This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Moment.
A crowing rooster in a play yard and a curious granddaughter led us to Chelev Haaretz, “Fat of the Land.” Inside the converted army storage depot left over from the Yom Kippur War we found another world, just a couple of blocks from our home in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yair Ben David opened Chelev Haaretz more than 20 years ago in order to do something for kids in the crime ridden slums of Baka.
Today those slums, with tree-draped lanes, restored stone houses and an acceptance of religious and ethnic diversity, make up one of Jerusalem’s most desirable neighborhoods. The high crime rate is gone, but poverty in the workers’ housing blocks—intensified during the economically punishing years since September 2000—remains. And so do Rabbi Ben David and his volunteers, providing after-school and holiday enrichment programs for boys and girls—the kinds of activities that wealthier parents can afford for their kids. No less important, Chelev Haaretz prepares and distributes food to the needy; this Passover, 1,000 Baka families will receive food packages. Three hundred more remain on the waiting list.
This is a heart-warming story of a righteous man repairing the world as a Jew should. But my reason for telling it is to explain a piece of why I choose to live in this beautiful, besieged dot of what some believe is God-granted real estate.
Twenty years ago, Rabbi David Hartman wrote ‘A Living Covenant,’ exploring the meaning of God’s contract with Jews now that, once again, we possess a sovereign state. “Israel widens the range of covenantal responsibility and provides greater opportunities to test the viability of Judaism as a way of Ufe,” he said. Here’s what I think this sentence means.
Israel is a testing ground for Judaism. If Judaism’s commandments and ethical principles apply to every aspect of life, where can that be demonstrated better than in Israel where there’s no “they” in control? Everything is “we.” Not to say that the “we” is unified; far from it. But the debates are among ourselves and the solutions must come from us and those who live with us.
A number of Israeli institutes are now researching economic practices according to Jewish law. Dr. Meir Tamari, former chief economist at the Bank of Israel, is the founder of one of them—the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. According to Tamari, neither capitalism nor socialism can be deemed closer to Judaism.
“Judaism can stand on its own two feet,” he says. “It’s an -ism by itself. Certain things [in Judaism] are socialist; other aspects are free market. The focus should be on seeing economic activity within a Jewish framework.”
On Yom Kippur we read Isaiah’s admonition: “Behold, this is the fast that I deem precious: Loosen the chains of wickedness, undo the bonds of oppression. Let the crushed go free, break all yokes of tyranny! Share your food with the hungry, take the poor to your home. Clothe the naked when you see them, never turn from your fellow” (Isaiah 58:6,7). Tamari points out that Judaism calls for personal responsibility to alleviate economic hardship, but it also recognizes the legitimacy of private property, the profit motive and the free market with suitable restraints. Because Judaism puts a high priority on helping people help themselves, Tamari advocates following the halachic requirement, once common in Jewish communities, of offering interest-free loans to start businesses. Besides being good Judaism, these loans, he says, are good for the economy and have been shown to have a high payback rate.
Potentially, the Jewish framework can encompass every need in Israeli society: care of children, care of the elderly, provisions for the disabled, safe building codes, stemming carnage on highways, healthcare, the humanity of soldiers at security check points, cleanliness in the streets, safeguarding Israel’s environment and its ancient sites, civility in public and private space and living with the strangers who dwell among us.
“The Jewish society that we build in Israel has to validate the claim made in the Jewish tradition regarding how a Torah way of life creates a holy community,” wrote David Hartman.
We have a long way to go. This may be our last opportunity to take up our part of the covenantal partnership with God—to repair our world here, to recognize that there is no “they” to take the blame if we mess up.
For me, that’s an important reason to live in Israel—to try to make this place better, not simply for ourselves, our children and grandchildren and for Jews everywhere, but as an example—hard as it is to imagine today—whose light will one day be visible—to the world.
Top photo: Flag of Israel. Credit Patrick Brennan on Flickr.