Saturday, September 17, 2011

First Post as a Citizen, Ben Gurion style

Shabbat Shalom l'kulam,

I hope everyone is having a restful weekend.

First of all I have to apologize; I have been in Israel now for exactly one month and a NEW IMMIGRANT (woo!), and only now am I starting to find time to write a bit. I imagine that as per previous posts, I won't really be giving day by day updates of what I'm up to, but more snippets, poems, and relevant opinions that will hopefully, when taken as a whole, shed light onto what I'm up to over here.

That said, I wanted to devote my first post to a letter from David Ben Gurion dated on 5.5.53/כ' אייר תשי"ג sent to his Minister of Finance (who, in Israel's 4th government, happened to be Levi Eshkol). The letter -- or more appropriately, the memo, was shown to me in an excellent class I took in my final semester at the Seminary called Revival of the Hebrew Language, and for multiple reasons I simply love it.

First, allow me to quote the letter in entirety, and I'll follow with comments.

לשר האוצר,

חתמתי היום על "הצהרת העובר(ה) לצורך קביעת נכויי המס".

בהצהרה, כסעיף 4 נאמר שם בעלי/אשתי. לדעתי יש להגיד: אישי/אשתי.

במלה בעל יש משמעות של אדנות ועבודה זרה, שאינה הולמת כבוד האשה, השווה לגמרי בזכויותיה לאיש.

תעשו כדברי הושע הנביא: "והיה ביום ההוא - תקראי אישי ולא תקראי לי עוד בעלי (הושע ב' 15).

בכבוד רב,
ד. בן-גוריון

I just Google Translated that and it completely botches the meaning, so follow my explanation instead. Basically, Prime Minister Ben Gurion is writing to his MOF to scold him. On a tax form that DBG had been filling out earlier that day, he had the option of circling either "בעלי" or "אשתי." Traditionally (and still very much the status quo today), a wife calls her husband her בעל, which can be translated as husband, master, lord, owner, and Baal (a Biblical era idol) among other things. אשתי, on the other hand, is simply translated as "wife." So the husband circles "wife" and the wife circles "husband/master/Baal." DBG immediately calls this out and says the options instead should be "אשתי" or "אישי" which immediately give a more egalitarian parallel. After all, he explains, "בעל" has the meanings of mastery and idolatry [whereas "אישי" simply means husband]. And here comes the kicker. Ben Gurion finishes his memo to Eshkol by telling Eshkol to act in the ways of Hosea, and ending with a quote from the ever humanistic and social justice oriented prophet. 'And it will be in this day, you shall call me husband/man ["אישי"] and you shall not call me master ["בעלי"] anymore' [Hosea 2:15, my translation].

So here's why I love this memo so much. It is 1953 and David Ben Gurion is nearly 5 years post Independence. He is desperately trying to absorb over a million immigrants (primarily Jews of the Middle East and N.Africa who fled/were kicked out of their homes in the aftermath of the creation of Israel, but also Holocaust survivors from Europe), many of whom spend several years in transitional tent camps in the fledgling state. His budget is by all means tiny. He is trying to feed a country (food stamps were the norm; everything was rationed) that is growing rapidly. He is trying to keep the country defended in a region that actively seeks its destruction -- dealing both with bellicose cries in the media from neighboring countries as well as actual terrorist attacks (sound familiar?). And on and on. The point is DBG was literally building a nation. And yet, he finds time to do his taxes, and while doing them, take note that something is remiss in his vision of a progressive social democracy in the Jewish homeland. In one minute's worth of a memo, Ben Gurion is seeking to change something fundamental about how his government functions, and how it portrays itself. And he does so by quoting the Jewish canon.

David Ben Gurion, the self proclaimed Atheist, could quote the Jewish Bible at will, as well as much of the Talmud. Judaism, though not necessarily important to him in a religious sense, permeated all aspects of Ben Gurion's life. On the international and national scales, Ben Gurion was able to do things that we should all dream to be able to do. And incredibly, Judaism was infused in the macro and micro levels of all of his actions. I think that the conversation surrounding DBG's personal educational upbringing/history and how that history affected his personal and national Zionisms which thus affected his choices on how education in the new country should look like (he was a staunch believer in the separation of church and state) deserve an entire thesis worth of discussion (I'll also try to tackle it one of these days in a post). However, what I can conclusively say right now is that it is letters like these that give me confidence in what I am doing here in Israel today.

I am a proud Zionist with tons of questions and doubts about Judaism. I naively thought that after four years at JTS (and I guess at Columbia, too) I would be comfortable with my Judaism and ready to move to Israel as a man comfortable with his faith and level of observance. Instead I came out of there with more doubts about religion than ever. But, at the same time, my doubts have never once deterred my involvement with Judaism, my constant intermingling with Jewish history, literature, philosophy, and language. What is beautiful about Judaism is that even if we have our crises of faith and questions that remain unanswered, we can still look to it as a wellspring of ideals and values to make the world a better place.

Ben Gurion was here to make Israel a viable place for Jews to live, for whenever they wanted to and for whatever reason. His vision was social, democratic, and Jewish. He is an obvious inspiration in my life, and so in my own small ways, I too am here to make this country a better place.

I'm off to the beach now with my garin, but more posts to come soon!

With love,


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