humanity, so it has less trust for the outside world, thinks we need harsher punishments to keep people in check, and relies on and anticipates God’s salvation. The left is more likely to develop a utopian vision; the right wants incremental pragmatic improvement. As mentioned, Ellinson argues for a combination of these opposing forces.

His second argument for unification bases itself on the model of the twelve tribes of Israel and the unique contribution of each. In this his theorizing grows truly ambitious. According to Ellinson, each of the twelve tribes has a unique character that connects intimately with its geographic region, and each tribe has its moment of ascendancy when it leads the Jewish people. A mature realization of the need for each tribe’s talents can help heal the rifts in Am Yisrael.

The geographic element also impacts on the complexities of the relationship. Yehuda, located in mountainous regions, lives a life more isolated from the outside. Other tribes, dwelling on the plains, live an existence much more open to external cultural forces. Furthermore, Yehuda stands for a more centralized authority, the Davidic kingship, while Yosef champions a more pluralistic existence with each tribe maintaining independence (as in the period of the judges).

In the final section, Ellinson suggests a new mission for Israel today. Modernity’s incredibly rapid pace of technological change presents novel ethical challenges which society struggles to keep up with. Social media, artificial intelligence, and our interconnectedness with the third world are just some of the issues. He hopes that a combination of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition (Yehudim) and the adoption of the best elements of the larger world (Yisraelim) can help address these problems. Indeed, the various “tribes” in today’s Jewish state must recognize the necessary balance provided by the others. Religious Jews should not refer to Israeli secularism as “an empty wagon” devoid of values (the term comes from a famous story about the Hazon Ish meeting Ben Gurion).

While we value Ellinson’s efforts, some of his approach smacks of overreach as he attempts to read every text through the lens of his main thesis. Among the places where he forces the argument is in identifying Beit Shammai with the right and Beit Hillel with the left. The school of Hillel was more open to outsiders (Shabbat 31a) and more pluralistic regarding different opinions (Eruvin 13b). So far, so good. However, he also argues that the Shammai school reflects pessimism about humanity reflected in their saying that “it would have been better for man not to have been created” (Eruvin 13b). As far as I can tell, that Gemara never explicitly states which school of thought adopted the more pessimistic position. It is also not clear to me why in “the oven of Akhinai” episode, R. Eliezer, a disciple, of Shammai, represents conservatism while R. Yehoshua and Beit Hillel value innovation.

In the concluding section, Ellinson writes about the qualities of the tribes of Dan and Yehuda. Among other things, Dan provides aesthetic sensibility manifest in Ohaliav (of the tribe of Dan) and his work in constructing the mishkan. Yet, later in the same chapter, he has the two tribes working together since Ohaliav’s partner was Betzalel from Yehuda. Seemingly, he could just as easily have associated Yehuda with aesthetics based on Betzalel’s role.

These criticisms should not detract from Elllnson’s important avowal. If both left and right, and religious and secularists, would realize and articulate the vital contributions to the State of Israel made by their ideological opponents, we would improve the health, security, and ethical fiber of Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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