Two weeks ago, remember? The Knesset was about to discuss, and maybe approve, a proposed law. That law could have empowered the most chauvinistic faction of the Israeli Rabbinate. It could have granted them the right, in the name of the State of Israel, to delegitimize those Jews who, like us, do not subscribe to their fundamentalist beliefs. We were concerned and worried, and we felt that it was time to act.
We signed petitions, we sent E mails to the Israeli Prime Minister. Some of us even made telephone calls to the Israeli Parliamentary members. I did my own at 2.30 AM on a Sunday morning, to be sure that that my opinion was heard, just when the workday begins, there. I left a clear message on the answering machine of a Parliamentary member that certainly, I know, cares about the feelings of the Diaspora.
It is fair to say that we succeeded. The controversial bill has been frozen, and the discussion has been deferred to February – but the author of the proposed law says now that he is not much interested in the whole matter. In Israeli politics nothing can be taken for granted, but at the moment we have reasons to celebrate. We have made it.
I believe there was something Deuteronomic, in that moment. The peak of the whole campaign happened to be on Shabbat Devarim, when we begin to read the Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy takes place, so to say, when the Children of Israel, the Jewish people, have not crossed the Jordan River yet. Instead, they are facing the Promised Land and they are listening to a speech of Moses. The whole Book of Deuteronomy is, indeed, that speech.
This is our position, geographically speaking, because obviously we are not there; and it is also our spiritual position, because we look at what is happening there, and we care. As members of the Jewish people we have a voice in the Israeli affairs, especially when it comes to religion.
In this weeks’ parasha, the Israelites are told that God will clear the way. That the Lord will dispossess the people who reside there. They will lose the land because of their wickedness. And the land will be given to the Jewish people not because the Jews are by definition more virtuous; but because they will to establish there a society based on the values of justice and compassion. Idolatry will cease, exclusion in the name of religion will be banished, and the stranger, the poor, the widow’s children will not be marginalized anymore.
In telling to the Israelites about their covenant with God, Moses plays with the words. “It is not for any virtue of yours that God is giving you this good land to possess” he recalls “for you are a stiff-necked people, עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף . am keshi oref [Dt 9:6].
Then Moses remembers the episode of the Golden Calf, when the whole people was about to be destroyed. He himself, Moses, climbed the mountain once again, interceded on behalf of everybody, prayed to the Lord to pay no heed to the stubbornness of the people קְשִׁי הָעָם and reminded God of the promise to the Patriarchs.
The wordplay is very subtle. עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף, stiff-necked people, is actually a direct quote from God’s outburst of anger, from Exodus 32:9, the first account of the events. Instead, the statement about the people’s stubbornness, קְשִׁי הָעָם , is a part of Moses’ discussion with God. The first is a metaphor, furiously uttered by God, who is exasperated. The second is affirmation about the people itself, a permanent trait of their nature. But while Moses concedes that God has every reason to be upset, he evokes zekhut Avot, the merits of the Patriarchs. He invites the Lord to look elsewhere, to the eternal covenant established with the Jewish people. In other words, Moses acknowledges God’s reasons to be furious, he himself says something even stronger – but points also to the larger picture.
Commentators have noticed this ambiguity of the word קְשִׁי. Abarbenel for example writes that being stiff-necked, קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף, keshi-oref means being stubborn. It is the feature of the individual unable to turn his head, and to look down the road, to see the consequences of his own actions. Other commentators points out that a stiff-necked animal is rebellious, obstinate, impossible to drive – an image easy to understand for the farmers in the Ancient Middle East.
On the other hand, being קְשִׁי keshi, being obstinate, has not only a negative trait. In the Midrash we read that this is not a criticism, but a compliment. Indeed the obstinacy to remain Jewish, the perseverance in loyalty to Judaism is one of the merits that made the Israelites worthy to enter the Land.
In Song of the Songs קְשִׁי 8:6 is indeed even one of the features of love, nonetheless: an attachment that is strong, obstinate, passionate, intense.
I believe that our campaign has been driven by an intense passion, by obstinacy and loyalty, and it has had an even rebellious trait. It was a matter of dignity of the human being, a deeply Jewish value. We cannot allow a minority of fanatics to speak in our name, in the name of Judaism. We cannot allow them to rule over the majority of Israel.
It was, and still is, is a matter of loyalty. This week’s parasha teaches to us that being Jewish is not a matter of birth, of being by birth part of this stiff necked people. It is rather a matter of doing Jewishly – to counter idolatry, the incestuous marriage between coercion and religion, and to build a more just society.
With our action, with our intense campaign, we have affirmed that our commitment to build a more just, equal and free society is not a modern innovation, or a recent fashionable trend. It stems from the very Jewish value of the dignity of the human being. It has been affirmed countless times in our holy Book. It has been recalled to those obstinate descendants of liberated slaves, facing the Promised Land, many years ago.
And it is, I believe, equally compelling now.