Who is normal?
How do you say “motherhood and apple pie” in Hebrew? This was an exercise we were given in a translation class. The best idiomatic rendering among the responses was — “Tzionut” in quotation marks (pronounced while making quotation mark signs with two fingers on each hand). Tonight I thought about the phrase “motherhood and apple pie” – in the best sense of the idiom – when I attended (as a fly on the wall) the founding conference of a new group called “Beit Hillel” formed by rabbis and female scholars in the Israeli religious-Zionist sector.
You can read the founding principles on their website. They include the eternity of Torah, total adherence to halacha, seeing a religious value in the state of Israel (Tzionut without quotation marks), seeing themselves as an integral part of Israeli society, viewing modernity positively as long as it coincides with Torah, and promotion of an open public conversation that is measured and tolerant. I went as a curious observer because the conference took place in a hotel across the street from where I live in Kiryat Sanz, Netanya.
Some of the statements made at the conference have me ruminating about various issues. One of the women teachers whom I highly esteem, founder & head of a MO women’s beit midrash in Jerusalem, used the phrase “normal” to describe the weltanschauung of the new group. Does that mean other groups are normal in their own ways? Or that other groups are abnormal? She insisted she is not saying anything about other sectors, and I felt she was sincere. But the term does beg the question.
After the plenum, we had the option of three breakout groups: women in the public realm, democracy and halacha (they focused on one topic: the army), and education. Everything was recorded, and I assume the videotapes will be on the Beit Hillel website.
At the closing plenum one participant objected to the name “Beit Hillel” which he felt was a cliché. Someone else objected for the opposite reason – it is too strong a statement that “we are Beit Hillel and you others are Shamai.”
For me the most valuable insight was R. Yoel Ben-Nun’s derasha on the pericope in Shabbat 17a. After Hillel died, circa 20 CE, the school of Shamai attained ascendancy, during which Shamai passed “18 ordinances” in conformity with his ideas. The Talmud states that when he passed one of the ordinances, contrary to the opinion of Hillel, the day “was as grievous to Israel as the day when the golden calf was made.” R. Ben-Nun explained that in Beit Shamai’s view, the leniencies of B.Hillel led to a slippery slope ending in the golden calf (i.e.,if you are extreme in emulating Aaron’s peaceful ways, you may wind up as Aaron did with a golden calf). In the view of B. Hillel, the stringencies of Beit Shamai make an “egel” out of every halacha.
In the closing session they invited Eran Rolls, CEO Israel Building Center, to speak. He defined himself as wearing a transparent kippa. Eran had grown up in the extremely secular left Shomer Hatzair movement, and had started to become more involved in the synagogue in his moshav. He was deeply hurt when someone felt it was problematic for Eran to lead prayers because he was not shomer Shabbat. Eran called for greater sensitivity and openness.
From this conference I went to the other side of Netanya to pay a condolence call to the family of R. Shimon Gabai z”l, who worked tirelessly for several decades to bring traditional but non-observant Sefardim to Torah study and observance. He built a haredi school which has educated thousands of newly religious from Edot Hamizrah. It was 11 pm and there were still hundreds in the two separate (men/women) mourning tents. This left me pondering the following: an approach like that of the Beit Hillel organization probably wouldn’t resonate with the audience of Rav Gabai. It’s good that there are different strokes …. Now how do you translate that into Hebrew? (answer in comments below).
It will be interesting to see how the new Beit Hillel movement develops, and what happens to the movement Rav Gabai set in motion now that he is no longer at its helm.